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 few weeks ago.
In this edition, the focus is the 3-year-old stakes races that have taken place over the last two weeks. With the qualifying points races on the Derby trail concluding with the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes April 16 at Keeneland, this will be the final edition of this column before the first jewel of the Triple Crown but it will return for the Preakness Stakes.
1. Mo Donegal
I thought the three major prep races on April 9 – the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino – really gave this year’s Kentucky Derby a needed boost with three winners who looked sensational in victory. You can make a strong argument for any of the three, but I think Mo Donegal is the most likely Kentucky Derby winner from that trio so I slotted him in this top spot. Wood Memorial Stakes runners have not been particularly formidable in the Kentucky Derby in recent history with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 the last horse to sweep both races and Funny Cide in 2003 the last Wood Memorial runner to go on to win the run for the roses. I believe Mo Donegal can end the drought for several reasons. First, and most importantly, I LOVED the way he finished in the Wood Memorial. He responded powerfully when given his cue by jockey Joel Rosario early on the final turn, advancing from sixth to second in early stretch. He then blistered his final eighth of a mile in 11.97 seconds to reel in pacesetter Early Voting by a neck, completing his final three-eighths of a mile in 35.61 seconds according to Trakus data. That is a very good clocking for the final three furlongs and he's now won twice at 1 1/8 miles, including once as a 2-year-old. The speed figures backed up the quality of the performance as he earned career-high marks across the board with a 103 Equibase Speed Figure, 111 Brisnet speed rating, and 96 Beyer Speed Figure as well as a very promising 7 on the Ragozin Sheets (lower is better) that places him among the elite compared with his peers. Making his third start of the year, Mo Donegal has every chance to improve on May 7 for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice and the Belmont Stakes three times. Losing Joel Rosario, who is committed to ride Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter, hurts a bit, but he reportedly will be replaced by another top rider in three-time Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr.
Like Mo Donegal, Zandon earned terrific speed figures from his 2 ½-length victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and finished very well, covering the last three-eighths of a mile in 37.08 seconds and a final eighth of a mile in 12.26 seconds, according to Trakus data. The Upstart colt earned a 6 ½ on the Ragozin Sheets and has followed an upward trajectory according to other speed-figure makers with a sequence of 93-93-93-107 from Equibase for his four starts, Beyer Speed Figures of 80-90-93-98, and Brisnet speed ratings of 88-93-94-103. He’s given every reason to believe he will handle the extra eighth of a mile in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby and four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, who won the Preakness in 2017 with Cloud Computing, will have him ready. Jockey Flavien Prat is an elite talent who won the Kentucky Derby in 2019 with Country House and the Preakness last year with Rombauer. For a more in-depth look at Zandon, read this week’s Derby profile on the exciting up-and-comer. Both Mo Donegal and Zandon do their best running from off the pace, so a clean trip and a fast pace would help their chances. I view both of my top two here as very real win contenders.
You can make a compelling case that Taiba was the most impressive winner of the trio in this heating up section. He probably beat the best horse among the three when he overhauled stablemate Messier in the stretch of the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby and ran one of the fastest races of the year, on paper, in the 2 ¼-length triumph. No question there was much to like from Taiba, whom I profiled in last week’s Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshot, who took down a Grade 1 stakes in just his second career start. The 111 Brisnet speed rating and 5 ¾ on the Ragozin Sheets were elite speed figures and his 102 Equibase and Beyer Speed Figures, likewise, are very promising. He also finished well enough that you feel confident distance will not be a long-term issue for Taiba, who completed his final eighth of a mile in the Santa Anita Derby in about 12.40 seconds, according to the Equibase chart. He’s a very fast horse who was a $1.7 million purchase at auction with a terrific pedigree, so why didn’t I rate him atop this group? It simply comes down to foundation. I realize horses are competing in fewer and fewer races every year with more time to recover between starts, and for the most part I have seen firsthand how effective that can be. However, the Kentucky Derby is the one race where I value a few extra races to help build stamina, facilitate emotional development, and provide some adversity to see how a racehorse will respond. Taiba might be a potential superstar … and he will have to be to become the just the second racehorse in history to win the Kentucky Derby in his third career race. He faced six horses in his debut and five in the Santa Anita Derby and very likely will face almost double that in what could be a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field in front of 150,000 fans. I respect Taiba’s talent immensely, but I will let the Gun Runner colt beat me on Kentucky Derby day.
