With only a handful of remaining preps yet to be run, the favorites for next month's Kentucky Derby are pretty well defined, with handicappers starting to ponder the nuances of each horse's running style and record.
The Kentucky Derby is unique. The contenders come from all over the country, with experience on different kinds of track surfaces, against differing levels of competition and with divergent experience in shipping to unfamiliar surroundings. And on that first Saturday in May, just when they probably think they're done, the horses discover with a crack of the whip that they have to run at least a furlong farther than they have ever run before.
Often, those considerations make the difference in a race where virtually every starter has above-average natural ability. The question is: how do you compare California apples with New York oranges? Not to mention Louisiana magnolias or Illinois hedge apples.
Questions answered and questions remaining after this weekend's prep races:
Brother Derek continued his domination of West Coast rivals with a smashing victory in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. Racing on the lead, the California-bred son of Benchmark easily turned back a challenge from A.P. Warrior on the turn for home and opened up a huge lead, coasting home 3 1/2 lengths in front of Point Determined. A.P. Warrior finished third, followed by Sacred Light, who stumbled badly at the break. Wildfang was a badly outclassed last in the short field.
Jockey Alex Solis said he let out a notch on Brother Derek, getting him a little more ready for the big race. "I let him run from the half-mile pole a little bit more than I usually do," Solis said. "But we were going slow."
Both Solis and trainer Dan Hendricks agreed that, while he's been a front-runner so far, Brother Derek doesn't need the lead to win on the first Saturday in May. "He's not a crazy horse, speed crazy or something like that," Solis said. Added Hendricks: "I think he can sit off the pace. We'll just have to see. The Derby is what the Derby is -- 20 horses. It's THE horse race and we're heading there and we're going to have fun with it."
Shipping also remains a question. Brother Derek has won four straight races since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October at Belmont Park -- his only race outside California. He came back from that effort to win the Hollywood Juvenile, beating Your Tent Or Mine and Bob and John; the San Rafael, betting Breeders' Cup winner Stevie Wonderboy; and the Santa Catalina, beating Sacred Light.
Both Point Determined and A.P. Warrior remain candidates for the Derby.
We already knew Sweetnorthernsaint can handle shipping, having bounced around the East Coast. In the Illinois Derby, Sweetnorthernsaint also proved he could rate a bit.
Breaking from the outside post position, the Florida-bred son of Sweetnorthernsaint took up position just behind and outside pace-setter Mister Triester and stayed there, as requested by jockey Kent Desormeaux. When Desormeaux sent Sweetnorthernsaint to the lead, he responded enthusiastically, drawing off in the stretch to win by 9 1/4 lengths under a hand ride. He ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.82 on a track that wasn't "souped up" for the day. Mister Triester held second by 1 length over California invader Cause to Believe.
Sweetnorthernsaint won three straight on the East Coast before finishing a close third in the Gotham last month. "There was always a question of 'ratability,'" trainer Michael Trombetta said after the Illinois Derby. "He showed today he'll do whatever Kent asks him to do."
Desormeaux said after the good break from the outside post, "I became the boss of the field and I could dictate the pace." Asked about the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter, Desormeaux said the Belmont's mile and a half will be no problem. "The mile and a quarter is right between his eyes," he said. Trombetta said of the Run for the Roses, "If he's doing well, we'd love to be a part of it."
It's hard to tell when and how an off track affects the outcome of a Kentucky Derby prep. But it appeared the sloppy conditions that greeted Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct were the least of the problems faced by its nine contenders.
Keyed Entry, the odds-on favorite, went out to the early lead, chased by long shot Marco's Tale. But neither of them could withstand the charge of California invader Bob and John, who took the lead on the turn and opened up a daylight advantage by mid-stretch, with Keyed Entry slogging along behind him. But both of those contenders were dragging with a sixteenth to run and long shot Jazil came like a shot, snatching second away from Keyed Entry. Bob and John won by a diminishing 1 1/2 lengths, finishing the 9 furlongs in 1:51.54 for jockey Garrett Gomez.
Bob and John ran third in the San Felipe last time out, behind A.P. Warrior and Point Determined. Baffert noted the difference in competition. "It just goes to show you that there is so much speed in California, it's like a vacation when you get away from there," he said.
