Can Candy Man Rocket Improve Enough to Be a Kentucky Derby Threat?

Candy Man Rocket, with Junior Alvarado up, won the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 6 at Tampa Bay Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be profiling impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we examine the credentials of Candy Man Rocket, winner of the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 6 at Tampa Bay Downs.

candy man rocket

Dark Bay or Brown Colt

Sire (Father): Candy Ride

Dam (Mother): Kenny Lane, by Forestry

Trainer: Bill Mott

Owner: Frank Fletcher Racing Operations

Breeder: R. S. Evans (Ky.)

Candy Man Rocket passed his first class and distance test in the Sam F. Davis Stakes with a one-length victory over stablemate Nova Rags. Going from a three-quarter-mile sprint against maidens to winning a 1 1/16-mile race on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve trail marked a big step in the progression of this 3-year-old colt, so let’s take a closer look.

Ability: A $250,000 purchase at the 2020 OBS Spring sale of 2-year-olds in training, Candy Man Rocket made his career debut Nov. 22, 2020, on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs and faded to finish a well-beaten seventh in the 6 ½-furlong race.

He did not make his next start until Jan. 9 at Gulfstream Park, and he looked like a different racehorse on a fast main track in a 9 ¼-length romp. The Candy Ride colt earned a 94 Equibase Speed Figure, an 85 Beyer Speed Figure, and a 97 BrisNet speed rating in a performance that turned some heads and also gave Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott the confidence to test him on the Derby trail.

Next up was the Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6 stretching out around two turns on a main track that can be a bit tricky the first time a horse races over it, but again Candy Man Rocket proved up to the task as he stalked the pace from second, spurted to a 2 ½-length advantage in early stretch, and held on to prevail by a length in 1:44.30, which was the slowest time since 2014.

The speed figures were not as flattering as those earned for his maiden win – Candy Man Rocket earned a 90 Equibase Speed Figure, an 87 BrisNet speed rating, and an 85 Beyer Speed Figure. While he paired his Beyer figure, he dipped 10 points according to BrisNet in his first time stretching out and also dropped four points according to Equibase.

Most concerning to me was how Candy Man Rocket finished in the Sam F. Davis with a final sixteenth of a mile in 7.08 seconds and a final five-sixteenths of a mile in about 33.30 seconds.

Understand that Tampa Bay Downs can play as a fairly deep, taxing dirt track, but even considering that, Candy Man Rocket’s finishing ability looks to be a bit suspect. In the hands of a Hall of Fame trainer with only three races to date, this colt absolutely can improve and probably will do just that. My concern is that he might need to take a couple of big steps forward while some of the other elite 3-year-olds just need to make smaller leaps to be serious Derby threats.

Running style: In his two wins, Candy Man Rocket showed the cruising speed to be able to press a swift pace both in a sprint and while navigating two turns in the Sam F. Davis. He appears to prefer to rate just off the pace and launch a sustained bid approaching the stretch. Jockey Junior Alvarado, who rode him for the first time in the Sam F. Davis, described him as a grinder.

“He doesn’t have a real quick turn of foot, but he started grinding it out so I started picking it up and was really pleased by the quarter pole turning for home,” Alvarado said after the Sam F. Davis.

Horses with tactical speed have been extraordinarily effective in recent editions of the Kentucky Derby as the 3-year-old who crossed the finish line first in each of the last seven races was third or better after the opening quarter-mile. Maximum Security, however, was disqualified in 2019.

upcoming Livestreams

Always Be Racing: Friday, Feb. 12 from 3-5 p.m. ET, hosted by Blackjack Fletcher

La Trifecta: Every other Thursday, starting at 7 p.m. ET, with Claudia Spadaro, Darwin Vizcaya, & Annise Montplaisir - next episode on Feb. 18

Santa Anita - Road to the Derby: San Felipe Stakes: March 6, time TBD, hosted by Matt Bernier

Connections: Frank Fletcher Racing Operations is the stable of Arkansas-based businessman Frank Fletcher, whose Thoroughbreds regularly include the word “rocket” in their names. Other graded stakes winners campaigned by Fletcher include Frank’s Rockette, Rocket Twentyone, and Officer Rocket. Fletcher is chairman and chief executive officer of Frank Fletcher Companies, an Arkansas holding company with interests in auto dealerships and commercial real estate among other interests.

Bill Mott is a three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and is best known as the trainer of two-time Horse of the Year Cigar. A winner of 10 Breeders’ Cup races, Mott won his first U.S. classic race when Drosselmeyer prevailed in the 2010 Belmont Stakes and added a Kentucky Derby to his résumé in 2019 when Country House won via disqualification.

Candy Man Rocket has been ridden by different jockeys in each of his three starts: Joe Talamo, John Velazquez, and most recently Junior Alvarado. Alvarado has won 1,788 races through Feb. 9 with earnings just under $100 million. He ranked 13th in North America by earnings in 2020 and has yet to hit the board in three Kentucky Derby starts, his best finish being fourth aboard Mohaymen in 2016.

Pedigree: Candy Man Rocket is from the 13th crop of Candy Ride, who won all six of his career races and set a 1 ¼-mile track record of 1:59.11 when winning the 2003 Pacific Classic Stakes. He frequently passes along that combination of high-cruising speed and stamina to his top runners, including 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner and champions Shared Belief and Game Winner. Other elite Candy Ride runners on the main track around two turns include Clubhouse Ride, Misremembered, Candy Boy, Sidney’s Candy, Twirling Candy, and Leofric to name a few. Candy Ride has sired 105 stakes winners and 52 group or graded stakes winners through Feb. 9.

The bottom half of this pedigree is anchored by fourth dam (maternal great-great grandmother), Courtly Dee, the 1983 Broodmare of the Year who produced champion Althea among seven graded stakes winners. Champion Covfefe and Grade 1 winners Acoma, Arch, and Balletto are direct descendants of Althea. There is simply a ton of back class in this pedigree.

Candy Man Rocket is the first stakes winner produced by his dam (mother), Kenny Lane, by Forestry. Kenny Lane won two of her 20 starts and finished in the top three eight times. Her victories came at 5 ½ and 7 ½ furlongs.

Grandam (maternal grandmother), Vantive, by Mr. Prospector, was a winner at about one mile in France and produced a pair of stakes winners.

As I mentioned above, I’m a bit concerned about how Candy Man Rocket finished in the Sam F. Davis and the first couple of generations on the bottom half of this pedigree are a bit light on stamina. However, there is a ton of back class in the pedigree and sire Candy Ride provides a healthy dose of both speed and stamina, so there is reason to be optimistic he can excel as distances get longer and he builds upon his foundation.

Right now, the biggest concern is whether Candy Man Rocket is fast enough to compete with the best 3-year-olds. He has significant ground to make up but plenty of time to do so.

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