Each week on the Kentucky Derby trail things get ‘interestinger’ and ‘interestinger.’
March 13, the Bob Baffert-trained Concert Tour dominated the Rebel Stakes and leapfrogged nearly everyone else toward the pinnacle of Kentucky Derby top ten lists. For most, the colt’s stock ranked just below that of defending 2-year-old champ Essential Quality and San Felipe Stakes winner Life is Good. One week later, Life is Good, actual heavy favorite in early wagering for the Kentucky Derby, was removed from consideration for the race after post workout distress signaled a small chip in his left-hind ankle. As Baffert scratched one first team star from his Kentucky Derby starting lineup, the defection, ironically, moved Concert Tour, another Baffert runner, one step closer to roses in May. We also learned this week, according to DRF.com’s Jay Privman, that Baffert’s Medina Spirit had undergone an operation for a ‘slightly entrapped epiglottis.’ He’ll start next in the Santa Anita Derby.
Saturday, Hot Rod Charlie, another Southern California-based soph, cemented a position in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with a strong victory in the Gr. 2 Louisiana Derby. That score, along with his runner-up effort in the Gr. 1 BC Juvenile in November at 95-1 odds, and a close third-place finish in the Gr. 3 Robert B. Lewis vault him to the top of of Derby hopefuls with 110 Louisville starting gate points. According to connections, Hot Rod Charlie will use the six weeks between now and the first Saturday in May to train up to the race.
Gr. 2 Louisiana Derby runner-up Midnight Bourbon, who’s been in the hunt in all three preps in that neck of the woods, is second overall in Kentucky Derby points with 66 and also will train up to the Louisville tussle.
A couple of disappointing efforts in the Louisiana Derby from favorite Mandaloun and Proxy leave connections (and bettors) wondering ‘what happened?’. No answers, so far. Mandaloun (52 Derby points) could be headed to the Gr. 1 Lexington at Keeneland and Proxy’s (34) future is undetermined at this writing.
O Besos, a nearly 30-1 shot that was touted in this space as a Louisiana Derby exotics threat, finished third in that race and now has 25 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby. His connections will wait and hope that the total is enough to make the starting gate.
This week, marquee action occurs at Gulfstream Park where the third-ranked earner of Kentucky Derby points Greatest Honour (60) is expected to continue local domination in the Gr. 1 Florida Derby. He’s looked strong in winning three Gulfstream races this winter—a Maiden Special Weight race and two stakes—and his trainer, Hall-of-Fame resident Shug McGaughey, has been brimming with confidence throughout the winter. It should be noted that no horse has ever accomplished what Greatest Honour is attempting—victory in the Gr. 3 Holy Bull, Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth and Gr. 1 Florida Derby.
One interesting Gr. 1 Florida Derby invader is the Bob Baffert-trained Spielberg from California. He’s been competitive with top-ranked 2-year-olds in SoCal and finished second to the consensus number one sophomore Essential Quality last out in the Gr. 3 Southwest at Oaklawn over a sloppy track.
The Gr. 2 Jeff Ruby Steaks (not Stakes) is on tap at Turfway Park. The race usually doesn’t produce a serious Kentucky Derby threat, but it offers as many qualifying points (100-40-20-10) toward starting in the Derby as races like the Gr. 1 Florida, Gr. 1 Santa Anita and Gr. 1 Arkansas Derbies. Go figure. The race is decided over an ‘All Weather’ artificial surface and sometimes that form doesn’t transfer seamlessly to dirt. Nevertheless, the winner and the runner-up probably will earn enough points to start in the Kentucky Derby.
The Gr. 1 UAE Derby also is Saturday and that race awards a similar total of 170 points towards starting gate berths in the Kentucky Derby. No horse has successfully made the transition from Dubai to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, but we suppose it could happen…someday…somehow. Because of the amount of travel involved (among other issues), when it does, it will be an amazing accomplishment.
Speaking of amazing accomplishments…it also should be noted that the one mile and one-eighth Fukurya will be contested Saturday at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan. That’s the final Kentucky Derby qualifying race in that country and will offer a total of 68 points to the first four finishers. The next Japanese 3-year-old to successfully ship to win the Kentucky Derby will be the first. However, we suppose it could happen…someday…somehow.
