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.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby picked up momentum last weekend with three prep races – the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park won by Tiz the Law, the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct won by Max Player, and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park won by Thousand Words. One prep race is slated for the upcoming weekend: the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
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1. Tiz the Law
We said in the first two Dozens to ignore his finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes: He could be the best of the lot and a big effort in the Holy Bull Stakes could land him the No. 1 spot. Well, this certainly was a big effort, as he returned to his Champagne Stakes dominance and showed all the qualities you want to see in a Derby horse. And you had to love that 14 ½-length gap he posted over the third-place finisher. In addition, he had to steady pretty sharply down the backstretch, losing his position. He was a little late changing leads and drifted toward the rail after getting clear, but asserted himself nicely, beating a very promising horse in Ete Indien, and was throwing ears around at the finish.
At this stage, workouts normally don’t dictate where a horse is ranked, but his bullet five-furlong breeze in :58 2/5, fastest of 49 works at the distance, was brilliant enough to keep him ahead of Thousand Words for the No. 2 spot. He can still regain the No. 1 spot by running to that work. There is still room for a ‘wow’ horse to show up, and his best efforts indicate he could be that horse. He just needs to put together a string of trouble-free trips.
One thing you have to say about this horse, he is a warrior. He won’t blow you away but he will never back down from a challenge. In the Robert B. Lewis Stakes he was taken back to fifth and settled nicely. With his typical head-down style he moved up on his own and had no problem going through a very narrow opening and bulling his way through. What I liked most was his ability to rate and bide his time and then put in a strong steady run. His running style reminds me a bit of A.P. Indy. So far, you couldn’t ask for a more professional, competitive, and gutsy horse. I’m still not 100% sure how far he wants to go, but all those attributes listed above, as well as his determination and ability to make his own holes, will surely help him get longer distances.
You always hate to drop a horse when he did nothing wrong, but this is the time of year when racing success determines where a horse is ranked, and he will have his chance to move back up with a huge effort in the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 9. He continues to turn in solid works, going five furlongs in 1:01 1/5. I don’t know what speedy horses he will run into in the San Vicente, but trainer Peter Eurton is a veteran and knows this is a prep and will serve him well in the long run. If he wins, fine, but he just needs to get in a good sharpener and be competitive before stretching back out again.
He is getting sharper with every work, and his latest five-furlong drill in 1:00 2/5 should have him ready for a big debut. I thought it might come in the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 8, but Todd Pletcher informed Tampa Bay Downs he wasn’t coming, so now an option is the $750,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park Feb. 17. He might have gone for more as a yearling, but the colt who had a super disposition at Machmer Hall suddenly turned ornery at the sale and turned off a number of buyers. Still, he behaved perfectly the four times Phoenix Thoroughbreds looked at him, and they were able to get him at a bargain price, then pinhooked him for $600,000.
He should be a standout in the Sam F. Davis Stakes as he puts his unbeaten record on the line, but could be tested by Remsen Stakes runner-up Ajaaweed, the late-running Sol Volante, and possibly the highly promising Premier Star. He has trained brilliantly over the Tampa Bay Downs track and boasts two runaway stakes victories already. He has the pedigree, the running style, and the ability to decimate his opponents. Now we just have to see how he stands up under fire. He blew out a sharp half-mile for the race in :48 3/5.
7. Anneau d'Or
Looks like he will be getting blinkers in his next start, and the projection here is that they will move him up significantly considering how he was unable to pass the leader in his last two starts when he looked like the stronger horse. There is no guarantee they will remedy that habit, but it is encouraging enough to move him up, especially with Thousand Words winning again. This colt is right there and seems to have all the attributes. He just needs to learn how to finish it off. If the blinkers help, watch out. He worked seven furlongs in 1:29 4/5 at Golden Gate Fields.
