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, Ete Indien jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with a win in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. This Saturday, three Derby points preps are scheduled: the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs; the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct; and the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
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1. Tiz the Law
Well, you can't say Ete Indien's performance in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes didn't flatter him, His minor foot bruise in late February demonstrated the importance of having a solid 2-year-old foundation to fall back on in case of a setback and also going the Holy Bull Stakes – Curlin Florida Derby route as opposed to the Fountain of Youth – Florida Derby route gave him the leeway he needed. If trainer Barclay Tagg had chosen the latter route, he would have had to do some major scrambling and altering of plans, including scrapping the Florida Derby, for which he would not have been able to have a prep. Now he still has a month to the Florida Derby, with a monster performance already behind him. It was great to see him return to the work tab, breezing an easy half in :50.
2. Sole Volante
Now it's up to the Sam F. Davis Stakes winner to go out there and match his stablemate Ete Indien's performance when he returns to Tampa for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby this Saturday. Based on running style and overall professionalism, he seems to be more of a Derby horse, but unlike Ete Indien, he needs a good solid pace in order to use his devastating late kick. This is turning into a powerful one-two punch for Patrick Biancone, with both horses complimenting each other's running style. After the Tampa Bay Derby, Biancone no doubt will separate the two, with one going to the Florida Derby and other likely to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
3. Ete Indien
We are witnessing a remarkable resurgence by Biancone. Give him credit for his handling of this colt, working him long on the grass and putting him in front. It paid off when he broke like shot from post 10 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, made his way to the rail and controlled the race before bounding away to an 8 ½-length victory. What thrilled Biancone was the way he was rushed to the front and instead of getting headstrong, he came right back to Florent Geroux "like a sweet boy." Biancone is a veteran and did not let the outside post scare him and force him to completely alter his colt's schedule. And credit Geroux for a masterful ride. He got him to relax on the lead, then burst well clear of the field on the turn, and kept to an occasional right-handed whip when the colt drifted wide. Despite the drifting, he still came home in a solid :6.58 for the final sixteenth. You like to see them run a bit straighter in the stretch, but he definitely has a bright future.
With Tiz the Law, Ete Indien or Sole Volante, and Independence Hall all heading for the Florida Derby along with this colt, he better be as good as he's cranked up to be if he is going to earn enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby. His connections obviously are confident he's good enough or they wouldn't have relied on such a tough race in which to earn his ticket. I share that confidence or I wouldn't have him ranked this high based on a limited body of work. He should be ready for a big effort. We'll just have to see if it's big enough. In his last work he galloped to the pole throwing his head around quite a bit but quickly settled in stride while racing inside the promising Farmington Road. Both colts finished together, getting the half in :49.50, and galloping out well.
I keep getting the feeling I have him and Authentic reversed, as his stablemate seems to be getting a lot more buzz. But he's been just ahead of him the last several weeks, and no use changing now when Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes will decide which one is Bob Baffert's best Derby hope. He doesn't have his stablemate's brilliance, but that shouldn't come into play when the distances stretch out. Baffert has him sharp, breezing him five furlongs in :59 4/5, in which he crushed the older stakes horse Dr. Dorr. It's not as if he is guaranteed to stay the mile and a quarter, but he appears to have more of the tools needed to stretch out that far, especially the way he conserves energy. And we know he'll fight when he has to. So, a defeat at the hands of his stablemate in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe would not mean he's any less of a Derby horse.
Catching up with his six-furlong work in 1:12 4/5 last week, let's just say if he runs back to that work, he is going to take a lot of beating in the San Felipe. The two main questions surrounding him have been his pedigree and his maturity. His talent is undeniable. In this last work, he cornered beautifully and ran a perfectly straight course the entire length of the stretch, doing everything professionally. So there is no reason to think we won't see him at his very best. He followed that work up by breezing another six furlongs in 1:12 4/5. Pedigree won't be an issue until the first Saturday in May, if it is then, and now, after this last work, he gives one confidence that his antics in the Sham Stakes when he ducked in sharply twice were an aberration.
Trainer Michael Trombetta has decided not to face Sole Volante at Tampa Bay Downs again, even though it has been his home track, and instead will wait for the Florida Derby, which will be a far tougher test, at least in terms of depth. He did have another solid work at Tampa, breezing five furlongs in 1:01. As I have been saying, a major strong point in handicapping him is that he has a powerful "negative-2" Thoro-Graph number from last year to fall back on, and looks to be on a forward progression heading back toward that figure, which is still the fastest figure registered by a member of this crop.
