American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
With Texas Red’s setback, an ugly Fountain of Youth, and not having any horse excite me so far, I have to focus on potential and the hope that American Pharoah will return the same special horse we saw last year. And working 6f in 1:12 2/5 in only his fourth work back is encouraging. You know you have a special young horse when as early as March of his 2-year-old year the farm owner/trainer watches him work, realizes the responsibility of training such a special horse, and says to the owners as the horse is galloping out, “Figure out who you're gonna send him to and get him outta here.” As for his layoff, he certainly wouldn’t be the first horse to make his 3-year-old debut in March and go on to win the Derby, and judging by the way he’s looked in the morning, you have feel that his injury is behind him and will be a non factor. Of course, he still has to show he can rate off horses, but there is no indication he won’t be able to adjust to any pace scenario. With him there is the hope of seeing great things. Until he proves otherwise or someone comes along to get me excited, I have to keep him on top.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
He does have his supporters, who rank him No. 1, and I can’t argue with them. He is undefeated and has shown he’s a fighter, but for such a huge horse, I just want to see a bit more agility and firepower and for him not to be worked on so vigorously so far out. Martin Garcia was all over him in the Lewis, pounding away with left and then a series of right-handed whips. Because of his size and weighing a massive 1,280 pounds there is a question of how he’ll handle traffic in a 20-horse field and if his pedigree can get him to stay that extra furlong. With all that said he is a magnificent specimen of a horse with a monstrous stride who is very light on his feet and can beat you in a fistfight from either side. There has been a revealing photo of him on Facebook comparing him to, of all horses, Phar Lap. Both horses are on an almost identical stride, and the similarity is extraordinary. Baffert calls him a throwback to Phar Lap. He’s also shown he loves Churchill Downs. It is so close among the top four horses you can feel comfortable putting him in any of the top four spots. His final Derby prep will tell us pretty much what we need to know about him. He definitely has star potential; he just has a little more learning to do before the Kentucky Derby, but is maturing with every start.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
Continues to look good in the mornings, breezing 5f in 1:01 1/5 Feb. 21. He falls into the same category as American Pharoah in that there is great potential, although we learned in the BC Juvenile he has to rely more on tactical speed than a quick turn of foot, so position is important. Like many of the other leading contenders, his pedigree has enough to suggest he could get the mile and a quarter, but it in no way shouts of stamina, so there are always going to be slight question marks. That is where raw talent takes over, and talent often can push you that extra furlong. He also has running style and professionalism in his favor, and is not one of those run-off types that gives you cause for concern. He was made to look one-paced by Texas Red in the Juvenile, and although he passes all the eye tests, he does have to get faster. As of now, from the way he’s been training I’m not seeing any horse who is capable of knocking him off in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
I lowered him a couple of slots only because the Fountain of Youth will not compute in my brain and I have no idea if he ran a good race or a not-so-good race. With more thought I may raise him back up. I won’t even get into the disqualification, because it could have gone either way with the same amount of discontent. And I won’t get into whether he was the best horse, although my initial impression says he was. I didn’t mind seeing a slight regression, but his performance wasn’t a pretty one, neither was that left-handed whipping by Ortiz as he was drifting out. Each race on the Derby trail usually shows off a new strength or exposes new weaknesses. I’m not sure what the Fountain of Youth did for or to his reputation, because it was such a displeasing race to watch for everyone. And I know the track was totally messed up for variety of reasons, so I can’t even shudder at the final sloth-like fractions of :27 1/5 and :07 1/5. The last time I saw closing fractions like that in a major race it was at Yonkers Raceway. Here, the horses were struggling to change leads, were unable to keep a straight course, and were laboring in the stretch. Upstart did have to go four-wide into the first turn, was being ridden hard a long way out, and was giving six pounds to Itsaknockout. To suddenly run greenly when you’re a proven pro gives one reason to toss the race. In short, it was such a mess I’m going to bsically ignore it, although I now need to see Upstart move forward and run like he did before this race. I see no reason why he shouldn’t.
