There have always been three stages when it comes to the Kentucky Derby trail. But they have changed dramatically over the years.
The first stage, and the one that has become antiquated in this era of late developers, lightly raced horses, and nagging 2-year-old setbacks is the 2-year-old sprint stage that used to serve as the launching pad for most Derby horses. Way back when at a time that seems like the dark ages to today’s younger racing fans, Derby contenders often were seen already competing in sprint stakes like the Hopeful, Futurity, Cowdin, Sapling, Hollywood Juvenile Championship, Del Mar Futurity, Arlington-Washington Futurity, Sanford, Saratoga Special, Tremont, Flash Stakes, Youthful Stakes, World’s Playground Stakes, Great American Stakes, and National Stallion Stakes. In the 1970’s alone, Kentucky Derby winners Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid all won at least one of the aforementioned sprint stakes.
Once the 2-year-olds would sort themselves out in these stakes, they moved on to the stakes run at a mile or longer, such as the Champagne, Garden State Stakes, Pimlico-Laurel Futurity, Remsen, Breeders’ Futurity, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Young America Stakes, and in more recent years, the Norfolk Stakes (changed to the FrontRunner and now the American Pharoah), Hollywood Futurity (now the Los Alamitos Futurity), and Iroquois Stakes. That pretty much has remained the same with the exception of the addition in 1984 of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which now usually is the championship decider. It used to be the Champagne that decided the 2-year-old championship, and in some cases the rich Garden State Stakes.
Then came the final stage – the 3-year-old stakes leading to up to the Derby. But back then, sprint stakes like the Bahamas, Bay Shore, Hutcheson, San Vicente, Los Feliz, and Hibiscus were important steps on the Derby trail, as they were excellent starting off points for trainers to sharpen a horse before plunging into the major two-turn stakes. Some top Derby contenders even started off in allowance sprints. Unfortunately, today, with the point system instituted to qualify for the Derby, those sprint stakes are now considered worthless as Derby preps by Churchill Downs, and none of them offer any points, which forces the vast majority of trainers with Derby hopefuls to abandon them completely.
So, while there still are the three stages leading up to the Kentucky Derby, they bear little resemblance to the past, due in good part to the point system, which is designed to bring only the most accomplished two-turn horses into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. That has all but eliminated the entire aspect of sharpening horses at 3 before throwing them into two-turn competition right from the start.
With the official Derby Dozen starting in mid January every year, and Stage 1 basically completed, let’s see if we can attempt to find any potential Kentucky Derby contenders who have competed in the 2-year-old sprint stakes, just like racing fans from yesteryear used to do.
This is not about who won what races and how impressive they were. It is about which horses have looked like Derby horses so far, based on their performances combined with their running style and pedigrees.
It is not surprising that Bob Baffert holds the strongest hand with five potential Derby prospects already, all with excellent pedigrees. They are Del Mar Futurity winner GAME WINNER (by Candy Ride)), Del Mar Futurity third and beaten favorite ROADSTER (by Quality Road), and three impressive maiden winners MUCH BETTER (by Pioneer of the Nile), MAGIC ON TAP (by Tapit), and TALE OF THE UNION (by Union Rags). Despite Game Winner breaking his maiden first time out by 5 3/4 lengths, Baffert removed the blinkers for the Del Mar Futurity. He had put the speed in him to get his maiden, but after battling head and head with three horses in :22 2/5, Baffert obviously tried to get him to relax and, without the blinkers, Game Winner sat back in fourth in the Del Mar Futurity, five lengths off the lead, raced wide the entire way and ran down Rowayton in the final sixteenth to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths.
Staying out west, Jerry Hollendorfer has sent out several youngsters with exceptional speed who still have to prove they can carry that speed two turns. The most brilliant 2-year-old seen all year is INSTAGRAND (by Into Mischief), who has won both his starts by double-digit margins, including the Best Pal Stakes. But as sensational as Into Mischief has been as a sire, his offspring, especially the extremely fast ones, still have to prove themselves over a distance of ground. Instagrand is a complete outcross with several stamina influences in his female family. Hollendorfer also has the speedy Del Mar Futurity runner-up ROWAYTON (also by Into Mischief), and GUNMETAL GRAY (by Exchange Rate), a 6 3/4-length maiden winner. But none of these shout Derby horse to me, at least at this stage of their careers.
