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 three weeks. 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.
Now that the 100-point Kentucky Derby prep races have started and will end this weekend, the focus shifts to the 3-year-olds who have the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs.
With one weekend of major Kentucky Derby prep races left on the schedule, I think Epicenter has put himself on solid ground to be the favorite for the May 7 run for the roses at Churchill Downs. Sure, we could get a monster performance this weekend that bumps him from that perch, but I can’t see any set of circumstances where Epicenter is not one of the top two betting choices in the Derby, provided he stays healthy and on track for the race. I’m a believer in the Ragozin Sheets and the 6 ¼ he earned for winning the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby March 26 at Fair Grounds stamps him a strong win contender. Likewise, an improving pattern of 87-88-98-102 Beyer Speed Figures since Dec. 26 indicates he’s headed the right way and capable of a big race with six weeks of rest between the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. His four straight 97 Equibase Speed Figures are a bit less compelling, but he finished the final three-sixteenths of a mile in the Louisiana Derby in a little more than 18 seconds, which is fast for a 1 3/16-mile race. He also has good tactical speed, which has become increasingly important in recent years, and the versatility to set the pace, press the pace, or stalk the pace for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. He ticks all of the boxes.
The only Kentucky Derby Future Wager I’ve made this year was on White Abarrio at 22.50-1, so I believed in his chances to win the first jewel of the Triple Crown before his 1 ¼-length win in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa April 2 at Gulfstream Park. In the lead up to both the Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby, he missed some training with a fever but still managed to run very well. That leads me to hope that we still have not yet seen his best. He’s earned a 102 and 99 Equibase Speed Figure for the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, respectively, while his Beyer Speed Figures were 97-96. He’s right there with the best 3-year-olds in terms of ability with a small step forward in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. There are two knocks against White Abarrio as I see it. One, his lone defeat in five starts came at Churchill Downs when third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. The argument here is that he’s a horse for course at Gulfstream Park where he’s 4-for-4, but I don’t buy it. He ran well enough in his stakes debut that day at Churchill in what was a stout class test and has improved since then. Two, he finished his final eighth of a mile in the Florida Derby in 14.09 seconds. This reason is more compelling because he is not winning the Kentucky Derby with that finishing kick. For my Future Wager bet, I hope maybe he’s just not fully cranked up yet and there is plenty left in the fuel tank for May 7.
While Cyberknife was the obvious third option here, I really wrestled with giving it to Charge It if not for his slow final eighth of a mile in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa. Both Cyberknife and Charge It enjoyed breakout performances in their final prep races – Cyberknife winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park by 2 ¾ lengths for his first career stakes win and Charge It finishing second to White Abarrio in the Florida Derby in his stakes debut – but the former’s additional foundation (six starts) and final furlong in 13.18 seconds gives him a slight advantage. I also think there is a chance that Cyberknife showed in the Arkansas Derby that he’s beginning to figure things out a bit. Although he dumped his rider before the race and then drifted in and out in the stretch, he earned a career-best 92 Beyer Speed Figure and a 95 Equibase Speed Figure that is five points off his career top. I profiled Cyberknife for this week’s Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshot, and my main takeaway is that he’s a serious talent with some maturing to do in the next five weeks. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him at Churchill Downs in the days and weeks leading up to the Derby to see how he handles the spotlight. Maybe, the Arkansas Derby was a major turning point for him. I think that is at least possible.
Honorable Mention: I mentioned Charge It above and he was the clear last one out of my top three. With only three starts, he lacks the foundation of some of the other contenders but I think his upside is significantly higher. After pairing 93 Beyer Speed Figures, he has a chance to step forward and run well on five weeks rest in the Kentucky Derby in his fourth career start, but I’m not sure he’s a legitimate win contender. … I like United Arab Emirates Derby winner Crown Pride’s chances on May 7 at Churchill Downs better than most winners of that Dubai prep race and much more than runner-up Summer Is Tomorrow, but I just can’t endorse a 3-year-old coming out of that race. There is a reason no Kentucky Derby winner has ever come out of the UAE Derby; it’s a tough path to Louisville. … Tiz the Bomb was again impressive at Turfway Park in winning the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the synthetic main track and trainer Kenny McPeek confirmed he will go on to the Kentucky Derby, but his dud (beaten by more than 20 lengths) in the Holy Bull Stakes on dirt is tough to overlook. He’s an all-star talent on turf and synthetic but I couldn’t back him in the Kentucky Derby off a maiden win on dirt at Ellis Park last July. If he beats me, I’ll tip my hat to him and his connections. … Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby runner-up Zozos and Arkansas Derby second-place finisher Barber Road could spice up the exotics at a big price. Both are worth keeping an eye on. … Slow Down Andy won the Sunland Park Derby by a half-length March 27, but I’m skeptical that he’s fast enough to be a big factor on the first Saturday in May. … It’s also worth mentioning that 15-length runaway Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Messier was transferred from trainer Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen, so he will be eligible to earn points in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, April 9. I believe he will finish in the top two and qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Messier is an elite talent.
The good news is Classic Causeway exited an unplaced finish in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa in good order; the bad news was essentially everything else. The speedy Sam F. Davis Stakes and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner came back on short rest for the Florida Derby and faded badly after setting the pace. Classic Causeway finished last of 11 while beaten by 21 ¼ lengths. Suffice it to say, that’s not how you like to see a 3-year-old perform in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Brian Lynch told Horse Racing Nation on Tuesday that he was unsure what is next for Classic Causeway as it pertains to the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Last week, he looked like one of the probable favorites for the 1 ¼-mile classic and a week later he might miss the race entirely.
After Call Me Midnight’s impressive win in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January, trainer Keith Desormeaux opted to skip the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford in favor of training up to the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. With only 10 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, that meant a strong performance in the Louisiana Derby was absolutely essential for Call Me Midnight and he came up a bit short. The Midnight Lute colt passed a few horses late but the deep closer never seemed to find his best stride and finished sixth, beaten 8 ¼ lengths by winner Epicenter. A slow start did not help Call Me Midnight’s chances, but a 12-point decline from a 96 Equibase Speed Figure for the Lecomte to an 82 for the Louisiana Derby is far from ideal. He also will very likely be on the outside looking in as far as qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
Transferred from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen ahead of the Arkansas Derby to allow him to accrue Kentucky Derby qualifying points, San Felipe Stakes runner-up Doppelganger was another 3-year-old whose Kentucky Derby hopes hinged on one race. The Into Mischief colt did not run poorly in finishing a well-beaten fourth, but the 10 points he earned in the Arkansas Derby only elevated him to 33rd on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with the classic race capped at a maximum of 20 starters. He’s a nice 3-year-old with a bright future, but it does not look like that future includes a start in the first jewel of the Triple Crown May 7 at Churchill Downs.
Of Note: Uno Ojo, the 75.40-1 longshot winner of the Rebel Stakes, endured a brutal trip in the Arkansas Derby that included getting slammed twice into the rail so hard that it opened a gash on his left shoulder that required surgical staples to close. It was not an ideal final prep for the Kentucky Derby, but you can draw a line through the race as he was actually moving pretty well at the time of the incident. Thanks to the 50 points he earned for winning the Rebel Stakes, Un Ojo remains on target to compete in the Kentucky Derby.