Evaluating the Juveniles Present and Future

We are all aware that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby are two totally separate entities, with only two of the 32 Juvenile winners going on to capture the Run for the Roses.

This year, however, we not only have a deep, talented field for the Juvenile, but the vast majority of them also look like Derby horses in terms of class, pedigree, and running style.

The one horse all the experts seem to be falling in love with, especially his trainer, is Not This Time, whose races have been extremely impressive, as he has demonstrated all the attributes you want to see in a Derby horse, including the ability to overcome a bad start and not only go on to win, but decimate his opponents.

Going by the eye test, this son of Giant’s Causeway is a true attention grabber, with his classy demeanor and smooth fluid strides, and the ease with which he does things. If you’re looking for a very early Derby horse, who has won big at Churchill Downs and has come home in fast time in his races and works, both with little effort, it’s difficult to look past him.

But does that mean he’s going to win the Juvenile, especially over a normally speed-favoring track over which he’s never run? And can he work out a good trip from the 10-post without losing too much ground?

The other horse high on many people’s radar is Classic Empire, who rebounded off his mental lapse in the Hopeful Stakes with the addition of blinkers and was very impressive winning the Breeders’ Futurity to remain undefeated in races in which he has finished. If he remains as professional as he was at Keeneland, and with his classic pedigree, he has all the tools to be a legitimate Derby contender, and deserves to be one of the favorites in the Juvenile, in which he drew well in post 5.

Watching all the prep races and handicapping the Juvenile, you have to be impressed with the tenacious Practical Joke, who won the Hopeful and Champagne on grit and class; the one-two finishers in the FrontRunner Stakes, Gormley and Klimt, who have a race over the track; the unknown Florida monster Three Rules, who has destroyed his opponents in all five of his starts, including a sweep of the Florida Stallion Series; the undefeated Theory, winner of the Futurity at Belmont, who lacks experience, but is going to be heard from next year, and should love stretching out to two turns; and the fast-closing Lookin At Lee, winner of the Ellis Park Juvenile and second to both Not This Time and Classic Empire in stakes.

As mentioned earlier, all these horses have a big chance to win the Juvenile and possess all the tools to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.

And then we come to Syndergaard, a horse who, right now, looks to be too fast for his own good in regard to being a Derby horse. In his three career starts, his average opening half-mile has been a blistering :44 3/5. When a horse runs an opening half in :44 2/5 going a flat mile at Belmont Park while under pressure, that is one fast colt, but not what you want to see from a prospective Derby horse, especially coming home the last quarter in :26.

However, as stated, the Juvenile has no bearing on the Derby, and when Syndergaard drew post 2 going from a one-turn mile at Belmont to a two-turn race at Santa Anita it put him in an enviable position to blow his field away early and open up a decisive advantage. We all saw in the Champagne that this colt has no quit in him, as he put away the other speed and dug in when Practical Joke looked him in the eye, losing by the bob of a head. In fact, Syndergaard was in front one jump before the wire and one jump past the wire.

Racing two turns for the first time, no one is expecting Syndergaard to go in :44 and change, but with his inside post, he should have no trouble outrunning Gormley and Three Rules, both coming off two-turn races, into the first turn. Stretching out to two-turns in the FrontRunner, Gormley went his opening half in :47 after a rapid sprint split in his career debut, and Three Rules went in :48 after also setting very fast fractions in sprints, and we all know that Todd Pletcher babies have a tendency to break out of the gate as if hit in the rump with a hot branding iron. What I did love about Gormley’s victory over Bob Baffert’s 1-5 favorite Klimt was the way he won with his ears pricked, indicating there was a lot more to give. Despite that, he still earned an impressive 93 Beyer speed figure, with Klimt having to overcome a slow start and still finishing 4 1/2 lengths ahead of the third horse, the promising Straight Fire.

Oddly, the only horse who has been sprinting and might have the speed to stay relatively close to Syndergaard is his stablemate Theory, but he’s been more of a stalker and I don’t see the two Pletcher horses testing each other early. Theory just does not have Syndergaard’s speed. Actually, Not This Time should be much closer this time if he breaks cleanly and is able to rush up and get a good position going into the first turn. He did break his maiden on the front end.

Still, Syndergaard should be in complete control of the pace, with John Velazquez free to open up as big a lead as he pleases and defy the others to come catch him. I don’t see the others with speed trying to test him early. And he’s already shown he’s not going to fold if someone does challenge him, no matter how fast he runs early.

So, I am looking at the Juvenile as two races in one. I’m, of course, looking for a Derby horse and there are plenty to choose from, and I’m particularly interested to see how Not This Time runs, as well as Classic Empire, Practical Joke, and some of the others. The other aspect of the Juvenile is trying to find a winner, regardless of whether he appears to be Derby material. With Syndergaard, I can envision this colt busting out of the gate, cutting the corner to establish a clear lead over Gormley and Three Rules and continuing to open up and playing catch me if you can.

Judging by his blazing speed, his tenacity, and his final Juvenile work on the Belmont training track, in which he came home strong in company and galloped out powerfully, I have to think he is going to be a very tough horse to catch.

But, if that is the case, you can bet I’ll have my eye on what’s behind him, looking ahead to next year. And I must conclude with one final thought. As I mentioned, most of the attention will be on Not This Time and Classic Empire, and rightly so. And while many might dismiss the Gulfstream Park form and the competition in the Stallion Series, from what I’ve seen visually in all his races, it would not be wise to overlook Three Rules.

This colt has a beautiful way of moving, exudes a great deal of class, and is very professional. And in the In Reality, which was his two-turn debut, his :48 half is deceptive because the track that day was listed as good and was on the deep side, judging by the ‘22’ track variant. Not only did Three Rules win by 10 lengths, but the runner-up finished 8 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse in the 12-horse field. In the opening leg of the Stallion Series, the Dr. Fager, he won by seven lengths, earning a 94 Beyer, which, along with Klimt in the Del Mar Futurity, is the fastest of any horse in the field.

I will give the Juvenile one final look in a couple of days after I hopefully watch Syndergaard and Three Rules train over the track, but these are the two potential overlays I’m looking at right now, with Syndergaard the main play and Three Rules the price horse to watch for next year and run a good race here as well. Heck, they might even run one-two the whole way around if the track is playing speed.

One final bit of advice, if you are as taken with Not This Time as others are, including myself, and believe trainer Dale Romans’ rave reviews, then get your Derby future book bets down before the Juvenile. Regardless of how this race plays out with the pace, and with him breaking from the 10-post, this looks like one special colt. Or maybe Classic Empire is the special one with stakes wins sprinting and two turns.

This is a fascinating race and should be fun to watch, especially seeing how the pace unfolds going into the first turn. That could determine the outcome right there.

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