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.
Last weekend, Wells Bayou earned 100 qualifying Kentucky Derby points with a wire-to-wire win in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. Saturday, Gulfstream Park winds up its Championship Meet with the Curlin Florida Derby, another major prep that distributes qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers. The Derby prep series remains in flux as racetracks around the country respond to the developing COVID-19 pandemic.
Check out America's Best Racing's Triple Crown page to keep up to date with stories and statistics on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Thoughts on COVID-19 and the Kentucky Derby trail:
Kudos to Oaklawn Park for taking the initiative and making its Derby THE Derby on the first Saturday in May. Provided the Arkansas Derby goes as scheduled – racing across the country is fluid amid COVID-19 – this will be the biggest live sporting event in the country that will have extensive TV coverage. It would seem poised have enormous handle and will have 3-year-olds from all over converging on Oaklawn Park to get in their final big Grade 1 race before shutting down for a while and then gearing back up for the Sept. 5 run for the roses.
For now, we can only hope that the three Grade 1 stakes remaining on the scheduled – the Curlin Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Arkansas Derby – all go off as planned in these uncertain times.
1. Tiz the Law
The more I watch his win in the Holy Bull Stakes the more impressed I am. It took an extraordinary horse to beat Ete Indien that day after the way he was forced to steady and drop several lengths back, then come around horses. With Saturday’s Curlin Florida Derby only his second start of the year, do you come back in the Arkansas Derby or back off on him? No need any longer to be concerned about peaking too soon. If he runs back to his Holy Bull performance he is going to be very difficult to beat. He had an easy five-furlong work in 1:02.65 over a dull Palm Meadows track. He still has a tendency to cock his head, but he looked strong galloping out.
There is no reason to rush him now, and if he is ready for a major test, no concerns about having only one race before the Kentucky Derby. He most likely would not be ready for a top effort if he comes back in the Arkansas Derby, but he can be ready for the Oaklawn Invitational on April 11, the original date of the Arkansas Derby, and then come back three weeks later, where he has an excellent chance to be ready for his best effort and earn valuable points.
3. Sole Volante
I’m not so sure he’s the best horse in his own barn, but with no 20-horse field to contend with this year on the first Saturday in May he has a much better chance to land his first Grade 1 if they keep him around and point for the Arkansas Derby. Knowing trainer Patrick Biancone, who likes to step out of the box, it wouldn’t shock me if he ran him in the Santa Anita Derby depending on who Bob Baffert runs and how thin the field is. Or he could also go for the Oaklawn Invitational – Arkansas Derby double. He is still the most powerful closer of the group and should love Oaklawn, which is usually a very fair track.
4. Honor A. P.
He showed his sharpness working five furlongs in one minute flat. A likely starter in the Santa Anita Derby, that could be his main target of the spring, as he should move forward off his excellent runner-up effort in the San Felipe Stakes. Trainer John Shirreffs can then decide whether or not to ship to Oaklawn Park for the May 2 Arkansas Derby or keep him home and point for the Los Alamitos Derby and/or a possible new race at Del Mar to provide the California 3-year-olds with a prep for the Kentucky Derby.
Bob Baffert gave the San Felipe winner an easy five-furlong breeze in 1:01.80, in which it looked like he was in an open gallop. As of now, Baffert plans on running him in the Santa Anita Derby, but there is a possibility he could back off on him and give him some time to mature, with him being a late foal (May 5). It could all depend on whether or not the Arkansas Derby is split. If it is, Baffert could run Nadal and Charlatan in each division and run Authentic at Santa Anita with Thousand Words. But if it isn’t, he may very well run Charlatan in the Santa Anita Derby with Thousand Words and give Authentic some time off.
With the change in schedule, there is no longer urgency for points, but I am still expecting a big performance from this one in the Florida Derby coming off a five-furlong work in 1:01.65, which trainer Todd Pletcher said was as good a work as he's ever had. Whoever rides him will be picking up a very live mount. With only three lifetime starts and coming off only one workmanlike allowance victory at Tampa Bay Downs he has every reason to be a bit short against this field, but sometimes talent alone can help you exceed expectations. And he does have the talent.
7. Ete Indien
I don’t like having him this far down, because he may be a lot better than most people think and could run away with the Florida Derby. He may be that good. But he does have to show he’s not a one-dimensional speed horse. He had another strong open gallop, as Patrick Biancone is building his stamina. We already know he has the speed and ability to carry it a long way, and when a speed horse keeps going and doesn’t tire it makes him all the more difficult to get by. You don’t want to see him loose on the lead, but you don’t want to go after him too soon for fear you won’t be around at the finish. We saw how tough he is in the Holy Bull Stakes, and if he improves even a little off that effort and his Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes romp from a terrible post, the others might be in for a rough afternoon.
