For the second consecutive year, a tiered point system will determine who qualifies for the "Run for the Roses". The 2014 Kentucky Derby Prep Season, a series of eighteen races that commenced back in September with the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs, came to a conclusion on President's Day with the running of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Each race in the initial series had a scoring system of 10-4-2-1 points. Now it's time for stage two for the 3-year olds on the Road to Louisville. Sixteen races make up the next round known as the Championship Series. The action begins on Saturday with the Fountain Of Youth Stakes from Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes from the Fairgrounds, and extends until the March 23rd Sunland Derby. A total of eight races that offer up 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers. Then, the points grown even higher, seven races, starting with the Florida Derby (Gulfstream) in late March and extending to the Bluegrass Stakes from Keeneland in mid-April are worth 100-40-20-10 points. The final race in the group, the Lexington Stakes (Keeneland), giving out 10-4-2-1 on the scale, allows a last ditch effort for a horse to accumulate any needed points to try to earn a spot in Louisville. Only 20 three-year-olds will run in the prestigious 140th Kentucky Derby, set to take place Saturday, May 3, 2014 at Churchill Downs.
Since we are in between stages, I thought it would be a good time to share a few thoughts. First off: If your looking for a Top 10 Derby list, there isn't any. I've tried that in the past, but I found out that after the top 2 or maybe 3 ranked horses, names that almost every horse player certainly have at or near the top of their individual lists, the exercise, although extremely challenging, has no practical effect or useful result for me. No more late nights fretting about who deserves to be ranked 5th as opposed to 6th, or should horse A be slotted in the eighth spot and horse B in the ninth or vice-versa. So, I'm going to try a different tactic this year. I will follow and scrutinize the preps closely, then play the wait and see game. That is: Wait to find out which 20 horses have qualified for the Derby, then see if what I learned from all those preps can land me on the 2014 winner. That's a more practical approach for me, and it allows for more free time.
Prior to Monday's running of the Southwest Stakes, STRONG MANDATE, based on his pedigree and 2-yr old record was a horse that I considered a top prospect to wear the roses in May. From the moment the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was completed, the D.Wayne Lukas charge immediately became my Kentucky Derby future bet. The one constant that had brought me through the several winter storms of January was the patient wait for the 3-year old debut of the son of Tiznow. Alas, it finally arrived. In the running of the President's Day feature, STRONG MANDATE'S first effort since November, the horse was bumped a few steps out of the gate after breaking from post 8, and with a tightly bunched group of rivals to his inside as the field headed into the first bend, the Lukas runner was forced wide in to the turn, even wider coming out and remained on the overland route the entire way around the Oaklawn oval. The horse moved up freely down the backside under jockey Joel Rosario and into contention on the far turn, got to within a length of the lead, but the extraordinary amount of ground covered took its toll, and STRONG MANDATE was a tired horse as he lugged in and out through the stretch. Hopefully the erraticism displayed was due to fatigue and not due to a physical issue. It was the sixth career race for STRONG MANDATE, and he may still be learning. Next time out, I'd like to see STRONG MANDATE be involved in the early pace. He has shown to be far more effective employing that type of running style. Failing twice before with a come from behind running style, the Southwest was the first time the colt made any headway from well off the pace. STRONG MANDATE proved to match for the winner (TAPITURE), but his runner-up showing while six lengths clear of the show horse was nothing to be ashamed of. A very credible prep race. And the word "prep" is the key word. The sustained running style could have been planned as an experiment by coach Lukas. That's why they call them preps, designed to prepare for something else, something bigger down the Derby road. It's still a long way to Louisville, but did I mention future bet??
Another horse I have early interest in is RISE UP. The Tom Amoss trained colt has 4 wins from six starts, including back-to-back romps by 6-lengths in the Delta Downs Jackpot and the Jean Lafitte Stakes, the local major prep. The son of Rockport Harbor makes his 2014 debut this weekend in the Risen Star Stakes. If this one isn't on your list, maybe he should be.
The far most exciting prep thus far in my eyes was the battle in the Withers between SAMRAAT and UNCLE SIGH. The two NY-breds who had combined to win their previous starts by a combined 31 lengths, slugged it out for most of the 1 1/16 mile race with not much separating the duo before the former pulled away in deep stretch to win by a length. Trained by Richard Violette, SAMRAAT is now unbeaten in four starts. The most impressive prep win goes to CAIRO PRINCE, dominating in the Holy Bull with nearly a six-length score. The 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile will make his next and probably last prep in the Florida Derby next month.
Although the California Cup Derby is not part of the Kentucky Derby point scoring system, I have to make mention of the winner CALIFORNIA CHROME. The Art Sherman trained runner was by far the best with a 5 1/2-length victory which vaulted him in to the Derby mix. A winner of four of eight starts, the colt will likely head to the San Felipe (March 8th) at Santa Anita.
There has been quite a bit of buzz about the performance of CANDY BOY, winner of the Bob Lewis Stakes. Yes, he won pretty easily, however, the company he beat in that contest wasn't any great shakes. He faced better horses while trying to beak his maiden, which took 4 attempts, but to his credit the colt did finish 2nd in the Hollywood Futurity to Shared Belief, who subsequently was named 2-year old of the year for 2013. CANDY BOY, conditioned by John Sadler, is a nice horse that I feel should improve and get better, but to truly convince me he is Kentucky Derby material, he is going to have to really step up his game next time out in the Santa Anita Derby.
Two colts, TOP BILLING and BAYERN, have yet to compete in stakes company, but are genuine articles following their respective NW1X allowance wins. On the Holy Bull undercard back on January 24th, TOP BILLING, from the barn of Derby winning trainer Shug McGaughey, registered a 2 3/4-lengths win with an ultra impressive showing coming from last to first. TOP BILLING, with potential and pedigree for the 1 1/4 classic receives his first stakes test this Saturday in the Fountain Of Youth. BAYERN, from another Derby winning conditioner, Bob Baffert, is 2 for 2 after crushing 4 rivals by 15 lengths the day before Valentine's day. Obviously he also needs points, but his next start has yet to be determined.
Finally, the most carefully prepared plans may go wrong when you have a potential Derby contender in your barn, so in the "best laid schemes of mice, or in this case, horse and men" category, Remsen winner HONOR CODE and Eclipse award winner SHARED BELIEF are starting to worry me with lost training time due to minor injuries that have caused setbacks for both camps.
HONOR CODE, another fine colt from the McGaughey barn has returned to the morning workout scene and could make his next start in the Gotham Stakes in New York on March 1st. It's never a good thing when you have to alter plans, but this colt currently sits in a three-way tie for second place in the point standings with 14, and with two preps likely, there may be enough time to accumulate additional points to propel him into the Derby starting gate.
As for SHARED BELIEF, the Jerry Hollendorfer runner was one of, if not the leading Derby prospect heading into the New Year, but has yet to race in 2014 . The horse has zero points at this stage and has never raced on a conventional dirt surface. News was recently announced that SHARED BELIEF has also made it back to the workout tab with the target for the colt's 3-year old debut either the Spiral Stakes at Turfway (synthetic) next month or the Blue Grass at Keeneland (synthetic) in April. That means his Derby fate will be solely dependent on a single prep before the Kentucky Derby and no dirt experience. YIKES!!!
Just wondering how many of you with a Top 10 list will handle the aforementioned two? Move 'em down or move 'em out??
That's all for now, I'll reassess when we reconvene after the 50 point races. By March, many horses are off the Derby Trail due to injury, illness, or just lack of talent. Stay tuned.