A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 146th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, now rescheduled for Sept. 5.
After several weeks without a Kentucky Derby qualifying points prep, the action picks up again this weekend, possibly for the last time in a while. On May 2, formerly the date for the Kentucky Derby, Oaklawn Park will run two divisions of the Arkansas Derby. Each race offers a $500,000 purse and Kentucky Derby qualifying points distributed to the top four finishers on a 100-40-20-10 scale.
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1. Tiz the Law
Kentucky Derby horses normally are geared up to peak on the first Saturday in May and no horse would have been ready for a peak performance more than this horse, who would have gone into the Derby checking off every box. Now, no one really knows for sure where he'll be three/four months from now after letting down and then having to gear back up again. With the Derby Dozen winding down, I can say in all certainty that no horse has come even close to taking the No. 1 spot away from him. The Curlin Florida Derby winner remains in steady training, breezing a half-mile in :49 3/5.
I am moving him way up in anticipation of a huge effort in the Arkansas Derby’s second division. All signs point to him being sharp and fit and ready to run a corker. I also moved him up over the others because the Arkansas Derby is an important race, serving as a much-needed bridge between the winter and summer to help him keep his form. He drew into the tougher division on paper and if he can still live up to expectations and defeat these horses, then the sky’s the limit and he will be the first horse to possibly challenge Tiz the Law for the top spot. He should be stalking the leaders and we’ll see if he can turn it on like he did when winning the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
No horse would appreciate a return to racing in Kentucky more than him, as indicated by his five-furlong work at Keeneland in a sharp 1:00 2/5. All we need to see from him after all these months is if that explosive turn of foot he showed last fall in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity is still there and if he can sustain it. Just don't expect too many fireworks first time out. The acceleration is the key. With him it is all about where he will be this summer and on Sept. 5. The only question he has to answer right now is if he still has the same weapons he did last year.
Thank goodness this is the last time I have to try to figure out what to say about him, so I will just reiterate that the brilliance, the talent, and the visuals are all there. But with a pedigree that doesn't exactly shout a mile and a quarter and having shown only one style of running, he needs to use this time off and perfect that long effortless stride of his. And that is what he has going for him and what he will need to get that extra eighth of a mile. He went from being the probable Santa Anita Derby favorite, coming off of a win in the San Felipe Stakes, to taking an unexpected vacation courtesy of the Los Angeles County Department of Health. As a late foal, this at least will give him time to mature and grow and work on whatever quirks he has shown in the past. He returned to the work tab just to stretch his legs, breezing an easy half-mile in :51 1/5.
5. Sole Volante
It’s too bad trainer Patrick Biancone decided to pass the Arkansas Derby because both divisions look as if they should have a fast pace, especially the second division with the top choices all eyeballing each other. Even in the first division he likely would have blown by most of these horses and would have been just fine with a second to Charlatan if the favorite got loose on the lead and didn’t come back. With his running style, he won’t get many opportunities like this one with such fast horses dictating the pace. So all he can do now is hope for a Churchill Downs opening in the not too distant future. I still love what I’ve seen so far.
Saturday will be the day of enlightenment for him, as we finally get to see him at his best, with the experience and foundation he might have lacked earlier. Once again, he doesn’t need to win the Arkansas Derby’s first division to prove himself. He drew in against Charlatan, who breaks from the rail, and if that colt opens up and proves too tough to catch, so be it. This one just needs to track him and be close at the finish, coming home with good energy. But we still don’t know how good he is coming off a bad trip in the Curlin Florida Derby when he finished fourth. If he is as good as I think he is, I certainly would not be surprised if he won.
7. Honor A. P.
The only reason the San Felipe runner-up dropped a few places is because we are giving preference to horses running in the Arkansas Derby, and we have no idea when this one will be able run next. After everything is sorted out this weekend he likely will move back up. Trainer John Shirreffs continues to work him long, as if he is hoping for a race in the near future. In his latest work, he looked good visually, but with his stride, you can never tell how fast he's going. This time he looked like he was going slow and actually was, breezing his seven furlongs in a leisurely 1:31 on a loose rein down the stretch. All I know for sure is that he needs a race.
Talent-wise and speed rating-wise, he towers above the others in the first Arkansas Derby division, but still hasn’t been tested for class. You know he is going to come busting out of there from the rail, and with the scratch of Shooters Shoot there is very little speed left to challenge him on paper. From strictly a Kentucky Derby standpoint the last thing you want to see is for him to inherit an easy lead and just cruise around there. We will learn nothing from that. We already know he is deadly on the lead and this is not exactly a tough spot for a jump into a Grade 1 race.
It’s interesting that the ownership of Charlatan has a speed horse in the Arkansas Derby’s second division who really doesn’t seem to belong – Saratogian – and he breaks inside speedsters Nadal and Wells Bayou, and might have been the one to assure a split race. This is a perfect opportunity for Nadal to show he can rate off the pace. If he does and wins he also is right up there for No. 1. Sure he can try to outrun Wells Bayou and the pace pressers; we know he is fast enough to do so. But the way trainer Bob Baffert has been working him way behind his workmates and instructing the rider to not ask him to make his move until the final eighth, it would seem a waste not to try those tactics in here. All he needs right now is to allow his stamina-laden pedigree a chance to come out and make him look a Kentucky Derby horse.
10. Farmington Road
Well, what do you know, he drew an outside post again, this time in the Arkansas Derby’s second division. I hope this time his rider (Javier Castellano) eases him inside and not doesn’t move him sharply across the track to get to the rail, which is wasted energy and often puts a horse down on the inside without a clear path. When position is so important for a horse like this, why be running horizontally instead of vertically? He should get a great setup with a fast, contentious pace to at least pick up a piece of it. But it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he mows them all down. He likely will be far back again because of his post, but remember, his best Equibase Speed Figure by far was when he was only two to three lengths off the lead in a Tampa Bay Downs allowance race in January, so he is no plodder. He really poured it on late in the Oaklawn Stakes when second, and just needs a little luck and a good trip Saturday. This is your longshot pick, who likely would be the third betting choice in the other division.
11. Mr. Big News
With such a big jump in his Thoro-Graph numbers in the Oaklawn Stakes, it is understandable why his connections elected not to rum him back in three weeks. He has a solid enough foundation with five two-turn races under him, so he can afford to sit back for a little while and gear up for a summer campaign. He surely has the pedigree, but we need to see him put together back-to-back big efforts.
12. Major Fed
Yes, he’s back in the Top 12 again. After working five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 3/5 this past weekend, he looks to be sitting on a race. He was given a little breather after finishing a late-closing fourth in the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby and is “happy and healthy,” and will be ready for action once Churchill Downs opens. He is one horse you know for sure will relish the 10 furlongs.
Knocking on the Door
On this year’s crazy Derby trail where we get Hot Springs instead of Hot Browns and where they will run for the apple blossoms instead of the roses, let’s take a look at the Arkansas Derby.
Of the 22 horses originally entered, 14 have never won a stakes, and of the eight that have, six of them are in the second division. We did have two withdrawals this week with the defection of Cal Cup Derby winner Fast Enough and Oaklawn allowance winner Shooters Shoot. Of the two stakes winners in the first division, one won the Clever Trevor Stakes at Remington Park last year and has been beaten a total of 55 lengths in his last three races, and the other – Basin – won the Runhappy Hopeful Stakes last year, but has been beaten a total of 13 lengths in his two starts this year. I thought a split race would be packed with Derby contenders, but now I feel the split hurts the overall quality, especially with the seemingly imbalance of talent in the two divisions. But at least we get to see Charlatan run without being thrown to the wolves with so little experience.
Another wire-to-wire romp by Charlatan really would not prove much when it comes to winning the Kentucky Derby. The question pertaining to the Derby Dozen is how close Gouverneur Morris can get to him, and whether he can actually beat him. On speed figures, Charlatan is way faster than anyone else in the field.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that the owners of Charlatan entered another horse who really doesn’t belong in the second division, having been beaten 13 lengths at 59.70-1 in his last start, may very well have enabled Charlatan to get in the race if Oaklawn had stuck to their statement that they would only split the race if 22 entered. Considering the horse in question, Saratogian, is trained by a different trainer makes this a very strategic move that may have, at least for the moment, altered the course of Charlatan’s career.
In the second division, you have one Grade 1 winner and four Grade 2 winners, as well as the only two horses to finish ahead of Derby favorite Tiz the Law.
Although the second division is by far the strongest on paper, many times you find the so-called weaker division proves to be the tougher one to win and produces the better horses in the long run. But depth-wise, the second division looks far stronger. So we’ll see just how both these races play out before judging their quality. Maybe Gouverneur Morris runs lights out or maybe Anneau d’Or returns to his form from runner-up efforts in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Los Alamitos Futurity, despite the winners of those races being disappointments this year. Maybe Basin returns to his Grade 1-winning form from last year when he romped in the Hopeful Stakes. It’s all unlikely, but possible.
