American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
Continues to train like a champ, drilling a sharp 7f in 1:23 4/5, galloping out a mile in 1:38. Just watching him work is a treat, as he makes a striking appearance even galloping to the post and moves with such efficiency and balance he shows all the signs of being something special. Of course, he still has to go out there and show it, traveling all the way to Oaklawn Park and racing over a strange surface, albeit one that has his trainer’s name written all over it. Depending on how he handles the track, it’s either go 4 weeks to the Arkansas Derby and 3 weeks to the Kentucky Derby or 3 weeks to the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass or Wood Memorial and 4 weeks to the Derby. There is no doubt Baffert will have him razor-sharp and dead-fit for the Rebel, where he will have the services of a pacesetter in Take Charge Brandi, which would be just what he needs to get him to sit back behind a horse for the first time.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
I loved his 7f work in 1:25 3/5, as he did it well in hand all the way to the finish line and then was set down, going an eighth past the wire in a brisk :12 2/5. He’s going to face some tough foes in the San Felipe, but he’s the type of horse who needs racing in order to keep learning and progressing. He’s such a big long-striding horse and he still has some rough edges to smooth out, one of which is to show a bit more quickness and turn of foot, so Martin Garcia doesn’t have to start riding him so hard such a long way out and letting a good horse like Firing Line get a length jump on him turning for home. You can’t turn a natural grinder into a horse with a real quick turn of foot, but experience can teach him to get into the race a bit earlier. We know he can put horses away, like he did in his first two starts; we know he’s a fighter who doesn’t give up; and we know he can beat you from out in the middle of the track or down on the rail. Now we just need to see a little more from him from the 5/16 pole to the 3 /16 pole, so he doesn’t leave himself with too much to overcome in the stretch. It’s from the 5/16 pole to the 3/16 pole where the Kentucky Derby is often won. He’s still a work in progress and when that growth spurt he’s going through slows down we should see close to the finished product come Derby Day.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
Pletcher appears to have backed off on the speed works as his debut in the Tampa Bay Derby gets closer. The ideal scenario would be to get a lot out of his first start in order to set him up for a return to Keeneland, where he was so impressive in the Breeders’ Futurity. Look for a big effort first time out. Remember, like a number of the leading Derby contenders, he doesn’t have a ton of stamina, especially in his female family, but he does have a lot of strong influences for 1 1/8 miles. His main attribute is the class he projects and the efficiency of his stride. So, with the right kind of trip, which is not what he had in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he should be able to stretch out classic distances. But you never know until they actually do it. In the meantime, good luck trying to beat him in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
In a year with so many top-quality horses that haven’t started yet, and several hard-knocking, blue collar-type horses who aren’t going to make your jaw drop, he is the one horse in action who runs hard every race, has run fast speed figures in grade I and II races, and is bred to run all day. And he wins by open lengths. He has very few questions to answer, and unlike Dortmund, we pretty much know what the finished product is going to look like. We shouldn’t expect any surprises from him, and you know it’s going to take a huge effort to beat him wherever he runs. He should appreciate getting back home to Aqueduct, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t bounce back with a big performance in the Wood Memorial, although there isn’t much to bounce back from, as he did finish first in the Fountain of Youth by daylight, as slow and ugly as that race was.
Texas Red Keith Desormeaux
Afleet Alex—Ramatuelle, by Jeune Homme
His return to training has been delayed by a week, as he continues his swimming therapy, not exactly a promising sign. He still has time to get enough training in to be a force in the Arkansas Derby, but time is running out, and no one wants to see a Derby horse swimming in March. Even if things go perfectly from his projected return on March 7 to the first Saturday in May, he still will have to go into the Kentucky Derby off limited racing and training and only one race over seven furlongs. I have to admit nothing seems impossible on the Derby trail anymore, with so many abbreviated campaigns, which is why he’s still listed this high and on the list at all. That and the possibility that he’s such an exceptionally talented horse with such a breathtaking turn of foot, anything is possible. But he is treading on a very thin line.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
He remains sharp and fit, working 5f in :59 3/5 at Santa Anita Feb. 27. It was the seventh fastest of 131 works at the distance. His connections are still trying to decide whether to run him in the Sunland Derby March 22 or wait two more weeks for the Santa Anita Derby. If they run in the Sunland Derby, which looks to be the most likely spot right now, they would then have to decide whether to run him once more in either the Arkansas Derby or the 10-point Lexington Stakes the same day or go into the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff. With only eight points, he would first need to win the Sunland Derby or be forced to run again. Then again, he should win the Sunland Derby. What he has going for him from a racing standpoint is having been in two straight slugfests, going toe to toe with two of the most tenacious fighters in training – Dortmund and Mr. Z -- and standing up to both of them. So that would certainly help if they go to Sunland and then decide to wait the six weeks. Once again, the big question with him is how far he wants to go. But I doubt we’ve seen his best yet.
