Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Sue Kawczynski
It happens every spring season. Kentucky Derby contenders get knocked off the trail with injuries, and this year's road to Louisville wasn't spared in that category. In fact, the harm delivered a major blow. In a matter of just a few short weeks, HONOR CODE, TOP BILLING, SHARED BELIEF and MEXICOMA are all officially out of the chase. WOW, what a kick in the pants horse racing fans received, but I just can't imagine the pain Shug McGauhey must be feeling. The Kentucky Derby winning trainer from last year lost the first two named horses. Ouch, that really hurts!! Hopefully, no more.
Did we see the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner in action since our last rendezvous here on this blog, or will he surface in the next stage where the competition gets stiffer with seven races, including six G1's worth double the points (100- 40-20-10) spread out among the first four across the line?
With victories in the Kentucky Derby Championship series, WILDCAT RED--INTENSE HOLIDAY--SAMRAAT--CALIFORNIA CHROME--RING WEEKEND--HOPPERTUNITY--WE MISS ARTIE and CHITU all secured spots for Derby 140. Most of them still have one more prep to complete, so any additional points they receive will simply pad their totals. Also looking solid for starting berths are MIDNIGHT HAWK and TAPITURE. The rest of the slots, more than half, are still available for the taking.
Once again on the road to Louisville, we saw two rivals lay it all down from start to finish. In the first round of prep action where the races were worth 10-4-2-1, SAMRAAT and UNCLE SIGH gave us a virtual match race in the Withers. This time around, with 50 points for a win and a virtual ticket stamped to Louisville with a victory, more excitement was generated watching WILDCAT RED and GENERAL a ROD fight it out in the Fountain Of Youth. The combatants were never more than a head apart all the way around the Gulfstream oval with the former getting the win. The two colts have grown accustomed to fierce battles. The pair were involved in a dynamite stretch duel on New Years Day in the Gulfstream Park Derby, with the General coming out victorious by a mere head.
WILDCAT RED made his first attempt around two-turns a successful one, battling throughout the 1 1/16 miles of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, then winning a narrow photo finish. The now injured TOP BILLING rallied for third-place. After the top three, the remainder of the F.O.Y field didn't inspire enough to believe they can continue on. A winner of four from six starts, all at Gulfstream Park, the Jose Garoffalo trained colt will stay put and have his final prep in the Florida Derby. Then it's on to the biggest stage of them all. Wonder how he'll fare at Churchill?
The gutsy NY-bred SAMRAAT did it again, this time prevailing in a three-way photo with Withers nemesis UNCLE SIGH and Belmont Futurity winner IN TROUBLE in the Gotham Stakes. The Rick Violette trained colt is 3-0 on the Aqueduct inner track and 5-0 overall, including a win on the "Big A's" main surface, where he will now receive his final Derby prep in the upcoming 1 1/8 mile Wood Memorial on April 5th. SAMRAAT destroyed NY-breds early in his career, but now that he has been entered into open company and graded stakes competition, he hasn't really been putting separation between himself and his rivals. Is the competition tougher or is it lack of focus during the stretch run? You can't knock this unbeaten horse, he does just enough to get there first. Maybe he's saving his energy for the first Saturday in May!
Third-place finisher and pace setter, IN TROUBLE, recorded an impressive performance considering it was his first start since September and his initial attempt navigating two turns.
Don't you just hate it when the horse you wager on cuts out all the pace only to be nailed at the wire? Well, that's what happened with ALBANO, my wager in the Risen Star at Fairgrounds. The colt lost by a nose after getting caught by INTENSE HOLIDAY who received an impeccably timed ride from jockey Mike Smith. It was a breakthrough performance for the winning colt who could be trainer Pletcher's best prospect. ALBANO, trained by Larry Jones was certainly valiant in defeat. The colt was more than 5-lengths ahead of third-place finisher, VICAR'S IN TROUBLE, who incidentally won the Lecomte Stakes by a comfortable 6 3/4-length margin over the same Fairgrounds track.
It certainly appears to my eyes that one of, if not, the most accomplished three year old in the country has prepared for the "Run for the Roses" in Southern Cal. It was no contest in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, CALIFORNIA CHROME led all the way and could not be caught, before drawing away easily in the last sixteenth to win by a little more than 7-lengths. The Art Sherman Cal-bred runner, who has never traveled outside his home state to run, has won his last three starts by a combined 19-lengths, dominated in his last two races and could not have been more impressive in his latest. CHROME posted the second-fastest winning time in the race's history. Sherman confirmed the April 5th Santa Anita Derby is up next. For what it's worth, no Cal-bred has won the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962. Maybe that streak ends this year.
Another California based three-year old getting a lot of ink is CANDY BOY. He won the Bob Lewis Stakes pretty easily. At first I thought the company he beat that day wasn't any great shakes. However, the two he finished in front of (CHITU and MIDNIGHT HAWK) have gone on to accomplish what have been asked of them thus far and are now in the center of the Derby puzzle. So, CANDY BOY, who ISN'T in the top 20 points wise as of this writing, has already defeated two horses that are going to be running in Derby 140. Also to his credit, the John Sadler colt finished second in the CashCall Futurity to Shared Belief, who subsequently was named 2-year old of the year for 2013. CANDY BOY appears to be a nice horse that I feel should improve and get better. Look for this colt to step up his game next time out in the April 5th Santa Anita Derby.
