Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
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 the biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
I went in depth on the 46.75-1 longshot winner of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in this week’s Making the Grade profile, so I’ll keep his capsule here tight. The Pioneerof the Nile colt from the barn of talented horseman Jimmy Jerkens showed me a lot of tenacity late in the one-turn mile Gotham March 6 at Aqueduct, he’s bred to excel as the distances get longer, and he’s still developing with every start. He made a 15-point jump to a career-top 105 Equibase Speed Figure in his first race in three months and his 95 Beyer Speed Figure and 104 BrisNet speed rating, the latter especially, were also very strong. I would have liked to have seen a faster final quarter-mile out of him given a fairly soft pace, but he was a maiden winner making his graded stakes debut and now he has sufficient points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He is not nominated to the Triple Crown, but according to the media department at Churchill Downs the connections plan to ante up the late nomination fee. I view him as a top-10 contender.
For about five or six jumps it looked like Crowded Trade was going to go right past Weyburn and pacesetter Freedom Fighter entering the Gotham Stakes stretch March 6 at Aqueduct, but Weyburn fought back and prevailed in a thrilling finish. I debated putting Crowded Trade on top because I thought that was a heckuva race for his second career start while stretching out from a three-quarter-mile maiden win to a mile in the Gotham for top trainer Chad Brown. He improved his Beyer Speed Figure from an 83 to a 95 and his Equibase Speed Figure from a 94 to a 105, so I think this is a race Crowded Trade can build off of moving forward. He’ll need another strong performance in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby to qualify, but I expect he’ll be even better in his third start. By versatile sire More Than Ready out of the Jump Start mare Maude S, a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles, I’m a little worried about the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Derby, but I think two turns is well within his scope and he might be a sneaky play for the Preakness.
This is another colt that made a significant jump from winning a seven-furlong stakes on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface at Woodbine in his final start as a 2-year-old to winning a 50-point Kentucky Derby qualifying race March 6 at Tampa Bay Downs in his first race in 4 ½ months. He scored by three-quarters of a length in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby to improve to 3-for-3 lifetime. The speed figures came back a bit slow – 94 Equibase Speed Figure, 84 Beyer Speed Figure, 93 BrisNet speed rating – but he completed his final sixteenth of a mile in a solid 6.46 seconds. Most concerning to me was that it sounds like the connections plan to go right from the Tampa Bey Derby to the Kentucky Derby and bypass a final prep race. Right now, I just don’t think he’s fast enough. I’m not sure he can improve enough just with morning workouts; it sure seems like on paper he needs another race to be competitive with the best of the best while stretching out to 1 ¼ miles. Another 3-year-old not nominated to the Triple Crown, his connections also intend to nominate him during the late nomination period according to reports. I don’t think stamina will be an issue long-term for a colt from the first crop of Ironicus out of Thundering Emilia, a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles by Thunder Gulch, but foundation is a big worry for me with eight weeks between his final prep and the Kentucky Derby and only one race between Oct. 18 and May 1.
Honorable Mention: This might sound crazy, but I’m not sure how much we learned about Life Is Good in a dominant victory in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes March 6 at Santa Anita Park. He was allowed to set an uncontested pace and under ideal circumstances delivered a very fast race, which did not surprise me because he’s a really fast horse. I still have distance concerns with this colt and the way he lugged out through the entirety of the stretch has to be at least a bit of a worry. He was in my top three before the San Felipe and he remains right there in the mix for the top spot. He’s the fastest 3-year-old on paper right now, just as he was a week ago. … I really liked what I saw from Untreated, who won a maiden race by 8 ¾ lengths on the Tampa Bay Derby undercard. He disappointed in a sprint in his career debut in January, but stretching out to one-mile and 40 yards the Nyquist colt leveled off powerfully late under Luis Saez to post an eye-catching win and earn a 101 Equibase Speed Figure. Not sure he has the time to make a serious run at a Kentucky Derby bid for trainer Todd Pletcher, but Untreated is one to put in your Equibase Virtual Stable to keep an eye on.
1. Candy Man Rocket
After winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6 at Tampa Bay Downs, this Candy Ride colt looked like an obvious win candidate for the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at the same track and 1 1/16-mile distance. Sent off as the 8-5 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby, Candy Man Rocket moved up from sixth early to third, a length off the lead on the far turn, but he faded badly in the stretch and finished 11th, beaten by 25 ¾ lengths. The 54-point Equibase Speed Figure was 40 points off his career best, but most importantly he just didn’t look like the same racehorse we saw in the Sam F. Davis. Perhaps we’ll find out he had a logical excuse; regardless, it’s hard to bounce back after a clunker like that eight weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. If anyone can right the ship, it’s Candy Man Rocket’s Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott … but he has his work cut out for him.
Rating him second here might be an indictment of my previous view of The Great One more than how far he has really fallen, but I thought the lightbulb had come on for Nyquist colt after running second in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity and then winning a Jan. 23 maiden race at Santa Anita Park by 14 lengths. Sent off at 10.20-1 odds (fourth in the betting behind 1-2 favorite Life Is Good) in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, The Great One was forced wide throughout the race by Medina Spirit and offered little in the stretch while finishing fifth, beaten by 16 ¾ lengths by winner Life Is Good and by 8 ¾ lengths by runner-up Medina Spirit. Sure, he faced adversity in a very wide trip, but the best of the best 3-year-olds are able to overcome that this close to the first jewel of the Triple Crown and at least finish in the top three to bank some points and build some foundation. I’m not ready to give up on The Great One, but that was not the type of penultimate Derby prep that inspires confidence moving forward.
Stretching out from seven-eighths of a mile in a runner-up finish to stablemate Concert Tour in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes Feb. 6 at Santa Anita Park to a one-turn-mile in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes March 6 at Aqueduct should not have been too big of a stamina hurdle to clear for Freedom Fighter. But after a fourth-place finish, beaten by 4 ¾ lengths, it looks clear to me that this 3-year-old profiles as a sprinter. He set a fairly easy pace through a half-mile in :48.03 and had little left for the stretch drive as the 2.15-1 second betting choice in the Gotham. I still think this is a very nice colt from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, but I also believe we’ll see he’s at his best shortening back up to sprints moving forward. His pedigree slants pretty strongly toward speed, but it was worth finding out in the Gotham if he could carry that speed farther. The answer seems pretty clear now.
Of note: Quite a few fans of promising 2020 stakes winner Highly Motivated probably were disappointed when he ran third as the odds-on favorite in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes March 6 at Aqueduct, but after a slow start I thought he ran reasonably well to finish 1 ¾ lengths behind the victor. Was it the tour de force many probably envisioned? No, but coming off a four-month layoff, rallying to pass a few horses late, and posting an Equibase Speed Figure only two points off his career-top might serve as a nice building block for his next race. If I had a Kentucky Derby Future Wager on Highly Motivated, I’d be disappointed … but I also wouldn’t write him off just yet. Give him and trainer Chad Brown another start.