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.
In this edition, the focus is the previous week of prep races. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
This was an easy call for the top spot: he was on the outside looking in for the Kentucky Derby picture entering the April 3 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby and exited the race as probably a top-five or -six contender. I profiled the Candy Ride colt in depth in this week’s Making the Grade blog, so I’ll keep this capsule relatively short. I view Rock Your World as a serious win contender for the Derby because he is an elite talent with room for improvement, boasts tactical speed, is in the hands of a great trainer in John Sadler, and sports a fantastic pedigree for 1 ¼ miles. After winning his first two races on the grass, he switched to dirt and improved to 3-for-3 in the Santa Anita Derby with a 4 ¼-length runaway victory that earned him a new career-best Equibase Speed Figure (103), BrisNet speed rating (102), and Beyer Speed Figure (100). Given how greenly he has run in the stretch in his three races, I think he has a ton of room for growth and might turn out to be a star-level talent.
When you witness a 72.25-1 longshot like Bourbonic win a major Kentucky Derby prep like the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino April 3 at Aqueduct, it is only natural to look back to try to find what everyone missed. But the reality is there is a reason so many people overlooked the Bernardini colt, who ran in a maiden claiming race in December and made his stakes debut in the Wood Memorial. Sometimes things just start to click for a 3-year-old racehorse in the spring. Bourbonic was last of nine and 10 ½ lengths off the pace after the first half-mile and then had the best 1:04.31 of his life to complete a last-to-first rally and collar runner-up Dynamic One in the final strides. In that 64 seconds or so from the half-mile marker to the finish line, Bourbonic wrote his Cinderella story and punched his ticket to the May 1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Now, the key question is does he have a shot to win? Probably not, since the speed figures – Equibase (82-88-100), BrisNet (83-89-94) for last three races and 13-point improvement to a career-top 89 Beyer Speed Figure in Wood – indicate he would need to make a significant jump in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. But as a deep closer with a spot in the starting gate and plenty of horses that prefer to race on or near the lead, Bourbonic has a puncher’s chance like Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009. By 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini out of 2013 Delaware Oaks winner Dancing Afleet, distance shouldn’t be an issue for Bourbonic.
He gave unbeaten champion Essential Quality all he could handle in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes April 3 at Keeneland, coming up a neck short after setting the pace under Javier Castellano. It was not exactly a surprise that he ran well – the Into Mischief colt was the second betting choice coming off a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes after showing flashes of brilliance as a 2-year-old – but he displayed a ton of tenacity in deep stretch when challenged by the probable Kentucky Derby favorite and he has proved consistently fast. Highly Motivated has strung together 104-102-108 Equibase Speed Figures for the Nyquist Stakes in November at Keeneland, the Gotham, and Blue Grass Stakes, respectively, with similarly consistent BrisNet speed ratings of 102-102-102 and Beyer Speed Figures of 96-92-97 over the same stretch. I do believe the 1 ¼-mile distance is a factor that plays against Highly Motivated – I don’t think he wants to go a whole lot farther than the 1 1/8 miles of the Blue Grass – but I’m confident four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown will have him ready and he could take a step forward in his third race of the year.
Honorable Mention: While I thought Essential Quality probably would win by a larger margin, I expect he got just what he needed heading into the Kentucky Derby when tested in the stretch of the Blue Grass Stakes. He earned new career-best Equibase (109), Beyer (97), and BrisNet (102) speed figures, all minor steps forward, and should be firing on all cylinders May 1 at Churchill Downs. The 2020 champion 2-year-old male will make a deserving Kentucky Derby favorite. … It’s tough to get too excited about Wood Memorial Stakes runner-up Dynamic One and third-place finisher Crowded Trade after what was the slowest edition of that race since it was extended to 1 1/8 miles in 1952, but both of them probably secured a spot in the starting gate and thus must be considered. Of the two, Dynamic One feels like the better bet to excel at 1 ¼ miles on Derby day being from an elite family cultivated by the Phipps family. Dynamic One comes from the family of champion Storm Flag Flying (his grandam or maternal grandmother), multiple Grade 1 winner My Flag (third dam) and unbeaten champion Personal Ensign (fourth dam).
1. Risk Taking
I believe I was more optimistic than most about Withers Stakes winner Risk Taking’s chances to emerge as a serious win candidate for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, but he came up short when running seventh of nine in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino. It’s pretty rare to see a Chad Brown-trained horse ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr. underperform in a big race like that, but he bobbled a bit at the start and never was a factor. Risk Taking lacks the points to qualify for the Derby and has been listed as no longer under consideration for the race on the latest Road to the Derby leaderboard. I don’t think we saw close to the best from Risk Taking last weekend and I’ll be interested to see what race his connections target next.
After winning his first two starts by a combined margin of 11 ½ lengths, including a dominant win as the 1-10 favorite in a one-mile allowance-optional claiming race March 11 at Gulfstream Park, Prevalence generated significant buzz on the Kentucky Derby trail. The 3.35-1 third betting choice in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino April 3 at Aqueduct tasted defeat for the first time in that race with a sixth-place finish, beaten by five lengths. He stalked the pace from third through an easy half-mile in :50.18, made a mild bid, and weakened late. I definitely expected more from the talented Godolphin homebred, but perhaps the major class test in just his third-career start simply proved too tall a task. Like Risk Taking above, I’m curious to see where trainer Brendan Walsh points Prevalence to for his next start.
I was not sold on his viability as a serious Kentucky Derby candidate before the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes because his lone previous start on dirt rated far below what he had achieved in a subsequent three-race winning streak on the synthetic main track at Turfway Park. I give the connections of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes winner credit for seeking to find out before the Kentucky Derby whether his talent would translate to dirt. I think the answer was pretty clear in the Blue Grass as he finished 24 ¼ lengths behind winner Essential Quality with his Equibase Speed Figure dipping 26 points from the 97 he earned in the Battaglia to a 73. Running in a 20-horse field against elite competition in the Kentucky Derby can be detrimental to the long-term development of a 3-year-old that isn’t ready or equipped to handle the class, surface, and distance hurdles, and now Hush of a Storm’s connections can find a more suitable next race for the promising Creative Cause colt.
Of note: Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Greatest Honour will miss the Kentucky Derby after trainer Shug McGaughey told Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman that the Tapit colt would be given two months off, including 30 days of rest on a farm. According to the story, McGaughey was not happy with the way Greatest Honour came out of a third-place finish in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa March 27 and sent him to veterinarian Larry Bramlage for an examination. He was considered one of the leading five or six contenders for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. … Gotham Stakes winner Weyburn ran an OK fourth in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino April 3. He has sufficient points (60) to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, but it was not the type of final prep race that inspires much confidence. I’d have a hard time envisioning a scenario where he finds his way into the Derby trifecta. … Likewise, Brooklyn Strong underperformed in the Wood Memorial Stakes when fifth, beaten by 4 ¾ lengths. I was a bit more forgiving of his performance given this was his first race since winning the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes Dec. 5, but it does take him out of consideration for the Kentucky Derby. … UAE Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD winner Rebel’s Romance, a Dubawi gelding I considered a legitimate win contender for the Kentucky Derby, will bypass the race and instead target the June 5 Belmont Stakes. Owner Godolphin Racing also races probable Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality.