This is not about who is going to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) as much as who so far has the look of a Derby winner – who is on track to peak on Derby Day, who looks eager to do more than they already have, and who has exhibited the attributes that normally win the Derby.
With Uncle Mo, Jaycito, Astrology, and Awesome Patriot yet to make their 3-year-old debuts they obviously do not fit into this equation.
This list differs from the Derby Dozen, which is based on intangibles, pedigree, trainer, and other factors.
1—DIALED IN -- After his remarkable Holy Bull (gr. III) victory, it’s OK that he regressed a little off that race and his 97 Beyer. His 90 Beyer in the allowance race still is solid enough. It is important to remember that he went into his first two-turn race against older horses off only two works (4f and 5f) in five weeks, so he had to be short for the race. Also, the slow pace and being lulled to sleep while in traffic didn’t help him, as he was taken out of his game. Despite all that, his closing Brisnet pace figure of 112 actually was only one point slower than his 113 in the Holy Bull. Of all the other horses in the second Future Wager pool, only Soldat’s 110 closing pace figure in his allowance score comes close to those two figures. So, speed-wise he is by far the best closer we’ve seen this year. He also defeated a top-class field in the Holy Bull, with fourth-place finisher Mucho Macho Man coming back to win the Risen Star (gr. II) and third-place finisher Gourmet Dinner finishing an excellent second in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II). He should get a lot out of this last race, and look for him to revert back to his old style of running with a faster pace and bigger field and bounce back big-time in the Florida Derby.
2—MUCHO MACHO MAN – He’s demonstrated his class at 2 and at 3, running his two best races going two turns. Standing 17 hands tall and with a gargantuan stride, he seemed to be just getting started at the end of the Risen Star and galloped out strong. And he was cutting into To Honor and Serve’s lead in the Remsen. For a June 15 foal, which is uncommonly late, he has already run seven times, excelling from distances of six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. Winning the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff hasn’t been accomplished since 1956, but because of his size and late-foaling date, and going into the Derby off six straight races at a mile or longer, it could be beneficial for him to have a little extra time off before the Derby grind. But trainer Kathy Ritvo will have to keep him sharp and fit during that time. He’s run three good middle pace figures and one good closing pace figure, suggesting he is a grinder who can beat you from anywhere on the track. He just needs to get back to or improve off his 99 Beyer figure in the Remsen. Grinders don’t need monstrous speed figures, because they have the ability to capitalize on faster horses’ mistakes and weaknesses by being in the hunt at all times and going only as fast as they have to.
3—SOLDAT – As we mentioned before, despite winning his two races this year on the front end, he did get a big Brisnet closing pace figure in his nine-furlong allowance victory in the slop and a solid enough figure in the Fountain of Youth. But unlike closers such as Dialed In, he did it after running solid early and middle pace figures, meaning he can run you off your feet early and still keep going. The best part about him is that he laid back off the pace last year in his grass races, so he should be even more effective reverting back to that style, assuming he will do just that in his next two races. His sire, War Front, was a confirmed sprinter, but has sired several classy two-turn horses this year, and we’ll see how The Factor stretches out in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II).
4—SANTIVA – What I like about him, in addition to his consistency, is his 13-point Beyer jump from his Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) victory last year to his second in the Risen Star in his 3-year-old debut. His Brisnet jump wasn’t as dramatic, but closing pace figure went from a 96 to a 105. He still needs to get faster, but he’s at least progressing the right way. His Beyer and Brisnet figures have gone up in every race he’s run since his first start. And he did demonstrate a good turn of foot in the Risen Star to jump into contention after dropping back on the far turn. He’s by Giant’s Causeway and his broodmare sire, Smarten, like Giant’s Causeway, was as tough and durable as they come, winning the Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and American Derbys and placing in the Arkansas and Tropical Park Derbys, as well as the Travers, Meadowlands Cup, and five other stakes. All in all, he won or placed in 15 stakes as a 3-year-old. Santiva isn’t going to dazzle you with any blazing times, but so far he is taking after his sire and broodmare as far as toughness and consistency.