Honorable Mention: If you like Mo Donegal, which I do, it’s hard not to respect Early Voting. He ran the best race of his life when second in the Wood Memorial Stakes to earn career-best speed figures across the board. He was allowed to dictate the pace with very little pressure in the Wood; however, I do not see that happening again in the Kentucky Derby and that could pose a problem for a Gun Runner colt who likes to go right to the front. I’m not sold on him as a win contender, but with his speed he should be able to carve out a clean trip and could be right in the mix at the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs. … Tawny Port needed a quality result in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes April 16 at Keeneland to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and the Pioneerof the Nile colt delivered with a one-length win from off the pace. The speed figures say he might not be fast enough to win, but this late runner should be passing horses in the stretch May 7 and he’s really only run one bad race in six starts. He looks like a decent longshot candidate to fill out the trifecta or superfecta.
This American Pharoah colt from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella delivered a smashing 5 ¾-length runaway victory March 5 in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes to stamp himself a candidate for Kentucky Derby favorite. Quite simply, he looked like a rising star. He set the pace through an uncontested opening quarter-mile as the even-money favorite in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby April 9 but proved no match when challenged by runner-up Messier and then faded badly late to finish last of six. Never worse than third in five previous starts, the 14 ½-length loss was uncharacteristic for Forbidden Kingdom, who subsequently was diagnosed with some swelling in his throat and placed on antibiotics. Mandella took him off the Derby trail and later told BloodHorse he believes there could be an epiglottis/airway issue that caused the disappointing race. Forbidden Kingdom will have some time off, but be sure to keeps tabs on him when he returns. He’s a true talent, so let’s hope Mandella and his team can get him back to 100%.
Sunland Park Derby winner Slow Down Andy will miss the Kentucky Derby after he spiked a fever over the weekend. “He got a little sick on us and we're just at a point where it's not a good time to get sick,” trainer Doug O'Neill told BloodHorse. “I guess we're not going to make it, but we're super grateful for the run he has put us on. Hopefully, there's plenty of good races ahead.” While Slow Down Andy had sufficient points to qualify for the Derby, I’m wondering if this might be a blessing in disguise for the Nyquist colt. He was outclassed by Epicenter in February when beaten by 10 lengths in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford after winning the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity as a 2-year-old. Perhaps missing a race like the Kentucky Derby that can be taxing mentally and physically on a 3-year-old might better set up Slow Down Andy for a strong second half of the year. He’s a talented colt with a bright future.
After winning his first three starts by 4 ¼ lengths or more, including the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, Morello needed to prove himself around two turns in his final Kentucky Derby prep race in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets April 9 at Aqueduct. His chances were badly compromised by a brutal start in which he hit the starting gate and then trailed the eight-horse field entering the first turn while racing very wide. Essentially, his race was over at the start and he finished sixth, beaten by 21 ½ lengths. This race was not an indictment of Morello, far from it, but it also was far from an ideal final prep race for the Derby and I’m just not sure how much he could have gotten out of it. It’s possible his connections might decide to skip the first jewel of the Triple Crown in favor of an easier spot as one of his owners previously said a race like the Travers Stakes in the summer would rank right up there with a Kentucky Derby win. If they opt for the more conservative route, Morello would have some extra time to develop and point to big targets in the summer months. Alternatively, he could also test the waters in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. I just worry that this talented Classic Empire colt would be hard-pressed to succeed in a race like the Kentucky Derby coming out of a race like the Wood Memorial that probably did nothing to move him forward. It’s gotta be all-systems go for the Derby.