Texas Red Keith Desormeaux
Afleet Alex—Ramatuelle, by Jeune Homme
To remain optimistic, I turn to his sire, who won his 3yo debut in a 6f sprint and then got virtually nothing out of the Rebel Stakes, where he was suffering from a lung infection and finished last. Many felt that setback cost him any shot at the Derby, but he then put together four huge efforts, beginning with an 8-length romp in the Arkansas Derby. In the Kentucky Derby, he suffered a recurrence of the lung infection, but still finished third, beaten only one length, and then came back to demolish his opposition in the Preakness and Belmont. So, although Afleet Alex had three official starts before the Derby, he only ran for about 5 furlongs in the Rebel before being virtually eased out of contention, beaten a dozen lengths. So, perhaps is there is a ray of hope for Texas Red, who needs to quickly get that abscess drained through swimming and get back to serious training. You don’t want to rush a horse of this caliber, but if he can come back and train lights out without be pushed excessively hard and then finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby to assure himself enough points, he could possibly pull this off with some good stiff works following the Santa Anita Derby. If he should run a fast-closing third and somehow miss the cut, then we have another discussion about the lack of BC Juvenile points. If he starts showing good progress and gets back to training, don’t be surprised to see him start creeping back up towards the top.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
He’s got to be tired of seeing that mountain of a horse eyeballing on the right and then on the left, which is why he may head to Sunland Park for what should be a fairly easy race, assuming he and Dortmund are as good as they’ve looked. I’m still amazed at his race in the Los Alamitos Futurity when, coming off only 2 sprints, he had Dortmund on his outside and the tenacious Mr. Z coming out into him from the inside and never stopped fighting. Ironically, his speedball of a paternal grandsire, Lion Heart, is by Tale of the Cat, who is Dortmund’s maternal grandsire and is one of the reasons why Dortmund’s pedigree doesn’t exactly shout out 1 1/4 miles. But Lion Heart was also a fighter who could carry his speed and managed to carry it far enough to finish second to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby. I’m trying to latch onto anything I can to convince myself he can stay, because there are some stamina influences far back and he is inbred to Hail to Reason through Mr. Leader and Roberto. What I’m looking for in his next start is to see him on a longer rein and more relaxed than he was down the backstretch in the Lewis, where he was keen to go on after breaking a bit awkwardly. That may have eventually taken its toll in deep stretch and contributed to him allowing Dortmund to come back and beat him.
Far From Over Todd Pletcher
Blame—Alchemist, by A.P. Indy
Breezed a half in :48 2/5 as he prepares for his next big test in the Gotham Stakes, where the competition should get stronger. With his lack of racing, he needs to face top quality horses and continue to move forward. In a year that has been mostly mundane on the Derby trail, he at least provided some excitement with his thrilling rush from last to first in the Withers. We need to start using the word ‘special’ more often to describe these horses and their performances, which we haven’t done too often this year, and we need to feel comfortable in a horse’s ability to get the mile and a quarter, and he has as strong a pedigree as anyone on the Derby trail; one that is inundated with class influences top and bottom and even provides the RF (Rasmussen Factor) with inbreeding to great producer Courtly Dee. Everything has to go perfectly for him, but so far he keeps checking off all the boxes.
Lord Nelson Bob Baffert
Pulpit—African Jade, by Seeking the Gold
Continues to work well, drilling 6f in 1:13 2/5 Feb. 22 for the San Felipe. His owner John Fort has been to Argentina several times and knows what to look for in a colt with so much Argentine blood, the vast majority of it made up of classic-type horses. Physically, he fits the bill with his “big hip, clean top line, straight hind legs, and short cannon bone.” Fort said this colt fits perfectly in the mold of what horsemen in Argentina look for. As for his American blood, he is by Pulpit out of a Seeking the Gold mare and he is inbred 4x5 to Buckpasser, so there’s your major class inbreeding. In his top line are Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Honest Pleasure, and Bold Ruler – all brilliantly fast horses who could carry their speed 1 1/4 miles. Although he is unbeaten in three sprints and is 0-for-2 around two turns, he had legitimate reasons for not winning his two turn races, he is just now coming into his own, and I’m expecting a big effort the next time he stretches out. One way or the other, we’ll know where he stands after his next start.
Itsaknockout Todd Pletcher
Lemon Drop Kid—Stormy B, by Cherokee Run
Yes, he crawled home over a track that was more like a beach, and he had to be whipped three times right-handed on the far turn because he was going nowhere, and there was headwind in the stretch. But for a horse with only two starts, this was a huge test for him and he got an awful lot out of it. If the plodding closing fractions are any indication, this probably was like running up a sand dune. We know Upstart is not that slow. As for the race itself, he looked like he was spinning his wheels at the five-sixteenths pole, but still trying to rally, and he was late changing leads. But then in a flash, he gave a sudden spurt forward and to the inside and switched to his right lead, while running into Upstart’s hind end. Now on his right lead, he made another run at Upstart, and that’s when the favorite came out and seemingly caused him to lose his momentum, even though Luis Saez did a good job selling it to the stewards. But he was interfered with to at least some degree. After that, he raced evenly to the wire, while Upstart drew clear by 2 3/4 lengths. But consider the class and experience edge Upstart had over him. If you want to ignore the ignominious closing fractions and a mile split that was significantly slower than the other (one-turn) mile times on the card, and concentrate on that quick burst and briefly jumping all over an odds-on favorite that was a proven grade I horse, then you have cause for optimism that this colt is only going to keep getting better. And this race, run over such a deep, laboring track, will only build more bottom under him, which will help such a lightly raced horse.