5—STAY THIRSTY – Many people knocked his Gotham Stakes (gr. III) victory, claiming it was too slow and that he didn’t beat much. But the main thing you want to see from a 3-year-old making his first start in four months and first start around two turns is how he closes, how he looks coming to the wire, and how much the race did to move him forward. And in this case, what he had to overcome to do it. He broke poorly with his head in the air and then was floated four-wide into the first turn, not the place to be on the Aqueduct inner track. The pace was very slow and there was nothing he could do about that. He had to show a good closing kick and by coming home in :24 2/5 and :06 2/5 he did just that, despite lugging in on two occasions and changing leads three times. He obviously has to work on that greenness and run faster next time out, but this race was a step in that direction. Although he hasn’t improved from his previous speed figures, his 106 closing Brisnet figure was solid enough and a big improvement. You have to think there’s a lot more in the tank. How much and can he step it up in time for the Derby we’ll find out soon enough.
6-- BRETHREN – This half-brother to last year’s Derby winner Super Saver is a tough colt to get a read on right now. And we might not know that much more about him after the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), in which he looks to face pretty much the same bunch he beat up on in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III), with a few unproven horses mixed in. His Beyer and Brisnet figs are slow and he hasn’t beaten a top-class horse yet. His Derby Dozen ranking is based almost solely on the visual aspect of the Sam F. Davis and the way he improved professionally off his allowance score at Churchill Downs last fall, in which he raced greenly down the stretch. He won the Sam Davis as easily as any 3-year-old has won this year and he did it with smooth, effortless strides. The best we can say about him right now is that he has a great deal of room for improvement and could turn into a man by the first Saturday in May.
7—ARCHARCHARCH – He is another whose speed figures leave a lot to be desired, but there is a good deal upside to him. In a seemingly contentious Southwest Stakes (gr. III), he was the only horse who made a strong run and he did at the right spot and did it effortlessly. One minute the pack was tightly bunched approaching the top of the stretch, and then there he was emerging from the pack, quickly opening a clear lead and doing it on his own, while still on his left lead. A big, long-striding colt, he showed his greenness by drifting in from a right-handed whip and finally did switch to his right lead with 70 yards to go. Although J P’s Gusto was cutting into his lead, he was striding out beautifully in those final yards. What is intriguing about him is that he bred purely for stamina on both sides, yet managed to win the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes in 1:10 2/5 as a maiden in only his second career start. He was too fast early for his own good when stretching out to a mile in the Smarty Jones, but improved 26 Beyer points and 24 Brisnet points in the Southwest, and there is no reason think he won’t move forward again in the Rebel.
8—ROGUE ROMANCE – He looks to be on a fairly similar pattern as Santiva, but hasn’t shown the tactical speed and acceleration Santiva has. He is one of those horses that is always going to be coming at you, and who isn’t rooting for a son of Smarty Jones to make an impact on the classics. What he needs to do is show the same kind of closing knockout punch he exhibited last year on the grass. So far, in his two races on dirt, he has closed in the stretch, but hasn’t shown that turn of foot you want to see. To his credit, he didn’t have the cleanest of trips in the Risen Star and found himself behind a wall of horses before finding a clear lane and coming on late. But a good burst of speed probably would have helped him shoot through a hole earlier. He’s never run a bad race and is always going to look like an attractive proposition, especially in a race with pace. Like Santiva, he ran career high Beyer figure in the Risen Star. While his Brisnet figure was not as high as his BC Juvenile (gr. I), his closing pace figure jumped 12 points, equaling his figure in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) on grass last year, which he won going away after rallying from 12th.
