Photo: Coady Photography
After an equine herpesvirus outbreak and quarantine derailed the Sunland Derby in 2016, the centerpiece of the Sunland Park meet has returned in 2017. On Sunday, a dozen 3-year-olds, all with their sights set on this year’s Kentucky Derby, have been entered in the 1 1/8-mile contest that carries an $800,000 purse. This race marks the final qualifying prep in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series with a 50-20-10-5 points distribution.
Inaugurated in 2003, the race was run at a mile and a sixteenth, before being stretched out to nine furlongs in 2005. Thanks to the success of Mine That Bird, who parlayed a fourth-place finish in this race in 2009 to a shocking victory 5 weeks later in Louisville, the Sunland Derby gained graded stakes status the following year. His efforts also made Sunland Park rename one of the local preps for this race in his honor.
The Sunland Derby garners plenty of interest across the country, and as with any stakes race for 3year-olds, that is graded and carries a substantial purse, it will attract plenty of entrants. This year's edition landed a contentious field of horses and jockeys, as well an array of America's top thoroughbred conditioners. Among them are: Bob Baffert, Doug O'Neill, Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss, who have combined for 7 wins of the 13 previous contests, with Baffert winning three. In addition, no Kentucky Derby prep would seem complete without a Todd Pletcher runner. The multiple Eclipse Award winner looks to join his colleagues, as he seeks his first Sunland Derby score. Another prominent name belongs to the legendary D. Wayne Lukas. The 81-year old has saddled 14 Triple Crown winners, including 4 Kentucky Derby winners.
Going back to 2011, every Sunland Derby winner has participated in the Kentucky Derby. Two years ago, Firing Line, a smashing winner of this event, finished second in a valiant effort behind eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby. Post Time is slated for 5:28 pm local time. Let's have a look at this year's field from the rail out.
PP - Horse/Jockey/Trainer
1 - Shareholder Value/Castellano/Amoss--Colt made his first two starts on the grass last summer before earning his diploma over a sloppy Keeneland surface in October. He was sixth behind McCraken in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November, then concluded his two-year old campaign with an impressive first-level allowance score the day after Christmas. His two efforts this year on the Kentucky Derby trail have been non-descript late closing fifth and sixth place finishes in the G3 Lecomte and G2 Risen Star respectively. Should get a good trip in behind the speed.
2 - Hedge Fund/ Ortiz/Pletcher--In addition to having first rate connections, this horse is sired by 2010 Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, the only Kentucky Derby winner to date for Pletcher. Colt showed some promise when notching his maiden win in his second lifetime start back in early February at Gulfstream Park. In that race, he wore first time blinkers and broke quickly out of the gate from post nine to get over to the rail to save ground. He dueled with a rival until the far turn, before edging away and then turning on the after burners in the lane to score by four. One always has to always respect this winning barn.
3 - Bronze Age/Garcia/Baffert--One component Hall-of-Fame trainer Baffert always has in his barn is depth, especially with his 3-year old runners. After losing stable star Mastery to injury two weeks ago, then watching a poor performance from American Anthem in the G2 Rebel Stakes last weekend, the 3-time Sunland Derby winning conditioner gives this improving colt an opportunity to get him to Louisville. The Juddmonte runner certainly deserves the chance in stakes company here after an ultra impressive wire-to-wire maiden score last month when stretched out in distance following a pair of sprints. Has recorded two strong workouts since that victory. Jockey-Trainer combo have won plenty of graded stakes together through the years, including consecutive Sunland Derby wins in 2012-2013. Horse must be respected due to its barn, however, with plenty of speed signed on, it'll be difficult to repeat a wire-to-wire win.
4 - Oxford Lane/Eramia/McPeek--Made his debut into racing with a third-place effort in a sprint event at Churchill Downs last June, then was put away for nearly seven months. Upon his return, he's had three starts around two-turns - Two consecutive runner-up placings, before breaking into the win column last time out earlier this month. Barely got the job done last time out at 1-mile, now he stretches out an additional furlong against winners. No thanks.
5 - Irap/Gutierrez/O'Neill--Shipper from Southern California remains a maiden. His recent runner-up finish as the favorite in the Mine That Bird Stakes last month was his third second-place finish in stakes—following the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity (where Mastery was the winner), and G3 Robert Lewis. Wore blinkers two starts back, but they came off for his last race. Now, they go back on again. Trainer O'Neill has won this event twice, including the inaugural running in 2003. Has lost ground in all four dirt starts going shorter. Possible for exotics, but not for the win.
6 - Dilettante/Stevens/Lukas--It took eight starts on four different tracks for this Calumet Farm-owned colt to finally win his first race, which he did two starts back while earning a career high speed figure. He started to put things together when he was finally stretched out in distance and might have graduated sooner if it weren't for a couple of horrible trips. Made his stakes debut last month in the G3 Southwest, finishing 5th, but he was in a quartet of horses (3-4-5-6 finishers) separated by a length at the finish line. Nicely bred, by top sire Unbridled's Song, which could make him competitive in future stakes down the line, but I'm not convinced he's ready at this time. Stevens gets the call from the Coach.
