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!



New Players

We had two Kentucky Derby prep races this past weekend.  Here’s what happened.

The Tampa Bay Derby was run at 1 1/16th miles at Tampa Bay Downs and it proved to be a bit of a replay of the Sam F. Davis Stakes run there last month.  Once again Destin prevailed in track record time.  He’s a horse that appears consistent and professional and must be considered as the Derby path narrows.  Actually, the horse that impressed me in the race was second-place finisher Outwork.  He indeed lived up to the name, doing all the heavy lifting, leading the race from the early stages until the final few strides.  I think there’s still room for improvement from this colt by Uncle Mo (who is a red-hot sire right now, exceeding early expectations so far in his young stallion career); this was just his third start.

The biggest surprise in the Tampa Bay Derby likely was the performance or lack of same from Brody’s Cause.  Brody’s Cause was making his first start as a three year old off of a pretty successful two-year-old season.  With that in mind, it would’t have been surprising if he didn’t win, but was at least competitive. Saturday he wasn’t even competitive.  He sat well last through most of the race and ended up crossing the wire seventh of nine runners…Ugh!  So far I haven’t heard any compelling excuse for this stumble and this miss puts him well behind in terms of points and progress you want to see with the Derby now less than two months off (54 days today).  It will be interesting to see where he runs next or if he stays on the Derby trail.

On the West Coast the San Felipe Stakes was run at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita Park.  The winner, in a bit of an upset, was Danzing Candy, a colt on the improve and making his fourth start. Danzing Candy led gate to wire and although a few colts chased late, no one made a dent in his lead. Mor Spirit (BTW, Mor is Danish for “mom”) was second.  He was closing, but really didn’t appear to have the turn of foot to run Danzing Candy down.  Exaggerator finished third.  He too made a crack at Danzing Candy, but flattened to third. Exaggerator’s effort shows me, at least, that a mile and a quarter likely “ain’t gonna be his thing.” I had had high hopes for him, but he’s pretty much become a pass for me if he makes it to the Kentucky Derby.

Danzing Candy is a son of Twirling Candy, a horse that I thought had unlimited talent when he was running, but in my opinion didn’t always display it as much as expected. Twirling Candy in turn is a son of Candy Ride who was a shooting star on the track and quite capable of a mile and a quarter, delivering one of the best performances by a horse in his Pacific Classic win of 2003.  His dam is by Songandaprayer who was a bit more accomplished at shorter distances.  Danzing Candy appears to be a potential mix of speed and stamina.  I’d suspect we’d see him next in the Santa Anita Derby and we’ll see if he’s up to added distance.

So at this juncture, I add Danzing Candy, Outwork, and Destin to the watch list (in order of preference), especially since all are likely to have a final prep race before Louisville and am dropping Exaggerator. Brody’s Cause was never one I was following and his performance Saturday gave me no reason to start now.

Nothing to See Here

I’m going to put myself out on a bit of a limb here and say that the winner of the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby will not be one of the top four finishers of yesterday’s Gotham Stakes (1 1/16) at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Believe me, this is in no way to disparage any of those horses.  There’s nothing on this earth that I love more than the Thoroughbred racehorse. Each one, regardless of ability or pedigree gives his or her all every time they run a race.  And in all honestly, I believe these four horses have talent, but I think at this stage of their development I see far more longterm potential than soon ready to run in the Kentucky Derby winning ability.

So here it is. Highly regarded, but (too) lightly-raced Shagaf won the Gotham Stakes and in the process picked up 50 points which will put him in the gate May 7 should his connections choose to run him.  He was followed by Laoban in second, Adventist in third, and Withers Stakes winner Sunny Ridge in fourth.  For a moment, it looked like longshot Laoban might hang on and pull the upset as he led throughout most of the race until Shagaf closed on him to get to the wire first in the final few strides.  Adventist, too, closed ground late, but not enough and settled for third.  Sunny Ridge was the colt who first made a run at Laoban, but about a length off that colt’s flank, Sunny Ridge began running in place really neither advancing or retreating as Shagaf and Adventist passed him by.

Shagaf made a steady grinding move to the lead.  Adventist continues to run greenly, albeit with less traffic and other troubles that he encountered/developed in his third place run in the Withers. What I see as the issue going forward to possibly a Derby run for both is their “greenness” or lack of racing experience. For both these horses, the Gotham Stakes was only their third lifetime race and it showed.  While it’s impressive on some level that they are making their stakes race debuts in graded stakes and having some level of success (Adventist actually tried graded stakes company in his second start in the Withers) moving on wth this light resume can be a very tall order.  Both colts have run respectably, but if you look at their efforts you can’t help but think that another two or three races would help them in terms of experience, conditioning, and handling themselves and the competition.

