Revolutionary Todd Pletcher
War Pass—Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy
Castellano’s decision to drop him for Normandy Invasion has forced me to keep him at No. 1. I’m just a sucker for the disrespected. Bottom line is I still see no reason to replace him. He has had as atypical a Derby campaign as any top horse in memory and still keeps delivering race after race, despite trips that would stop most horses. First, he spends the winter in frigid NY while Pletcher’s other big 3-year-olds bask in the Florida sun; then he’s sent to the farm during the heat of the Derby trail, and finally, loses his rider. Talk about different, love WinStar’s fan poll to help choose a rider, but Pletcher ultimately made the final call. He’s proven to be a dream horse to ride, because he’ll go inside, outside or through horses to get the job done. He didn’t lose any training at the farm, and was able to get away from the grind for 12 days and get a lot of grazing in. This colt has the ability to keep himself fit, as evidenced by his winning the Withers off only one half-mile work in 36 days and no works in the 13 days leading up to the race. He’s only one of four Derby hopefuls to run a triple-digit Beyer. Even if you don’t like him to win the Derby, you have to admire him.
Orb Shug McGaughey
Malibu Moon—Lady Liberty, by Unbridled
So, get this: Joel Rosario was the regular rider of Orb, but because the colt was considered only a very slight possibility for the Fountain of Youth days before the race, McGaughey freed Rosario to ride Speak Logistics. Orb winds up running and winning with Velazquez aboard, then repeated in the Florida Derby. So, by losing the mount on Orb, Rosario was then free to ride Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup, run the same day as the Florida Derby. Velazquez then winds up taking off Orb for the Kentucky Derby to ride Verrazano and Rosario lands back on the Orb for the Derby, only instead of the $1.4 million in purses he would have won on Orb, he won $10 million in purses on Animal Kingdom. We’re not done. Rosario also had been offered the mount on Itsmyluckyday for the Holy Bull and Florida Derby after regular rider Paco Lopez for some odd reason took off the horse to ride Bernstein in the Holy Bull, but Rosario was already committed to Sr. Quisqueyano. If he had taken that commitment on Itsmyluckyday, he wouldn’t have ridden Animal Kingdom or Orb on March 30. You gotta love this game.
Verrazano Todd Pletcher
More Than Ready—Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway
This colt had the audacity to remain undefeated by not impressing people in the Wood Memorial. He didn’t “wow” anyone in the Tampa Derby; oh, wait, the horse he beat by three lengths came back to win the Blue Grass. His final 3f in :36 3/5 in the Wood wasn’t impressive enough because the pace was very slow. I’m not saying he’s a lock in the Derby by any means, but what more does this horse have to do to get the respect an undefeated horse deserves? What good did “wow” do for Bellamy Road or Sinister Minister or Bodemeister or any horse that ran dazzling final preps? Are there concerns about the 1 ¼ miles? Yes, of course; that’s why he’s No. 3 and not No. 1, but this colt has done nothing wrong and his “prep” races may not be as underwhelming as many think.
Normandy Invasion Chad Brown
Tapit—Boston Lady, by Boston Harbor
As expected, the bandwagon is starting to fill up already, and you can bet the money will come pouring in on him, especially with Overanalyze crushing his field in the Arkansas Derby. In the Wood, he was pretty much taken out of his game plan due to the dawdling pace and still flew home late with a final 3f in :36 1/5 and galloped out strongly well past the wire. He obviously impressed Castellano to make him go off a horse as talented and well-bred as Revolutionary, a dual graded stakes winner, to ride a horse who has never won a stakes. Brown couldn’t be happier with the way he bounced out of the Wood, and all things point to a big effort in the Derby.
Overanalyze Todd Pletcher
Dixie Union—Unacloud, by Unaccounted For
Sometimes the eyes say one thing and the stat sheet says another. How can a horse look as visually impressive as Overanalyze did in the Arkansas Derby and run so slowly and get such a low Beyer? I will go by what my eyes tell me and consider how much ground he lost the entire trip over a sticky track and how powerful he looked in the final sixteenth and how strongly he galloped out. He was just getting started when he hit the wire. Love to see that. His Futurity score was as powerful a stretch run as I saw all year by a 2-year-old, and his Remsen victory was as gutsy an effort as I saw. It is interesting to note that Pletcher’s best Derby finishes – a win, 2nd, 3rd, and two 4ths – all came with horses coming off three weeks. I no doubt will be criticized for having too many Pletcher horses so high, but this is about the individual horse. Pletcher just happens to train them. Getting back to the slow time, it’s starting to look more and more as if the Derby is going to be run in slow time, so if everyone is slow, these final prep times may not be that significant. It’ll be more about who is peaking on that one day.