Ocean Knight Kiaran McLaughlin
Curlin—Ocean Goddess, by Stormy Atlantic
Breezed 5f in 1:01 4/5 at Palm Meadows Feb. 21. His next start likely will be the Gotham Stakes, as long as co-owner Stronestreet Stables runs Carpe Diem in the Tampa Bay Derby, which would have been the next logical start for Ocean Knight. The Gotham should fit his schedule well and help him progress toward the Wood Memorial. His female family is not exactly inundated with big-name stallions or mares. His great grandsire, War, has the distinction of being placed first in the Blue Grass Stakes on the disqualification of Alysheba and his tail-female family traces to Dancer’s Image, so there is a bit of history of disqualifications in his pedigree. Also in his female family are Belmont Stakes winners Coastal and Gallant Man. This colt’s main asset is his mind and a maturity and professionalism beyond his years, and that is a valuable tool for such a lightly raced horse.
Ocho Ocho Ocho James Cassidy
Street Sense– Winner, by Horse Chestnut
The super works keep coming and makes one anxiously await his debut in the San Felipe Stakes, which should be a super competitive race, with Lord Nelson, Prospect Park, and Bolo. After several huge works at five furlongs, he stretched out to three-quarters and turned in a bullet 1:12 1/5 work. This exciting little colt possesses what many others don’t – quickness. As I’ve been mentioning, he has sprint speed but can use it early or later in the race. He showed he could put his opponents away and draw off, like he did in the off-the-turf Juvenile Turf Sprint, and he showed he’s a tenacious fighter, out-battling Mr. Z, one of the most determined scrappers we’ve seen this year, in the Delta Jackpot, in his first start around two turns. Despite his speed, he has a pedigree geared toward stamina, and we just lost his broodmare sire Horse Chestnut last week.
International Star Mike Maker
Fusaichi Pegasus—Parlez, by French Deputy
Earned his way back on the Dozen with another professional, workmanlike victory, this time taking the Risen Star Stakes by a length, running down the same horse he ran down in the LeComte Stakes. This time, he did it with a rail-skimming trip, in which he sharply cut the corner and came through a small opening without flinching. Although he has been professional in many ways throughout his career, he does still have a habit a switching leads several times in the stretch. It’s not an ideal habit, but he’s gotten away with it. He always seems to jump back to left lead inside the sixteenth pole and then quickly switches back to his right lead. His come-home time was excellent and he’s starting to get in a good groove and learning how to win. It’s tough separating him from Far Right, who is doing comparable things over at Oaklawn Park. Of course, he still has to beat better horses and he needs to get faster, but with eight career starts, he’s one of the few with a lot of experience and foundation, and he’s shown he’s equally adept on dirt, grass, and synthetic. In a year with so much speculation and so many lightly raced horses, it’s refreshing to have a horse like this, who can run eight times and still keeps improving. Perhaps this is the year when Ken Ramsey’s Midas touch finally grabs hold of the roses on the first Saturday in May.
Knocking At The Door
It’s getting to be a log jam down at this end, with very little separating several horses. In fact, if you invert the Dozen you will find the types of hard-knocking, lunch pail-type horses that one has to admire for their toughness and consistency. FAR RIGHT and International Star seem to have become the same horse, taking parallel paths in Louisiana and Arkansas, and it was difficult putting one in the Dozen and leaving one out. Far Right once again paved his path down on the inside and came running in the final furlong to win the Southwest Stakes in the slop. Both he and International Star can run on anything and are improving at pretty much the same rate. So, consider him basically a baker’s dozen No. 12. He was conceding three to seven pounds to the rest of the field, but like International Star, he just needs to get faster, because the competition is going to start getting stronger. He has a fascinating pedigree in that in his dam’s female family, his two fourth generation sires are Affirmed, the last horse to win the American Triple Crown, and Nijinsky, the last horse to win the English Triple Crown.
