Let’s look at this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) realistically. After the top three it is a study in futility trying to rank the rest of the horses. There simply isn’t enough to go by, as these horses keep beating each other and the vast majority of performances have been fairly ordinary.
You have solid horses like Ny Traffic and Enforceable, who always run well enough in big races, but can’t find the winner’s circle. Ny Traffic is always there at the finish and always runs hard, so you have to respect him. You have horses with only two lifetime starts, such as Uncle Chuck and Cezanne, who have run against lesser competition and small fields. You have horses like Dr Post, Pneumatic, Rushie, Storm the Court, and Attachment Rate, who have run well, but just can’t get over the hump. Of these, I still feel Pneumatic and Mystic Guide are better than they have shown, and Dr Post never seemed to get going in the Haskell. Remember, his first three generations are inundated with speed. Pneumatic, who was so impressive visually breaking maiden, had a sharp workout at Saratoga and could go in the Travers.
You have a brilliant and talented horse in King Guillermo, who likely is going to try to win the Derby off an unheard of four-month layoff. And you have Haskell winner Authentic, who doesn’t look as if he wants any part of a mile and a quarter right now. He appears to need to have everything his own way, and still looks unfocused. His final three-eighths in :38 4/5 in the Haskell certainly was nothing to get excited about. Even Bob Baffert admitted he trained him for the Haskell as if it was the Kentucky Derby, and he nearly gave a sure victory away. He has talent and is late to mature, but his running style and pedigree suggest a mile to a mile and an eighth is his limit, at least for now.
Dean Martini barely held on to win the Ohio Derby (G3), and has only won one of his 10 lifetime starts. Thousand Words ran a decent second in a subpar four-horse Los Alamitos Derby (G3), but still hasn’t regained the form he showed in his first three starts, although he didn’t exactly knock anyone out in those three races. Max Player finished a fairly solid third, beaten 5 1/4 lengths, in the Belmont Stakes (G1) off a 4 1/2-month layoff, but no one really did much running behind him. He at least showed enough to suggest he will move forward in the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) and could still prove to be a serious contender.
These horses all look hard to separate and even harder to handicap. Here is a look at some of the horses left who bear watching.
THE THREE STANDOUTS
TIZ THE LAW – Can solidify his status as the clear Derby favorite with a victory in the Travers, where he could face a fairly small field. He is attempting to become the first horse to win the Derby having already won at a mile and a quarter since Canonero II in 1971, who won going 10 furlongs in Venezuela. This will be the most revealing Derby preview ever, as it will show how he handles the distance and what the strategy is, and then he will have to duplicate it four weeks later. He is rock solid and appears to have no weaknesses, but this will certainly be a different prep for the Derby. “The Machine” showed his sharpness by turning in a bullet five-furlong work in :59 3/5, fastest of 20 works at the distance. He just does nothing wrong. Next it’s time to make Baffert cry uncle with his latest hotshot.
HONOR A. P. – This ranking is based mainly on spec, as his path to the Derby looks equally as unusual as Tiz the Law’s for totally opposite reasons. By remaining in California to run in the Shared Belief Stakes he will have on one 1 1/16-mile race in 11 weeks leading up to the Derby, running in small fields, and it will take all of John Shirreffs’ skills to ship cross country and knock off 19 opponents while stretching out another three-sixteenths of a mile off that one race. Shirreffs has shown he can get them fit off works and this powerhouse of a colt no doubt has a tremendous amount of ability and has shown steady improvement both physically and in his races. He pretty much has the same running style as Tiz the Law, which will make it all the more interesting.
ART COLLECTOR – He catapulted right up with the top two with his stunning victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2). Not only did he win going away by 3 1/2 lengths in a competitive 13-horse field, the second-place finisher, Swiss Skydiver, finished nearly five lengths against of the third horse, Rushie, who had finished third to Honor A. P. in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), beaten only four lengths. Art Collector’s “1 1/2" Thoro-Graph number puts him right behind the top two, and he has now finished first in his last four starts, so he definitely is on an upward trajectory and there is no telling just how good he may be. If he doesn’t come back in the Ellis Park Derby (G3) on Aug. 9 he would have to go into the Derby off an eight-week layoff, and only two horses – Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Needles in 1956 – have won the Derby off as much as a six-week layoff in the past century. Another big effort at Ellis Park and he will be awfully tough on the first Saturday in September.
THREE TO WATCH AT A PRICE
SOLE VOLANTE – He has gotten no respect from those who choose the Derby Future Wager field. Although they forgave the dismal performances of several others in the last two pools, they twice now have left him out of the field off one bad effort in the Belmont Stakes, ignoring his impressive score in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), fast-closing second in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), and an allowance victory over stakes-caliber horses. Add to that, he came out of the Belmont with a sore back and never ran a lick, and trainer Patrick Biancone admitted he misread his energy level and shouldn’t have run him back in nine days after his allowance score. But he is doing fine now and will either head to the Ellis Park Derby, where even a good second to Art Collector would set him up beautifully for the mile and a quarter of the Derby, or train up to the Derby off an 11-week layoff. That would also be unconventional, but Biancone pointed out that his career best sheets figure was when he won the allowance race off a three-month layoff. He has always been ranked high on Derby Dozen, and I’m not going to give up on him off that one race. I still believe this is a very talented horse with a big turn of foot and strong closing punch.