9 and 10—ELITE ALEX and ALTERNATION – It’s difficult to separate these two after their close finish in a one-mile allowance race, even though Elite Alex ran an amazing race after a disastrous start and not having run since breaking his maiden going 5 1/2 furlongs six months earlier. Elite Alex went on to the Southwest Stakes and again had a horrible trip, having to go seven-wide at the top of the stretch and finishing third, while Alternation opted for a 1 1/6-mile allowance on the undercard, which he won comfortably over Smarty Jones Stakes runner-up Dreaminofthewin. The feeling here watching these colts, who both have exceptional pedigrees, is that we haven’t seen anything near their best, which should make the Rebel a fascinating race, with several shippers expected, including The Factor.
11—TO HONOR AND SERVE – I have him much higher on the Derby Dozen because of his excellent 2-year-old form, but this list is based mainly on how they’ve looked this year, and I can’t put him any higher off just his well-beaten third in the Fountain of Youth, in which he tired early and was a beaten horse before they even hit the top of the stretch. Can he bounce back with a big effort in the Florida Derby? Of course he can, but he had to have gotten enough out of the Fountain of Youth to go out there and prove that race was a fluke and the real To Honor and Serve will show up on May 7.
12—MACHEN --This is one horse who has tremendous room for improvement following a solid fourth-place finish in the Risen Star, in which he encountered some brief traffic problems while making his move and had to swing to the outside. With only two starts under his belt, this was a good move forward and should make him very tough in the Louisiana Derby. He has already demonstrated an explosive turn of foot, bursting through horses in his allowance victory, but his main issue is his habit of breaking poorly. Once he gets his act together coming out of the gate he will be a force to reckon with. That should come with racing and maturing. He still hasn't duplicated his BrisNet speed figure in his career debut, but earned a new high closing pace figure in the Risen Star.
13 -- TOBY’S CORNER – I like this colt too much to give up on him after his third in the Gotham Stakes. A tall, stately son of Bellamy Road, he really caught the eye in the paddock. On a fast track, he just had too much to do off that slow pace. He did close into a fast final sixteenth, and although he likely will be sent to the Illinois Derby (gr. II) to pick up graded earnings on a track that often works against closers, he still cannot be taken out of the Derby picture. He is another who is still maturing and will pop off a big one at some point.
14—GOURMET DINNER – Tough, honest, and consistent, and a horse any trainer would give anything to have in their barn. He had little chance of catching Soldat in the Fountain of Youth, but boy did he try. On the surface, he looks more like a mile to mile and an eighth type of horse and doesn’t have the stride of a stayer. But all the above attributes he gets from his Tartan Farm laden female family will make him dangerous wherever he runs. Nothing he does will come as a surprise.
15—SILVER MEDALLION – He is improving in leaps and bounds and now has to show what he can do on dirt. His form certainly was boosted when POSITIVE RESPONSE, who was third behind him in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), went to Turfway Park and dusted his field by seven lengths in the John Battaglia Memorial. He is another who still has to prove himself on dirt. But Silver Medallion is moving in the right direction and has the right running style. He needs to get faster, like many of them, but is one to keep an eye on.
Right on the heels of these 15 is J P’s GUSTO, who is very similar to Gourmet Dinner in that he’s equally as tough, honest, and consistent. But his pedigree is inundated with speed, so stamina is a major question mark. And COMMA TO THE TOP, who had a five-race winning streak stopped in the El Camino Real Derby, will try to make amends in the San Felipe.
The Southern California horses are hard to gauge off the 1-2 finish of ANTHONY’S CROSS and RIVETING REASON in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II). That picture will clear up in the San Felipe (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Anthony’s Cross is improving and has shown a new dimension with the addition of blinkers, but now needs to keep improving against better competition. Riveting Reason has let two races get away from him, losing photos after apparently having victory in his grasp. He’s an honest horse, but with one victory in nine career starts he needs to show he can win one of these. He does have a similar record to Giacomo, but Giacomo was a stone closer.
