Revolutionary Todd Pletcher
War Pass—Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy
After several flips of the coin, finally decided to make him No. 1 slightly over Orb, mainly because he was my last No. 1 (Feb. 26) before Itsmyluckyday, and he won having to travel and run over a new track and beating a deeper field. You have to admire his determination and will to win and his ability to beat you in many ways. He’s already shown in his maiden win he can blow you away, and in the Withers and Louisiana Derby he showed he can beat you from anywhere – close up or far back -- and he can bull his way between horses or go seven wide, as he did around the entire far turn in the Louisiana Derby. He looked to be in danger when Mylute came charging up on his outside, but dug in and repelled the challenge and then galloped out well clear of the field. Considering he hadn’t run in eight weeks, this was an excellent Derby prep. It must be noted, however, the time did not compare too well with the other big races on the card and his 93 Beyer was well below the others. But he’s already run a 102 Beyer and is heading back towards that, and I don’t think this colt has gotten a chance to show his very best. That could come on May 4.
Orb Shug McGaughey
Malibu Moon—Lady Liberty, by Unbridled
Everything about him and his connections spells tradition, and you have to feel that’s not going to escape the Derby gods. It’s pretty remarkable how much this colt has improved since arriving in Florida, and it’s even more remarkable that he keeps moving forward with each victory, which now has reached four straight. And you can bet McGaughey has left even more in the tank and won’t have him peaking until May 4. The one downside is that he ran 10 lengths slower than Dreaming of Julia’s freaky performance in the Gulfstream Oaks (17-point Beyer difference) and four lengths slower than the Rampart. Also, the 29-1 and 103-1 shots that were battling on the lead finished third and fourth, which makes you wonder how good the horses were behind them. But despite all that, he did run right by a very talented horse and drew off with authority. This colt can be placed anywhere on the track and still close, and if you look at his last four wins, he runs only as fast as he has to. As a traditionalist, it’s hard not to root for Shug, Janney, and the Phippses. It’s been a long time coming.
Verrazano Todd Pletcher
More Than Ready—Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway
Still want to see him step up in company and see what he’s capable of against classy and proven stakes horses, and most important, see if he can settle off the pace and come home. As stablemate Shanghai Bobby showed, until these brilliant pace horses actually are put in that position, you don’t know how they’ll handle it. He’s already in the Derby, so, with only three career starts, this is the time to actually prepare him for the race and get him battle-tested. On the other hand, in some ways you’d like to see someone show some superstar potential in these big stakes, and he’s the most logical one to step up and assert himself as something special.
Vyjack Rudy Rodriguez
Into Mischief —Life Happened, by Stravinsky
After his last two works – 5f in :59 and 6f in 1:12 3/5 – you know he’s going to be sharp and fit for the Wood Memorial. Perhaps he will be the potential superstar who emerges from the race. He certainly would be if he can beat Verrazano and several other classy horses that are expected to run. Until a horse is beaten, you never know how high his ceiling is. Let’s just hope all this stuff going on with Rodriguez doesn’t become a distraction that would take away from this horse’s accomplishments. We’ve been down this road before on the Derby trail.
Itsmyluckyday Eddie Plesa Jr.
Lawyer Ron—Viva la Slew, by Doneraile Court
He had a perfect trip in the Florida Derby and had every chance to win, but simply was outrun by Orb. Smart move by Trujillo to push on at the five-sixteenths pole and try to get the jump on Orb, but he was no match for the winner. There have always been some doubts about his distance capabilities, but he just may have needed the race after a layoff. After all, he had run two monster figures on Thoro-Graph this year, both negative numbers, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he regressed a bit. This should ultimately help him in the Derby and put him on an upward swing again. We still have no idea how far his natural ability will carry him, but he obviously must improve off this race if he’s going to compete with natural 10-furlong horses like Orb and Revolutionary.
