Three major Kentucky Derby prep races were contested Saturday and what we learned about this season’s crop could fill a...well…could fill a Kentucky Derby superfecta ticket.
The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct featured an unbeaten favorite in the Chad Brown-trained Shagaf against seven foes, including second choice Outwork--a Todd Pletcher student and mere one-time loser to stable-mate Destin last out in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Shagaf broke from the rail in the Wood and had a royal, ground-saving trip until late on the turn for home when jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. momentarily pumped the brakes awaiting passage along the rail. The maneuver may have stunted Shagaf’s momentum a bit, but the colt wasn’t too badly compromised and had little response thereafter. To quote former L.A. Lakers announcer Pat Riley, from before he became a genius coach, “I’ve seen more shoving in the men’s room.” Proceedings will become more physical in Kentucky, so Shagaf better toughen up just in case trainer Chad Brown chooses to have him participate on the first Saturday in May.
Outwork showed early foot from an outside post to flank speedster Matt King Coal around the oval. In the stretch, the former dismissed the latter and seemed headed for a comfortable win until Trojan Launch, a SoCal-based, five-time maiden race loser, rallied from last along the rail to eyeball Outwork to the finish. By a bob of the head, Outwork gave owner Mike Repole and Pletcher Wood Memorial redemption for sire Uncle Mo’s failure in the race as a prohibitive favorite years ago, and Trojan Launch remained a maiden.
Despite Outwork’s game performance, the fact that he was life and death to out-nod an 81-1 maiden and because the race’s final time was the slowest in its 93-year history, when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, the Wood again appears to be an empty wagon.
About half an hour later, in Lexington, Kentucky, at Keeneland Race Course, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes matched a full field of 14 sophomores over a mile and one-eighth. Some of the main characters were the same as in New York--Pletcher trained the favorite Zulu and Brown saddled the third choice My Man Sam--although neither horse would win.
Unlike men, all horses are not created equal. At least not according to the tote board. Zulu, a flashy son of Bernardini who had won two of three overall at Gulfstream Park-- his only defeat coming at the hands of Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth—started as a slightly better than 2-1 favorite in the Blue Grass.
Second choice in the wagering at nearly double the favorite’s price was Brody’s Cause, winner of the Breeders’ Futurity over this track in October mud. He had disappointed backers as favorite last out in the Tampa Bay Derby when MIA, but trainer Dale Romans had made a pre-Blue Grass point of saying that he was baffled by the colt’s no-show in Florida and that his horse was training as crisply as ever. Romans was right. Brody’s Cause rallied strongly from behind to be clear of My Man Sam and Cherry Wine, also trained by Romans, at the finish. Other than for disappointing favorite Zulu, the public did an admirable job ranking the race’s contenders. The first three finishers were grouped in the wagering at between 4.20 and 4.90-to-1.
Runner-up My Man Sam, a lightly-raced son of Trappe Shot breaking from debilitating post position 14, merely had a maiden win and an allowance race runner-up finish to Matt King Cole to his credit. He overcame that awful post position to earn enough points to make the Kentucky Derby starting lineup.
Third-place finisher Cherry Wine may or may not have enough ‘juice’ to fill a slot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He’s 23rd on the list of point earners and could be bumped down the roster depending on what happens in Arkansas Saturday. ‘Wine has improved in nearly every race over seven starts since Saratoga in August and the mile and one-quarter Louisville journey won’t bother him at all. However, his closing style could be compromised in a 20-horse field.
Horseplayers didn’t have to wait long after the Blue Grass to see another important Kentucky Derby prep race from Arcadia, California, at Santa Anita Park. There Exaggerator demolished seven rivals over a surface made sloppy by steady rainfall. While most eyes were trained on favored Danzig Candy, who sped to the early lead and then cowered in the stretch like a hen-pecked husband, and second choice Mor Spirit, also never comfortable on the slick surface, third-choice Exaggerator took the brothers Desormeaux (jockey Kent and trainer Keith) on a merry, sloppy ride to the winner’s circle.
In the San Felipe Stakes, less than one month before the ‘Anita Derby, Exaggerator had made a thrilling, sustained charge at Danzig Candy, only to lose momentum in the lane and to be passed by Mor Spirit late. This time, perhaps aided by the slick surface, the Curlin colt’s momentum propelled him past Danzig Candy to the finish well clear of Mor Spirit.
So, what exactly did we learn from this trio of important Kentucky Derby prep races?
Following the Wood it seems clear to this horseplayer that Outwork is a nice horse that probably is not quite ready to win the Kentucky Derby. With just four lifetime starts he’s lacking foundation and may be better down the road if the Derby experience doesn’t knock him out completely. Runner-up Trojan Nation may be better off in New York where he’s zero for one than in California where he’s zero for five. Adventist has a touch of quality to him, but perhaps not quite Derby level at this time. Matt King Cole needs the lead and probably competition that’s a cut below the top level. Shagaf is a colt that’s not quite ready for prime time, either.
The Blue Grass taught us that Brody’s Cause favors home games in his Kentucky backyard. He appears to have returned to strong 2-year-old form. He likes Churchill Downs—broke his maiden there in September going a mile--and distance is no problemo.
My Man Sam’s huge effort seems a bit too much, too soon. With just four starts under his girth, that outstanding try from post 14 appears as if it could be a ceiling instead of a floor. Check back on him later this summer. By contrast, Cherry Wine has had plenty of experience and, like stable-mate Brody’s Cause, races from far back in the pack and sports a victory at Churchill Downs, albeit in the slop. He could be getting good at the right time and might pick up some tiring foes late in the Derby if he gets to compete in that event.
In the Santa Anita Derby we learned that Exaggerator’s impressive 2-year-old form was not a mirage. He’s genuinely talented and moves up on over an ‘off’ track. Connections of Nyquist are happy to see trainer Keith Desormeaux with at least one possible starter in the Kentucky Derby. Five times out of seven total starts Nyquist has finished just in front of a Desormeaux-trained charge--Swipe was second to Nyquist four times and Exaggerator placed behind the 2-year-old champ once!
Mor Spirit probably didn’t relish the ‘off’ going in the Santa Anita Derby, but he continued to grind his way to the finish. He’s that kind of horse, a metronome that keeps ticking and tocking around the track. He’ll outlast some that can’t survive the entire mile and one-quarter Derby distance. However, Mor Spirit lacks the explosiveness of an Exaggerator or Brody’s Cause, and that probably will leave him with too much to do in the Louisville stretch. Danzig Candy may or may not contest the Kentucky Derby. If he does, based on his stagger-fest through the ‘Anita Derby lane, he’ll merely add fuel to the early pace.
So, there it is. That’s what we learned from the Wood, Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby. Now, let’s see what the Arkansas Derby has to report. Then it will be time to ‘break some eggs’ and definitively sort contenders from pretenders.
Remember, you can’t use ‘em all.