I had him ranked very high early on and I still have this nagging feeling I have him ranked too low now, despite the fact no one is exactly fawning over him. But his fourth, beaten only 2 ¼ lengths, in the San Vicente Stakes after pressing fractions of :21.81 and :44.09, was much stronger than one might think. He was scheduled to run in the Rebel Stakes, but trainer Peter Eurton changed his mind after working him five furlongs in a bullet :59 2/5, fastest of 60 works at the distance – opting for the San Felipe this Saturday instead. Joel Rosario replaces Flavien Prat, who rides Thousand Words. I just want to see him show a distinct running style and be right there at the finish. If he gets beat he should improve when he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles. The San Vicente should have sharpened him, so he can either use his speed on or just off the lead or to accelerate from off the pace. But he has to be running strongly in the final furlong.
I remain stubborn when it comes to this colt. I firmly believe he is top-class and will be up to the task when he faces a strong field of shippers and locals in the Rebel Stakes on March 14. I have been on his bandwagon since his maiden win last year. I just want to see him closing in the stretch and will leave the winning to the more brilliant colts. But he sure showed brilliance of his own when he blazed a half in a bullet :46 flat, galloping out five furlongs in :59.20, fastest of 83 works at the distance. So let's just say a victory by him would not exactly shock me. He may be another one I have ranked too low even though many feel he is ranked too high. I'll jet let him decide who is right.
He hasn't been on the worktab since his victory in the Southwest Stakes, so I’m just waiting for him to resume serious training. We discussed his RF (Rasmussen Factor) inbreeding to the mare Ruby Slippers, but he is also inbred to Fappiano, Nijinsky II, Blushing Groom, and of course Mr. Prospector. He is rock solid and does have a victory over Tiz the Law in the slop, so at least we know he's been keeping good company. The one-time Steve Asmussen army has been whittled down, as one would expect, but this one from Asmussen’s group keeps taking significant steps forward.
It feels great to put him back in the Top 12. He's a rarity today; he actually runs. Trainer Mark Casse said he reminds him of War of Will in that both have a lot of education under their belt, and it's important not to be playing catch-up. Casse recalled telling owner John Oxley last year that this colt could be something special. But it wasn't until the Lecomte Stakes that the light went on. Before the race, assistant trainer David Carroll told Casse, "They're going to pay hell beating this horse. This is a different horse." And he showed it, even in his defeat in the first division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, which was one of his best efforts. In short, this is the kind of horse you love having in your barn.
Okay, with the Rebel Stakes getting closer it's time to give in and put him in position to climb up the rankings. And he will do that once he excels going two turns. Bob Baffert sure is putting bottom in him, working him seven furlongs in 1:25.20 in company, and he did it like a seasoned come from behind horse. With Blame on top and serious stamina influences Pleasant Colony and Stage Door Johnny on the bottom of his pedigree, he should have no problem going longer. There is no doubting his speed and natural ability, but it's time to show who he really is as a serious Derby contender. He showed a lot coming back only three weeks after a huge maiden victory and withstanding a brutal :44.09 half. But other than Storm the Court we're not quite sure what he beat in the San Vicente Stakes. That will all be cleared up in the next two weeks.
Knocking on the Door
Dale Romans no doubt is crushed over the inexplicably poor performance by Dennis’ Moment in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, but before you feel too sorry for him, he does have a secret weapon ready to launch his way into the Kentucky Derby picture. I have been very high on Attachment Rate, who looked like the real deal in his stunning maiden victory in the slop at Gulfstream Park, in which he ran the mile in 1:35.03, winning by 6 ¼ widening lengths. Although it was a maiden race, his 106 Equibase Speed Figure was one point slower than Nadal in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes and one point slower than Thousand Words in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes.
A son of Hard Spun, out of an Afleet Alex mare, has demonstrated an explosive turn of foot that he can use anywhere in the race. I thought Romans might look for a two-turn stakes but he is listed as a probable for the one-mile Gotham Stakes Saturday, which could set him beautifully for either the Wood Memorial Stakes or Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, both on April 4. Romans gave him a good sharpener, working him a half in :48.17 at Gulfstream Park.
No one can say whether the scratch of Chance It in the Fountain of Youth Stakes because of post position was the right decision or wrong decision for that horse, but we saw what happened with Ete Indien, so it is a decision that Chance It’s connections will have to live with, at least for the next week. Now the colt likely will have to run twice away from his favorite track unless he goes in the Tampa Bay Derby and then wheels back in three weeks for the Florida Derby. They just have to hope he's not one of those horses who dislikes the quirky Tampa Bay track. He did remain sharp with a bullet half-mile drill in :47.28. It’s tough when you completely alter your schedule even though your horse is sound and ready to run a big race. He’s never run anywhere other than Gulfstream, so we'll just have to see how it all works out. If he handles the surface at Tampa he should be tough to beat.