Guess who is back on the Derby trail? My original sleeper for the roses, BOLO, who had been withdrawn from the Robert Lewis for reasons that remain contradictory. Whatever the reason, whether it was a physical setback or not training satisfactorily on dirt, or perhaps a little of both, he has roared back onto the work tab with a :59 3/5 drill and appears on course for another attempt on the dirt in the San Felipe Stakes. I was so tempted to put him back on the Dozen for only that reason, but could not justify taking anyone off at this point. I could weaken next week with the San Felipe coming up. Although he’s still an unknown on dirt, he looks to be the grass equivalent of American Pharoah, in that his mechanics are flawless and his potential limitless. We know he works lights out on dirt, and he has enough dirt influences to suggest he’ll take to it. Also, his running style of taking the lead on the far turn and then accelerating away from his opponents after turning for home is more of a dirt running style than turf, where horses normally are held up until the stretch. In the San Felipe, he’ll be up against several tigers in Ocho Ocho Ocho, Lord Nelson, and Prospect Park among others, but don’t be surprised to see him turn in a monster performance and emerge as a major force on the Derby trail.
PLETCHER PRATTLE: It’s bad enough for the majority of trainers with 3-year-olds that the Todd Pletcher conglomerate is on the verge of taking complete control of the Derby trail in the East, but when the stewards start awarding him races he’s lost, does anyone else really stand a chance? Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby record gives other trainers a ray of hope that the monopoly will dissolve by May 2, but with his 3-year-olds seeping out of the cracks and with Pletcher’s smile frozen on his face from taking so many winner’s circle photos, the road to the Derby does not look pleasant for the mere mortals struggling to get there with one horse. As Kiaran McLaughlin watched his powerful three-pronged Derby attack possibly reduced to one, Pletcher yet again was guilty of piling on, winning the Fountain of Youth on a disqualification and sending out KHOZAN to run his opposition dizzy in an allowance/optional claimer, which likely will serve as a steppingstone to the Florida Derby, where he could face Itsaknockout. Together they are five-for-five and are Twin Spiraling upward with each start.
This weekend alone, Pletcher had six Derby horses work and two others run and win. How dare J S BACH come down with a fever, allowing the Risen Star Stakes to go Pletcherless.
As for Khozan, he is right out of the Dunkirk, Constitution mold – brilliant horses trying to win the Florida Derby off only two career starts and then trying the near-impossible task of winning the Kentucky Derby off only three starts. Dunkirk failed and never made it past the Belmont Stakes, while Constitution was injured after the Florida Derby and was sidelined for 6 1/2 months. Can Khozan pull this off and make experience and foundation a thing of the past? Think of what a rare and incredible a feat it once was to climb Mt. Everest. Now there are climbers zipping up there by the thousands, some without oxygen. The last year Mt. Everest was not conquered was 1974. So will we have the Khozans of the world toppling the International Stars, Far Rights, and Mr Zs come the first Saturday in May? If we do, the Kentucky Derby will become Mt. Everest, in that the one-time arduous journey to reach the summit and the resolve and stamina it took to get there will be greatly diminished.
Can Khozan be something special? He hasn’t beaten anything, and was 1-20 in Sunday’s 12 3/4-length laugher, but the ease in which he does everything and the efficiency of his action, certainly suggest that this could be a budding star. He got bumped and shoved around leaving the gate but recovered beautifully and move up to the leader without the slightest amount of effort, as Castellano sat there motionless. After that, it was merely a procession. Can a horse that has never been tested, having only three career starts, win the Kentucky Derby? A total freak named Big Brown pulled it off, the first time in 93 years. If Khozan follows, then the Kentucky Derby, like Mt. Everest, will never again be the challenge it once was.
While on the subject of lightly raced horses and campaigns, many people have mentioned they don’t like American Pharoah or Carpe Diem because they haven’t run yet and won’t make their debuts until March. While I am of the old school, feeling a 3-year-old should have a good foundation at 3, I also realize that times have changed and so has the thinking of trainers. People seem to forget that Street Sense and Super Saver didn’t make their 3-year-old debuts until March 17 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Big Brown, with only one maiden win on the grass at 2, didn’t debut until March 5 in an allowance race. Animal Kingdom, with only two career starts at 2, including a maiden win at Keeneland, didn’t debut until March 3 in an allowance/optional claimer on grass. Mine That Bird didn’t debut until Feb. 28 in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. Make of that what you wish. Don’t confuse late-starting horses with a 2-year-old class foundation like American Pharoah and Carpe Diem to horses like Khozan, who have no 2-year-old foundation at all and will have two fewer starts.
