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 on May 2.
Last weekend, Sole Volante knocked Independence Hall down a few notches in Derby contender rankings by defeating him in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. This upcoming holiday weekend features three prep races offering qualifying points for the 2020 Derby: the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds on Saturday, which has been split into two divisions; the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday; and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Monday, President’s Day.
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1. Tiz the Law
Cicadas are those loud insects that come out every 17 years. You can say the same thing about Barclay Tagg and Sackatoga Stable, which come out every 17 years and make loud noise on the Derby trail with a New York-bred. Unlike the often fiery Funny Cide, Tiz the Law is the ultimate professional. To show the improvement he has made from 2 to 3, he began his career strongly pairing up a 3 ¼ Thoro-Graph figure before regressing noticeably in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in the slop and with a terrible bottled-up trip. But in the Holy Bull Stakes he leaped from that 8 ¾ aberration to a brilliant negative-¾. Although Tagg told jockey Manny Franco to keep off the inside in the Holy Bull, I still would like to see how he handles traffic down there in order to feel more confident in a 20-horse field. I don’t believe the race at Churchill Downs proved he needs to be outside horses.
2. Sole Volante
The reason he debuts so high on the rankings is because this is what a Derby horse is supposed to look like. He has a devastating closing kick on dirt and grass – in the Sam F. Davis Stakes he blew right on by an undefeated dual stakes winner and one of the leading Derby contenders and won going away with his ears pricked, with a gap of 11 ¼ lengths to Remsen Stakes runner-up Ajaaweed in third. To show what a spectacular move he made, he ran his third quarter in an eye-catching :23.26, according to Trakus, making up 13 lengths, then just kept going, coming home the final sixteenth in :06.11. What makes his story so great is that you had to go through 3,493 yearlings at the Keeneland September sale to get him for a paltry $6,000. He was pinhooked at the OBS April 2-year-old sale and went for only $20,000 to trainer Patrick Biancone.
Big jockey change coming up, as he gets Flavien Prat for the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 29, according to agent Derek Lawson. He had his fifth work of the year, breezing five furlongs in 1:00.22 at Gulfstream Park. His works point to him returning sharp, fit and ready for a huge effort. Dale Romans said he hasn’t lost a beat and this last work was exactly what they were looking for. Romans also is convinced he is only going to improve from last year. He just needs to put together a pair of strong efforts and avoid any misfortunes that would derail his attempt to make the Derby off two starts.
4. Anneau d'Or
It’s blinkers or bust, as he hits the road. With the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford split, the first three finishers of the Lecomte Stakes all drew in the other division, leaving him as a standout on form in the second division. If he can finally learn to pass horses with the addition of blinkers, which I believe he will, he would have to be considered a serious Derby contender with no problem getting classic distances. He will have more time to get by horses with the longer stretch and the longer distance of 1 1/8 miles. It’s just a question of whether the blinkers will help him do that. He had his last two races – the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Los Alamitos Futurity – all but won, but let them both get away. He’s been working great, his last move at six furlongs in 1:12 4/5, and I see a different outcome this time.
He passed the Sam F. Davis to wait for a mile and 40-yard allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 14. Trainer Todd Pletcher often likes to start them off easy, especially at Tampa, but he could have his hands full with spectacular maiden winner Untitled, coming off a very troubled fourth in the Swale Stakes, and the stakes-placed Letmeno, who was fourth to Dennis’ Moment in the Iroquois Stakes. Pletcher also runs Dudley Square, who won smartly first time out at Tampa going six furlongs. It’s much better to be tested than to have a horse of this caliber just waltz around there and prove little, especially if he’s only going to have two starts and only one race to get points…He does have to improve a bit on his Thoro-Graph figures, but I still believe he has star potential.
If Anneau d’Or and Gouverneur Morris don’t blow us away this weekend, he will move back up. Looking at Thoro-Graph this week, it revealed something very interesting that you can either take heed to or simply ignore if you are a big fan of the horse. After running two solid Thoro-Graph figures last year, he surprisingly regressed several points in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. It must be noted that he beat his stablemate High Velocity by one length after beating him by 5 ¼ lengths in the Los Alamitos Futurity. It is my impression that you can throw out all conventional handicapping with him. He just seems like an extremely intelligent and competitive horse that will run just as fast and beat you just as far as he has to. We’ll have to see if he can continue cutting it this close.
Bob Baffert loves this colt and feels he is extremely gifted, as he showed by demolishing his field in the Sham Stakes despite racing very greenly in the stretch. We just need to see a race that’s more professional and help convince us he can outrun his speed-oriented pedigree. He is inbred to the brilliant Icecapade, a half-brother to Ruffian, the hard-knocking Buckfinder, and Laughter, the dam of $1.2 million earner Private Terms. One thing about Icecapade’s dam Shenanigans, she did produce fast horses that could carry their speed. Baffert still believes, with his gazelle-like strides, he will run all day. He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, and Baffert said he will remain in California.
