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 week was especially active on the prep calendar, with Authentic taking the San Felipe Stakes, Mischevious Alex winning the Gotham Stakes, and King Guillermo posting a major upset in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
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1. Tiz the Law
He’s still hanging on to the top spot despite two months between races and battling a minor bruised foot. No one has matched his effort in the Holy Bull Stakes or his speed ratings, so someone will have to step up big in the Curlin Florida Derby on March 28. Layoff is of no concern because of the magnitude of his performance in the Holy Bull and his huge effort in the Champagne Stakes last fall. Until we can find a flaw in him he likely will remain right where he is. He had a sensational-looking work, sitting behind a workmate and blowing the doors off him, opening up some 10 lengths galloping out. The clockers got him five furlongs in a bullet 1:01.90.
2. Sole Volante
Sorry, I’m still a sucker for a strong closer, and his runner-up finish in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby was nothing more than a learning experience in how to deal with traffic in a big field. And I have to take into account his final sixteenth in a swift :6.09 according to Trakus – that is flying. He is still the strongest closer of this crop and when it comes to the Derby you never know if those holes are going to open or not. You just trust your horse can learn to make his own holes. Trainer Patrick Biancone said he achieved what he was looking for. He told Florent Geroux to wait for traffic even if it closed up on him, just to teach him how to stop and go. He understands what a prep is. And he did have to wait with horses in front of him. But once he found room along the inside, Geroux said he just kept accelerating and he couldn’t pull him up. Yes, battle lost, but a step closer to winning the war. He still has another prep and should be much more battle-tested with this race behind him. And remember, only one horse in the last 19 years has won both the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby, and that was Destin, who peaked too early and had to go straight into the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week layoff.
3. Honor A. P.
He may not have turned in the best performance of the weekend, but he did turn in one of the best Derby performances of the weekend when second in the San Felipe Stakes. Yes, Authentic beat him with something in reserve, but this colt was never touched by Mike Smith, who was not going to gut him trying to catch a fast, classy horse loose on an easy lead, especially coming off a five-month layoff. And he ran 24 feet farther than Authentic, according to Trakus. I loved the way he pulled away from the others and the way he galloped out. Although he has a lumbering type of stride, he generates a great deal of power from his shoulders as he gets down low and pushes forward with those long strides. I also liked the way he closed in on the far turn, made his run at Authentic and stayed with him the length of the stretch. At 1 1/16 miles, Authentic simply is too fast for him, especially controlling the race the way he did. I expect big improvement next time, which could lead to a peak performance on the first Saturday in May.
I’m sure a lot of people are going to be surprised he’s not ranked No. 1 or 2, but, although he may be the most gifted of the 3-year-olds, I still want to see a little more, such as how he handles pressure, if he can rate behind horses, and if he looks like he can overcome a pedigree not exactly geared toward 1 ¼ miles. With that said, he no doubt is immensely talented, but he couldn’t have had an easier time of it on an uncontested lead, in which he went the first half in :46.71 and the next half :50.18 before coming home his final sixteenth in :6.67. This was after a fairly mundane quarter in :25.57. So, time-wise, the San Felipe was a good race, but not exceptional. But visually, the first two finishers looked very good, so we’ll just wait until the Santa Anita Derby to see if we know more then. Yes, Authentic was only under a mild hand ride, but the runner-up wasn’t being pushed hard either. Unlike Honor A. P., this colt runs with gazelle-like strides, carries his head high, and is so light on his feet he exerts little energy while able to bound along effortlessly. In short, he seems to be all leg action and doesn’t need to generate a lot of power from the rest of his body.
5. Ete Indien
The Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes winner had a powerhouse two-minute lick on the Palm Meadows Training Center turf course, in which he went in under two minutes and kept getting stronger the farther he went. The clockers actually caught him a half-mile in :50.85. This was geared to build up his stamina and he really looked strong doing it. Although he’s been one-dimensional since being switched to the dirt and obviously wants to be on the lead, he is the type who can run you into the ground and just keep going. His Brisnet pace figures are eye-catching. He has run triple-digit early and middle pace figures in all three of his dirt races and still was able to run a 99 late-pace figure in all three, which means he can run fast from start to finish and doesn’t get tired. Patrick Biancone has been putting a lot of bottom in him in his works and gallops. He will be tested in the Florida Derby, with horses like Tiz the Law, Independence Hall, and Gouverneur Morris all breathing down his neck.
I admit that logic says this colt has no business being ranked this high and I can offer little statistically to back up the decision. From a speed rating standpoint he has run three times and earned a “5” on Thoro-Graph in all three races – good, but not competitive with the leading contenders and no improvement from his first start. Also, his last Brisnet figure ranks 17th among the 23 Future Wager betting interests offered by Churchill Downs, and it's also his career-high figure. And I'm not crazy about the schedule he's on getting to the Derby. So, why have I ranked him so high? Strictly gut feeling based on the eye test, and sometimes it's tough to let go of that despite logic and stats telling you you're off base. With some heavy hitters expected for the Florida Derby, he better pick up some big points if he’s going to make the Derby cut. I can’t help it, I just have faith in this colt’s upside and believe he can do it. He’ll have to prove me wrong.