On the Kentucky Oaks trail:
Bushfire upset Saturday's $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, jumping right to the lead and never looking back. At the wire, the Florida-bred daughter of Louis Quatorze was 6 1/2 lengths ahead of her nearest rival, Wait a While. The favorite, Balance, was another 4 1/4 lengths back in third. Bushfire, with Cornelio Velasquez up, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.16. Bushfire, trained by Eddie Kenneally, now has won four of her six starts. Her only bad effort was a steady fade in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park, when she failed to get the lead over a sloppy track. She won the Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs in her last start. Balance came into the race off a victory in the Santa Anita Oaks. "If you let her run early, she'll relax for you," said Kenneally. "She looked like she relaxed nicely going down the backside and had a lot left turning for home. She ran a huge race."
Rhein Kraft saved ground in third position through the early going of Saturday's Hanshin Himba Stakes in Japan, got to the front with 300 meters to run and won off by 3 lengths over Air Messiah. Snark Suzukran was third. Rhein Kraft, a 4-year-old daughter of End Sweep, finished the 1400 meters in 1:21.2 under Yuichi Fukunaga. The race is expected to be a major stepping stone to a new Grade 1 feature, the Victoria Mile, to be run next month. No foreign runners were nominated to the Hanshin Himba this year.
Even though we're in the heart of Triple Crown season, there were so many divisionally important races this weekend that it make sense to look at them as potential early previews of some of this fall's Breeder's Cup Championship events at Churchill Downs:
Buzzards Bay, who upset the Santa Anita Derby a year ago at long odds, led all the way to a much more popular victory in Saturday's $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. Sent to the post as the second-favorite, the 4-year-old, Florida-bred son of Marco Bay, set a brisk pace under jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., hit another gear turning for home and won by 6 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Magnum. Gouldings Green finished third. Buzzards Bay finished the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.22. Buzzards Bay had been winless since the Santa Anita Derby until his last outing, the All American Handicap at Golden Gate in late February, which he won going away.
Fort Prado got through traffic on the turn for home in Saturday night's $200,000 John B. Connally Breeders' Cup Turf Handicap and went on to win by 3 lengths over Dynareign. Donntbotherknocking was third and Waupaca fourth. Fort Prado, a 5-year-old, Illinois-bred son of El Prado, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.41. Robby Albarado applied the winning ride for Team Block.
Spun Sugar led three times in Saturday's $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, including the photo finish. Out first, the 4-year-old daughter of Awesome Again was taken back while Star Parade tried the lead on the backstretch. When that rival faded, Spun Sugar was on point again until the favorite, Happy Ticket, poked her head in front with a furlong to go. Again, Spun Sugar fought back and had the advantage by a neck at the wire. La Reason, at 44-1, finished third, well back of the exacta pair. Spun Sugar ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.59 with Mike Luzzi in the irons.
Capeside Lady tracked Injustice into the second turn of Sunday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park, then went past and on to win by 3 1/2 easy lengths. Injustice held second and Caviar Emptor was third. Capeside Lady, a 5-year-old, New York-bred mare by Cape Town, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.12 with Stewart Elliott up.
Filly and Mare Turf
Shining Energy sat in mid-pack through the opening furlongs of Saturday's $98,000 American Beauty Handicap at Santa Anita, got the lead with an outside move on the turn and held on to win by 1 1/4 lengths despite drifting out in the stretch run. The favorite, Moscow Burning, fell short with a late bid and settled for second and Midwife delivered third-place money. Shining Energy, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Rahy, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.94 with Corey Nakatani up.
Foxysox stalked the leaders while maintaining inside position in Saturday's $100,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita, then again took the inside route in the stretch run and eased out to a 1-length victory over the late-closing favorite, Harriet Lane. Chosen Royalty came from far off the pace to finish third. Foxysox, a British-bred daughter of Foxhound, ran the 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.88 under Alex Bisono.
Chin High, at odds of 68-1, rallied from far off the pace to win Friday's $150,000 Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds by 1 length over 24-1 chance Le Plaix. Wherethewestbegins completed a $12,907.80 trifecta. To Sender, the odds-on favorite, finished last of 10. Welcome to the Keeneland spring meet! Chin High, a Kentucky-bred colt by Smart Strike, ran the 1 mile on firm going in 1:37.87 for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
Breeders' Cup Sprint defending champion Silver Train scratched out of Saturday's $300,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct when the track turned up sloppy. That left Bishop Hill Court to steal away to a clear lead and hang on the late going to win by a neck over Sir Greeley. Big Apple Daddy was third and the favorite, Mass Media, finished fourth. Bishop Hill Court, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Holy Bull, got the 7 furlongs in 1:23.27 for jockey Jose Santos. The gelding won the Paumonok Handicap two starts ago and was second last time out, in the Toboggan Handicap. The Grade I Carter represented a significant step up the class ladder for him. "He's a horse that has always had a great deal of talent and it has been a little frustrating from time to time," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher.