Getting back to the weekend’s races, there were several noteworthy performances that brought some new faces into the Derby picture, and all were horses who were coming on strong in the stretch. First, we have to welcome Nick Zito back to the Derby trail after his 63-1 bomb FRAMMENTO, equipped with blinkers for the first time, came flying late to finish third in the Fountain of Youth, making up 11 lengths from the five-sixteenths pole to the wire.
In the Risen Star, KEEN ICE, trained by Dale Romans, closed fast to finish a clear-cut third in the Risen Star Stakes. Third in the Remsen Stakes, the son of Curlin, out of an Awesome Again mare, has a pedigree loaded with class and stamina top and bottom, and is another who is worth watching.
Finally, we have TRUTH OR ELSE, who had first time Lasix in the Southwest Stakes and appeared to make a winning move from dead-last as he blew by horses on the far turn, but he had trouble getting by Mr Z and then was nailed late by Far Right, who he never saw way down on the inside. But give him credit for nosing out MR. Z, one of the toughest and grittiest 3-year-olds in the country, who ran yet another gutsy race, having to be rushed out of the 11 post, turning back several challenges on the lead, and then fighting to the wire, as he usually does. You have to admire this colt, even with the erratic running he’s demonstrated in the past. He’s now placed in seven stakes, six of them graded, and no one deserves to get a black-type victory more than him.
Getting back to The Truth or else, he became the first 3-year-old we’ve seen this year to make a move on the far turn that actually got one excited, reminiscent of Monarchos’ breathtaking move in the Florida Derby. Although this colt was beaten many lengths in the Champagne and Nashua Stakes, he did manage to finish third each time and was impressive breaking his maiden at a mile at Belmont, winning going away in a sharp 1:35 2/5 and coming home his final quarter in an exceptional :23 3/5. His pedigree is a bit enigmatic, as it shouts speed all through his top line. And while there are a number of brilliantly fast Phipps-breds in his bottom line, his dam is by Belmont winner Colonial Affair, by Pleasant Colony, and the female family does trace to the great Phipps foundation mare Striking, the dam of So Chic, who produced Kentucky Derby runner-up Dapper Dan and the late-closing Beau Brummel; and Glamour, who produced the top stamina influence Poker, as well as Intriguing, the dam of champion Numbered Account. Striking also produced the top-class Hitting Away, winner of the Dwyer, Withers and numerous other stakes. The fourth generation sire is Buckpasser, so this is Phipps breeding at its finest.
The most perplexing performance of the weekend goes to FROSTED, who was merely cruising along on the lead on the far turn in the Fountain of Youth, while the others were being ridden hard to keep up. If ever a horse looked like a sure winner at the top of the stretch it was Frosted. But once he turned for home, it seemed he was never truly set down for the stretch drive. The jock’s hands came up and he only started riding him and cocked his whip after the colt had thrown his head up and began shortening stride abruptly, while starting to drift out. It looked like he was going to retreat quickly to the rear, but he never did and only missed third in the final jump, beaten 4 3/4 lengths, despite having no extension to his stride at all. Although it’s hard to retreat too far back when they’re coming home in :27 1/5. What that was all about I have no idea. How can a horse look like so good one second, as if he had the race locked up, and then throw it all away a second later? It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Ortiz set him down sooner instead of just sitting on him and allowing the struggling horses behind him to catch up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he bounced back with a good effort with a return to his old running style of coming from off the pace. Did he merely get bored being on such an easy lead? Did he get intimidated when the others came charging up behind him? Perhaps if he has horses to run at, as he’s used to, the blinkers would be more effective and help him focus and kick into another gear in the stretch. I wouldn’t give up on him just yet. To run that horribly in the stretch and still get beat only 4 3/4 lengths suggests he just gave that race away and second time blinkers will move him forward.
Frosted’s stablemate IMPERIA was made the 3-2 favorite in the Risen Star and ran as if he wanted no part of the dirt. The one question mark he had going into this year was his inability to catch El Kabeir in the Kentucky Jockey Club, despite having the entire stretch to run him down. He once again was dull down the stretch, but this time no one was backing up in the final sixteenth, and he was never a factor, getting beat 7 1/2 lengths.
At Sunland Park, WHERE’S THE MOON upset the 1-5 favorite CINCO CHARLIE in the Mine That Bird Derby, running right by the favorite and drawing off to a 2 1/2-length victory. This came after a 6 3/4-length score in a maiden race at Sunland, making him two for two since being turned over to trainer Henry Dominguez, who put the blinkers back on the son of Malibu Moon after two races without them.