Below is one man’s humble handicapping opinion regarding starters in the Gr. 1 Florida Derby:
$750,000 – Grade 1
One Mile & One-Eighth
Post: 6:35 pm ET
Kentucky Derby Points: 100-40-20-10
#1 Nova Rags Mott/Alvarado 12-1
A maiden winner first out, this son of Union Rags has appeared in three stakes races since—Gr. 3 Nashua, Pasco and Gr. 3 Sam F. Davis. He won the shortest of the three, the seven-furlong Pasco and was second, one length back at 8-1, in the one mile and one-sixteenth Gr. 3 Davis after a perfect stalking trip and rail run off the turn. Like Shug McGaughey, trainer of Florida Derby favorite #7 Greatest Honour, fellow Hall-of-Famer trainer Bill Mott takes his time with young horses and Nova Rags will need to do better to win this. He has a bit of early pace and will use his rail draw to occupy prime early real estate. Exotics
#2 Quantum Leap Wilkes/Vasquez 20-1
It took this fellow three starts to break his maiden, but he did it the first time he ventured around two turns last out going one-mile and one-eighth at Gulfstream Park. He’s by Pioneerof the Nile and is taking a big step up in class. Pass
#3 Jirafales Delgado/Zayas 30-1
Beaten double digits by favored #7 Greatest Honour in both the Gr. 3 Holy Bull and the Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth, this son of Social Inclusion really would need to turn the battleship around in a hurry to make noise in here. FYI…he was 106-1 odds in the Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth and outran those massive odds to finish fifth beaten 10 lengths. He’ll be a similar large number in here. Pass
#4 Southern Passage Romans/Lanerie 30-1
He’s made eight career starts, mostly Maiden Special Weight and Maiden Claiming races. Last out he was second, beaten three lengths by promising 3-year-old Prevalence. He was 32-1 in that $75k/Optional Claiming race. These are much tougher. He is fit, though, because that one-mile race was March 11. Pass
#5 Known Agenda Pletcher/I. Ortiz 5-1
This son of Curlin snapped his maiden by finishing a head in front of favorite #7 Greatest Honour going one mile and one-eighth at Aqueduct in November. While #7 Greatest Honour hasn’t lost since, Known Agenda has had a bit of an in-and-out career. Next out, off his maiden score, Known Agenda finished a well-beaten third in the Gr. 2 Remsen over a sloppy Aqueduct track. Away December until February, he returned as favorite in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay. Things didn’t go well early in the race—he didn’t leave the gate running and was between horses and shuffled a bit approaching the first turn. That left him well behind the early leaders. He closed some ground much too late. Trainer Todd Pletcher then added blinkers and sent him north to Aqueduct for a confidence-boosting Allowance/Optional $75k Claiming race romp by 11 lengths. He’s certainly fit and back on the winning track but he’s yet to display the necessary development that would make him a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat. Exotics
#6 Sigilioso Sano/Reyes 30-1
Fresh off a couple of even efforts in a pair of turf stakes—fourth in the Gr. 3 Kitten’s Joy and fifth in the Listed Palm Beach—this son of Khozan returns to dirt where he made the first start of his career in a state-bred Maiden $40k claiming race. Pass
#7 Greatest Honour McGaughey/J. Ortiz 6/5
It took this son of Tapit four races to break maiden but that’s understandable. Hall-of-Fame trainer Shug McGaughey famously takes time with young horses and allows them to fully mature. Greatest Honour’s first two races were at seven furlongs and he finished third in each, displaying talent and a propensity for longer distances. In his third start, going one mile and one-eighth at Aqueduct, he and #5 Known Agenda hooked up in a furious stretch battle 21 lengths clear of Overtook in third. #5 Known Agenda got the better of Greatest Honour that afternoon by a head, but Greatest Honour is unbeaten in three starts since— a Maiden, Gr. 3 Holy Bull and Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth—all at Gulfstream. Overtook returned to break maiden next out and then finished second in the Withers. Tapit offspring are known for having long-fuses and require distance for their best. Greatest Honour races from well off the pace and has looked strong in the lane even when the early pace hasn’t favored his closing style. His development at Gulfstream closely mirrors that of Kentucky Derby winner Orb, also trained by McGaughey. He’s the one to beat in here but, as was pointed out by Todd Sidor in Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, “There have been 14 Florida Derby winners who have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, and 15 who have finished first in the race including Maximum Security’s 2019 disqualification. That’s a better record any other prep race. But none have ever managed to sweep the Gulfstream Park preps, including the G3 Holy Bull Stakes, the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby.” Despite that history, Greatest Honour is the Most Likely Winner.