Now Chance It has another shot to knock off another Derby contender, but he is not the only threat to Sole Volante. We could see a potential star emerge in recent maiden winner Spa City, another I wrote about extensively after his maiden victory, in which he showed his toughness defeating Unrighteous, who could be special. And remember, Unrighteous finished 14 ¾ lengths ahead of the third horse. Spa City, owned by Godolphin, has excellent tactical speed and is bred to carry it a long way. Todd Pletcher likely will be banking on the lightly raced Market Analysis, who beat Attachment Rate in his only career start. He could be any kind, but even if he wins he will have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three lifetime starts.
It's been a long wait, but the return of runaway Runhappy Hopeful Stakes winner Basin is getting closer, as indicated by his stunning five-furlong work in a bullet :59 1/5 at Fair Grounds, followed by a powerful six-furlong work in 1:12. His expected return in the March 14 Rebel Stakes highlights what should be a fascinating race with horses shipping in from around the country. Just remember, however, with names like Liam's Map, Trippi, Johannesburg, Hennessy, and Gallant Romeo in Basin’s pedigree, that's a lot of speed to overcome. But he is very talented.
In addition to Basin, those who look to be headed to Oaklawn Park are California invader Nadal, the intriguing No Parole shipping in from Fair Grounds, and Silver Prospector, Three Technique, Answer In, Wells Bayou, and the impressive maiden winner Background. No Parole added to the intrigue when he worked six furlongs in an eye-catching 1:11 1/5 at Fair Grounds. We have no clue how good this horse is, as he has been running against Louisiana-breds. But his pedigree is all Kentucky and he looks the part in action.
Bob Baffert’s pair of Authentic and Thousand Words will be getting most of the attention in the San Felipe Stakes, but there are other serious horses in Southern California who can either challenge them or be major factors elsewhere. As discussed above, Peter Eurton has changed his mind and will run Storm the Court in the San Felipe instead of the Rebel Stakes. The others are the much talked about Honor A. P., the impressive maiden winner who breezed five furlongs in 1:01 4/5; the Robert B. Lewis Stakes runner-up Royal Act, who worked six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 in company with older stakes winner Draft Pick and looks to be headed to the March 21 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby; and Fast Enough, the Cal Cup Derby winner who shortened back to a sprint and ran a game third behind Nadal in the San Vicente Stakes, outrunning Storm the Court for the show spot. Also, don’t overlook the Richard Mandella-trained Tizamagician, who probably needed the race when finishing a close fourth in the Robert B. Lewis and should show improvement next time out. He showed his sharpness working five furlongs in 1:00 1/5.
So even with Nadal skipping town, the California-based 3-year-olds look loaded. And remember, Bob Baffert also has El Camino Real Derby winner Azul Coast likely headed to the March 22 Sunland Derby after breezing a half in :47 2/5, and also Charlatan, High Velocity and Eight Rings looking for spots. One major player from last year who is nearing his 3-year-old debut in California is the American Pharoah colt American Theorem, runner-up to Eight Rings in last fall's Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes who turned in a huge six-furlong work in 1:12 1/5. Also likely headed to the Sunland Derby is the impressive maiden winner Great Power, who has been working brilliantly for Simon Callaghan.
One horse in whom I have a particular interest and have been touting strongly since he broke his maiden on Jan. 1 is Major Fed. I think I actually salivated when I first saw his pedigree. As much as I love this colt, even I was pleasantly surprised when he finished second in a division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, which elevated him to the role of Derby contender. Now he gets to stretch out to 1 3/16 miles in the Louisiana Derby, and we know he’s the sharpest he’s ever been by his last work, a half in a bullet :47, fastest of 108 works at the distance. That was a huge move for the son of Ghostzapper.
Also looking to take advantage of the longer distance of the Louisiana Derby is the late-running Ajaaweed, who breezed five furlongs in 1:01.80. This is a horse crying out for distance and pace.
It is really a shame that it appears Maxfield will come up just a bit short of making the Kentucky Derby, as he had made great strides in the morning. In his most recent work he breezed a half in a bullet :48.45, fastest of 41 works at the distance. Although his connections have not officially ruled out the Derby, he would have to go right into a 100-point race off a long layoff and an injury and run in the Derby with only one prep, and you know they are not going to subject the colt to that.