Yes, he could have run better in the San Vicente Stakes and unless he’s on the lead he has a tendency to run unevenly at times, but he was right up there early chasing a brutal half in :44.09, showed a brief spurt, but it quickly became obvious he didn’t have the speed to outrun these horses, yet still was beaten only 2 ¼ lengths, while giving four pounds to the top two finishers. I still believe this sharpener should help him when he returns to two-turn races. I just don’t know what his best running style is.
You never want to see a 7-10 favorite, and an undefeated one, get beat in his first start of the year, but I am not going to get down on him too much. I feel he may have hit the front too soon and simply got outrun by a very good horse, to whom he was giving four pounds. Take Sole Volante out of the race and he beats the Remsen Stakes runner-up by 11 ¼ lengths and continues his dominating run of victories. When you have a horse that has crushed his opposition every race, you never know what is going to happen when he finally faces better-quality horses. And he ran into a tiger in the Sam F. Davis. This was just the first step, and his connections could use this as a learning experience and not get too overconfident in the future. Remember, his “negative-2” in last fall’s Nashua Stakes was by far the fastest time run by a member of this crop. Was it too fast too soon?
10. Three Technique
He turned in a five-furlong breeze in a sharp :48 at Oaklawn Park, as he waits for the March 14 Rebel Stakes. I don’t believe we’ll start seeing the best of him until they stretch out to 1 1/8 miles. Let’s remember that despite getting beat 2 ¾ lengths in the Smarty Jones Stakes by a tough foe in Gold Street, Three Technique had a faster Thoro-Graph figure – a 2 ½ compared to Gold Street’s 3 ¼. And that 2 ½ was a six-point jump from his previous start. This is a colt who is improving with every start, and we will see just how good he is when he gets a contentious pace to run at.
11. Ete Indien
All of a sudden Patrick Biancone has himself quite a lethal one-two punch with this rapidly improving colt who finished second in the Holy Bull Stakes and also Sole Volante, both of whom look to be loaded with stamina, but have far from fashionable pedigrees. Biancone picked both out at the sales, getting this colt as a 2-year-old for $269,640 after he had RNA’d for $85,000 as a weanling and then selling for $80,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland auction. Ironically, in both his colts’ last races, there was a gap of 11 ¼ and 11 ½ lengths between the second- and third-place finisher, suggesting these are both extremely talented horses and major Derby contenders.
He breezed a half in :49 3/5 in preparation for the first division of the Risen Star Stakes Feb. 15, where he will face the runner-up and third-place finisher of the Lecomte, Silver State and Mr. Monomoy. He seems tailor-made for Fair Grounds with its long stretch and his ability to circle horses and rally from well out in the middle of the track. In the Lecomte, his Thoro-Graph figure jumped five points, suggesting he has made great progress from 2 to 3. Like Anneau d’Or and several others, he should appreciate the longer distance of the Risen Star this year.
Knocking On the Door
I know, how can I leave San Vicente Stakes winner Nadal off the Top 12? It’s insane. Simple, he’s only had two sprints, we won’t see him action for another five weeks, and I couldn’t find a reason to take anyone off, at least not yet. The fact is, only two Derby winners in the past 53 years have gone into March without having run farther than seven furlongs and they both were trained by Bob Baffert. One of them, Justify, swept the Triple Crown and the other, Silver Charm, was a Grade 1 winner at 2 and nearly swept the Triple Crown. Is Nadal in that class? Perhaps, but not yet. Yes, he ran a very good race in the San Vicente coming back in only three weeks and surviving a blistering :44.09 half-mile, but he was tested the length of the stretch by a 12.90-1 shot in Ginobili with three fourth-place finishes in four career starts, they came home the final eighth in :13.54, and the first four finishers were separated by only 2 ¼ lengths. Even if he was in the Top 12, there are a lot of races between now and his next start in the Rebel Stakes, so chances are he wouldn’t have stayed on anyway. Therefore I decided to wait for the Rebel and see just how special this colt is. Maybe he is another Baffert freak. He should like the two turns, being by Blame, but as a historian, I am taking the wait and see attitude. If this horse wasn’t trained by Baffert I doubt he would have this kind of hype.