#8 Soup and Sandwich Casse/Velazquez 20-1
Unbeaten in two starts (with an asterisk), this homebred son of Into Mischief won a state-bred Maiden Special Weight sprint first out at Gulfstream by more than seven lengths. That led to romping score by nearly three lengths at Tampa Bay Downs going one mile and 40 yards. And that’s where the asterisk comes in. In that allowance win he defeated just two other foes for what amounted to a paid workout. He raced greenly through the stretch, lugging in and nearly brushing the rail as he virtually galloped home in front. He’s got some talent but it’s not clear exactly how much. And he certainly needs to concentrate more on his work. Soup and Sandwich is a bit of a wild card in here; difficult to dismiss but tough to embrace. He’s got some pace, likes the track, is unbeaten (with an asterisk), has solid connections and room to improve…hmmm. Think we’ll pass on him for now but he could have a future down the road. Pass
#9 Collaborate Joseph/Gaffalione 6-1
A very impressive, more-than-12-length maiden mile winner in his second start last out at Gulfstream, this son of Into Mischief has loads of talent. As favorite in his first start going six furlongs over a sloppy track, he broke a step slow to be well back in the field of 12 and then rallied to lose by less than two lengths. That effort suggests a future ‘off’ track won’t bother him. The hurdle he desperately needs to clear in here is one of experience because he has little of that. Talent can overcome much but he’s facing a group with at-least equal ability AND more experience. He might enjoy a helpful advantage, though, because this race appears void of much early speed. He could take them a long way on the front end. It’s an ambitious spot but this is the material upsets are made of. Exotics/Win Chance
#10 Spielberg Baffert/Castellano 4-1
Trainer Bob Baffert has a barn full of talented runners. Even though he recently lost Life is Good to injury, he’s still buried under an abundance of rich 3-year-old talent. Forced to disperse capable performers nationwide in an attempt to keep them separated, Baffert dispatches Spielberg to Florida from California, an unusual move for this trainer. Come Pegasus World Cup time, Gulfstream Park has been a prime target for Baffert’s older horses, but it hasn’t been a sophomore stop on previous Baffert Triple Crown trails. Spielberg brings experience to the race with eight starts—two wins, three seconds and one third. He won a maiden race at Del Mar AFTER he was both second in the Gr. 1 Del Mar Futurity and third in the Gr. 1 American Pharoah at Santa Anita. Subsequently, he won the Gr. 2 Los Alamitos Futurity and most recently finished second in the Gr. 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park after a lousy start over a sloppy track. He was shifting about in the gate just before it opened, and he was left several lengths behind the field. He then raced wide throughout and finally loomed to threaten race favorite and Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old champ Essential Quality in the stretch. It was a huge performance. It’s critical Spielberg breaks alertly this time, especially from the 10-hole going one mile and one-eighth at Gulfstream. This colt’s a bit unlike most Baffert sophomores in that he usually comes from a bit off the pace. A clean break may be all Spielberg needs to affirm that he’s one of the top 3-year-olds in the nation. Exotics/Win Chance
#11 Papetu Sano/Jaramillo 15-1
This son of Dialed In has been pitched against some mighty powerful lineups—four of his last five races have come against graded stakes competition, including starts in the Gr. 1 Hopeful, Gr. 2 Saratoga Special, Gr. 3 Holy Bull and Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth. In the latter two races he chased #7 Greatest Honour home—more than 10 lengths and just over three lengths behind, respectively. He moved prematurely in the Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth and passed #7 Greatest Honour on the turn. In the end, though, #7 Greatest Honour absolutely breezed by Papetu for the win. Despite winning the first two races of his career in virtually wire-to-wire fashion going five and one-half furlongs, he’s shown little speed in recent races, coming from last to be third in the Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth. FYI…he was listed at contender’s odds of 5.50 to 1 in the Gr. 3 Holy Bull against #7 Greatest Honour. Exotics
#7 Greatest Honour is the one to beat. He’s got an amazing stride that seems to grow with distance. He will be a short price to do something that’s never been done before and that’s not usually a smart way to bet.
#10 Spielberg ran an awesome race in the Gr. 3 Southwest and a clean break coupled with a similar effort could make him a thorn in the favorite’s side Saturday. He’s the most likely to upset the top choice.
#9 Collaborate has speed and talent. That’s a dangerous combination. His lack of experience could count against him but if left alone early Saturday, he’s got a chance to upset the applecart at a decent price.
$5 Trifecta ($40)
Second: #9, #10
Third: #1, #5, #9, #10, #11
$2 Trifecta ($16)
Second: #7, #9
Third: #1, #5, #7, #9, #11
$1 Trifecta ($8)
Second: #7, #10
Third: #1, #5, #7, #10, #11