Oxbow D. Wayne Lukas
Awesome Again—Tizamazing, by Cee's Tizzy
Breezed a slow six furlongs in 1:16 for Arkansas Derby. When you think about it, it’s difficult to assess the merits of the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn horses. They have been inconsistent all winter, but he at least has had excuses for his defeats and got a lot out of them. And he has shown the ability to demolish his opposition, as long ago as the LeComte seems. Looking forward to seeing what he does with a good post and a good trip. At least you know he has the pedigree to get the mile and a quarters with no problem.
Hear the Ghost Jerry Hollendorfer
Ghostzapper—Rehear, by Coronado's Quest
With no one blowing me away this past weekend, I actually considered moving him up into the Top 3, but his lack of racing experience and foundation prevented me from doing so. If, however, he should exhibit that same explosive burst of speed in the Santa Anita Derby, he no doubt would catapult up near or at the top. This no doubt is an enormously talented horse and you don’t normally see horses do what he’s done in his three career starts, but again, the key is three career starts, two of which were at six furlongs. He, like Verrazano, could prove to be something special, but he can expect a much better performance this time from Flashback, who should be tougher to run down, assuming he learns from the San Felipe.
Flashback Bob Baffert
Tapit—Rhumb Line, by Mr. Greeley
He is going into the Santa Anita Derby in much the same situation as Verrazano in that he needs to rate off the pace and come home, and also get enough of a gut check to overcome his lack of racing experience. He got battle-tested in the San Felipe and just needs to take it a step farther and show he can win under fire. We’ll also see how well he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles. We need some indication he’ll be able to handle 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May. We might have had that indication had he not been taken off the rail and hooking up with Goldencents in a speed duel in the San Felipe.
Elnaawi Kiaran McLaughlin
Street Sense—Pilfer, by Deputy Minister
If you want a more detailed reason why he’s on here prior to the Wood Memorial, you’ll have to read my accompanying column. His third in the Gotham was an excellent effort for a young inexperienced colt, who should only keep improving. He just needs a better trip this time, and definitely should appreciate the return to the main track. The column will break down his Gotham and detail his pedigree.
Normandy Invasion Chad Brown
Tapit—Boston Lady, by Boston Harbor
This colt means business. He threw in his second straight bullet work (a half in :47 4/5) and third straight brilliant work, as he sharpens for his big test in the Wood Memorial. He will have to overcome Verrazano, Vyjack, and a big field and find a way to get first or second. But if he does make it into the Derby, watch out. He will be very dangerous. Brown has him razor sharp and he’ll be running on a track he likes. The big question is the trip, especially after all the trouble he found in the Risen Star. He likes to come from far out of it, so he will need luck just to put himself in position to snatch first or second from the two undefeated favorites.
Rydilluc Gary Contessa
Medaglia d'Oro—Swift and Classy, by Clever Trick
What the heck, I’ve been pushing this horse for so many weeks, it’s time to put him on here, even though he still has so many questions to answer. Sometimes, a horse just hits you smack on the head and you feel as if you’re watching something special. Well, this is such a horse, but how that is going to equate to Polytrack and then dirt, who knows? For now, let’s just put him on here based on pure speculation in case he somehow can find his way into the Derby field.
Will Take Charge D. Wayne Lukas
Unbridled’s Song —Take Charge Lady, by Dehere
Breezed a half in :49 1/5 as he prepares for a freebee in the Blue Grass Stakes. Even if he doesn’t hit the board, you can be sure he will be in the Derby, because the Blue Grass provides you with an instant he-didn’t like-the-Polytrack excuse, and Lukas will use, even though he’s already over it. We’ll see how that big stride takes to it going 1 1/8 miles.
