By Gary West — It was an eventful week, proving the road to the Derby has some sharp, sometimes unexpected, turns as well as some equally unexpected bumps. Dennis’ Moment dropped like a dubious coin in the Fountain of Youth, and so he drops just as precipitately in the top 20, from first to 17th.
As much as anything, his situation suggests that the fashionable road du jour to Kentucky, which uses only two preparatory races, can be dangerous, even treacherous, because it allows for no flexibility. Nothing can go wrong if the journey is going to lead happily to the desired destination. But obviously something went wrong for Dennis’ Moment — what isn’t clear — and so now his path to Kentucky looks difficult.
Mr. Monomoy, a Risen Star winner, leaves the cavalcade with what’s described as a minor ankle injury; Ete Indien, the sensational Fountain of Youth winner, joins the top 20 at No. 8. Yes, he could be higher, but his pedigree doesn’t scream classic distances, and Gulfstream always smiles on such speedy types; so for the moment he sits at No. 8. Charlatan, the latest lightning bolt to emanate from the Bob Baffert barn, also moves into the top 20 from the also-eligibles.
Yes, the road to the Derby is actually many roads, all of them converging on Louisville and May 2. In the coming weeks, the traffic on the various roads will become more contentious — and significant, starting with today’s Tampa Bay Derby, San Felipe and Gotham.
No. Horse (Trainer) Starts-Wins-Seconds-Thirds Earnings Sire
1. Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) 4-3-0-1 $498,900 Constitution
Comment: Tiz the Law clearly leads the parade. He set a high standard in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, where he defeated Ete Indien by three lengths in a fast clocking. And, of course, Ete Indien returned to romp in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth, further flattering the parade-leader. He worked an easy half-mile Monday at Palm Meadows in 50 seconds, with a strong and extended gallop-out, in preparation for the Florida Derby on March 28. Ideally, in that race he’ll duplicate, or even build upon, his Holy Bull performance; of more importance, another solid effort will put him in perfect position to take another step forward in Kentucky.
2. Nadal (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $153,000 Blame
Comment: Nadal prepared for his upcoming two-turn debut by working seven-eighths of a mile Monday at Santa Anita in 1:25.20. He worked in company with a 4-year-old named Dark Prince, who hasn’t raced since his maiden victory 16 months ago. Leaving the five-eighths pole, Nadal spotted his older stablemate 1 1/2 lengths, quickly dropped two or even three lengths back while firmly restrained, rallied outside in the turn and through the lane while not being asked for much until about the sixteenth pole. Nadal hit the wire with an advantage of two lengths but was kept to his task around the turn, the rider not rising until they hit the three-quarter pole. Dark Prince was given 59.80 seconds for the five-eighths. A powerfully built colt, Nadal looks like a sprinter; but the impression here is that he’ll have no problem stretching out March 14 to the 1 1/16 miles of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
3. Thousand Words (Bob Baffert) 3-3-0-0 $211,000 Pioneerof The Nile
Comment: Thousand Words worked five-eighths of a mile Monday at Santa Anita in 59.80 seconds in preparation for Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes. He tends to do only what’s necessary or what’s asked and never has been a flashy worker, but to this observer this looked like one of his better moves. He broke off about a length behind Dr. Dorr, a 7-year-old stakes winner of more than a half-million dollars, and with a much-bigger-than-a-jockey exercise rider offering little encouragement he caught his target on the turn while racing in the four path. Thousand Words then drew clear, finishing about two lengths in front. Flavien Prat has chosen to ride Thousand Words over Storm the Court in the San Felipe.
4. Sole Volante (Patrick Biancone) 4-3-0-1 $196,310 Karakontie
Comment: Prior to winning the Sam F. Davis, he worked on the turf at Palm Meadows; so it wasn’t surprising to see him return to the turf last week, going seven-eighths in 1:23, three lengths faster than the 4-year-old stakes horse Kelsey’s Cross, in preparation for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. Luca Panici, who rode Sole Volante to victory in the Sam F. Davis and was subsequently injured, will be replaced by Florent Geroux.
5. Authentic (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $91,200 Into Mischief
Comment: On Monday at Santa Anita, for the second consecutive week, and again with little encouragement while going solo, Authentic worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.80. A gingerly pony accompanied him to the pole; so he began slowly but gained momentum throughout while running in the three path. And then he galloped out with great energy. It was a jaw-dropping workout, as good as you could possibly want and the fastest at the distance by four lengths. Despite his inexperience, he has signaled with his recent moves that he’s the one to beat in the San Felipe. Still, Authentic is a rather late foal (May 5), and his pedigree seems laden with speedy influence; so he could become more vulnerable with more distance.