It should be a Dandy Western showdown...or is that Candy?
Meanwhile, down south in the Sunshine state, the Graham Motion trained RING WEEKEND, a gelded son of Tapit that took five races to break his maiden, but only one start to win a stakes race, and a graded one at that, easily took the Tampa Bay Derby field from gate to wire to cruise by three lengths. Local jockey Daniel Centeno sent RING WEEKEND straight to the lead along the rail, saved ground on the first turn, enjoyed a comfortable lead after a half-mile and was never challenged.
Can RING WEEKEND repeat what Street Sense ('07) and Super Saver ('10) accomplished? That is, go from the Tampa Bay Derby and win the Kentucky Derby? We'll find out in about 5 weeks.
Following a breakout win in the Sam Davis, VINCEREMOS, stayed in Kentucky Derby contention with a decent runner-up showing. Race favorite, CONQUEST TITAN, who has beaten GENERAL a ROD and has been second to CAIRO PRINCE, moved up along the inside on the far turn, but evened out after coming into the stretch and failed to display his dynamite turn of foot. All that one could do was help round out the superfecta. He'll be given another chance in the April 12th Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass.
Four horses played "bump and run" during the stretch of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Three of the runners, TAPITURE, RIDE ON CURLIN and STRONG MANDATE, were returnees from the February Southwest Stakes and the other, HOPPERTUNITY, was a California shipper from the Bob Baffert barn. When it was all over, following a stewards inquiry, the order of finish was left unchanged and the Baffert 3-yr old stayed the winner. I wasn't concerened about HOPPERTUNITY coming down. The colt maintained a straight course in the lane under Mike Smith while taking the worst of the slamming. He'll try to be the first horse since APOLLO (1882) to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a juvenile. Could this be the year the "curse" is broken?
TAPITURE, the winner of the Southwest and 2nd-place finisher in the Rebel, has good form at Churchill. Definitely a horse for course. I'm not ready to give up on my Derby future wager, STRONG MANDATE. Granted, the Lukas runner needs an in-the-money finish next out in the Arkansas Derby. I'd like to see a change in riders to one that can rate the horse. It's the last chance, so now is the time to experiment.
Speaking of unraced juveniles, how about SOCIAL INCLUSION? The colt got his career under way at Gulfstream Park February 22nd and scored an emphatic win. He led all the way, increasing his advantage while drawing away to win by 7 1/2 lengths. Two-and-a-half weeks later, trainer Manny Azpurua entered the horse in an allowance race that also featured HONOR CODE, who was making his 3-year old debut and his first start since edging Cairo Prince in the Remsen Stakes last November.
When the gates opened, SOCIAL INCLUSION mirrored his maiden win, moving to the front, setting all the pace into the lane, then drawing away to score big. This time by 10, while setting a new Gulfstream track record for the 8.5 furlongs. All HONOR CODE could do was chase. Looks like SOCIAL INCLUSION gets his acid test in the Wood Memorial on April 5th at Aqueduct where he'll face seasoned graded stakes horses. We'll see what all the fuss is about regarding this horse that only has started twice.
We finally hit the 1 1/8 prep races. At Turfway Park, WE MISS ARTIE rebounded from a eighth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth to prevail by a nostril in a three-way stretch battle in the Spiral Stakes. The colt is purely a polytrack/turf specialist with stakes wins on both surfaces. Despite being winless on conventional dirt in three tries, trainer Pletcher will be sending this one on to Churchill Downs for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The colt is also possible for the Queen's Plate over the plastic stuff at Woodbine in July. Hint-hint.
Track officials in New Mexico might as well drop the Sunland Park prefix and rename the 1 1/8-mile race the "Bob Baffert" Derby. The same can apply to the Oaks, or maybe rename that race after the trainer's wife, Jill. For the 2nd consecutive year, Baffert won the Sunland Derby and Oaks. It was the third time overall the 61-year old California-based trainer captured the Derby and sixth time for the Oaks. As for the Sunland Derby, CHITU and stablemate MIDNIGHT HAWK, ran one-two. The former has displayed more talent than the latter at this stage of development, but I'm certainly not crazy about either horses chances in Louisville. CHITU is a tough hombre, but he's also a very speedy runner who likes to be forwardly placed just off the lead. The Derby rarely has a slow early pace, and with plenty of other early speed types projected to be blazing along in this year's big event, his early efforts to keep abreast will probably cause him to be a pace casualty. He most likely will be found waning in the latter stages of the race. As for MIDNIGHT HAWK, he's already been exposed at distances less than the demanding 10 furlongs of the Derby. I believe the best the pair can do to get the 1/14-miles on May 3rd is to get a ride to the finish line via the back of a pickup truck.
The nose victories by WE MISS ARTIE and Risen Star winner, INTENSE HOLIDAY, have provided the slimmest winning margins thus far on the trail. And largest winning gap of 7 1/4 lengths goes to CALIFORNIA CHROME.
Watch out for the vastly improving Todd Pletcher trained GALA AWARD after the colt pulled off the upset in the Palm Beach on turf. He's scheduled to start next in the April 12th, Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland.
Finally, three of the magnificent 7 prep races are set for this Saturday: Florida Derby--Louisiana Derby--UAE Derby. Horses in need of points better get it done or find softer competition.
That's all for now, once the post positions are drawn a few days before the race. I'll be back with the cast here at HRN to provide our Derby selections. Good luck and enjoy the final round of preps!