MIAMI, March 7, 2014--A somewhat depressing reality struck me as I was producing my roster of Kentucky Derby contenders for this weekâ€™s HRI poll. It was a challenge coming up with 10 I believe could win the Run for the Roses.
Finally having accepted that Shared Belief is not going to make the Derby, my list of leading prospects topped out at about six or seven and some of those were a reach. The list grew even slimmer with the revelation Thursday that Bob Baffertâ€™s exciting prospect Bayern has a foot bruise. Itâ€™s late in the game for a setback, especially for a colt with only two races and zero Derby points.
Cairo Prince is a worthy No. 1 but this could change next weekend if Honor Code comes back big in the Rebel. To reiterate a point, I believe in results and Honor Code is one up on Cairo Prince. But we are into March and we still havenâ€™t seen Honor Code, so he is a shaky proposition.
Candy Boy is the Cairo Prince of the West. When he and Shared Belief met in the Cash Call Futurity, Candy Boy made an Arazi-like middle move to the lead but couldnâ€™t sustain it to the wire. Gary Stevens harnessed that turn of foot in the Robert Lewis, waiting until mid-stretch to give Candy Boy his signal. When he did, Candy Boy blew past a pair of Bafferts, Chitu and the heralded Midnight Hawk.
Unfortunately, Candy Boy will stay in the barn Saturday when the San Felipe is run. This was supposed to be the big test for Bayern, who has blown away a couple of fields. Now it doesnâ€™t much matter in the big picture who wins the San Felipe, unless someone freaks.
Tapiture looks genuine off his dominant performance in the Southwest, his first start since a big win in the Kentucky Jockey Club as a stakes-placed maiden.
Strong Mandate also caught the eye closing on Tapiture after an eventful trip in which he might have lost more ground than his margin of defeat. But D. Wayneâ€™s colt has a knack for running into trouble. Nevertheless, a kick like his has to be respected as the distances extend and maybe heâ€™s due some racing luck.
Thatâ€™s about it for genuine contenders from where I sit.
Samraat and Uncle Sigh have put on great shows in the Withers and Gotham but until they beat someone of note other than each other, the name Vyjack keeps ringing in my ears.
A similar situation exists in Florida. Wildcat Red and General a Rod have taken it to each other in the Gulfstream Derby and Fountain of Youth, leaving their opposition behind. But I am absolutely convinced that Wildcat Red has no shot at a mile and a quarter and I have doubts about General a Rod.
This is why I donâ€™t share the enthusiasm for Top Billing that many others do. Sure, he had a tough post in the Fountain of Youth and he was racing against a fierce speed bias. But he really wasnâ€™t making up significant ground late on two horses, who should have been vulnerable.
Because he is in the hands of Shug McGaughey, who remains high on him, I canâ€™t dismiss him. If Surfing USA wins or runs close in the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday, Top Billing gets extra points for the ease with which he dispatched the Todd Pletcher charge in a Gulfstream allowance.
Intense Holiday did more in the Risen Star to expose the Louisiana contingent than to elevate his own status. Prior to his win at the Fair Grounds, he had been dusted repeatedly by a herd of other ranking 3-year-olds in Florida.
To me, the others are all Mine That Bird. If they win, Iâ€™ll just shake my head and start thinking about the Preakness.
Breeding on hold to racing's benefit
The marquee races for older horses this weekend are illustrative of how much more interesting the sport would be if talented 3-year-olds didnâ€™t go to the breeding shed after their Triple Crown season. Injuries are part of the game but more burgeoning stars are sent to stud as a matter of choice than necessity and racing is poorer for it.
Fans on both coasts are looking forward to the Santa Anita Handicap, a rematch of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic duel between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge.
Mucho Macho Man was third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. This would have been enough for some outfits to send him to the breeding shed. Kudos to Reeves Racing, which kept him on the track not only for his 4-year-old season, culminated by the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic, but now into his *6-year-old year.
Late developing Will Take Charge had a poor Triple Crown season but by the fall he had thrust himself into the Eclipse picture in two divisions with wins in the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark. Those were enough for the 3-year-old championship and if the BC Classic was one jump longer, he might have stolen Horse of the Year from Wise Dan.
Again, this was more than enough to earn a life of making love. But his part owner, Willis Horton, loves to see his horses run, so he is back for a 4-year-old campaign and his rivalry with MMM has generated enough buzz that Fox Sports 1 has added the Big Cap to its Jockey Club Tour agenda. There is no chance this would have happened if the Big Cap was headed by Blingo, Rousing Sermon and a suddenly off form Game on Dude.
Saturdayâ€™s Gulfstream Handicap has taken on unexpected luster of its own, all of it attributable to leading 3-year-olds of last season coming back as older horses. Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice is the big name. Unlike some other one-hit wonders, who have won the demanding mile-and-a-half, Palace Malice dressed up his resume by adding the Jim Dandy and running second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is more than enough to get many horses retired.
Palace Malice might not even be favored given the local popularity and achievements of Itsmyluckyday. Last year at this time, he was one of the top Derby prospects off victories in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull and a second to subsequent Kentucky Derby hero Orb in the Florida Derby.
The Run for the Roses was a debacle for both. But Itsmyluckyday bounced back two weeks later with a second to Oxbow in the Preakness. His career was put into jeopardy when he was pulled up with a pelvis fracture in Monmouthâ€™s Pegasus. But Eddie Plesa nursed him back to health and he has been working this winter as if he will have something to say about the older horse division.
Not to be dismissed is the vastly improved Falling Sky. Winner of the Sam F. Davis as a 3-year-old, he has come into his own this winter. He extended Revolutionary (also back this season after running third in Louisville last May) to the limit before giving way by a half-length in a one-mile allowance then rebounded with a stakes record win in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.
Normandy Invasion, second in the 2013 Wood and fourth in the Derby, launched his 4-year-old campaign recently with a track-record performance in a one-mile allowance. The Gulfstream Handicap came up too quickly for him but he also figures to be prominent in the handicap division.
I canâ€™t remember a year when so many former top 3-year-olds returned. Letâ€™s hope itâ€™s the start of a trend.
*correction made 030814 at 1:36 p.m.