Finally, we’re going to get some clarity in the Derby picture. By the time the sand and loam settles at the end of this extended holiday weekend, almost every horse considered to be a major Triple Crown contender will have launched their 3YO campaign.
The reason for the qualifier “almost” is there are two noteworthy exceptions. Dennis’ Moment won’t jump onto the Derby Trail until the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 29 and Maxfield might not even make the run-ups to Louisville.
Dale Romans must be as confident in Dennis’ Moment as he professes to be. He isn’t leaving much of a margin of error for the Tiznow colt, who currently has only 10 Derby points and has a tendency to create monstrous problems for himself. He threw his rider in his debut then failed to break with his field in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Maxfield was forced out of the Breeders’ Cup with a bone chip in one of his ankles. He’s back to serious training but he’s so far behind the rest of his generation trainer Brendan Walsh said the Derby is more a possibility than a realistic target. Walsh’s attitude seems to be if he does, he does; if not, it’s a long season.
A couple of horses considered to be prime Derby timber stubbed their toes last weekend. Eclipse champion Storm the Court was a lackluster fourth in the San Vicente and highly touted Independence Hall couldn’t sustain his previous brilliance in his first try around two turns in the Sam F. Davis.
The colts who won those races, Nadal on the West Coast and Sole Volante on the West Coast of Florida, crashed the roster of serious Derby candidates.
Amazingly, Nadal, who hasn’t run around two turns and has zero Derby points, vaulted all the way to the top of the Kentucky Derby futures odds. What are the people, who bet him with both fists, thinking? Or do Futures bettors think at all?
This is a knock on the bettors, not Nadal, who was devastating coming off only a MSW win. What’s more, he’s a Baffert. Asked if he was concerned about the zero Derby points and lack of two-turn experience, Baffert sounded as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “If he can’t get points in his final Derby prep, he doesn’t belong,” Baffert said with the cockiness of someone unconcerned that this will happen.
Meanwhile, so many owners retain Derby dreams that Saturday’s Risen Star, the first of this year’s 50-points to the winner preps, had to be split into two divisions, one with 11 starters, the other with 12.
The second division seems to be more power-packed. Anneau d’Or, whose trainer Blaine Wright fairly observed is only a head and a neck away from being an undefeated Eclipse champion—the margins he came up short in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Los Al Futurity—is the one to beat.
Don’t go to sleep on Liam’s Lucky Charm, coming off a win in the Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs. More significantly, the only two races he has not won in his last five were taken by four-for-six Chance It, who he did defeat in a Florida Sire Stakes.
All due props to Anneau d’Or, but Liam’s Lucky Charm is where my money will be. (I will have a saver exacta the other way.)
That said it’s not a two-horse race. Lynn’s Map disappointed in the Smarty Jones but Mark Casse said he didn’t appear to like the track. This is not one of my favorite alibis but I’m not going to pretend to be smarter than Casse. Lynn’s Map won his two previous races, the second over the Fair Grounds strip, so there will be no such excuses this time.
Chance It’s sizzling hot trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. is shipping over Ny Traffic, off a Gulfstream allowance win, and he’ll have Javier Castellano aboard. It’s not a high percentage move to ignore anything Joseph sends out these days.
The first division is like the Lecomte Stakes 2.0. The one-two-three finishers, Enforceable, Silver State and Mr. Monomoy, will go at it again. Silver State had the toughest trip of the trio, so a reversal is not implausible.
Unfortunately, at least one, probably two horses with little chance to wear the roses will come out of each division with guaranteed berths in the new 20-horse Churchill Downs starting gate.
The weekend extends to Monday when the Southwest will be run at Oaklawn. Silver Prospector, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes but fourth in the Smarty Jones will face off again against Gold Street, who won his third straight in the Smarty Jones. All his wins came on different tracks and coincidentally all on wet tracks. He was zero-for-three before the rains came.
The Springboard Mile at Remington isn’t generally where you look for Derby horses but Shoplifted, this year’s winner, is not an Oklahoma horse. He was second in the Hopeful last summer and a credible third to the free-running Gold Street in the Smarty Jones. If the track comes up fast and Gold Street is found wanting, Shoplifted is not a bad place to have your money.
The Oaklawn horses should get what they can while they can. When the Rebel and Arkansas Derby roll around, the fields will include some serious horses shipping in, likely including Nadal.
I’ve saved the weekend’s first for last, an ordinary allowance race on Friday at Tampa Bay Downs, because my long-range Derby pick, Gouverneur Morris, will head a short field in a race written for him. He caught my eye when he debuted with a blowout sprint win at the Spa, a distance his pedigree is not particularly suited for. Then he looked like the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity until Maxfield pulled an Arazi and blew right past him. No disgrace in that.
Team Valor owner Barry Irwin said if all goes well Friday, he’ll look for one of the 100-point Derby preps as Gouvernor Morris’ only other Derby prep. Like Dennis’ Moment and Nadal, this leaves little room for error. But the good ones don’t need it.