6. Honor A.P. (John Shirreffs) 2-1-1-0 $42,200 Honor Code
Comment: Honor A.P. worked five-eighths of a mile Sunday at Santa Anita in 1:01.80. He began slowly, built momentum while in the four path and galloped out strongly. A heavy-headed sort with a long stride, Honor A.P. will carry high expectations into the San Felipe. All he has done, though, is break his maiden, and that was five months ago. But he sold for $850,000 as a yearling; his sire won the Whitney and the Met Mile while earning more than $2.5 million; his dam, Hollywood Story, won the Vanity and Bayakoa Handicaps while winning more than $1.1 million. And he looks the part. He’ll probably get two chances to earn his way into the Derby, starting Saturday.
7. Silver Prospector (Steve Asmussen) 8-3-0-2 $713,051 Declaration of War
Comment: In the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Silver Prospector did exactly what he needed to do this time of year; he moved forward with an improved performance. Winning the Derby is all about improvement and development. And he has improved in ways that suggest more progress is possible as the distances stretch out: He ran the fourth quarter-mile in a very solid 24.73 seconds. Silver Prospector will remain at Oaklawn Park for the next two lucrative stakes in the series, the Rebel on March 14 and the Arkansas Derby on April 11.
8. Ete Indien (Patrick Biancone) 5-3-1-0 $333,156 Summer Front
Comment: In winning the Fountain of Youth, he showed admirable tractability. That was even more impressive than the margin of victory, which was 8 1/2 lengths. To avoid a wide trip, Florent Geroux had to hustle Ete Indien to the front, and on the backstretch, when asked, the nimble colt readily downshifted into a comfortable cruising speed. And it’s that, that precisely — his combination of intelligence, speed and tractability — that just might enable to become one of the leading Derby contenders. His sire was essentially a miler, with five of his eight wins coming at one mile on the turf; he won twice at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, but never beyond that. Ete Indien’s dam, East India, raced only twice, on grass both times, without winning. So logic might expect Ete Indien to be — well, it wouldn’t anticipate his marching so flamboyantly and conspicuously towards Kentucky with a reservation in the Derby starting gate. (He tops the leaderboard with 54 points.) Biancone deserves much of the credit. But Ete Indien’s prominence also demonstrates why this is such a great sport: There’s a surprise party around every corner. He’s likely to return in the Florida Derby on March 28.
9. Independence Hall (Michael Trombetta) 4-3-1-0 $250,000 Constitution
Comment: Independence Hall shot a bullet five-eighths Saturday at Tampa Bay, stopping the official clock at 1:01. It was his second workout since disappointing as the 3-5 favorite in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. His performance, however, was disappointing only in that he didn’t win; he actually ran rather well. And it’s reasonable to assume he can move forward in his next outing, which will come in the Florida Derby. He has 14 qualifying points for the Derby, and so his status, as with many of these, is precarious. Since Churchill began its designated-races point system, the minimum number of points needed to qualify for the Derby has ranged from 10 to 40, with 27 as an average. So Independence Hall probably will have to finish third or better in the Florida Derby to continue on the road to Kentucky, unless, of course — and this would seem very unlikely — his connections attempt to pick up more points later, in the Lexington, for example, on April 11.
10. Storm the Court (Peter Eurton) 4-2-0-1 $1,172,951 Court Vision
Comment: In preparation for the San Felipe, Storm the Court worked five-eighths of a mile Saturday at Santa Anita in 59.40 seconds. He went in company with Shooters Shoot, the maiden who ran second to Charlatan. Storm the Court finished with a slight advantage and without a great deal of encouragement. “He couldn’t look any better,” Peter Eurton, said about Storm the Court. Having just finished fourth in his seasonal debut, the champ won’t attract undue attention in the San Felipe. But his San Vicente was much better than it might appear; he raced wide the entire journey while pressing a hot pace. With that behind him, he should be poised to step forward. He has sufficient speed to go right to the lead in the San Felipe and could prove tough to run down.
11. Basin (Steve Asmussen) 3-2-1-0 $261,000 Liam’s Map
Comment: Basin’s making his own music down in New Orleans, sweetly fast music. He worked three-quarters of a mile Monday in 1:12 at Fair Grounds. Keep in mind, this surface isn’t the speedway you’ll find in Florida or California. Having worked consecutive bullets, including last week’s :59.20, he’s looking “like a Grade 1 winner,” said his trainer, Steve Asmussen. Basin, of course, hasn’t raced since he won the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga. He’ll make his seasonal debut at Oaklawn Park in the Rebel Stakes.