A lot of people have dismissed him for some reason, but I believe he is a very live contender, and I was tempted to rank him higher. We discussed his monster Thoro-Graph number last year and his progression back toward that number this year. Well, his Brisnet figures show the same progression, and in his last three starts, his late pace figures are 102, 102, and 99, which show this colt does have a strong closing punch and uses it consistently. Remember, in his only defeat to Sole Volante in the Sam F. Davis Stakes he was given an overconfident ride, going to the lead too soon, and still finished 11 ¼ lengths ahead of third-place finisher, the Grade 2-placed Ajaaweed. He continued to build his foundation, working seven furlongs in 1:28 at Tampa Bay Downs. The only thing keeping him at No. 7 and not higher is inactivity. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s No. 1 or No. 2 after the Florida Derby.
He’ll have his work cut out for him in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, as he’ll have to contend with several live shippers from California, the intriguing No Parole from Fair Grounds, and a strong local contingent. This is the last spot for horses needing two more starts. I have always had a great deal of faith in this colt, and I still do, especially knowing he doesn’t need to win this, just be closing in the final furlong. He still has the April 11 Arkansas Derby ahead of him. He is coming off a career-high Brisnet speed figure and has already registered late-pace figures of 103, 101, and 99, so we know he has the closing punch.
The San Vicente Stakes winner continues to work up a storm as he tries to convince people he is something special in advance of a planned start in the Rebel Stakes. He very well may be, but, although I have no doubt he will handle two turns with no problem, he still has to go out and do it, and over a strange surface. His five-furlong work in a bullet :59 3/5 was the fastest of 58 works at the distance. He is an imposing presence, and in his work he sat right off the flank of his workmate, then easily drew off by four lengths before going out very strongly past the wire. If he can rate, as he’s done in his works, and show the same speed and brilliance stretching out in distance and then run off from what promises to be a strong and competitive field, then we are talking serious Derby horse.
He is sort of the silent assassin of this group. Not many know he’s around. He’s run eight times, has never been the favorite, and you just never know when he’s going to strike or how. He has come from first, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, so it doesn’t matter where he is running. And, yes, he’s beaten Tiz the Law, has won graded stakes at Oaklawn and Churchill Downs on fast and sloppy tracks, and has hit the board in seven of his eight starts. I won’t even begin to predict what he’s going to do in the Rebel Stakes. He’s not one of the faster horses, but don’t make any mistakes when you go against him.
11. Attachment Rate
I know I'm alone on this one, but I liked what I saw in the Gotham Stakes, his second straight race at a flat mile. In his first stakes appearance, he was forced to run hard, while stuck between horses, every step of way down the backstretch. Instead of tiring, as would most horses coming off a maiden win, he kept improving his position along the inside and was stuck on his left lead in the stretch, but switched late and rallied to just miss second behind Untitled. Trainer Dale Romans ran him back at one turn because he realizes a horse needs speed going up against Bob Baffert. There is no doubt he will be much more effective going two turns. This was another deep, tiring track at Aqueduct, so forget times and fractions. He has already run a powerful 106 Equibase speed figure and jumped from a “10” to a “4” on Thoro-Graph, so we know he’s fast and is improving. I did like the way he pulled away from a top closer in Montauk Traffic in the final furlong and missed by a head of catching Untitled for second.
He finally returned to the work tab, breezing five furlongs in a solid 1:01 for the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby on March 21. With eight lifetime starts, six of them two-turn races, trainer Mark Casse said the three-week vacation was by design. He obviously does not need a lot of work and has never been an eye-catching worker anyway. With his style of running, just give him a strong pace and a clear outside path and that’s all you can ask for. You know he’s going to give you all he has and will be closing at the end.
Knocking on the Door
I know by now you’re wondering where the heck is King Guillermo? Well, he was originally going to be ranked No. 8 or 9 this week after his stunning upset victory in the Tampa Bay Derby until reports came out that he will go straight to the Kentucky Derby. That would mean going into the Derby off an eight-week layoff and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles. To accomplish that would be unprecedented in modern times. And he still has to be nominated to the Triple Crown. We know very little about his trainer Juan Carlos Avila, who came here recently from Venezuela. I will have to admit I have no idea what to make of this horse other than he never should have been 49.20-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Not only had he run a good third to Sole Volante in the Pulpit Stakes, he was going grass to dirt and had worked a strong five-eighths in :59.69 over a sloppy Gulfstream Park dirt track on Feb. 22. He had a perfect stalking trip behind another longshot, opened a clear lead with no problem, and just kept going, as most of the top contenders never were a factor. That is the danger of running at Tampa. You never know who is going to handle the track and who is going to flounder over it.
So he really didn’t have to work hard for this, as Sole Volante was far back and stuck behind traffic. But give him credit for taking advantage of the situation and catching everyone flat-footed. He just may be that good, we really don’t know. He’ll have to be if he is going to be a factor in the Derby off such a long layoff and not a single nine-furlong race under him. If his owners and trainer change their minds and decide to run in another race, he likely will show up in the Top 12.