He could be the overlay of the year in the Florida Derby. After working all winter at Tampa Bay Downs, he blew out a half in :48.31 at Gulfstream Park and seemed to be loving the track in what should be an excellent sharpener. He’s been sort of forgotten, but that could change this weekend. This is his big opportunity to regain his once lofty reputation as one of the top 3-year-olds and a potential star. It will all depend on how he is ridden. The key is waiting and not hitting the front too soon, as he did when second the Sam F. Davis Stakes, not that he would be able to do that anyway with Ete Indien on the lead. If possible he would want to avoid being between the proverbial rock and hard place, with Ete Indien in front of him and Tiz the Law and Gouverneur Morris right behind him. The way he’s been working long at Tampa Bay I wouldn’t be surprised to see him laying fourth and timing his move a lot better.
If his connections point for the Arkansas Derby he still will have eight weeks between races and one race in five months, but he would be running 1 1/8 miles instead of 1 ¼ miles and won’t be forced to run hard early in a 20-horse field. The fact that he runs so well fresh gives trainer Juan Avila the luxury of spacing his races. What I loved the most about his Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby romp was the way he kept getting stronger and was running through the wire as if he could have easily gone around again.
Bob Baffert would love to see them split the Arkansas Derby in order to run Charlatan as well and avoid a possible 14-horse field. Either way it will all depend on how much speed there is in the race and whether this Rebel Stakes winner can learn to slow it down a little early and come home in racehorse time. The is no questioning this colt’s brilliance and his overall talent, and now Baffert has until September to teach him to run like a Derby horse and not just a speed freak up to 1 1/16 miles. He is certainly bred to go on, so it’s all about harnessing some of that speed. With the No. 1, 6, 7, and 8 ranked horses all running in the Florida Derby he could find himself a lot higher up by next week.
Any horse who can begin his career pairing up “zero” Thoro-Graph figures has to be something special and maybe a little freaky. That is pretty much what he did, running a “zero” first time out and then a “¼” second time out, in which he totally dominated his opponents from start to finish. He just has to show the same kind of ability against far better competition and convince the pedigree experts he could be one of those occasional sons of Speightstown who can stretch his speed out long distances. He has extremely efficient action and just floats over the ground, which should definitely help him stretch out. Not only was his sire a champion sprinter, but his broodmare sire Quiet American is also inbred very close-up (2x3) to the legendary Dr. Fager.
12. Major Fed
I put this colt, who finished fourth in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, ahead of race winner Wells Bayou because, with the number of speed horses and stalkers and one deep closer, I am looking for a horse who has the turn of foot, the pedigree, and the class to launch a bid from mid-pack. A tardy start in the Louisiana Derby, in which he had his head turned at the break, cost him all position, but he still closed from 14th to finish fourth after being forced eight-wide turning for home. What I loved was the explosive move he made after being taken off the rail on the far turn, losing so much ground and shrugging off two solid bumps from Shake Some Action and then Enforceable in the stretch. The reason he couldn’t get closer than 4 ¾ lengths was because Wells Bayou was loose on an easy lead in :48 and 1:12.42 and came home his final three-sixteenths in a rapid :18.86. In his two races at two turns, Major Fed was two to three lengths off the lead, and in the Louisiana Derby he found himself a dozen lengths back in 14th and last. So this was a promising effort and he will be a lot more formidable when allowed to run his race, especially at 1 ¼ miles.
Knocking on the Door
I just couldn’t bring myself to put another speed horse in the Top 12, so Wells Bayou heads up the also-eligible list. There is just so much you can say about a horse, whether it’s Wells Bayou, Authentic, Ete Indien, Nadal, or Charlatan, who are loose on an easy lead and never threatened. It just gets boring after a while. Blame it on my old school thinking. This no doubt is a very good horse who is improving with every start, but we just don’t know how any of these frontrunners are going to perform under pressure and whether they can win rating off the lead. To his credit he did, as mentioned earlier, come home very fast.
Three Technique is another mid-pack closer who was compromised by a wide trip in the Rebel Stakes (where he finished fourth) and who is only going to get better as the year progresses. Like Major Fed, I have been touting this colt since his maiden victory, and he has already spent several weeks in the Top 12. I’m making up this list now having to look ahead more than five months. Go back and watch the move he makes on the far turn in the Rebel to charge into contention. That is the Three Technique to remember. It was no surprise that he got a little leg-weary in the stretch over a sloppy track after chasing fast fractions. Believe me, we’re going to see a far better horse in five months when he’ll be able to finish off that move with a better trip. He will be back in the Top 12 soon enough.
I have to admit I am more impressed with Modernist after his third in the Louisiana Derby than I was before the race. Breaking from the near-disastrous 14-post, he was five-wide on the first turn, was wide down the backstretch, tracking the pace in fourth, and put in a good run while four-wide on the second turn. He raced evenly the rest of the way, holding off Major Fed by a half-length for third. With stamina throughout his pedigree and being inbred to Roberto’s son Kris S., the sire of stamina influence Arch, Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten, Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Prized, and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Hollywood Wildcat, you can expect Modernist to be peaking around Labor Day.
