Time is ticking down to the first Saturday in May (41 days!!) and opportunities to qualify point-wise are getting fewer. Last weekend was the last of the 50-point qualifiers with the running of the Rebel Stakes (1 1/16 miles) at Oaklawn and yesterday featured the first two 100-point races in the UAE Derby at Meydan and the Louisiana Derby at the Fairgrounds.
Last weekend at the Rebel, Bob Baffert sent Tapit colt, Cupid to take a shot at qualifying points. He delivered, going to the lead from the beginning and never relinquishing it. It was an impressive effort for his first stakes run and fourth lifetime start. He was followed to the wire by Whitmore (who was also second in the Southwest Stakes), Creator, and Cherry Wine. Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews finished fourth and was making his big closing kick. This time though, it appeared to me he was a bit farther back when he started closing and maybe a tick or two slower in the effort than he was making the same move in the Southwest. The Rebel muddied the water more than clarified it, and I hope and expect to see most of these colts one more time in the Arkansas Derby to get a better feel for who they really are and what their chances for Louisville may truly be.
At Meydan, on the Dubai World Cup undercard, the UAE Derby (1 3/16 miles) was run and the winner was a Kentucky-bred colt, representing Japan–Lani. Although I think in the end the field he defeated wasn’t that much, Lani made a good account of himself in that when the gates opened, he stumbled out and his nose missed the ground by inches. Needless to say at that point he was dead last. But he made constant progress through the race under the steady hands of Japan’s master jockey Yutaka Take and in a determined run, overtook the field in the closing strides to win by about a half length. Immediately following the race his connections said they’d be coming for the Kentucky Derby as Lani picked up 100 points in the process.
UAE Derby winners have yet to make a significant dent in the Derby and none have won it and in all honesty, I don’t expect Lani to either. However, I will likely place a wager on him for one reason–his stellar pedigree: Tapit x Heavenly Romance (a Sunday Silence mare and winner of a major Japanese stakes–the Tenno Sho). Some of you know that Sunday Silence, 1989’s Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner as well as Horse of the Year is one of my all-time favorite horses. He had an unrivaled will on and off the track. His offspring have been highly successful in Japan where he became a revered sire. With that pedigree Lani should be able to get the Derby distance handily. Everyone underestimated Sunday Silence; perhaps it would take a grandson to break through out of the UAE Derby.
Finally, the Louisiana Derby (1 1/8 miles) was run at the Fairgrounds and Risen Star Stakes winner Gun Runner delivered again. He’s just a steady, professional colt; nothing flashy, he just gets the job done. And I’m starting to believe he’s the colt that just might be completely overlooked (at your own risk) come May 7. A son of Candy Ride out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, a mile and a quarter should be comfortably in Gun Runner’s range.
If I were the connections of Mo Tom I would be ready to pull my hair out. He finished fourth in the Louisiana Derby, so he should be becoming a Derby afterthought right? Wrong! If only you’d seen the trip he had yesterday you’d see why I was screaming “NOT AGAIN!!!” at the TV. Mo Tom was starting to close when he got stopped/ squeezed (AGAIN) along the rail not once but twice as he did in the Risen Star. Yet and still it didn’t stop him heart-wise; he kept after it and he kept trying even though all chance of winning was gone. I can only imagine what he might do if he EVER had a clean trip…and should he get to the Derby (not outside the realm of possibility as at the end of the day he sat 11th with 32 points) he probably won’t have a clean trip there either, but at least we’ll know that the bumping and bruising that each Derby brings won’t cause him to quit. In a clean trip he just might win! I doubt he’ll run again between now and the Kentucky Derby so it might get tight for him to make the gate.
Now for coming attractions–there really is only one and that’s April 2nd’s Florida Derby and the East meets West (hopefully first of many) matchup between undefeated colts Mohaymen and Nyquist. Before I say more, if you can find a way to see this race I highly recommend you do (right now I think it’s only scheduled to be aired on TVG, although NBC or NBC SportsNet might just pick it up; check your local listings). The reason why I think this could be better than if they meet again in a month for the Derby–the Florida Derby will be a smaller field and will, I believe, produce a cleaner, truer race between the two than when they would hook up again with 18 of their likely lesser companion colts! The downside to this race is should it come down to a duel between the two will their effort take too much out of them to recover for a peak performance when it really matters in Louisville?
I’ve watched both colts’ preparations and they have been equally impressive and at this moment they are clearly better than all the other colts in contention for the Derby. I can hardly wait and would be thrilled and delighted if this becomes an Affirmed-Alydar or Sunday Silence-Easy Goer-caliber rivalry. Cannot wait for Saturday!!
Last, but far from least, MANY props to California Chrome, Victor Espinoza, and Art Sherman. California Chrome is now North America’s leading earning racehorse with his spectacular win yesterday in the world’s richest race ($10 million: $6 million to the winner!), the Dubai World Cup at Meydan. California Chrome broke well from the 11 hole, sat in third about four wide through most of the race and coming out of the turn for home started his separation which was clear and dramatic to win by four to five lengths over last year’s UAE Derby winner and Triple Crown contender Mubtaahij, and the ever steady Hoppertunity in third. Making Chrome’s effort that much more dramatic is the fact that with every stride forward he was making to the wire, jockey Espinoza was moving farther back! The saddle was slipping as the pair closed to the wire and Espinoza was close to being over California Chrome’s hips as he crossed the wire. It’s a huge credit to both horse and rider that both appeared unfazed (although not unaware) by the potentially catastrophic change in riding position. As soon as Victor was able to get Chrome pulled up, he dismounted to make a much-needed adjustment for the ride back to the winner’s circle! In my opinion, it was California Chrome’s best performance as a racehorse. Once he returns stateside he’s going to get a rest at his future home at Taylor Made Farm and then will return to training with a final goal of another run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic before his retirement at the end of 2016.
Starting next week, there is A LOT of great horse racing ahead!