Palace Malice Todd Pletcher
Curlin—Palace Rumor, by Royal Anthem
The key to him is how he bounces out of the Blue Grass, having gone into the race off two weeks rest and having to come back in three weeks in the Derby. He was getting tired, judging by his switching leads twice in the final furlong, but Keeneland can be demanding on horses on or near the lead going a distance, and he did a lot of the dirty work as the only horse to go after Rydilluc and running hard to put him away in his first start ever on a synthetic surface. He still only got caught in the final jump by a horse who had already run big in a grade I over this track and who is a two-time winner on grass. This was a huge effort over a track on which he didn’t seem all that comfortable down the stretch, and he gets a lot of credit for trying as hard as he did even though he was out of sync and noticeably tired. That’s why it is important to see how his energy level is in the next couple of weeks. Let’s just say his now dead-fit.
Goldencents Doug O'Neill
Into Mischief—Golden Works, by Banker's Gold
Yes, I’m well aware he’s too low for a Santa Anita Derby winner who ran a 105 Beyer, but I still have some concerns about his ability to get 1 1/4 miles tracking a testing pace. Even though he settled better, he still was pulling a bit that first quarter, and I feel his best shot to win the Derby is on the lead and hope everyone, especially Verrazano, leaves him alone. The key to him is how he trains at Churchill, although I would have loved to seen him work over the track. His pedigree does have enough stamina scattered throughout to negate the speed, it’s just the uncertainty of whether he can turn it off if a good horse looks him in the eye early. The horse is immensely talented and it wouldn’t come as a big surprise if he won, but I’m still trying to get a feel for him as a 10-furlong horse.
Java's War Kenny McPeek
War Pass—Java, by Rainbow Quest
He is another who could very well be ranked too low, especially considering how far back he came from in the Blue Grass and how wide he was turning for home. His record indicated he should have loved the synthetic surface, and closers often do very well over this track. He is related to such top-class grass horses as turf champ Fiji, Cacoethes, and Subordination, but also to quality dirt horses Fabulous Notion and Treacherous. The key race for him was the Tampa Bay Derby, which was his breakout race, finishing a strong second to Verrazano. Churchill is conducive to synthetic horses, but it’s just a question of whether he can win the Derby in a 20-horse field the way he won the Blue Grass and whether he can break with his field. He’s a small horse and I don’t know if he’s the type who can rough his way through all those horses, and he may have to depend on the overland route again. There is no one more dangerous than McPeek, who always must be respected.
Itsmyluckyday Eddie Plesa Jr.
Lawyer Ron—Viva la Slew, by Doneraile Court
This is the sneaky horse that could wind up being the big overlay, as people will tend to forget about him because of how decisively Orb beat him in the Florida Derby in his first 1 1/8-mile race. If he is in the 12-1 to 20-1 range at Churchill, he is worth a wager on the premise that he simply needed that last race coming off a two-month layoff and was expected to regress off back-to-back monster Thoro-Graph figs. I did have him ranked No. 1 for quite a while, and still must have faith in him off one defeat. As I’ve stated, I just wish he had put up more of a fight and had been able to dispose of Merit Man, who was coming off sprints, a little easier. I did like his 5f breeze in 1:01 at Calder. I have a feeling I’m going to start liking him more and more as we get closer and more people forget about him. He gets a lot of toughness from Lawyer Ron on top and Crafty Prospector on the bottom, but his pedigree is geared mainly toward a mile to 1 1/8 miles.
Oxbow D. Wayne Lukas
Awesome Again—Tizamazing, by Cee's Tizzy
OK, call it stubbornness or pig-headedness, but I’m still not ready to give up on him. It’s starting to sound repetitious, but he had another horrendous trip and had absolutely no shot to win coming from dead-last. Breaking from the 10-post for the third straight race, the only reason he wasn’t hung out to dry on the first turn this time was because he was taken back and just never looked comfortable. It’s extremely rare for a pace tracker who’s been running that way for seven races to suddenly become a stone closer and be effective. With all that, he still tried to make an impact on the finish and was beaten two necks and a half-length for second. Although he keeps getting beat, he’s been getting a lot out of his preps, and the feeling here is that he still has a big effort waiting to come out; all he needs is a clean trip for a change. And it would help if he can get a rider to stick with him so he could at least get to know the horse – Alvarado, Court, Thompson. Rocco, and Nakatani all rode him only once, then Court twice, then Smith and Stevens once. That’s seven riders in nine starts. In his five two-turn races, he’s drawn post 10 three times and post 11 once. The only time he drew well (post 4) and had a clean trip he won by 11 1/2 lengths. And remember, he’s already shown he loves Churchill.
Vyjack Rudy Rodriguez
Into Mischief —Life Happened, by Stravinsky
It’s hard to fault his record and his consistency; it’s just a question of how far he wants to go and much that lung infection/bleeding incident affected his performance in the Wood and more important, how it will affect his performance in a race as stressful as the Derby. He has been a regular visitor to Bruce Jackson’s hyperbaric chamber at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center and Jackson said he’s been enjoying it and looks “absolutely fantastic on the track,” and Rodriguez has been there every day. He said the lung infection has completely cleared, and being at Fair Hill and taking it easy for a little while has done him a world of good. So this may be just what the horse needed to move forward on the first Saturday in May.
