With a few more 3-year old stakes races on the books, it is time to take another look at some newcomers that have made some noise on the Kentucky Derby trail but are not necessarily mainstream picks. Over the past two weeks, a handful of official Derby preps as well as a sprint and a turf race have been contested, and the results were surprising in some cases, dazzling in others, and enlightening all the way around. Presented in no particular order are the 3-year-olds that showed they have the potential to pull an upset.
Longshot Ive Struck a Nerve did just that when he sprang the upset in the G2 Risen Star Stakes. Sent off at odds of 135-1, under jockey James Graham, the bay colt got up in the final strides to win the race by a scant nose. The 50 points he earned for the win vaulted him to the very top of the Kentucky Derby points leader board, but he will have to win more than just this one to convince critics that he’s the real deal. Trainer Keith Desormeaux credited a change in running style for the win; however, whether they have put together the puzzle or if the win was just a fluke remains to be seen.
2. Proud Strike—(Smart Strike—Colonella, by Pleasant Colony) Steve Asmussen
With veteran Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in the irons, Proud Strike inexplicably found himself on the lead straight out of the gate and pressing the pace from a head back at the half mile call. Whether he was a victim of circumstances or changed tactics, I will not venture to guess, but the end result was the same. His 8th place finish is not as bad as it sounds, though, since the top eight finishers hit the wire with less than four lengths covering them all. I, for one, am willing to give him another shot.
3. Majestic Hussar—(Majestic Warrior—Distorted Blaze, by Distorted Humor) Eddie Kenneally
Speedy Majestic Hussar had the luck of the draw as far as the speed types were concerned in the G2 Fountain of Youth. With the rest of the speed drawn to his outside, the dark bay Majestic Warrior colt was able to go straight to the front. Unfortunately, Majestic Hussar’s speed turned out to be his downfall as he blazed through splits of 23:11, 45:45, and 1.08:85. Unable to sustain that type of pace for the duration of the race, Majestic Hussar dropped back to finish a well beaten fourth. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he took Violence, Cerro, and Sr. Quisqueyano with him; when he tired, so did Cerro and Sr. Quisqueyano, who finished 6th and 7th respectively. Violence was able to hold on for the place while Majestic Hussar managed to snag fourth. With a little rating, this makes me believe Majestic Hussar could go longer. His future is currently undecided. The G1 Florida Derby has not been ruled out, but it is likely that Hussar will go in a sprint stake next.
4. Code West—(Lemon Drop Kid—Charitabledonation, by Saint Ballado) Bob Baffert
Code West proved to be one gutsy colt in the Risen Star. At the break, the Lemon Drop Kid ridgling went with rail-drawn Proud Strike to the front. By the half mile call, Code West had taken the lead only to lose it to Oxbow around the 5/16ths pole. Palace Malice and Mylute then jumped into the fray, getting their heads in front of Code West, but rather than give up, Code West battled back to just miss winning it all by a nose to upset victor Ive Struck A Nerve. With his pedigree oriented more toward stamina, I would expect him to do well with more distance.
5. Rydilluc—(Medaglia d’Oro—Swift and Classy, by Clever Trick) Gary Contessa
Like the Swale, this year’s running of the G3 Palm Beach Stakes was not worth any points towards getting into the Kentucky Derby. I say points, shmoints after watching him handily dispatch the Palm Beach field which included the classy Charming Kitten and Derby hopeful Dewey Square. I had the pleasure of seeing Charming Kitten win the Kitten’s Joy Stakes in person, so I can attest to just how good a colt he is. The final margin of victory does not look impressive, but the colt was beginning to draw away late after seemingly toying with runner-up Bambazonki in the stretch drive. Rydilluc is an interesting addition to this list in that despite his dirt breeding, all three of his career victories have come on the turf. His Palm Beach victory did give his owners Derby fever, and it looks as though they will try to get him to the Derby a la Animal Kingdom style by heading for the G3 Spiral Stakes.
6. West Hills Giant—(Frost Giant—Outtawesthills, by Take Me Out) John Terranova, II
West Hills Giant looked poised to take the G3 Gotham field all the way home. He broke very sharply and was able to quickly get over to the rail and establish the lead. Turning for home, West Hills Giant looked like the clear winner until Vyjack stormed down the middle of the track to not only steal the victory but do so drawing away. Though he was clearly second best, he still put in a good effort and looks as though he is improving. He made his first two starts on turf before switching to the dirt and winning in his first try on the new surface. If you throw out the G3 Pilgrim in which he finished last after coming in off a nine day turnaround, he has finished on the board in all his dirt starts. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
7. Elnaawi—(Street Sense—Pilfer, by Deputy Minister) Kiaran McLaughlin
This dark bay son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense had every excuse to not hit the board in his stakes debut. After breaking well, jockey Channing Hill took hold of the colt who then shied away from West Hills Giant as the runner-up worked his way toward the rail. Hill steadied his mount while getting bumped around which caused Elnaawi to throw his head up and fight his rider. Once Hill was able to calm and collect Elnaawi, he wisely kept him to the outside to avoid more bumping, but the downside was that Elnaawi was parked about 4 wide the entire race. After his less than ideal start, Elnaawi was mentally strong enough to move forward and grab the show. If this colt was able to grab third despite being bumped around and racing a bit greenly, then he has the potential to be very dangerous down the road once he has gotten more experience under his saddle.
8. Gunderman—(Birdstone—Shesanoactor, by Noactor) Mark Casse
Conquest Stables’ Gunderman came back to flatter both Verrazano and Bradester by winning an allowance race at 9 furlongs. On New Year’s Day, Gunderman fell by 1 ¾ lengths to Bradester after gaining the lead around the half mile call. A month later the colt was a well beaten third behind runaway winner Verrazano. Those losses came at 8.5 furlongs and a mile respectively. For his third start of the year, Casse stretched the colt out to a mile and an eighth, and Gunderman came home a winner after showing tenacity down the stretch while wearing down a stubborn Indy’s Illusion. Remember, Gunderman’s sire Birdstone played Triple Crown spoiler to Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes. So far Gunderman has indicated that he likes more distance, so even if he doesn’t make it into the Kentucky Derby field, he would certainly be one to watch out for in the Belmont and later summer and fall races at the classic distances.
9. Undrafted—(Purim—French Jeannette, by French Deputy) Wesley Ward
I want to see Ward stretch this one out. He has now posted three consecutive third place finishes in stakes races. In the Hutcheson, he got nipped at the wire after contesting a hot pace. He stalked a moderate pace in the G2 Swale and was beginning to really get going but ran out of room. By the numbers, he has a perfect mix of speed and stamina (DP = 0-0-10-0-0 and CD = 0.00). He broke his maiden at 4.5 furlongs, but he was able to use his speed to gain the lead and draw away in that affair. Since then, sprints have not appeared to be his forte. The Florida Derby is quickly approaching, and a win or a place could spring this one into the Derby. Owner Wes Welker knows that nothing ventured is nothing gained, so perhaps a start in the Florida Derby isn’t too far out in left field.
Right now it does not appear that Northern Lion, Bradester, Abraham, or My Name is Michael, all also on the previous list, will be in action this weekend. Considering how well My Name is Michael ran at Tampa Bay Downs in the Sam F. Davis, I am quite surprised that he is not verbally under consideration for the Tampa Bay Derby. However, the field is not yet set in stone, so that could be subject to change within the next 24-48 hours.