Let’s continue with Sole Volante’s pedigree, as it is one you don’t often see on the Derby trail. His sire, the foreign-bred grass miler Karakontie is reminiscent of another foreign-bred grass miler, Leroidesanimaux, who sired Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom – who like Sole Volante excelled on dirt and grass and had a big closing kick. This colt has the much-coveted Rasmussen Factor, being inbred to the great mare Miesque, which means he is also inbred to Miesque's broodmare sire Prove Out, who trounced Forego, Secretariat and Riva Ridge in a two-month period. His dam is a half-sister to Light Shift, winner of the English Oaks and second in the Irish Oaks, and his third dam, Northern Trick, a half-sister to Jockey Club Gold Cup winner On the Sly, won the French Oaks and Prix Vermeille and was second in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. His dam is from the Mill Reef – Shirley Heights (both English Derby winners) line, one of the most successful in Europe in the past 30 years. His pedigree also includes horses who won 14 of their 16 starts in the Triple Crown.
In addition to the two major stakes over the weekend, we also saw the in-name-only Louisiana-bred No Parole stroll to another easy victory, winning the Louisiana Bred Premier Night Prince Stakes stretching out to a mile at Delta Downs. The son of Violence had everything his own way on the front end and just coasted to a 6 ½-length score at odds of 1-20. He has now won all three of his starts in state-bred company by a combined 34 lengths. He is a smooth-striding colt with fluid action and good reach and just makes an excellent appearance out there. So far he has been a man among boys, and now comes the real test when he ventures into open company for the first time.
We could have something revolutionary going on this year. Doug O’Neill has brought a 12-horse string to Meydan in Dubai, and he was quickly rewarded when his dual stakes winner Fore Left, owned by Paul Reddam, captured the UAE 2,000 Guineas. It’s difficult to tell how far this colt wants to go, but his pedigree seems to have enough stamina to at least give one hope, and he will tell us for sure when he contests the UAE Derby on March 28. We have had U.S-based horses win the UAE Derby, but we have never had a U.S. horse based in Dubai win a UAE classic.
Fore Left joins Gouverneur Morris and Remington Springboard Mile winner and Runhappy Hopeful Stakes runner-up Shoplifted as part of a trio bred by Carrie and Craig Brogden’s Machmer Hall. Shoplifted, who was third in the Smarty Jones Stakes in his most recent start, is out of a dam who is a roach back (curvature of the spine), blind in one eye, and has a cataract in the other eye that limits her vision.
We saw quite an interesting field line up for a mile and an eighth allowance race at Gulfstream Feb. 8, with a number of top trainers and top owners represented. This potentially was the final launching pad to get on the Derby trail. What came out of the race were two horses who look to have great promise. The winner, Godolphin’s Spa City, looked like the consummate pro cruising to the lead and holding off the Todd Pletcher-trained Calumet Farm colt Unrighteous, who finished a whopping 14 ¾ lengths ahead of third-place finisher and 2.20-1 favorite Telephone Talker. Unrighteous is a son of Violence who physically looks like a stayer and should be a lock the next time he runs. I love the look and demeanor of this colt, but he doesn’t have the best action and was still a tad green. But all in all, I liked what I saw, which is a colt with a bright future. This was such an impressive performance I would consider forgetting about maiden races and going right into a stakes with him.
As for Spa City, the son of Street Sense did everything right, ran a solid nine furlongs in 1:49.24 and came home in :24.70 and :12.47. He was challenged by a very talented horse and showed his toughness refusing to let Unrighteous get any closer than a length. His trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, has a colt with great potential and a strong pedigree. And don’t give up yet on McLaughlin’s Ajaaweed, who was way too far back in the Sam F. Davis and never really seemed to be handling the Tampa Bay Downs surface, which is not unusual. He plugged along to at least get third and will surely improve over a different track and a longer distance. He has already shown good tactical speed breaking his maiden at a flat mile and perhaps would benefit from a good sharpener in the Gotham Stakes on March 7 before stretching back out in the Wood Memorial in April. You just don’t want races like the Remsen and Sam Davis to dull him, which seems to be the case right now. He needs to put himself in a better position and at least give himself a chance.
Gold Street, who heads a three-horse Steve Asmussen entry in the Feb. 17 Southwest Stakes, actually had some heavy-duty closing pace figures on Equibase in the Smarty Jones Stakes. The son of Street Boss ran a 96 middle pace figure and a 101 closing pace figure, which is pretty exceptional, especially for a horse on the lead. To run that fast in both those categories denotes a horse who can maintain a strong pace a long way, keep building on it, and show no signs of tiring. Assistant trainer Scott Blasi says the colt “kicks on pretty good.” He added that he’s not very big, but is “a very efficient mover with a big stride.”
Two horses who could hit the board at a monster price in the split Risen Star on Feb. 15 are Farmington Road (first division) and Major Fed (second division). Not quite ready for this, but the best is ahead of them.