Mylute Tom Amoss
Midnight Lute—Stage Stop, by Valid Expectations
His six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 confirmed him as a longshot special right now. He went in splits of :12 3/5, :12 1/5, :11 4/5, :11 4/5, :12, and :11 4/5, then galloped out another eighth in :12 4/5 for a 7f gallop-out of 1:25 and pulled up a mile in 1:39. That is what is called a Derby work and indicates he is a horse on an upward spiral. He also has some interesting classic horses in his pedigree. He has Derby winners Real Quiet and Strike the Gold close up in his pedigree, and his broodmare sire, Valid Expectations, is out of a mare by Iron Constitution, who was a fast-closing second to Seattle Slew (beaten 1 1/2 lengths) in the Preakness at 30-1. He gets a lot of his toughness from his inbreeding to In Reality, as well as having the hard-knocking Al Hattab in his tail-female family.
Knocking At The Door
Spiral winner BLACK ONYX finally returned to the work tab and it was worth the wait. The son of Rock Hard Ten drilled five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 at Churchill Downs, coming home his last eighth in :12 2/5 and galloping out six furlongs in 1:14 and pulling up seven panels in 1:28 1/5. He’ll have two more works before the Derby.
Black Onyx and WILL TAKE CHARGE, who worked a mile in 1:40 4/5 (he needed a long work like that) have the credentials and the pedigree to make some noise in the Derby, but the seven-week and six-week layoffs, respectively, is a bit of a concern, even though Animal Kingdom did it off six weeks. But that horse was a freak. What the two colts do have in common is that both are getting good at the right time and should improve off their last starts.
The other horse with a big question mark is GOVENOR CHARLIE, who looks as brilliant as any of them, but with only three career starts, he’ll be attempting something that’s been done once in the last 98 years. And again, the horse that did it, Big Brown, was a freak.
Although LINES OF BATTLE was dropped from the Top 12 to make room for others, he still intrigues me, and looks to be the strongest horse with the best pedigree that Aidan O’Brien has ever sent over here for the Derby.
A matter of time
A great deal has been written and discussed about the slow final times of a number of the major Derby preps. While that is always a concern in evaluating the overall speed of a crop of 3-year-olds, it is hardly written in stone that a slow prep equates to a slow horse or a slow Derby time or even winning the Derby.
Unbridled not only won the Florida Derby in a pokey 1:52, he came back to get soundly defeated in the Blue Grass before winning the Derby by 3 1/2 lengths.
Animal Kingdom won the Spiral Stakes in 1:52 1/5 before capturing the Derby in his first start ever on dirt.
Street Sense was beaten in the Blue Grass, run in 1:51 1/5, but won the Derby by open lengths.
Lil E. Tee won the Jim Beam Stakes (now the Spiral) in a sluggish 1:53 2/5, then was beaten in the Arkansas Derby before winning the Kentucky Derby.
Northern Dancer had won the Flamingo in a sharp 1:47 4/5, but when he came back and was all out to win the Florida Derby in 1:50 4/5, Bill Shoemaker took off him to ride Hill Rise in the Derby, which Northern Dancer won in record time.
As we all know, Secretariat ran the fastest Derby in history, but was beaten four lengths in the Wood Memorial, run in 1:50 3/5.
Genuine Risk was beaten 1 1/2 lengths in the Wood Memorial, run in 1:50 4/5, but became the first filly since Regret to capture the Run for the Roses.
Carry Back was beaten three lengths in the Wood Memorial, run in 1:50 1/5, but came back to win the Derby and Preakness.
Everyone knows how Canonero II romped in the Derby and then set a track record winning the Preakness, but his final Derby prep in Venezuela, at about 1 1/8 miles, was run in 1:54 4/5, which was four-fifths slower than he ran in the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles.
To demonstrate how time can vary, Easy Goer won the Gotham by 13 lengths in a near-world record 1:32 2/5, then had a tougher time in the Wood Memorial, run in 1:50 3/5.
A Nerud double?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about John Nerud’s influence on this year’s Derby trail, mainly through the Nerud-bred Unbridled and Quiet American and tracing back to his foundation sire Fappiano (who Nerud owned and bred) and ultimately Fappiano’s broodmare sire Dr. Fager (who Nerud owned and bred) or Dr. Fager by himself. Even with losing Flashback, Mr. Palmer, Super Ninety Nine, Texas Bling, Capo Bastone, and He’s Had Enough, the ones remaining in the Derby from those families include Verrazano, Orb, Normandy Invasion, Will Take Charge, Govenor Charlie, Frac Daddy, and Mylute. That is an amazing impact, especially coming in the year of your 100th birthday.
We’re not done yet. Turning to the Kentucky Oaks, the fillies tracing to those same families include Gulfstream Park Oaks winner Dreaming of Julia, Sunland Oaks winner Midnight Lucky, Gazelle winner Close Hatches, Ashland winner Emollient, Santa Anita Oaks and Las Virgenes runner-up Fiftyshadesofhay, and Fair Grounds Oaks runner-up Flashy Gray.
How fitting for the last of the true living legends to make such a profound impact on the classics and the sport itself.