7 - Kimbear/Talamo/Kruljac--California shipper finally notched his first win in start number six last month. The runner-up finisher came back to be second in the G2 Rebel Stakes last Saturday. Maiden win was only this colt's second dirt race. His other one came as a juvenile last year, when second best to Iliad, a current Kentucky Derby contender. The effort was a very good one despite an extremely wide trip. Been competitive every time he's raced, whether its been on dirt or turf, with his lowest finish being a fourth-place effort. Has routed on the grass a couple of times, but this is a tough spot as he makes his first try going two-turns on dirt for his stakes debut.
8 - Wine N Devine/Perez/Green--First thing I notice about this one is, he was once offered up for a claiming tag as a juvenile. A race where he was the odds-on choice and lost. With the exception of that single race, which was at Remington Park in Oklahoma, this horse has done all his competing in New Mexico and Arizona. His ten lifetime races encompass 5 different racetracks. Besides his lone maiden win, he's been second six times, including being multiple stakes placed. One of those stakes was the Riley Allison, one of two local preps leading up to the Sunland Derby. The other local prep is the Mine That Bird in which he finished fourth last time out a month ago. Put in two sharp 5 furlong works seven days apart, but pretty sure those drills won't help him here.
9 - Hence/Jaurez/Asmussen--First of two runners from this successful stable. Graduated maiden ranks at Oaklawn in his fourth career start, which was also his 2017 debut. His victory that January day on a sloppy surface was quite an outing. After stumbling at the start, he went four wide to take over the lead on the turn for home, before ducking in quite noticeably to the inside. He then managed to somehow prevent himself from crashing into the rail, and by the time he recovered, he'd been passed by his stablemate while in deep stretch, However, he miraculously recovered from the incident to rally back and win by three-quarters of a length. From there, hopes were high and he went into the G3 Southwest Stakes, but was a non threat, finishing well back in seventh. It's tough for me to get ignore that last race. Pass
10 - Balandeen/Hill/Hartman--Bernadini colt was completely outrun and finished last in his first two races. Was then dropped to maiden claiming ranks and responded nicely, winning by nearly three-lengths after dueling for the lead. He's been keeping company in stakes in his last few outings and as a result, landed a pair of minor stakes placings - At Churchill last fall (behind McCraken), and at Oaklawn earlier this month. In between those two contests, he was tried in graded company in the G3 Delta Jackpot. He forced the early from his outside post, but could not keep up, fading to fifth and beaten by ten lengths. The winner and fourth-place runner from that race also have become prime contenders for the first Saturday in May. Not sure this horse likes two-turns.
11 - Total Tap/Geroux/Asmussen--After being unplaced in three subsequent races following a winning debut over the Churchill grass last fall, the Candy Ride colt got back to the winner's circle last out in an optional allowance event at Fair Grounds, winning by a head. All five of this horse's starts (3 dirt-2 turf) have come around two-turns. Not convinced this one can be successful on the class rise.
12 - Conquest Mo Money/Carreno/Hernandez--NY-bred colt is a Sunland-based runner that is undefeated in three starts. Was a debut winner by a neck back in the first week of January, then improved significantly in his second race three weeks later with an 11-length romp in the local Riley Allison Stakes. The bay colt's most recent triumph came a month ago when he repelled a stretch challenge from favorite Irap to win the Mine That Bird Stakes, the main local prep for this race. Not bad for an $8,500 bargain purchase. Uncle Mo runner holds the strongest chance of the local horses.
Some races are so dominated by the early speed, that a closer almost has to win by default. This race has an abundance of speed. The majority of the field is comprised of runners that do their best racing on the lead, or prefer to be very close to the early lead. In those races, such as this contest, speed figures are secondary, and running style is more predictive.
Because I expect this race to unfold at a very quick tempo, the early exertions of the pace horses should set up the race for a winner from off the pace. Using that analysis, I've landed on Shareholder Value. He won't be adding any pressure to the early scenario as he'll settle mid-pack or even a little further back. His 6th-place finish beaten by 10 lengths last out in the G2 Risen Star, could have been attributed to the competition he faced. or it could have resulted from the tepid early fractions. However, two back in the G3 Lecomte he got some pace. After some early bumping and a very wide run on the final bend, he was readily gaining through the stretch while forced out in the lane and ended up fifth. Despite it all, he managed to finish in front of half the field, one-length from second and beaten just 2-lengths for the win. He was also nearly 9-lengths clear of the next horse. He's a son of the hot sire, Uncle Mo, and receives a major jockey switch to big-time money rider Javier Castellano, who's always sizzling hot. In addition, trainer Tom Amoss has 31% wining rate with shippers. For me, it's all systems go. Odds should very attractive.
More often than not in a race like this, one of the early horses from the front-flight will often hold for second. That call for me goes to Conquest Mo Money. The locally-based colt, trained by Miguel Hernandez, a 20% winning conditioner, is very fast, but does not need the lead to win. Look for him to be racing just off the pace. The outside post should not hinder him all that much if he breaks well and gets over quickly to secure good position. All 3 wins have come on this very Sunland surface.When the real running commences, the early speed types will start retreating from getting tired or leg weary, but this hombre should hold steady to the wire.
Play: Shareholder Value to win and multiple exacta boxes with Conquest Mo Money. Use any horses of your liking for the third and fourth slots for filling out your tri's and supers, as the payouts should be modest.
Good luck, and as always, enjoy the race.