12. Gouverneur Morris (Todd Pletcher) 3-2-1-0 $161,500 Constitution
Comment: Gouverneur Morris and Farmington Road appeared evenly matched while working a half-mile in 49.50 seconds Saturday at Palm Beach Downs. On the inside, Gouverneur Morris was a little rank early, tossing his head, but he quickly settled, and the two highly regarded colts were virtually inseparable, galloping out side by side. They’re almost inseparable in another way as well: Farmington Road has only five qualifying points for the Derby, and Gouverneur Morris only four. Fourth in the faster division of the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds despite racing wide throughout and having to rally into a dawdling pace, Farmington Road could put himself in the Derby with a big effort and some better luck on a return-trip to New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby on March 21. Their trainer, Todd Pletcher, said he’s keeping his options open but is primarily looking at the Florida Derby, as well as the Blue Grass on April 4, for Gouverneur Morris.
13. Enforceable (Mark Casse) 8-2-2-2 $347,150 Tapit
Comment: Enforceable hasn’t worked since his runner-up finish in the faster division of the Risen Star, where he might have been best. He didn’t break sharply and so burdened himself with the task of having to rally from last into a slow a pace. He advanced on the backstretch only to have his momentum stopped in traffic; he waited and then advanced again in the turn; then he had to angle outside; and then he finished strongly to be second. Stop, go, stop, go again — it was an impressive display of gear-shifting. And finally he galloped out with the winner, Mr. Monomoy, who’s now off the trail due to a minor ankle injury. The Louisiana Derby looks as if it could be the perfect place for Enforceable to move forward, perhaps into the vanguard on the road to Kentucky.
14. Three Technique (Jeremiah Englehart) 5-2-3 $154,750 Mr. Speaker
Comment: Three Technique displayed his readiness for a big effort when he worked a bullet half-mile Saturday at Oaklawn Park in 46 seconds in preparation for the $1 million Rebel Stakes. He worked in company with Wendell Fong, a 4-year-old stakes winner who also was credited with the bullet. Three Technique galloped out five-eighths in 59.20 seconds, according to the Oaklawn clockers. His trainer, Jeremiah Englehart, said he was “really happy” with the move, adding that the colt would have an easy work next week as his final Rebel preparation. When second in the Smarty Jones, he showed both talent and tenacity. He raced wide, encountered some trouble and overcame a speed-kind surface to finish second. Three Technique never has given a poor performance, and he seems poised to take that next step. The “three technique,” by the way, refers to the defensive lineman who lines up just outside the guard, an especially appropriate name given the colt’s owner, Super Bowl winning coach Bill Parcells.
15. Max Player (Linda Rice) 3-2-1-0 $173,500 Honor Code
Comment: His inexperience showed in the Withers, and he raced five-to-six-wide in the second turn, but he drew clear to win by more than three lengths. Yes, it was a slow race on a very dull surface. But he showed enough ability and potential to suggest he could become an intriguing player with a big step forward in the Wood Memorial on April 4.
16. Chance It (Saffie Joseph Jr.) 6-4-2-0 $444,910 Currency Swap
Comment: Because of his outside post position, Chance It was scratched out of the Fountain of Youth and redirected to Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. On Monday at Gulfstream Park, he worked a bullet half-mile in 47.28 seconds. And so Chance It will soon make his first start away from Gulfstream, which he apparently loves and which tends to favor speed. The Tampa Bay Derby should be a telling test for him. Chance It, of course, is by a precocious sprinter and out of a mare, Vagabon Diva, whose only victory came in a bottom-level, maiden-claiming ($5,000) affair at 5 1/2 furlongs at Turfway. So he already has outrun his pedigree, but can he outrun it all the way to Kentucky?
17. Dennis’ Moment (Dale Romans) 5-2-0-0 $171,800 Tiznow
Comment: That reminded me of Ryan Leaf’s first season in San Diego. Making his first start of 2020 in the Fountain of Youth, Dennis’ Moment finished 10th and last as the 6-5 favorite. But is he finished as a Derby prospect, or will he, unlike Leaf, fulfill his potential? Dennis’ Moment didn’t make an appearance Saturday. There was no moment when he looked good, and then he looked worse. He dropped back in the turn, just as he had in one of his recent five-eighths-of-a-mile workouts, but Saturday he just kept dropping and sinking, inexplicably. He offered nothing, not even an excuse. He clearly was a different horse from the one that flashed so much potential as a juvenile. The search continues for an explanation. His trainer, Dale Romans, said he’s not giving up on the colt, nor are his owners. Still, at this point his path to the Derby looks fraught with difficulties. This is the problem with the modern fashion of having only two starts leading up to the Derby: It allows for no flexibility, no vicissitude. Dennis’ Moment has only 10 qualifying points; so he’ll probably need to finish at least third in one of the final major prep races to have a chance of qualifying for the Derby, second to be assured a place in the gate. Can he do that after getting nothing positive out of the Fountain of Youth? We’ll probably get an answer in the Blue Grass.