Another winner over the weekend who remains a bit of a mystery is Gotham winner Mischevious Alex, who has now won three stakes in a row, all by daylight, but who is a major question mark going much farther. His connections have come too far now to back off, so expect to see him give it a go in the Wood Memorial on April 4. In the Gotham, he showed he could sit behind horses, which is a big plus, and was never threatened, maintaining a two-length advantage to the wire. There isn’t much else to say other than we will just have to wait to see if he can take the next step.
We lost two major contenders with the disappointing efforts of Thousand Words, and to a lesser extent, Storm the Court in the San Felipe Stakes. Neither did nearly enough to remain in the Top 12. It is interesting to note that Thousand Words was coming into the San Felipe dropping from a respectable “4” and “3 ¾” on Thoro-Graph to a “6 ½" for his winning effort in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, although he did earn a 107 Equibase Speed Figure. He never looked like a particularly fast horse, mainly due to his low action and long strides and doing just enough to win. But he did win, which is why it was so surprising to see him drop right out of contention midway on the far turn. Sure he can rebound, but you can’t get beat over 11 lengths in March and remain a leading Derby contender.
As for Storm the Court, he didn’t run horribly, but he still was unable yet again to show us a definitive running style that he can call effective. The form of the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has completely deteriorated. He obviously doesn’t have the pure speed to be a confirmed frontrunner and he doesn’t have the closing punch to sit just off the pace and rally in the stretch. So until he can find his identity and figure out how to beat top-class horses we’ll just have to put him on hold and see where he goes from here.
A quick shout out to Texas Swing, who ran a solid third in the Tampa Bay Derby and who made an excellent appearance in the post parade. By Curlin, out of a Tiznow mare, we’re talking three Breeders’ Cup Classic wins in the immediate bloodline and a horse who should definitely keep getting better.
If you’re looking for a potential live horse at enticing odds in the Rebel Stakes, keep an eye on American Theorem, who hasn’t run since finishing a well-beaten second in the American Pharoah Stakes to Eight Rings. This is based on his most recent work, which was a standout. The son of American Pharoah worked six furlongs in company in 1:13 with his rider high in saddle and actually pulling back on the reins as the horse did everything on his own. He was extending his stride beautifully coming to the wire and galloped out strongly and a long way. We’ll find out if he’s ready for this test and if he’s as good as he looked in his work.
We saw a potential European invader this week, as the German-bred Chares captured the Kentucky Derby Conditions Race by 1 ¼ lengths under 131 pounds to remain undefeated in four starts. His breeding is completely unknown to Americans and his first three races were in the French provinces before he was sold. One interesting link to America is his maternal great-grandsire Orpen, who is a son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner and Hall of Famer Lure.
It looks like Richard Mandella will be heading abroad again, as he plans on sending Tizamagician to Dubai for the UAE Derby, where he likely will face fellow Americans Shotski and Fore Left. The son of Tiznow, who turned in a strong six-furlong work in 1:13 3/5, has excellent tactical speed, which is important at Meydan, and is bred to go the distance. The Americans will be trying to emulate last year’s 1-2 finish by Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician.
If you’re looking for a real sleeper for the future book, you could make a killing on Farmington Road, who was four-wide on the first turn from post 10 in the first division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and eight-wide on the second turn, yet still rallied strongly way out in the middle of the of the track to finish fourth. The son of Quality Road has a big closing kick from far back, but also broke his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs coming from three lengths back. If I was making a future-book bet at monster odds I would certainly take a shot with him. Watch out for this guy.
Bob Baffert certainly can’t complain about the way his 3-year-olds are working. The exciting and brilliant Charlatan, who is way behind the others, looked like a powerhouse working six furlongs in 1:12 3/5, in which he sat a half-length off his workmate, with his rider up in the saddle. He took the lead nearing the quarter pole and drew off at will, finishing some nine to 10 lengths in front, then just kept going an eighth past the wire, while hugging the rail.
The more seasoned and accomplished Eight Rings worked six furlongs in 1:11 4/5, demolishing his workmate and striding out beautifully, then followed that up with another strong six-furlong work in 1:12, as Baffert continues to put a lot of bottom in him. Another speedy type, High Velocity, who has been totally forgotten, worked six furlongs in 1:12 3/5, while El Camino Real Derby winner Azul Coast worked five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 for the Sunland Derby on March 22.
Kiaran McLaughlin has one final chance to make a splash on the Derby trail before taking over Luis Saez’ book on April 1 when he sends out Ajaaweed in the Louisiana Derby. The son of Curlin worked five furlongs in 1:01 4/5 at Palm Meadows Training Center.
The intriguing No Parole sharpened for the Rebel Stakes by working a half in a sprightly :47 3/5, second fastest of 107 works at the distance. Maxfield is up to five furlongs in his works, having an easy breeze in 1:02.25.