We’ve certainly seen some brilliant sprint performances on Santa Anita’s souped up track from THE FACTOR, RUNFLATOUT, ALBERGATTI, AND WILBURN, and an impressive losing effort by SWAY AWAY. But those horses, as well as FLASHPOINT, winner of the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II), and PREMIER PEGASUS still have to prove themselves around two turns. Premier Pegasus is bred to go longer, so he is one to keep an eye on.
If the Turf Paradise Derby is ever going to produce a Kentucky Derby contender it will be BEER MEISTER, who ran a fantastic race in his first two-turn effort, coming from 22 lengths back to win going away. By Pleasant Tap, he should have no stamina problems.
Finally, we have the so-called under-the-radar horses who have shown enough to suggest they are on the verge of a breakout performance and establish themselves as legitimate Derby contenders. One of them, STRIDING AHEAD, runs in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby after a very impressive maiden victory over the track, in which he gave all appearances of being a top-class colt, the way he cornered and powered home with long, efficient strides. He was smart enough to throw his tail in the air when jockey Luis Garcia went to hit him with the whip, and he was hand-ridden the rest of the way, while taken well in hand in the final yards. He showed no signs of slowing down after the wire and Garcia had all he could do to pull him up. Of course we don't know yet about his class, but the way the son of Empire Maker turned back a challenge on the turn and the way he looked down the stretch, he could develop into a top horse for Bill Mott and Juddmonte. His dam, Helstra, is a half-sister to Stormy Atlantic, his second dam, Hail Atlantic won the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), and his third dam, Flippers, a half-sister to Apalachee and Brahms, won the Golden Rod (gr. II) and Pocahontas at Churchill Downs. For you Rasmussen Factor pundits, he is inbred to Rough Shod through full-sisters Moccasin and Thong.
Watch out for BOWMAN’S CAUSEWAY, whose fourth in the Fountain of Youth was a much better effort than it might appear. I still like everything about this horse and feel he is going to heard from shortly.
NACHO BUSINESS and NACHO SAINT, stablemates of Sweet Ducky, are coming off tough trips, in which they were unable to show their best, and both should improve many lengths in their next start. You have to give credit to NORMAN ASBJORNSON for his good second in the Gotham off two impressive victories at Philly Park (Parx) and Penn National.
If there is a sneaky horse who possibly can get Uncle Mo to raise a sweat in the Timely Writer it is ROCKING OUT, who exploded in the stretch to break his maiden in spectacular fashion at Aqueduct in November. Coming off a layoff, he wound up on the lead in a mile allowance race Feb. 13, and although he tired late to finish third, he definitely needed that race and should be more effective reverting back to his come-from-behind style.
I don't know if the normally conservative Shug McGaughey is thinking Derby with BREAK UP THE GAME, but this son of Bernardini, out of Personal Ensign's daughter Pennant Champion, has shown great promise in all three of his seven-furlong races, and looked particularly impressive breaking his maiden last weekend. He has a beautiful way of going and looks as if he can't wait to stretch out to two turns.
If you want a huge longshot to at least hit the board in the San Felipe, watch out for SURREY STAR, who is by a son of Dubai Millennium, out of a Fantastic Light mare, so he should be all about distance. After starting nine times at 2 in Europe, he finished a fast-closing third in the one-mile Generous Stakes (gr. IIIT) on grass. Dropping back to seven furlongs in the San Vicente in his dirt debut, he drew the disadvantageous rail, made a big early move, running his second quarter in a scorching :20 1/5, and then raced evenly to finish fourth, beaten 4 3/4 lengths. Like five others in the San Felipe, he's going two turns for the first time, so, you never know.
Other lesser knowns to watch are BEAMER, FREE ENTRY, and WASHINGTON’S RULES. The first two run in the Tampa Bay Derby. And John Shirreffs is about ready to sneak on to the Derby trail with the grand-looking MR. COMMONS off his recent allowance victory.
Looking for potential Derby horses coming off the grass? The ones to look out for are DATA LINK, CRIMSON CHINA, and KING CONGIE.