A Handful Of Contenders
ONLY A HANDFUL OF TRUE DERBY CONTENDERS
After watching and reviewing all the prep races for this year's Kentucky Derby, including several in person, I am convinced that there are only a handful of horses who can possibly win this year's race.
Right now, I list only three: UNCLE MO, PREMIER PEGASUS and DIALED IN, plus two tiers of 21 more who are still in the game, but will either join the top trio, or completely fall out of the picture based on their performances in the Florida Derby on Saturday, the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby AND and Illinois Derby next Saturday and the Arkansas Derby on April 16.
Notice I did not mention the $750,000 Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland on April 16. That is because the race will be run on Polytrack. Just as the $500,000 Spiral stakes at Turfway was run on a similar synthetic surface last Saturday, the Blue grass is essentially irrelevant for analyzing the relative abilities of the horses who run in those races. (It is only relevant from a conditioning standpoint.)
Also, beyond the top few, I believe there are at least 15 more horses, who can play major roles in the Derby outcome as well as vie for exotic wagering positions down to fifth place. Some of them, including Spiral winner ANIMAL KINGDOM could move up into the top echelon. After all, this versatile, stretch running son of turf star Leroidesanimeaux has shown talent rallying strongly on synthetics and turf and he looked in peak health on Saturday.
Should Animal Kingdom train strongly on dirt at Churchill Downs next month, owner Barry Irwin (Team Valor) will put him in the Derby on merit.
Here then is my current list, divided into three different groups, with salient comments.
1: UNCLE MO. . .Has run like a superstar in all career starts and his 2011 debut in a propped up, nearly phony Timely Writer ‘stakes' was a smooth performance that included a strong final quarter mile in 22.8 seconds, a clocking only produced in public workouts or races by the very best of horses. He is expected to be ready to move up a notch in performance next week in the Wood Memorial.
2: PREMIER PEGASUS. . .Ran well for third in THE FACTOR's 7 furlong San Vicente, Feb. 20, then exploded with a strong wide rally to win the 1-1/16 mile San Felipe stakes by 7 lengths on Mar. 12. This colt's development parallels the late blooming maturation of a horse from the past—PLEASANT COLONY—winner of the Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby for trainer Johnny Campo in 1981. We should see more of the same in the Santa anita Derby on Apr. 9.
3: DIALED IN. . .Lightly raced deep closer who needs a contested pace, might not get that scenario in the Florida Derby on Saturday, but all he needs is to stay in good shape and he will almost assuredly get a fast, contested pace in the 10 furlong Kentucky Derby. It is in fact extremely rare when the Derby does not have a fast, contested pace.
I list seven horses as eligible to move into the top echelon, based on how they perform in the next round of preps and/or, or in Churchill Downs workouts:
TO HONOR AND SERVE, THE FACTOR, SOLDAT, MUCHO MACHO MAN, SWAY AWAY, JAYCITO and ANIMAL KINGDOM.
The third group includes marginal contenders who may be worth a look in various exotics pools:
PANTS ON FIRE, NEHRO, ARCHARCHARCH, ELITE ALEX, DECISIVE MOMENT, CRIMSON CHINA, TWICE THE APPEAL, ASTROLOGY, FLASHPOINT, SILVER MEDALLION, CALEB'S POSSE, STAY THIRSTY, SANTIVA and MASTER OF HOUNDS.
The second tier starts with my fourth ranked Derby contender:
4: TO HONOR AND SERVE. . .Winner of two Graded stakes at one mile and 1-1/8 miles in NY last fall, must show vast improvement over his weak seasonal debut in Saturday's Florida Derby.
5: THE FACTOR. . .Proved he could carry his vaunted speed 1-1/16 miles on a speed favoring Oaklawn Park racing surface and probably will go back there for 1-1/8 mile Arkansas Derby, Certainly a very fast horse, but is likely to encounter more early speed in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby.
6: SOLDAT. . .Won strongly with an easy lead in the 1-1/8 mile Fountain of Youth and might get the same pace edge in the Florida Derby at same distance on same track. Should he go to Kentucky, will be a major pace factor, perhaps doomed to duel with The Factor.
7: MUCHO MACHO MAN has proven to be a natural router, albeit a cut below the very best in the division. Was gritty third to PANTS ON FIRE in the Louisiana Derby on Saturday after throwing a horse shoe leaving the gate.