Too Much Bling, in addition to adding points to our Road to the Roses stable total, seems to have found a niche as a promising young sprinter. After winning the San Miguel and the San Vicente handily in California, trainer Bob Baffert shipped the Ohio-bred son of Rubiano to Aqueduct for Saturday's $150,000 Carter Handicap. That proved no contest, as Too Much Bling, after sitting behind the pace until the turn, easily drew clear and galloped home a winner by 9 lengths. Songster was second and One Way Flight finished third. Too Much Bling ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.40 with Garrett Gomez showing the way over the sloppy track. "A lot of it (improvement in his performance) has been maturity," Baffert said. "We're just glad he's a fast son of a gun. We'll keep him at one-turn races for now."
It might be a stretch to say a victory in a 3-year-old colt's second race is an indication of Breeders' Cup-type potential. But when the colt in question is Likely, a son of Yes It's True, and he wins Sunday's $100,000 Lafayette at Keeneland by 9 lengths over the favorite, Laptop Computer -- well, maybe it's not such a stretch. Likely, with Julien Leparoux riding, stalked the pace and simply took over at the top of the stretch. He finished the 6 furlongs in 1:09.32. "He had a little injury and we gave him a little time," said winning trainer Patrick Biancone.
City Dweller did everything but dwell in Saturday's $100,000 Lost Code Stakes for 3-year-olds at Hawthorne Race Course. Starting on the rail the Kentucky-bred son of Carson City shot to the lead, set a good pace over a track not playing to speed and cruised home first, 2 1/4 lengths to the good of Cellluloid Hero. Don't Tell Mommy was third. City Dweller ran the 6 furlongs in 1:11.21 for Kent Desormeaux. "He left the gate today like a quarter horse," said Desormeaux. "I never let him run today. I just kept him between the fences."
In other weekend racing:
Arson Squad caught pace-setting Da Stoops in the final furlong of Sunday's $83,000 San Pedro Stakes for 3-year-olds and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over that rival. The Pharoh was third. Arson Squad, a Pennsylvania-bred gelding by Brahms, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.81 for jockey Alex Solis.
Mr. Trieste ran like an odds-on favorite should run in Saturday's $100,000 Sunland Park Hancicap. Rating nicely for jockey Ken Tohill, the 5-year-old son of Old Trieste came around the leaders on the turn, got the advantage in the stretch and drew clear to win by 3 1/2 lengths. A Gallant Discover was second and Don't Strike Out advanced in the late going to take third-place money. Mr. Trieste ran the 1 1/8 mile on a fast track in 1:48.58. He is trained by Gary Cross.
Victorina shipped to Chicago from northern California as the winner of three of her four previous starts, including two minor stakes at Golden Gate Fields. So no wonder she went off the favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Meafara Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. And no wonder she won by 3 3/4 easy lengths over Grandelena. Dirty Rush was third. Victorina, a Florida-bred daughter of Delaware Township, sat off the pace until the top of the stretch, then easily picked off the leaders and cruised home. Russell Baze rode the filly over 6 furlongs of fast track in 1:11.14. "She had a good trip and clear sailing the whole way," Baze said. "When I asked her to run, she just ran right to the front for me."
Flame of Love burned up the track in Saturday's $60,000 Primonetta Stakes for fillies and mares, jumping off to a big early lead and improving throughout to win by 8 lengths. Jet Set Citi was second and Smoking Wise was third. The two other starters, Malibu Moonbeam and Sun Sapphire, pulled up lame. Flame of Love, a 6-year-old, Pennsylvania-bred mare by Not For Love, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:11.36 for Jozbin Santana.
Jewels N Gems rallied from mid-pack to take Saturday's $50,000 Bob Slater Stakes by a neck over Pandora's Secret, who in turn was just a neck in front of June Tune. The favorite, Cayuga's Waters, led but faded to finish fourth. Jewels N Gems, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred mare by Acceptable, ran the 5 furlongs on firm turf in 56.43 seconds with Elvis Trujillo up.
Today's fun fact:
The hedge apple is a yellow-green fruit produced by the Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Other common names for the plant include hedge apple, bodark, bois d'arc, and bowwood. Before the advent of barbed wire (invented in Illinois, by the way), close plantings of this variety produced barriers impenetrable to livestock -- with the added advantage of producing hedge apples that fed wild animals.