Knocking At The Door
No one has ever said racing was fair, and that was never more evident while watching poor PALACE MALICE trapped helplessly behind two speed horses who were going nowhere, while Edgar Prado was pulling back and throttling down a horse who looked ready to bust the Louisiana Derby wide open from the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole. Then it went from bad to worse after Prado took him out looking for running room. He still looked like the winner if only he could make it to and through a hole that be was beginning to open. But just as he was about to go for it, Code West came in and bumped him soundly, knocking him right back where he was, behind horses going nowhere. He in turn knocked into SUNBEAN, who was trying to sneak through on the inside, forcing him into the rail. Palace Malice now was a beaten horse with absolutely nowhere to run. Prado did see a slight opening on the rail and went for it, hoping maybe to pick up a little piece of it late, but that also closed up, and he was forced to come back out. Still stuck in traffic, he just went through the motions after that, finishing seventh, beaten 7 1/4 lengths.
The more I watch the race and see the how well Palace Malice was moving on the far turn without being asked, the more I’m convinced he would have won, possibly convincingly, had he been able to continue his run. And I believe he still would have won had he made it to and through that opening at the three-sixteenths pole. But it wasn’t meant to be, and now comes the decision, do you wheel him back in two weeks and hope he can Polytrack his way into the Derby? That’s not Pletcher’s style, but Cot Campbell has to be tempted to give it a try. The horse certainly deserves the chance if he's up to the quick turnaround.
Louisiana Derby runner-up MYLUTE, who looked to have Revolutionary measured inside the eighth pole, ran a much improved race without blinkers for the first time following his decent effort in the Risen Star, and he should be able to build on that in the Kentucky Derby. His neck defeat is the type of prep race that wins a lot of Derbys (see Silver Charm, Funny Cide, Go for Gin, Street Sense, Super Saver, Grindstone, Lil E. Tee, and Real Quiet et al), in which the prep race runner-up has something to build on. It was between him and Rydilluc for that final open spot, and I just decided to go unconventional. I have him ranked No. 13 right now and wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the Top 12 in the next week or two.
The other Derby horse to emerge over the weekend was UAE Derby winner LINES OF BATTLE, who will be yet another Aidan O’Brien horse to try the Derby. The time was extremely slow, but he should get a great deal of fitness and bottom from the race, and I loved the way he found another gear late and drew clear of the runner-up after being challenged from the inside. Of all the horses O’Brien has sent to Churchill, this colt looks to have the best shot of making his presence felt. His female family is dynamite, and not only is it loaded with dirt influences, he traces to the same mare as Wood Memorial hopeful Elnaawi, and that is the Darby Dan Blue Hen Golden Trail (see the column on Elnaawi). Don’t overlook this colt, who will be in the Top 12 as well in the weeks to come. He made a handsome presence in Dubai and carries himself like a good horse.
Arkansas Derby Watch: Do not forget about OVERANALYZE, despite his disappointing effort in the Gotham. This horse has yet to put together two big races, although he gets a pass for his well-beaten Iroquois third, due to a terrible trip and a questionable ride. He’s bounced back from dull efforts before and his “3 3/4” Thoro-Graph figure in the Gotham actually wasn’t bad at all and allows him room for improvement. Asking a 2-year-old to go 1 1/8 miles is a tough assignment, especially if they’re involved in a gut-wrencher as he was. You had to figure it would take him and Normandy Invasion, and Delhomme a race to get back to their best. Delhomme was eased in his return, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Overanalyze and Normandy Invasion improve big-time in their second start.
Last week, I wrote a column on 100-year-old John Nerud's influence on this this year's Derby trail. Well, Nerud came within a neck of sweeping the three big stakes this past weekend. Florida Derby winner Orb, UAE Derby winner Lines of Battle, and Louisiana Derby runner-up My Lute all have the Nerud-bred Fappiano in their pedigree through Unbridled, Quiet American, or Rubiano. And this weekend, Nerud has Verrazano, Normandy Invasion. and Mr. Palmer in the Wood Memorial and Flashback and Super Ninety Nine inthe Santa Anita Derby. Two weeks ago, he was represented by Govenor Charlie, winner of the Sunland Derby in track-record time. The week before that, he had Rebel Stakes winner Will Take Charge. This is quite a legacy he is leaving.