This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago.
Because the Kentucky Derby was moved to Sept. 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic and because the dates for the Preakness and Belmont Stakes have not yet been finalized, this week’s blog will focus on horses whose stock is rising or falling as it pertains to the entire Triple Crown series. In this edition, we look back on Arkansas Derby weekend.
Perhaps a case could be made that Basin and Finnick the Fierce belong in the top three because both made significant jumps to become players on the Triple Crown trail, but I think at this point the focus should be on a pair of 3-year-olds that showed again last week that they have the potential to win a classic and another who got a huge boost from the postponement of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Let’s start with Charlatan, who rose from seventh on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 all the way to number one. Bluntly, I think this Speightstown colt will win at least one of the three jewels of the Triple Crown and probably the Haskell Invitational Stakes. I went in depth profiling Charlatan for this week’s Making the Grade, so I’ll try to summarize here. Charlatan has incredible natural speed and the ability to carry it around two turns. He started his career with a couple of incredibly fast races from a speed-figure perspective, and while his six-length romp in the first division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby May 2 did not come back as fast as many had hoped, it was plenty fast for me. He handled an extra eighth of a mile with no problem and passed a major class test while hardly breaking a sweat in only his third career start. The way he can rip off fast early quarter-miles and still finish is extremely impressive, and I think the class and stamina he gets from the bottom half of his pedigree help in that regard. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert can take his time with this one and races like the Preakness and Haskell that reward tactical speed probably are on the agenda. Charlatan also figures be a more mature, more complete racehorse by the time September’s Kentucky Derby rolls around. Baffert has said the Belmont at its traditional 1 ½-mile distance is not an option for his top 3-year-olds at this point, but I think Charlatan and stablemate Nadal would be ideal candidates for that race with the ability to basically sleepwalk through a 47- or 48-second opening half-mile. The key issue most likely is how much would a race like that take out of one of them for the second half of the year.
This unbeaten 3-year-old by 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame continued to impress with a three-length win in the second division of the Arkansas Derby May 2 at Oaklawn Park. He easily won the more difficult division of the race by three lengths and completed the 1 1/8 miles faster than Charlatan had two races beforehand, but what impressed me most was how comfortably he relaxed behind pacesetter Wells Bayou. In his previous three victories, including the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes sprinting and the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on a sloppy track, Nadal pressed or led early. In the Arkansas Derby he settled just off the outside flank of Wells Bayou through a strong half-mile in :46.21 and waited for his cue to shift gears from jockey Joel Rosario. He took control on the far turn and opened a clear lead, and then Nadal had something left for the stretch run when challenged and edged away late with a powerful finish. What we’re seeing from Nadal is the mental development of an elite athlete as he starts to understand what is being asked of him. He had shown in previous races that he relishes looking another horse in the eye and putting him away, but with Wells Bayou he was willing to wait until Rosario called on him to impose his will on his rival. I thought maybe he waited a little bit on the rest of the field once he took command in the stretch and then dug in when he saw the next challenge coming. Nadal is all racehorse and he’s going to be fun to watch this season. Nadal earned a 105 Equibase Speed Figure for the Arkansas Derby win, two points off his career best; he equaled a career-top 98 Beyer Speed Figure; and Nadal improved his Brisnet speed rating to a 102, six points better than his previous best. He’s number two in my Kentucky Derby top 10 right now, and he would be a major factor in any of the classics as well as the Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes.
Maxfield was my pick for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before he was sidelined a couple of days before the race. I was blown away by his 5 ½-length win – specifically a visually impressive rally from ninth after a half-mile to 2 ½ lengths clear in early stretch – last October in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, but he hasn’t raced since then. The Street Sense colt returned to the workout tab in mid-February but looked like he was losing a battle against time to try and make it back for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve before fate intervened in the form of COVID-19. The postponement of the Kentucky Derby gave Maxfield a second chance. He has been working well and is on target to return in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes going 1 1/16 miles May 23 at Churchill Downs. Granted, how racehorses develop from age 2 to 3 can be a bit of a crapshoot. Some Thoroughbreds who show early glimpses of immense potential flame out when others have time to mature and catch up to then, while other top 2-year-olds continue to improve with mental and physical development. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is Maxfield is the latter. He’s a Godolphin homebred colt by 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense out of the Bernardini mare Velvety, a close sibling to Grade 1 winner and sire Sky Mesa, runner-up in the 2003 Haskell Invitational Stakes. The above pair of Charlatan and Nadal certainly appear to have benefitted from the postponement of the Kentucky Derby until September, but I’m not sure any 3-year-old was helped more by the delay than Maxfield if you believe in his talent … which I do.