Also loaded with hot prospects is Chad Brown, and heading his list is one of the best Derby prospects I’ve seen so far, AURELIUS MAXIMUS, a son of Pioneerof the Nile, out of a mare by champions A.P. Indy and Queena. This family traces to grade 1 winner and great producer Too Chic, a daughter of the King Ranch filly Remedia, who is by Dr. Fager out of the sensational European champion Monade. Aurelius Maximus looked like a runner breaking his maiden going a mile at Belmont Park, winning by 7 3/4 lengths under wraps. Others to keep an eye on in Brown’s barn are maiden winners NETWORK EFFECT (by Mark Valeski), STANDARD DEVIATION (by Curlin), who rated beautifully first time out before drawing off to win by 2 3/4 lengths, COMPLEXITY (by MacLean’s Music), who blazed six furlongs in 1:09 3/5, winning by 4 1/2 lengths, and LOOKING AT BIKINIS (by Lookin At Lucky), who wired his field by almost six lengths. Look for AHEAD OF PLAN (by Big Drama) to break his maiden next time out after getting nailed on the wire by the extremely promising Endorsed. Yes, these are all trained by Chad Brown, not Todd Pletcher.
Speaking of ENDORSED, this Kiaran McLaughlin-trained son of Medaglia d’Oro is another I rank very highly as a Derby prospect the way he relentlessly ran down a sure winner in Ahead of Plan. From a visual standpoint, he looks to have all the tools to go along with a strong pedigree.
If I had to rank a No. 1 horse for the Derby at this early stage it would be Hopeful runner-up MUCHO, who broke his maiden in devastating fashion by 9 3/4 lengths, eased up at the end, and then ran a strong second to Monmouth shipper Mind Control, who led from the start in the Hopeful. Despite bobbling at the break and racing wide throughout, Mucho ran on strongly in the final eighth to miss by three-quarters of a length in a sharp 1:22 4/5. And there is no doubt that the farther he goes the better, being by BC Classic winner Blame and inbred a close 3x3 to the top-class Claiborne mare Bound, a daughter of Nijinsky who produced the dams of Mucho’s sire and dam. This gives him the much coveted Rasmussen Factor (RF). Bound is a half-sister to Nureyev and Fairy Bridge, the dam of Sadler’s Wells, and a full-sister to multiple graded stakes winner Number. So far, Mucho, who has the class, the looks, and the pedigree, is the closest thing I’ve seen to the perfect package.
Mucho’s trainer Bill Mott also has Sapling winner UNIONIZER (by Union Rags), and you don’t often see Mott with two juveniles this strong at this early date.
MIND CONTROL shipped to Saratoga after breaking his maiden by three lengths. There is no doubting his tenacity, as he dueled with the speedy Nitrous through a half in :45 3/5 and had enough left to hold off Mucho. He has battled on the lead in all three of his starts and we’ll have to see how far he can carry his speed, despite his sire Stay Thirsty winning the Travers and just getting beat at the wire in the Belmont Stakes.
NITROUS is one of several runners from the Steve Asmussen barn, along with Saratoga Special and Iroquois runner-up TIGHT TEN (by Tapit), Ellis Park Juvenile winner TOBACCO ROAD (by Quality Road), and Ellis Park Juvenile runner-up and Sanford third WHISKEY ECHO (by Tiznow), who should want more distance.
Although the Iroquois is at a flat mile and not part of this group of sprint races, I’ll just mention the winner CAIRO CAT (by Cairo Prince), trained by Kenny McPeek, who also is high on first-out winner SIGNALMAN (by General Quarters).
Mention must be made of Saratoga Special winner CALL PAUL (by Friesan Fire), who, like so many at the Spa, won wire-to-wire. He has a long way to go to prove he’s a Derby horse.
I don't know how far TROPHY CHASER can carry his blazing speed, but his maiden score at Gulfstream was a real eye opener, as the son of Twirling Candy crushed his opponents by 15 3/4 lengths in 1:09 2/5 in the slop. Athough his broodmare sire, Successful Appeal, is known more for speed than stamina, the rest of this colt's female family is loaded with stamina.
Todd Pletcher, who didn’t have much in the way of 2-year-olds at Saratoga, had one horse of note, SOMBEYAY, winner of the Sanford Stakes, who could do no better than fourth in the Hopeful. A horse to watch coming out of the Sanford could be the narrowly beaten runner-up STRIKE SILVER, a Mark Casse-trained son of Violence, who has a ton of pedigree top and bottom. Also keep an eye on Casse’s DREAM MAKER, despite his fifth-place finish in the Hopeful. The son of Tapit is much better than that and should show big improvement next time out.
Churchill Downs had its first big day for 2-year-olds on Iroquois day, with a pair of six-furlong maiden races and a pair of one-mile maiden races. No one really jumped off the screen, and there are major distance question marks regarding the two six-furlong winners, DISTORTED JIMMY and PREAMBLE, but it is worth keeping an eye on the Dale Romans-trained MOONSTER (by Malibu Moon), who looked good winning at a mile, running three-fifths faster than BORRACHO (by Uncle Mo) in the other division.
So, now it’s on to Stage 2 and the big races at a mile or longer. But judging from the recent trend, especially with Justify writing a new chapter on Derby preparation, there is a good chance the Derby winner has not yet been seen on the racetrack, and may not be until next year. But that doesn’t stop us from looking.