One thing that is always frustrating when discovering new Derby hopefuls is to be very impressed with a horse, who looks to have all the tools but has a questionable pedigree to go along with it. The latest case is Dr Post, who got more experience in one race than most horses get in three or four races. To overcome the rough and unsightly trip he had in the Unbridled Stakes in his two-turn debut was a testament to the colt’s toughness, professionalism, and ability to get out of trouble. This was a bumper car trip where he was in such tight quarters for quite a long way, Irad Ortiz Jr. was pretty much erect in the saddle trying to keep him from caroming off the horses inside and outside of him and running up on the heels of the horses in front of him. How he was able to withstand that and extricate himself from such a dangerous predicament and still win with his ears pricked was pretty remarkable.
He is by the successful sire Quality Road, who was best from a mile to a mile and an eighth and whose top offspring have been effective at a mile and an eighth and shorter. R Post’s dam was a sprinter and his broodmare sire Hennessy has been a speed influence. He also traces to some speedy fillies. If he is to go classic distances he will have to take advantage of being inbred three times to Secretariat. His third dam is by Seattle Slew, and Hennessy’s broodmare sire is the long-distance grass champion Hawaii. We’ll see what he does in his next start, which likely will be at a mile and a eighth and then we’ll know more about him. For now, you have to like this colt a lot. He joins Pneumatic, Mystic Guide, and Sonneman as my four top late bloomers to watch come September. Another to watch, Hunt the Front, runs in a mile and an eighth maiden race on Arkansas Derby day trying to break his string of three straight second-place finishes.
Two others who could have a future are the Chad Brown-trained Basquiat and the Todd Pletcher-trained Ashiham, who both looked promising finishing first and second, respectively, in a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park. But they have a lot of catching up to do, even with the late date of the Derby. Although Eight Rings disappointed yet again in the Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn, won in gutsy fashion by the speedy Long Weekend, I don’t believe he wants any part of six furlongs, considering his pedigree is all stamina. Right now he just needs a confidence builder.
Attachment Rate still refuses to change leads. I would have given him a mulligan for his defeat to Dr Post in the Unbridled Stakes after he was kept five-wide going into the first turn and raced wide the whole way, but as long as he doesn't change leads in the stretch it's too risky keeping him in the top 12. It's too bad because I think he's a talented horse. Maybe he will benefit from the Derby delay and the light will go on before then.
Getting back to the second division of the Arkansas Derby, let’s not forget the two most accomplished horses in the field who both will probably carry long odds, Silver Prospector, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over Tiz the Law and the Southwest Stakes over Wells Bayou, and Storm the Court, champion 2-year-old and winner of the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. If you’re looking for back class you won’t find two better horses. Silver Prospector is a grinder with a closing kick who had a ton of trouble in the Rebel Stakes after making a good move to reach contention. In his last six starts, he has won every other start, so he is due. Storm the Court needs to find an effective running style. He has early speed, but won’t have the lead this time, and he hasn’t proven he can come home laying off the pace. But he runs hard every time and gets Flavien Prat back.
We’ll find out more about Wells Bayou after he faces pace pressure from top-class horses for the first time. He had things his own way on the front end in the Louisiana Derby. Now he will have to work out a trip from post 11. But at least he has won going 1 3/16 miles. And you can add the one-eyed Finnick the Fierce, runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and a winner by disqualification in an allowance race last time out. And this is just the second division.
The mystery horse in the first division is Anneau d’Or, who was considered one of the brightest prospects after dropping nose decisions in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Los Alamitos Futurity. But he ran an atrocious race in a division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. Was it too bad to be true? He has turned in some impressive works going long and if you’re willing to cross out that last race you could wind up with a huge overlay. Among the longshots, Winning Impression, was disqualified from first last time out in an allowance race (Finnick the Fierce was moved up), and is coming off four straight solid performances. My Friends Beer is coming off a good third to Pneumatic and has been in the money in his last six starts, including a second in the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. Another huge bomb that could hit the board is Crypto Cash, who has excelled on dirt, grass, and synthetic, and has shown a good closing kick. All these are given some kind of shot to make their presence felt because they don’t have nearly as many top-class horses to beat in this division.
There are several other 3-year-olds to watch on the Arkansas Derby undercard. Ginobili, beaten three-quarters of a length by Nadal in the San Vicente Stakes, stretches out to two turns going 1 1/16 miles. In the same race, Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes runner-up Candy Tycoon, tries to bounce back from a bad defeat in the Florida Derby, in which he had his share of trouble. Prodigious Bay attempts to duplicate his impressive front-running maiden score. And Background hopes for the fast ground he got when he broke his maiden by 4 ½ lengths.
Finally, if Venetian Harbor wins the Friday’s Fantasy Stakes impressively, don’t be surprised to see her enter the Kentucky Derby discussion. She does have major speed influences top and bottom, so we’ll have to see how far she can carry that speed.