Prep races for the Kentucky Derby are now about once a week. Here’s a summary of races that have been run so far this month during which some new horses have emerged and others have faltered.
The Robert Lewis Stakes was run February 6 at Santa Anita Racetrack at a mile and a sixteenth. Mor Spirit ran an impressive race in his win. He sat off the pace most of the race and then readily passed the eventual second and third place finishers that had run one-two through the race until the wire. Mor Spirit is a son of Eskendereya, who was a Derby favorite in 2010 prior to an injury that prevented him from having a shot at the Roses. Interestingly, Mor Spirit also shares his broodmare sire–Dixie Union–with Mohaymen.
Just a little over a week later (February 15) Two-Year-Old Champion Colt Nyquist and Exaggerator made their 2016 debut, also at Santa Anita in the San Vicente Stakes. This race was run at 7 furlongs and offered no points to get in the Derby starting gate. Nyquist took the heat as a co-leader in the early stages of the race and finished the job with a win. Exaggerator, who had sat a bit off the leaders made a closing move, but really wasn’t making much of a dent in Nyquist’s lead. It didn’t appear that added distance would have made a change in the finish. Still, Exaggerator will catch a break should he continue to prepare on the West Coast as Nyquist’s next start will take him east for the April 2 Florida Derby. Nyquist is eligible for a million dollar bonus should he win the Florida Derby in an incentive he is eligible for having come through the Fasig-Tipton Select Sale. His connections have opted to go for it, bypassing the Santa Anita Derby and it will likely set up an earlier that expected matchup with Mohaymen.
Later on the same day, the Southwest Stakes was run at Oaklawn Park (1 1/16 miles) and proved to be a highly entertaining, fun race to watch. Suddenbreakingnews sat dead last through about two thirds of the Southwest, when just after straightening for home he launched a crazy sustained run to the wire where he passed all the competitors for the win. What made this even more impressive is he wasn’t just passing tiring horses. Mike Smith had come in from California to ride Whitmore, and he had that colt moving on his own hard closing run. And it looked like he’d win until Suddenbreakingnews passed him by.
Suddenbreakingnews is intriguing. He already had several wins to his credit, but it’s his pedigree that makes me a follower for now. He’s by Mineshaft out of an Afleet Alex mare. Mineshaft is a son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy and is himself the 2003 Horse of the Year. Afleet Alex was the 2005 winner of the Preakness and Belmont stakes as well as Three-Year-Old Champion Colt. This is a colt who should enjoy and handle longer distances.
This past Saturday, a 50-point Derby prep, the Risen Star Stakes was run at Fairgrounds Racecourse in Louisiana. Gunrunner was the winner and gave a workmanlike performance. The real story in this race was two horses that didn’t win–Mo Tom and Airoforce. Mo Tom had already won the LeComte Stakes at Fairgrounds in January. He was running what could have been a winning race Saturday until he got stifled by a tiring colt midway in the stretch. It did break his closing momentum, but he was game and regrouped, closing really well to snag third place. Meanwhile, Airoforce, well thought of by many, was making his season debut and first start on a dry dirt track. It was a dismal performance; he finished 10th, beat by 39+ lengths and at no point was he a factor in the race. Fortunately, he came out of the Risen Star safe and sound; his connections have (wisely) opted to take him out of Derby consideration. Prior to the Risen Star, Airoforce had three wins from four races, two on the turf and one on a wet Churchill Downs main strip. Many turf runners will handle a sloppy dirt track, but a fast one can present an entirely different challenge and it appears it was one Airoforce wasn’t up for.
This coming Saturday, February 27 will be the running of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (1 1/16 miles) at Gulfstream Park and will see my favorite (as well as many others’) Mohaymen, take his next step towards Louisville. Hopefully, he comes out not only victorious, but safe and sound and ready to meet Nyquist in the Florida Derby. Not only would this be a match of both coasts’ best colts at this stage, but possibly two undefeated colts as well.
So for me at this stage, I’m watching and favoring Mohaymen, Mor Spirit, Suddenbreakingnews, and Exaggerator (although I’m not sure the latter has much upside/room to move forward left). Nyquist and Mo Tom are quality colts, but have yet to really excite me. We shall see!