The Triple Crown trail continued this weekend with a pair of Grade 1 stakes races. Each was worth 100 points towards a berth in the 2014 Kentucky Derby starting gate for the winner. A second-place finish in either race was worth 40 points. The Wood Memorial was run at Aqueduct racetrack, and the Santa Anita Derby was run at Santa Anita Park.
As noted last week, the Kentucky Derby is usually won with a TimeformUS speed figure of between 110 and 120. Orb won in 2013 with a 111 in a race that featured an extremely fast pace. Several three-year-olds of 2014 who have run a 105 TimeformUS speed figure or faster were in action. California Chrome was the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, while Schivarelli, Samraat, Uncle Sigh, and Social Inclusion were all entered in the Wood Memorial. The Santa Anita Derby drew a field of eight runners, but only three were considered legitimate contenders by the betting public. California Chrome was favored off his 7 ¼ length win in the G2 San Felipe Stakes with a 109 TimeformUS speed figure. Candy Boy took the G2 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita with a 102. Hoppertunity was returning to California after a score in the G2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park with a 101. When the gates opened, longshot Dublin Boy set out for the lead. Flanked on his outside was California Chrome, the favorite, with Candy Boy and Hoppertunity just in behind that one. California Chrome took the lead with a quarter mile to go, and for all intents and purposes, the race was over. He increased his lead all the way to the wire, eventually checking in over five lengths in front of Hoppertunity. Candy Boy finished a distant third, over ten lengths behind. California Chrome ran a career-best 113 TimeformUS speed figure. Hoppertunity improved to a 104.
Pace/Speed figures for Santa Anita Derby:
*Learn more about TimeformUS Speed Figures
The Wood Memorial drew a field of ten after scratches. The exciting but untested Social Inclusion was favored after his impressive allowance win at Gulfstream Park, where he earned a 112 TimeformUS speed figure. The next choices in the wagering were the G3 Gotham Stakes top-two finishers, Samraat and Uncle Sigh. Samraat was rated 108 in the Gotham while Uncle Sigh was rated 106. But it was Wicked Strong, returning from Florida, who stole the show. The pace was contested early, with Schivarelli setting out for the lead and Social Inclusion rushing from his outside post to press him. Southern California shipper Kristo and Samraat were in closest pursuit. Social Inclusion took the lead, opened a clear lead after six furlongs, and looked to be home free turning into the stretch. But the quick pace began to take a toll late.
Wicked Strong ranged up on the outside after a ground-saving trip, was in full flight, and would not be denied. He kicked away late to score by 3 ½ lengths over Samraat. Samraat edged out Social Inclusion in the last jump for the place spot, a nose that will probably keep Social Inclusion from making the Kentucky Derby field. Wicked Strong finished with a 117 TimeformUS speed figure, best this year for his crop. Samraat checked in with a 114, and Social Inclusion was rated a point above the runner-up to reflect his early pace exertions.
Pace/Speed figures for Wood Memorial:
These are young horses that can and do improve quickly. Wicked Strong was a great example. His previous career-best was a 92 TimeformUS speed figure when he broke his maiden as a two-year-old. He matched it in his next start, a good third in the G2 Remsen Stakes. Sometimes improvement comes gradually, while at other times it can be sudden. Mine that Bird was not high on anyone’s list in the speed figure department before winning the Derby, but he made a giant leap that day and then backed it up with a nice race in the Preakness too.
In Wicked Strong’s case, the improvement may very well have been hidden until Saturday. In his first race this year, after a layoff following the Remsen, he did not run well at all, but he also drew an impossible outside post in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. Horses drawing outside posts in 1m 1/16 races are at a severe disadvantage due to the very short run to the first turn. In his next start, he again drew a terrible post in an allowance race at Gulfstream at the same 1m 1/16th distance.
To further add to his troubles, the track was strongly speed-biased that day, as indicated by the TimeformUS race rating being coded in red. The final straw was that the pace was slow and set by eventual winner, and future Florida Derby winner, Constitution. Still, Wicked Strong was able to close while wide, gaining six positions and a few lengths from first call to finish. His “explosion” in the Wood may not have been likely, or predictable, but it was certainly possible. With-three-year olds, prepare to be surprised! Anticipate improvement and you will be ahead of the crowd.
Next Week: The Arkansas Derby and The Blue Grass Stakes