This is especially true of Adventist.  In the Withers Stakes I counted at least six instances where he encountered trouble during the course of the race–running wide, headstrong, and bumping and brushing other horses weaving in the lane.  Yesterday, there was far less of that, but still more than you want to see in a horse aiming for the Derby.  If you watch his body language, it’s like he’s not quite sure what he wants or should do.  And with only three races to his credit that’s likely true.  Further, I don’t see that he really wants to or recognizes that he can/should pass other horses. Yet and still the potential’s there as despite it all he has two graded stakes third place finishes to his credit.  Shagaf ran a more professional race, but didn’t really do anything memorable to get the win.  Laoban displayed a great deal of heart and class, but couldn’t close the deal and in the process didn’t show me that he’s a horse desiring a mile and a quarter. Sunny Ridge appeared to have no real excuse; he just didn’t go on with it and as a result got beat.  I don’t see him thriving at the Derby distance either. Overall, it just wasn’t an inspiring race.

That being said, things are far from said and done for any of the top four finishers.  Barring injury or a change of heart by their connections in going on in pursuit of a Derby start, I’d expect to see all four return for a final prep race in the April 9 Wood Memorial (1 1/8 miles).  It will offer the points, with a win, to assure a spot in the Derby gate for the Gotham’s second through fourth place finishers. It’ll also provide another dose of seasoning, and with an extra half furlong in distance to be run, another or better chance to assess these colts’ chances of running a mile and a quarter successfully.

Clearly, the best three-year-old horse running a mile and a sixteenth yesterday was NOT in the Gotham, but on the other side of the country at Santa Anita Park where filly Songbird sauntered to another easy win in the Santa Ysabel Stakes.  For whatever reason Jade Princess and Not Now Carolyn attempted to engage Songbird early and shortly out of the gate.  Big mistake.  Between a half and three quarters of a mile into the race, without being asked, Songbird began to separate herself from them and the remainder of the field.  Eventual second place finisher Land Over Sea made a gallant run at Songbird in the lane, but to no avail. Jade Princess finished fourth and Not Now Carolyn ninth and last for their troubles. Songbird should return to action April 9 as well in the Santa Anita Oaks, her last stop prior to a targeted start in the Kentucky Oaks, May 6.

Kentucky Derby 142 is now 62 days away!


Fountain of Youth

It was actually the Display of Maturity.  Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park was just another practice round for winner and still undefeated Mohaymen.

Going in the gate there were three undefeated colts–Mohaymen, Zulu, and Awesome Banner, but the latter two couldn’t keep pace with Mohaymen.  Awesome Banner is a speedy colt and was in contention early, but he couldn’t extend that speed through the 1 1/16th-mile race; he faded to next to last at the wire.  Zulu gave it a noble try, but John Velazquez was already scrubbing and whipping as the horses came out of the turn for home to get him to the wire first.  In the meantime, Mohaymen was closing from just off the pace in cruise control with rider Junior Alvarado simply flagging his whip in a hand ride that ended up with him wrapping up the grey colt in the strides before the wire.

The race couldn’t have set up more perfectly for Mohaymen: race conditions, an undisturbed run to the wire, and not much need to expend a great deal of effort and energy to get the win.  And he picked up 50 prep race points to place him at the top of the list of contenders for the Kentucky Derby.  No muss, no fuss.  Best of all, post race, Alvarado said he feels Mohaymen is improving and getting stronger with each race.  On Sunday morning, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin indicated he came out of the race A-OK health wise.

So now it’s on to April 2, and an apparent early showdown with also undefeated West Coast representative Nyquist in the Florida Derby.  It will be the last prep for both colts and a very interesting and entertaining race.

This Saturday, prep action returns to Aqueduct for the Gotham Stakes.  The leading contender is Sunny Ridge, winner of the Withers Stakes also run at Aqueduct January 30.

Another exciting rivalry is also shaping up amongst the three year olds, but on the distaff side.  Songbird, Two-Year-Old and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly champion remains undefeated this year and now has potential competition from also undefeated Cathryn Sophia, winner in a romp, in Saturday’s Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park.  I have them rated 1 and 1a on my list and if everything continues to go well, they will finally meet on the Friday before the Derby in the Kentucky Oaks.  Right now, that’s the race I am most looking forward to in the next few months.  Lots of three-year-old fun ahead!!