Presidential primary season and the Kentucky Derby trail have something in common. It isn’t crucial for a White House hopeful to win every primary nor a horse to capture every Derby prep to stay in the running. However to continue to be taken seriously, you must avoid a bombing out along the way.
I would add my own caveat. Since the last eight horses to flash under the finish line first at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May have been undefeated as a 3YO, it is important to win, IMO. But Derbies have been taken by horses, who didn’t run the table during prep season. Ergo, solid if not winning performances cannot be ignored.
The winnowing of Derby hopefuls has been proceeding slowly in recent years as conservative training practices have come into vogue. This is particularly true this season. Storm the Court is the Eclipse Juvenile champion but is anyone outside the Peter Eurton barn going all in on him as the Derby horse to beat?
You would think three significant preps on Saturday would provide some clarity to this year’s pecking order. But this probably won’t be the case. Three of the most highly regarded horses—Maxfield, Dennis’s Moment and Independence Hall, to say nothing of Storm the Court–won’t be in action.
Dennis’s Moment isn’t scheduled to make his sophomore debut for another month, on Feb. 29 in the Fountain of Youth. He’ll almost certainly have only one other pre-Louisville prep.
Maxfield, who scratched out of what might have been the favorite’s role in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, returned to training only this week. He’s very iffy to even make the Derby.
Independence Hall is expected to head the field for the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay next weekend.
Storm the Court might resurface next weekend at Santa Anita in the San Vicente, a seven-furlong sprint. This is what some call “old school,” a progression of seven furlongs to a mile-plus to the big spring events.
Speaking of this, Jimmy Jerkens, son of old school master H. Allen Jerkens, is taking the same route with Green Light Go, winner of last summer’s Saratoga Special and second in the Champagne. Instead of the Holy Bull, where he would have had a rematch with Tiz the Law, Jerkens is sending him out for his season debut in the seven-furlong Swale.
This used to be a major stepping stone to the Triple Crown. However, in recent years it has become just another sprint stake. Green Light Go could become a throwback to days or yore. Jerkens has made it clear that the Swale is merely a first step on the road to longer more prestigious races.
As things have turned out, the Swale might be a tougher spot than the Holy Bull. Green Light Go has to contend with Untitled, who popped eyeballs winning his debut by 11; Shivaree, who’s going for his fourth straight; Necker Island, comes in off back-to-back wins in Kentucky, and Mischevious Alex, winner of the Parx Juvenile by almost 10 lengths.
Once you get past Tiz the Law, whose 3-5 morning line says all that needs to be said about the quality of the field, there isn’t much, at least at this point. The only challenger with any stakes credentials is Relentless Dancer, who won a Louisiana-bred event over the Delta Downs bullring.
Those shopping for a price will be doing so more on the basis of trainers than horses. Saffie Joseph, who is hotter than Pat Mahomes, has three-for-three Uncork the Bottle, a former $16,000 maiden claimer, who has beaten absolutely nothing. But weren’t we saying that about Maximum Security last winter?
It should not be overlooked that Joseph took another $16,000 claimer, Math Wizard, who was third in Maximum Security’s maiden breaker, and made him a Grade 1 winner in the Pennsylvania Derby. Joseph has already won five stakes at Gulfstream’s premier meeting.
Chad Brown, who doesn’t push his young horses, is sending out Toledo, who has a win and two places. One of the seconds was behind Ete Indian, who has wins on turf and dirt for Patrick Biancone. Kenny McPeek, who saddled Harvey Wallbanger to a 25-1 upset in last year’s Holy Bull, is bidding for an encore with another cleverly named colt, Mayberry Deputy.
But it’s Tiz the Law’s race to lose.
Baffert vs. Baffert
As is usually the case in 3YO stakes out West, a short field comes down to do you take the more highly touted Bob Baffert colt or “the other Baffert.” The six-horse Robert B. Lewis is another example.
Thousand Words is two-for-two after a gutsy score in the Los Alamitos Futurity, holding off Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runnerup Anneau d’Or after being headed in mid-stretch. He gets blinkers Saturday. I remember when you couldn’t change equipment off a win, let alone two wins.
Stablemate High Velocity, coming off a sprint stakes win in the Bob Hope, was third in the Los Al Futurity after pushing Thousand Words into deep stretch.
Even if these two come up wanting, Baffert has about a half-dozen more sophomores waiting to make their mark.
NY state of mind
Saturday’s other stakes, the Withers at Aqueduct, is unlikely to produce a major Derby contender. When was the last time a mid-winter New York stakes has?
But it is a good betting race mainly because horses are coming together off solid performances all over the Mid Atlantic and Northeast. Also, the likely favorite, Shotski, is vulnerable. When he won the Remsen, he had things his own way on the front end. The Withers is loaded with sprint winners stretching out.
Portos is another who will take a lot of money because he’s from the Todd Pletcher barn and was an easy maiden winner. But it took four starts for him to find the winner’s circle and if he really has star quality he would be at Palm Meadows not in Queens.
You could do worse than Vanzzy, who was second after a troubled trip in the Parx Juvenile then went up to Canada to win the Display. The key for Junior Alvarado is to avoid getting him into the projected scrimmage on the front end.