Ky. Derby Trail: A Tap Top Flop

It just goes to show you how fragile life is on the Derby trail, metaphorically, of course. One minute you’re sitting comfortably near the top of the contenders list and the next you’re in a free fall. The thud came for Tapizar when a knee chip was discovered following his meltdown in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II). He now joins Boys at Tosconova as major players whose Derby aspirations have been derailed.

As if Tapizar’s shocking defeat at 1-5 wasn’t enough, Comma to the Top, the 1-2 favorite in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) later that afternoon, hit the proverbial brick wall at the quarter pole, ending a five-racing winning streak and all but ending any hopes of his staying the mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.

But in Comma to the Top’s defense, he had run at least once in nine consecutive months last year, an extremely unusual feat for a 2-year-old. In the El Camino Real, he was coming off a two-month layoff and simply may have needed the race. He looked like a tired horse the way he drifted out turning for home. Remember, this is a horse with stamina question marks. No 2-year-old wins five straight races, including a grade I stakes, a grade III stakes, and a listed stakes without being a very talented horse. It is time for him to try dirt for the first time to see exactly how serious a horse this is.

As for the winners of those stakes, the jury is still out. Anthony’s Cross appears to be coming around at the right time for Eoin Harty after having his training schedule compromised by the weather, but he’s going to have to come home faster than :38 2/5 and :13 3/5 for the final eighth. The race pretty much fell into his lap when Tapizar, who he had been tracking, fell apart nearing the eighth pole. He showed a lot of courage holding off Riveting Reason, but there are questions marks with the runner-up as well. He’s only won one of his nine career starts and has come up on the short end of photos in his last two starts – one wearing blinkers and one without blinkers. We’ll know more about those two in their next start. But Anthony’s Cross certainly is eligible to keep improving.

Cal-bred Thirtyfirststreet, trying open company and two turns for the first time had his chances compromised severely by a bad start and deserves another shot after his fourth-place finish.

Silver Medallion is another who is getting better with each start and turned in a solid effort to win the El Camino Real Derby, following up his victory in the Eddie Logan Stakes on the grass. He still needs to prove himself on dirt, and he’s a small horse, so we’ll have to see how he holds up during the Derby trail grind and of course in a 20-horse Derby field. But his final eighth in :12 3/5 was good enough to consider him a legitimate stretch threat.

The only stakes in which form did hold up was the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) at Tampa where the 4-5 Brethren drew off to a four-length victory, and he was visually impressive in doing it. But he is another whose next start will tell more about him. In the Davis, none of the leading contenders were a factor and he had a perfect setup, tracking a 53-1 shot through a slow three-quarters in 1:13. The second- and third-place finishers were both 30-1, and the runner-up had broken his maiden for a $16,000 claiming tag. But Brethren did what he had to and won with relative ease, so we’ll just wait to see where he shows up next and how he handles better competition.

Don’t throw out Beamer just yet. After breaking slowly and dropping back to last, he didn’t find his best stride until it was too late, but closed well to be fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths for second, while coming home his final sixteenth in about :06 2/5, suggesting he could have a say in upcoming stakes with a good trip and pace scenario.

Changes in store

Expect a number of changes on the Derby Dozen next week. Other than the two big guns Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve and a few others who either have just won, like Brethren, or haven’t started yet, like Stay Thirsty, Jaycito, and Astrology, many of the spots are up for grabs, and we have a new, exciting second wave competing this weekend, with several of those likely to make it on the Top 12.  

Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) matches proven stakes horses and Derby Dozen inhabitants Rogue Romance, Santiva, and Mucho Macho Man against each other to see who will take that all-important step forward in their 3-year-old debut and survive the cut. Decisive Moment, Pants on Fire, and Action Ready are all proven stakes horses, Justin Phillip is trying to rebound off an inexplicably bad effort in the LeComte (gr. III), and then there is Machen, who some feel may be better than all of them.

This is a huge class test for the son of Distorted Humor, who has exhibited speed, toughness, and a quick turn of foot in his two career starts. But his Beyer figure dropped from a 94 to a 78 when he stretched out to two turns, and being out of a More Than Ready mare, there has to be some stamina questions, although he runs like a horse who wants to keep going. He was 1-20 in his last start, due to a combination of weak competition and a high respect for his ability by the betting public. He has after all been a buzz horse since his maiden score, and who isn’t rooting for Neil Howard?

On Sunday we have everyone’s favorite speed freak The Factor returning from his other worldly maiden victory on Dec. 26 (see more on him farther down). The racing world will be watching closely to see what kind of fireworks he can set off this time. But he’ll be up against some fast, classy horses in stakes winners Premier Pegasus and Indian Winter, both of whom should be able to stretch out in distance with no problem.

Then on Monday, we have the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn, which will feature stakes winners J P’s Gusto and Caleb’s Posse against up-and-comers Elite Alex, Alternation, and possibly Yankee Passion. Also possible is Archarcharch, who will be looking for redemption following a poor effort in the Smarty Jones. He could show improvement if they can get him back off the pace this time.

The future is now

This week marks the first Future Wager, and the dropouts and failures mentioned above should be a stark reminder of how foolhardy it could be to shell out large sums of money this early on the Derby trail.

The first of the three wagers can result in big payoffs if you happen to get lucky and latch on to the right horse, but it also can be the most frustrating if you like an under-the-radar horse who gets lumped into the mutuel field, which has little appeal unless you’re willing to wager a lot to make a little. That is a major flaw of the Future Wager and what makes the good old fashioned future book bet a much better investment.

Each year there are a number of promising late developers who are lumped in the mutuel field, but there seems to be more of them this year, which makes it frustrating for those who want to try to cash in on those horses now. That is why the future book is the only way to go if you have a way of getting down.

Some of the up-and-comers who look to have a bright future and could become major players shortly are Casper’s Touch, Elite Alex, Alternation, Bowman’s Causeway, Nacho Business, Shackleford, Arch Traveler, Beamer, Runflatout, Albergatti, Majestic Harbor, Crossbow, Sway Away, Awesome Patriot, and Free Entry. Those horses alone beef up the mutual field.

Of all the proven stakes horses who failed to make the list, Toby’s Corner, winner of the Whirlaway Stakes, is one who has made a big impression. But you’ll have to contact someone in Vegas to get down on him.

Jaycito heading for San Felipe

Bob Baffert had toyed with the idea of running Jaycito in Sunday’s seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) after an allowance race failed to go, but he has decided to wait for the March 12 San Felipe (gr. II).

Baffert said the son of Victory Gallop is really coming around now and that his seven-furlong work in 1:25 2/5 on Tuesday was what he finally was looking for from the colt, who he now feels is training and behaving like a Derby horse. Baffert had some major issues to deal with after getting Jaycito, including straightening out his mind after he pretty much lost it in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Baffert now feels his mental antics finally are behind him.

Baffert also is happy with the way The Factor is doing leading up to the San Vicente. He has gotten the colt to relax in his works after taking him to Hollywood Park to train, where it is much quieter than at Santa Anita. Now he only hopes jockey Martin Garcia can harness some of that speed on Sunday. Baffert will also run the speedy Sinai in the San Vicente.  

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