As stated last week, he did everything right but win in the Smarty Jones Stakes, but was beaten by a very fast horse in Gold Street that was able to get loose on the lead, and this one could be any kind. A reminder that his Thoro-Graph number jumped from an “8 ¾” to a “2 ½” in the Smarty Jones, which is a significant forward move and makes him a legitimate Derby contender already. This was his first big test and he passed on all counts. I love the way this colt moves, with that low action and big extension.
9. Ete Indien
He looked like he could be any kind coming off the grass and drilling an allowance field in 1:35 flat, earning an excellent 101 Equibase Speed Figure. He verified that performance with a huge effort in the Holy Bull Stakes (113 Equibase Speed Figure), gamely staying competitive with Tiz the Law to the wire while finishing 11 ½ lengths ahead of the third horse, Toledo, who he beat by 2 ½ lengths in his dirt debut in December, so you can see the improvement this colt has made. His pedigree is loaded with stamina and toughness, the latter through Cozzene and Verbatim on the dam side, and there is a good blend of speed through Salt Lake.
The raw talent is there, and if he can get over some of that greenness that was on display in the Sham Stakes and if he can continue showing his brilliance at longer distances then the sky’s the limit. But he will have to overcome a great deal of speed in his pedigree from his sire (Into Mischief) and broodmare sire (Mr. Greeley). He returned to the work tab breezing five furlongs in 1:01 2/5.
The feeling here is that this colt has grown up and improved in leaps and bounds from last year and I thought he looked like a Derby horse in the Lecomte Stakes the way he negotiated a 13-horse field, racing far back, going between horses, then circling the field seven-wide and drawing off in the stretch. And distance will not be a problem. With his big stretch run, Fair Grounds looks it will remain his home for the remainder of the Derby trail.
12. Royal Act
I’m really not sure what to make of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. He obviously made a great transition from grass to dirt and ran hard in the stretch while being vigorously ridden to get within three-quarters of a length of the winner. But he did have a perfect stalking trip, and the winner is not one to draw away. I also don’t know how far he wants to go. Peter Eurton, who now has a potent double-barreled threat, was as happy as can be with his performance. He feels this is a grinder type who just keeps giving you more. It looks like the San Felipe Stakes on March 7 will be next on the agenda and we’ll see if that separates him and Storm the Court.
Knocking On the Door
There’s simply too much activity and movement to keep Maxfield in the top 12 – so, we’ll just wait for him to start working and then get an idea if he can possibly make the Derby.
I hate dropping Green Light Go off one seven-furlong race. He simply could not keep up with that torrid :45 flat half-mile in the Feb. 1 Swale Stakes. He made a bit of a move along the rail, but never looked comfortable and the winner was long gone. He also was stuck on his left lead. When he did finally switch he dug in gamely and held off favorite Untitled and nearly got up for second. But I would have liked to have seen a little better closing punch, and we’ll hold off on him for now until we see how does going two turns for the first time. Swale winner Mischevious Alex will remain at one turn and could point for the March 7 Gotham Stakes.
In the Withers Stakes, the winner, Max Player, performed well in a slowly run race, but it was only his third career start, the first two at a mile at Parx Racing. He had a clean trip the whole way, circled the field five-wide and mowed everyone down in the final furlong, including runner-up Shotski, winner of the Remsen Stakes. But they did come home in a pedestrian :26 1/5 and :13 3/5, with the winner earning only an 86 Beyer Speed Figure. He has a nice long, fluid stride and there is no doubt he has ability, and also gets toughness through his pedigree connections to French Deputy, Verbatim, and Halo. It looks like the plan is to wait for the Wood Memorial, which is two months away, and you have to wonder if he will have enough bottom and experience with only four career starts and only one start in 12 weeks going into the Derby.
As I mentioned last week, my big concern with Portos is him getting dulled by so many 1 1/8-mile races, and he sure was dull in the Withers, dropping some 10 lengths back and taking too long to find his best stride while under an early whip. To his credit, once he did he closed well enough to get third, beaten 3 ¾ lengths. That was his fourth 1 1/8-mile race already and he has yet to break 1:50, with three of those races being slower than 1:53. Perhaps he is more of a Belmont Stakes horse, but even so, he needs to get sharper. He no doubt has the ability and certainly the pedigree.