Dale Romans still hasn’t made any plans for Attachment Rate, so we can only project where he will be by Sept. 5. I still like everything I’ve seen, I thought his Gotham Stakes third was an excellent learning experience and will move him forward, and he is only going to keep improving. The talent is there, as we saw in his maiden win, and he has the pedigree to excel at longer distances.
You likely never heard of Mystic Guide, but I believe this regally bred colt will be a major Kentucky Derby contender by late spring or summer, and will be ranked much higher once he beats winners. I love everything about this horse. He has run twice and both performances were extremely impressive. In his career debut at six furlongs, he ducked out at the start, was bumped soundly and dropped back to last. He made a strong move around horses, going six-wide, and was a bit green in the stretch, switching back to left lead. But he found his best stride and was flying at the end to finish third, galloping out some five lengths ahead of the winner. Stretching out to 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds on March 21, he was much more professional, turning in a flawless performance, again making a sweeping outside move, then switched leads on cue and drew off to win by five lengths, coming home in a brilliant :23 3/5 and :06 flat, with the rider never going to the whip, just throwing a couple of crosses on him. He has a smooth efficient stride and from the head-on view he carries his legs perfectly straight under him. Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell said this colt had caught up to himself physically, is very professional, and is a push-button type of horse, which he showed in his maiden score. His pedigree is so strong we will have to get to that next week.
Max Player is a typical example of out of sight, out of mind horse, as no one is talking about him or his impressive come-from-behind victory in the Withers Stakes back on Feb. 1. He didn’t beat the most talented field, and his times have all been slow, but it’s difficult gauging final time at Aqueduct, which has been very slow since last fall. He has never run shorter than a mile, so even with only three career starts, he has a good foundation under him. I like his inbreeding to Secretariat and Buckpasser, and he gets a lot of toughness and mile speed from French Deputy and Verbatim in his female family.
As for Rebel Stakes third-place finisher Basin, his pedigree suggests distance might be a problem, but his comeback in the Rebel was very promising and there is no doubt he is an extremely talented horse, as he demonstrated in last year’s 6 ½- length romp in the Runhappy Hopeful Stakes. I did like the way he rated off the pace and outdueled Three Technique by a head for third. We will see how much he can improve off this effort in the Arkansas Derby if trainer Steve Asmussen decides to run him there.
Farmington Road could be Todd Pletcher’s dark horse, who we would have learned a lot more about had he not drawn on the also-eligible list in the Louisiana Derby after closing from far back to finish fourth in a division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. He has a strong closing punch but can run closer to the pace if he has to. He is a very late (May 14) foal and is only going to get better. He is another who is ranked in the Top 20 based on long-range projection.
You have to have new respect for Rebel Stakes runner-up Excession, but he needs to show he can be just as effective on a fast track. Former Top 12 horse Enforceable closed okay in the Louisiana Derby, but after nine starts he has to move forward and keep moving forward. His last was a step backward. One performance that has gone completely unnoticed was that of the Rebel fifth-place finisher Coach Bahe, who was in a three-horse photo for third and was closing well in his first start ever on a fast dirt track following a win and a second in the slop. If the late-closing Ajaaweed can pick up a piece of it and be competitive in the Florida Derby he would have to be regarded as a long-range Derby contender. Look for continued improvement from the Todd Pletcher-trained Texas Swing, who ran a sneaky good third in the Tampa Bay Derby at 19.80-1 in only his third career start. By Curlin, out of a Tiznow mare, his future looks bright. One horse who has yet to run in a stakes, but has been very impressive so far is the maiden winner Mister Candy Ride, who has demonstrated a devastating turn of foot in both his starts. You will hear from him soon enough. Bob Baffert’s forgotten horse Azul Coast is a contender in desperate need of a race. He will win his share of races if Baffert can find a spot for him. I will discuss Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Field Pass if and when he returns to the dirt, over which he has run the only poor race of his career.
A couple of months ago, Thousand Words and Anneau d’Or were considered among the Top five Derby contenders, but are now looking to bounce back in the Santa Anita Derby from dismal performances. Both are working very well, and horses are entitled to one bad race. If they can bounce back with big performances they will be right back in contention. Also looking to bounce back from a disappointing effort is last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court, who just needs to find out what his strengths are and apply them. He just is lacking an identity right now.
Don’t hold Silver Prospector’s sixth-place finish in the Rebel Stakes against him, as he had to steady at a critical point in the upper stretch, which likely cost him a better position. He has already shown he is a top-class horse. We felt Chance It should have taken his chances from an outside post in the Fountain of Youth Stakes over the only track on which he has ever run, but instead took an even bigger chance trying the Tampa Bay Downs surface a week later and showed nothing. Now we have no idea just where he stands in the Derby picture. And finally, although he has been working brilliantly and is a Grade 1 winner, Eight Rings still has to rebound off a dreadful performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.