Ky. Derby Trail: Tickets Going Fast

No, not seats; tickets to the starting gate. Spaces are filling at a rapid rate and there aren’t many left for all the horses scheduled to run over the next two weekends.

In case no one has noticed, half of the 20-horse starting field already have the graded earnings and have stamped their tickets to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

Those horses are Dialed In, Shackleford, Soldat, To Honor and Serve, Stay Thirsty, Pants on Fire, Mucho Macho Man, Twice the Appeal, Animal Kingdom, and Decisive Moment. All are heading for the Derby, leaving only 10 spots still open. Throw in Uncle Mo and that leaves nine.

Of course, it doesn’t matter that six of those 10 horses lost their final Derby prep, with three of them finishing out of the money. It is tough to get within one race of the Derby and give up the dream, and it appears not many are willing to do that. Can you blame them? With the majority of 3-year-olds now having only two or three starts prior to the Derby, it seems it really doesn’t matter anymore what they do in their final start. A regression in form, no matter how drastic, is now considered merely a throw-out race. Although To Honor and Serve was beaten 6 3/4 lengths in the Florida Derby (gr. I), Soldat 10 3/4 lengths, and Stay Thirsty 16 3/4 lengths, their trainers have all said the Kentucky Derby is still in their plans.

As Stay Thirsty’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, said, they have decided to go by his body of work, rather than the one race.

All three are graded stakes winners and all have good races in their resume. It is those races that are taking precedence over the not-so-good races, even when the not-so-good races are the all-important final prep. So, are the connections of these horses heading to Louisville pretty much on a hope and a prayer? Do they feel their horses have a realistic chance to win the Derby off those final preps? Only they can answer that.

The Derby trail used to be a pretty straight path. Venture too far off that path and lose your way and you’re gone. But now, there are so many side streets that lead back to Churchill Downs from all directions, it doesn’t really matter what the old road map says. If you can somehow find your way there, that’s good enough. When a horse like Mine That Bird can blaze a new trail from New Mexico to Kentucky, it gives hope to anyone who has a horse with sufficient graded earnings

You can ask yourself: Was Soldat exposed in any way? Can To Honor and Serve get a mile and quarter after faltering early in both his races? Is there a reason why Stay Thirsty never was in the race at any point? The answers are all the same – “I don’t know.” And these days, “I don’t know” apparently is good enough.

We'll leave you with this question: Of the 10 horses mentioned above who have earned their way into the starting gate and are planning to run, how many do you really really feel can win the Derby?

As for the Florida Derby itself, some are knocking the slow closing fractions, but in defense of the only two horses who did anything in the race, Dialed In overcame a speed biased track, on which none of the other winners came from farther back than 1 1/2 lengths. He had to run a :47 flat half within the body of the race just to maintain his position, which was at least a dozen lengths off the pace. He then unleashed a powerful run on the far turn, but had to swing six-wide turning for home. Shackleford was well into the stretch while Dialed In was still on the turn. He shaded :13 for the final eighth, with jockey Julien Leparoux giving him only three left-handed whacks and hand-riding him most of the way. In short, Dialed In won this race on his own talent and determination.

Some say Soldat’s main excuse was that he was down on the inside on the worst part of the track. Yet he was three paths off the rail down the backside, while Dialed In was right on the rail, well inside him. Soldat apparently didn’t care for the dirt being kicked in his face, but he will have to learn to deal with it when he encounters a 20-horse field, unless he goes back to running on the lead or can stalk from the outside.

Shackleford had to go five-wide into the first turn and proceeded to set stiff fractions of :46 1/5 and 1:10 3/5, which was two full seconds faster than the fractions of the Skip Away Stakes (gr. III) for older horses the race before. He is still very green and like he did in his allowance victory he failed to maintain a straight course, this time ducking out badly from a left-handed whip. But you had to like the way he dug in when challenged by Dialed In and how he galloped out. He will need to keep improving mentally and race more professionally. And we have no idea if he can be effective sitting off the pace. But he does have a lot of ability.

His sire, Forestry, is out of a Pleasant Colony mare and his dam is by Unbridled, so he has two Kentucky Derby winners and stamina influences in his second and third generations. He also is inbred to Dr. Fager and In Reality, both major class influences.

So, the Florida Derby did nothing to alter the Derby field, other than to add Shackleford.

Compiling this week’s Derby Dozen was a study in confusion. We dropped the three Florida Derby also-rans, because of the old-school logic that is still embedded in our brain. Would it be a shock to see a horse like Soldat bounce back in the Derby? Not anymore it wouldn’t.

Although they didn’t make this week’s list, Santiva, Archarcharch, Nehro, Toby’s Corner, and Crimson China are still very much in our Derby picture. We dropped Santiva for the first time just to get a handle on him running in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on Polytrack and what that race might do or not do for him. It could prove to be a bad move or it could prove to be a stroke of genius. Darned if we know at this point, but he likely will be back on the list.

We didn’t put Nehro on, because we still want to see if he will run back in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) or go six weeks into the Kentucky Derby off only four career starts, something Animal Kingdom will have to do as well. Nehro is a vastly improved horse with tremendous upside.

Archarcharch is a horse we wrote extensively about recently and he has a lot of angles going for him. After this weekend’s races, there is a good chance he will be on next week’s list as the Arkansas Derby approaches.

Crimson China is a horse that caught our eye in his allowance victory on grass, and we thought he ran an exceptional race to be second in the Rushaway Stakes. Like his stablemate, Animal Kingdom, he still has to prove himself on dirt, and if he runs big in the Blue Grass, that proof won’t come until the Derby. But we just think he’s a very good horse. Also in the Blue Grass, watch out for Data Link, another grass horse, who has run well on dirt. He has enormous potential and should keep improving. But he needs to handle the Polytrack.

Finally, Toby’s Corner is still a work in progress, but if he runs in the Wood Memorial, he only needs to finish second to get in the Derby, and with showers in the forecast for Friday and Saturday, that would move him up after his victory in the Whirlaway Stakes in the slop.

That’s just a few of the intriguing horses who are trying to make it into the Derby. Expect a few others to pop up in the next couple of weeks.

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