18. Anneau d’Or (Blaine Wright) 4-1-2-0 $403,000 Medaglia d’Oro
Comment: Like Dennis’ Moment, Anneau d’Or is in a precarious position relative to the Derby. He hasn’t had a workout since his inexplicably dull effort in the slower division of the Risen Star Stakes. Yes, he encountered some trouble in the race, getting bumped around and forced wide, and he was racing in blinkers for the first time, but he surrendered without argument. And remember, this is the colt that fought gamely in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile right down to the wire, losing by a head. He has returned to California and is reportedly being aimed at the Santa Anita Derby on April 4. So he’ll remain in the top 20 for the moment.
19. Charlatan (Bob Baffert) 1-1-0-0 $33,000 Speightstown
Comment: Charlatan’s inclusion here indicates just how much the road to the Derby has changed in the last dozen years — or rather how much the attitudes and opinions about getting to the Derby have changed. In 2008, Big Brown won the Derby in just the fourth start of his career. Ten years later, Justify won the Derby in just the fourth start of his career and swept the Triple Crown. And it’ll be no surprise if one or maybe two horses in this year’s Derby will be making only their fourth start. So here’s Charlatan, making his top 20 debut. On Monday at Santa Anita, for the second consecutive week, Charlatan breezed with the maiden Fay Dan. And this workout left little doubt that the intention is to stretch out Charlatan at some point in the near future. He left the five-eighths pole about two lengths back, gradually advanced in the turn while firmly restrained and edged clear to the wire, where he had an advantage of three lengths. He continued beyond the wire and around the turn, in the manner of Nadal, and completed seven-eighths of a mile in 1:26.60. Fay Dan was given 1:02.00 for five-eighths. Charlatan, of course, generated more buzz than a colony of bees when he won his debut by six lengths in 1:08.84. Like some that found Derby success in only their fourth outing, he has flashed brilliance, but he’s a son of a sprint champion, and so from here the classic distance looks like more of a stretch for him.
20. Modernist (Bill Mott) 4-2-0-1 $288,800 Uncle Mo
Comment: In his first workout since his upset victory in the Risen Star, Modernist worked a bullet five-eighths Tuesday in 1:02.20 over the slow Payson Park surface in Florida. It’s risky to make too much of a workout without seeing it, but Tuesday’s move almost certainly conveys a positive signal. Modernist never has been much of a work horse. His victory, of course, came in the second and slower division of the Risen Star Stakes. He was able to save ground inside and cruise just off a slow pace; he had, in other words, a dream trip. It could only have ended better if he ended up in Disney World. With his 50 points, he has reserved his place in the Derby starting gate. On the one hand, he has a long way to go if he’s going to be a contender. On the other, he seems to be improving, and he has Bill Mott in his corner.
21. Silver State (Steve Asmussen) 4-1-2-1 $136,106 Hard Spun
Comment: Silver State breezed an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.40 on Monday, his first work since he ran third in the faster division of the Risen Star, where he was compromised by the trip and the slow pace. He’s lightly raced and still learning; his best races are all in front of him. With 14 points, he needs to finish at least third in the Louisiana Derby if he’s to travel down the road.
22. Answer In (Brad Cox) 3-1-2-0 $153,412 Dialed In
Comment: In his first workout since disappointing as the favorite in the Southwest Stakes, he breezed a half-mile at Oaklawn Park in 48.60 seconds Tuesday. He finished third, more than six lengths back in the Southwest, but the effort was better than it might first appear —forced wide in the first turn, zig-zagging down the lane — and he could rebound with a much improved performance in the Rebel. But, of course, the field for the Rebel is going to be much stronger.
23. Great Power (Simon Callaghan) 1-1-0-0 $30,000 Blame
Comment: Great Power worked a solid five-eighths Monday at Santa Anita. He wasn’t asked for much, raced in the three path, stopped the official clock at 1:00.80 and then galloped out strongly. The big guy looks like a runner, but he’s far behind. Still, there are options: He could aim for the Sunland Derby on March 22, needing a win there to earn his way into the Derby; he could try allowance company and then aim for one of the April preps; or he could take a more conservative approach and aim for the Preakness. But he’s nearly ready for his return.
24. Spa City (Kiaran McLaughlin) 3-1-1-0 $34,400
Comment: Spa City has an opportunity to jump onto the road to Kentucky with his stakes debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. Here’s an intriguing Derby possibility. He has improved steadily, and his recent maiden victory at nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park proclaimed his potential. He stalked a reasonable pace, took control in the second turn while racing three-wide and won by a length, repulsing the challenge of the highly regarded Unrighteous, with nearly 15 lengths stretching back to the third finisher. And Spa City won in genuine racehorse time, 1:49.24 after running the final three eighths in 37.17 seconds.
Gary West, a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper, is an HRI contributor