8: SWAY AWAY. . .Deep closer had no chance catching The Factor on the speed favoring Oaklawn oval. Was far back early and very wide while finishing sixth with strong gallop out. Any improivement in the Arkansas Derby and he will be on my list to use in exotics on Derby Day.
9: JAYCITO. . .Has been a winter project for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and his fair second place finish to PREMIER PEGASUS in the San Felipe was a respectable start. Gets one more chance to show he belongs
10: ANIMAL KINGDOM. . Looked like a good horse sweeping around the field to win the Spiral as noted above. . .Must train exceptionally well on the dirt at Churchill to be taken seriously and we will have www.GradeOneRacing.com's chief clocker, Bruno DeJulio on hand at Keeneland and Churchill beginning Apr. 1 to give his excellent workout analysis, so stay tuned..
The third tier runs 14 horses deep and starts with my 12th ranked Derby contender, Pants On Fire:
11: PANTS ON FIRE. . .Won the Louisiana Derby with an improved performance that was signaled by the workout reports we received from our Florida clocker, Perry Gastis. Not convinced he is close to the ability of UNCLE MO, etc. But is one of many on this third tier list who will deserve an exotics look on Derby Day.
12: NEHRO. . .Continued his development with a very sharp second to PANTS ON FIRE. One of three possible Derby starters for trainer Steve Asmussen.
13: SILVER MEDALLION. . .Asmussen trainee won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields in a style that suggests he could move up many steps on this list if he runs strongly in the Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 9.
14: ARCHARCHARCH. . .Fair performances so far in Arkansas, a fringe contender.
15: ELITE ALEX. . .Was no real factor in the Louisiana Derby, but did show flashes in allowance races at Oaklawn.
16: DECISIVE MOMENT. . .Was OK in a pair of rich Derby preps to date, but must improve several lengths to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby.
17: CRIMSON CHINA. . .Stablemate to ANIMAL KINGDOM, won the ungraded Rushaway as if he has a future. Likely to go in the Blue Grass to get the earnings he needs to make the race, but even if he wins, we only will be able to effectively judge his level of fitness.
18: TWICE THE APPEAL. . Was my key longshot to watch (in my comments before a large crowd Saturday night at the Sunland Park Charity Dinner and then again in my handicapping seminar at Sunland on Sunday morning) and then he promptly rallied to win the $800,000 race at a $50 mutuel while I only used him on exotic tickets that did not connect! My bad. Seems to be a natural stretch runner who would benefit from a fast, contested pace.
19: ASTROLOGY. . .The third Asmussen prospect, finished a good second to TWICE THE APPEAL in the Sunland Derby and that was the first start for this horse since two good performances at Churchill last fall. Still, is being rushed a bit to make the Derby and may skip it in favor of the Lexington (at Keeneland Apr. 23) or the one mile Derby Trial, at Churchill, Apr. 30) as possible prep choices for a Preakness run.
20: FLASHPOINT. . .Very speedy sprinter whose connections say they want to try him long--before too long. Definitely would contribute to a pace meltdown if they win the 7-furlong Swale this Saturday and go on to Louisville. Personally, I would point him for the Met Mile against older horses at Belmont Park.
21: CALEB'S POSSE. . Rallying second in a pair of Oaklawn stakes to date suggest potential exotics material. .
22: STAY THIRSTY. . Second stringer in Uncle Mo's stable, won the Gotham at Aqueduct, but will have to improve a lot in the Florida Derby to remain on this list.
23: SANTIVA. . .Went well for second in the Risen Star behind Mucho Macho Man on Feb. 19, but skipped the Louisiana Derby and will probably go in the Blue Grass Stakes on the synthetic surface. I think that is a bad move, but if the horse looks strong, win or lose he will belong in the Derby field.
24: MASTER OF HOUNDS. . Finished well enough in the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai on Saturday for trainer Aidan O'Brien to seriously consider sending him to Louisville.
At the bottom line, we are only five weeks away from the 137TH Run for the Roses and if Uncle Mo retains or improves upon his exposed form, the list of serious potential winners will be very limited. The same can be said for Dialed In and/or Premier Pegasus. Should all three run below expectations in their next prep races, than we will be looking at another wild and woolly rodeo on the First Saturday in May.
by Steve Davidowitz
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