Withers fourth-place finisher Monday Morning Qb deserves another chance after getting slammed into at the break by the rail horse and dropping much farther back than he’s used to. He did make a good steady move to get into second at the eighth pole but didn’t change leads and tired a bit late. He’s much better than that. Two horses that were eased, Mr. Shortandsimple and Vanzzy, were both doing well on Sunday.
In the Robert B. Lewis, High Velocity had his own way on the lead, but once again could not hold off Thousand Words, and doesn’t look like Derby material running this way, although he will win his share of races. Tizamagician did all the dirty work chasing High Velocity and didn’t have enough of a punch late, but still was beaten only 1 ¾ lengths and should improve off this effort.
The undefeated Amazon Taraz continued her winning ways, toying with a small field in the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn. The imposing daughter of Into Mischief, who dwarfed her three opponents, won as she pleased by 3 ¾ lengths. She has now won her three starts by a combined 22 ½ lengths. She has a strong female family with plenty of stamina to go with her speedy sire, and now trainer Brad Cox will have to decide whether to stick with fillies or head to the Derby trail. The suspicion is we will see her next in the Honeybee Stakes Mar. 7 at Oaklawn vs. her own sex. Then we’ll see.
At Gulfstream Park, Palm Springs, the 1-2 favorite in a one-mile maiden special weight race, just held on to win by a diminishing nose, but the horse to watch was the runner-up first-timer Mister Candy Ride, who showed an explosive turn of foot to burst into contention on the turn and probably would have won had he changed leads. At Santa Anita, the Liam’s Map colt Rushie rebounded off a poor effort in his debut to wire his field going a mile, winning under a hand ride by a length in a slow 1:38 over 4-5 favorite Divine Armor.
One horse I am anxious to see in the Sam F. Davis Stakes is the aforementioned Ajaaweed, who could be on the verge of breaking into the big time. The son of Curlin has the pedigree and the closing kick and has already run at a mile, 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles. I loved the way he was able to close strongly off crawling fractions in the Remsen Stakes. His 4 ¾-length score in a one-mile maiden race in 1:36 2/5 back in September at Belmont Park was impressive. I can’t wait to see how he handles a horse as talented as Independence Hall. Another intriguing horse in the Davis is Sole Volante, third in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in his dirt debut after winning the Pulpit Stakes on grass. The son of Karakontie has a monster closing kick and is another exciting horse trained by Patrick Biancone. Premier Star, who is possible for the Davis, was discussed in length in the opening Dozen.
Other horses I have a close eye on and are one good effort away from cracking the Dozen are Springboard Mile runner-up Answer In, who turned in a sharp five-furlong work in :59 2/5 at Oaklawn Park; the highly touted Honor A. P., who breezed five furlongs in 1:02 2/5 at Santa Anita; and impressive maiden winner Major Fed, who worked five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 at Fair Grounds for the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford-Lincoln on Feb. 15. More on him next week. Also working in 1:00 4/5 at Fair Grounds was the exciting Louisiana-bred No Parole (entered in the Premier Night Prince Stakes Feb. 8 at Delta Downs), whose pedigree is all Kentucky, and at Gulfstream, three-time stakes winner Chance It breezed a half in :48 2/5.
If you like Chance It, you surely have to like As Seen on Tv, who was beaten a head by Chance It in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes. The son of Lookin At Lucky showed his sharpness breezing five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Palm Meadows for Kelly Breen.
At Belmont, the recent impressive maiden winner War Stopper, who is bred to run all day, turned in a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:01. The son of Declaration of War showed tremendous improvement last out with the addition of blinkers and will now point for the Gotham Stakes on March 7.
Undefeated Structor, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America, continued toward his highly anticipated dirt debut, breezing a half in :48 4/5 at Palm Meadows.
We’re still waiting for Nadal’s first work back following his impressive maiden victory on Jan. 19. The colt has a big following already but is behind the eight-ball timing-wise after getting such a late start.