Honorable Mention: After a pair of fairly disappointing starts to begin his 3-year-old season, Basin showed improvement when finishing second to Charlatan in the first division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby May 2. He earned a 96 Equibase Speed Figure, which matched to figure he earned when winning the Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes as a 2-year-old. While I liked what I saw from Basin in his third start after a six-month layoff, I don’t believe he’s fast enough right now to be a win candidate for one of the classic races. … Finnick the Fierce ran very well in defeat when third at 62.20-1 odds in the second division of the Arkansas Derby (behind Nadal and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo). He ran a big race to finish second in a Grade 2 race as a 2-year-old and showed again he is capable of rallying for a minor award against strong competition. The chestnut Dialed In gelding earned a career-top 99 Equibase Speed Figure for the Arkansas Derby, and while he is not at the same level as the top runners of the division, Finnick the Fierce is one to consider down the line when filling out the trifecta in a major race.
While I was encouraged by Storm the Court’s season debut – a fourth-place finish sprinting behind Nadal in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes in February – his two subsequent races have not offered much reason for optimism. He finished a well-beaten third in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes March 7 and on May 2 ran sixth, 12 lengths behind Nadal, in the second division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. The 2019 champion 2-year-old male has simply not looked as good this year as he did winning last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. It is starting to look like the field for that Breeders’ Cup race was pretty suspect, and Storm the Court has not progressed like many of his peers in the division. I’m not sure what the future holds for Storm the Court. Trainer Peter Eurton told Daily Racing Form: “We’ll give him a break, go over him with a fine-toothed comb.”
2. Anneau d’Or
Like Storm the Court above, Anneau d’Or has not shown much as a 3-year-old in two starts. While he did follow his hard-fought runner-up finish in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with another game second by a neck in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity, the winners of those races, Storm the Court and Thousand Words, have disappointed since then. Anneau d’Or added blinkers for his division of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and finished ninth, beaten by 12 ¾ lengths, as the even-money favorite Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds. Many attributed the dull performance to the equipment change, but the Medaglia d’Oro colt followed with a fifth in the first division of the Arkansas Derby May 2 at Oaklawn, where he was 9 ½ lengths behind victor Charlatan. His Equibase Speed Figure improved from a 75 in the Risen Star to a 91, but it was still 15 points off his career top. He sure looks like he could use a confidence builder in a race against lesser competition.
3. Wells Bayou
Of the three cooling down horses, Wells Bayou is probably the one who deserves a pass and a second chance. Nadal is a really good 3-year-old and he was pinned to Wells Bayou’s outside flank along the backstretch while that one set a testing pace in the second division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby May 2. Yes, Wells Bayou faded after Nadal put him away on the turn, but under the circumstances his fifth-place finish (beaten by 10 ¼ lengths) was understandable. He overcame some early adversity to post a front-running, 1 ½-length win in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby March 21 at Fair Grounds, and before that ran a decent second in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. He posted a 101 Equibase Speed Figure in the Southwest and a 100 for the Louisiana Derby, so we know he’s better than the 90 he earned in the Arkansas Derby. I am concerned that he is not on par with several other elite 3-year-olds who do their best running on or near the lead, but I think with a different pace scenario he should be able to win or place in some important stakes in the summer and fall.
Mike’s Triple Crown/Kentucky Derby Top 10
3. Tiz the Law
6. Honor A. P.
7. Mr. Monomoy
9. Sole Volante
10. Mischevious Alex