CARACARO – This is a stretch for such a lightly raced horse, but I have to admit I have sort of a personal attachment to him. In January, a prominent owner asked me to keep an eye out for any potential Derby horses that he could purchase outright. The first horse I gave him was Caracaro off his impressive maiden victory at Gulfstream. I just liked everything I saw, especially his fluid action and professionalism. Unfortunately he was then sidelined for six months before showing up in the Peter Pan Stakes (G2), an ambitious spot for a lightly raced horse coming off that long a layoff. All I was looking for was a solid effort and he surpassed that. Tracking the pace on the far outside after a rough start and fanning five-wide at the top of the stretch, he stuck his head in front at the eighth pole. He may have gotten a bit tired off the layoff and drifted in toward Country Grammer, who had saved ground the whole way and slipped through along the rail. When the two got close, Irad Ortiz on Country Grammer brought his horse out and shoved, more than bumped, Caracaro, who lost just enough momentum that it might have meant the difference in the neck margin. Regardless of whether it did or not, that was a huge effort considering the six-month layoff, the :12 3/5 final eighth, and the 3 1/4-length margin back to the favorite Mystic Guide in third. Credit trainer Gustavo Delgado for an excellent training job. Even a second or third in the Travers would set him up nicely for his second try at 1 1/4 miles.
SOUTH BEND – This is a real sleeper. His trainer Stanley Hough is one of the most talented horsemen in the country, but for some reason he put this colt on the grass for five straight races, despite finishing a decent fourth in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes and winning the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs at 2. He did well enough in three in-the-money performances before finishing out of the money in his next two starts. Hough finally put him back on the dirt, where he finished a fast-closing second in the Ohio Derby, in which his Thoro-Graph figure skyrocketed from a “9” to a “2 1/4.” From a pedigree standpoint, he has seven classic winners in his first four generations, and in his first five generations he has six horses that won at least two legs of the Triple Crown – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Majestic Prince, Pleasant Colony, and Nashua. His second dam is by Irish Derby and King Georg VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner and English Derby runner-up St. Jovite. He traces to major classic and stamina influence Ribot three times through Belmont winner Avatar, a son of Graustark, Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, a son of His Majesty, and Hoist the Flag, a son of Tom Rolfe. And he is inbred close up (3x3) to A.P. Indy. If he is flying again at the end of the Ellis Park Derby, watch out when he stretches out to 1 1/4 miles.
TWO OTHERS FROM THE PETER PAN
Another horse to watch is COUNTRY GRAMMER, winner of the Peter Pan Stakes, who is improving with every start, and even though he had a dream trip, saving ground every step of the way, I did like his high cruising speed and the way he fought back in the final furlong. He was able to break his maiden last year at 1 1/8 miles, and coming off a slowly run nine furlongs, he wasn’t ready to compete with a classy speedball like Ete Indien in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2). He returned off a 3 1/2-month layoff to finish a good third, rallying five-wide, against Tap it to Win in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race run in a blazing 1:39 3/5. That race gave him just enough sharpness and fitness to come again to barely defeat Caracaro, who was coming off that long layoff. He is by Belmont Stakes winner and two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner Tonalist and is inbred 3x4 to Pleasant Colony. He is another on an upward trajectory who could be peaking come September. He, like Caracaro, will make the Travers more interesting.
And I’m not quite ready to give up on MYSTIC GUIDE, who doesn’t want to be 11 lengths off the lead, as he was in the Peter Pan. This is a horse who wants to be between two to five lengths off the lead. He is certainly bred to go a mile and a quarter, and he deserves another shot, perhaps in the Travers.
LAST CHANCE ELLIS PARK DERBY
Two horses looking to move forward in the Ellis Park Derby (G3) are an old favorite of mine, MAJOR FED, and his conqueror in the Indiana Derby (G3) SHARED SENSE, who is just now finding himself. Both of these horses are crying out for more distance and if they can get past this next race, they should relish the mile and a quarter. Major Fed has been ranked in top 12 of Derby dozen several times and is another horse I have loved since he broke his maiden. He hasn’t had the best trips lately, partially due to poor starts, and has been taken out of his best running style. He showed me a lot finishing fourth in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), rallying from 14th after a slow start, and he closed well to be second in the Indiana Derby, coming from ninth. He just needs a good start and be closer to the pace, as he was in his maiden score and his second in the Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford (G2). If you throw out his debacle in the Matt Winn Stakes (G3) when he lost a ton of ground, his Brisnet Speed Figures have increased with every start – 77, 87, 91, 92, 99.
Honor A. P. and Tiz the Law have the two fastest last-out Thoro-Graph figures at zero and “3/4,” respectively. Bet you can’t guess who has the third fastest with a “1.” The answer shockingly is the champ himself, Storm the Court, with his third in the Ohio Derby. I still can’t figure that one out. I did love that he was the only Derby hopeful to start the year off in sprint, but hasn’t shown that much progression since. Is there more lurking inside him that we don’t know about?