Far From Over Todd Pletcher
Blame—Alchemist, by A.P. Indy
With his connections deciding to skip the Gotham and training up to the Wood Memorial, I normally would have lowered him, as he’d be going into the Derby with only 3 career starts and one race in 11 weeks. But he has gotten a ton of experience in his two starts, both around two turns. And he’s such a professional who adapts to any situation and does everything asked of him, they might just be able to pull it off. And most important, he may be talented enough to handle what is no doubt a difficult task. Pletcher, who doesn’t bat an eye pointing a horse with 3 starts to the Derby, is trying the same thing with Khozan, but unlike Far From Over, Khozan has been in two laughers and hasn’t been tested the way this horse has. The key is keeping him sharp and fit between the Withers and Wood, because by passing up the 50 points in the Gotham, and having only 10 points, he’ll need to beat proven class horses such as Upstart in the Wood or at the very worse finish second in order to assure himself a starting berth in the Derby. He is a May 9 foal and obviously is still learning, but off his two races, he probably is farther advanced than most horses with twice as many starts.
Lord Nelson Bob Baffert
Pulpit—African Jade, by Seeking the Gold
Drilled 6f in 1:13 Feb. 27 for the San Felipe Stakes. This will be his big test, and a very tough one at that, to determine just where he stands on the Derby trail and how effective he is at two turns. He could very well be fourth or fifth choice, and this would be the time to take advantage of that. In addition, his 39-1 Future Wager odds look mouth watering right now. We really don’t know at this point how good he is and whether or not he’s a more of a one-turn horse, as many believe. The feeling here is that two turns will pose no problem as long as he gets a good trip. Baffert is rolling the dice putting two of his three Derby horses in the same race, but this is the right spot for both him and Dortmund, and Baffert would be ecstatic with a one-two finish, because a win is not a must for either horse, just a big effort that will move them forward toward their final preps.
Itsaknockout Todd Pletcher
Lemon Drop Kid—Stormy B, by Cherokee Run
You know what? Let’s just forget about the disqualification and pretend that Upstart was the better horse and won the Fountain of Youth with no incident by 2 3/4 lengths just exactly as the race was run. That still would have been a huge effort for Itsaknockout, considering his lack of experience. Here was a horse with two career starts and never having run in a stakes, driving up alongside a horse who had already won a grade II this year by 5 1/4 lengths and placed in the grade I Champagne and BC Juvenile last year and making two strong runs at him. For such a lightly raced horse, that would have been a big step forward by itself. Now, add to the equation his greenness at the three-sixteenths pole and being interfered with by Upstart, and being able to sustain a long hard run and making two strong moves over a track with which he was struggling and you have a terrific performance, whether he was placed first or not.
Ocean Knight Kiaran McLaughlin
Curlin—Ocean Goddess, by Stormy Atlantic
Classy move by Stonestreet to run their two big horses against each other in the Tampa Derby for the simple reason, that's where they both belong. He breezed a half in an easy :49 4/5 at Palm Meadows Feb. 28. He definitely will be tough to beat in any race in which he competes, and another victory would move him way up everybody’s list, especially being undefeated heading into his final prep. McLaughlin still has him and Classy Class, and Frosted deserves another shot as well. Many of the experts already like Ocean Knight a great deal, and loved his victory in the Sam F. Davis when he overcame a bad post and wide trip to win over a quirky track against several house horses who had been training all winter over the surface. To demonstrate how some good horses can’t handle that track, Royal Son, who finished seventh, beaten nearly a dozen lengths, in the Sam Davis, came back to romp in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park.
Ocho Ocho Ocho James Cassidy
Street Sense– Winner, by Horse Chestnut
Well, this is it, finally. Will we see a new star emerge on the Derby trail? This sure is no easy spot for a 3-year-old debut, but even a good second or third will propel him into the ranks of major contenders. Turned in yet another brilliant work, going 6f in a bullet 1:12 and doing it with no urging. You can’t ask a horse to be training any better than he is, with back-to-back bullet 6f works and a sharp 5f work in :59 2/5. I’m really anxious to see what kind of race he runs. Will he be on the lead or close to it, and at what point in the race will he use his blazing speed? Just remember, he’s bred to run all day, so we really have no idea what we’re dealing with based on his 2-year-old races. Definitely one of the more intriguing horses on the Derby trail.
International Star Mike Maker
Fusaichi Pegasus—Parlez, by French Deputy
Although there are a number of interesting prospects pounding on the door, he has done nothing wrong this year, and although he hasn’t really wowed anyone he keeps winning and moving forward, and showed a great deal last time squeezing through a very narrow opening on the rail after sharply cutting the corner. Many horses would not be able to show that kind of athleticism or the ability to go through a hole that narrow and precarious. A horse may not do things in an exciting manner, but when they run equally as well on dirt, grass, and synthetic, at Belmont, Saratoga, Woodbine, Churchill Downs, and Fair Grounds, from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, you have to admire them for their versatility and consistency. As long as this colt keeps Ken Ramsey hot on the Derby trail, things will never get totally dull.
Knocking At The Door
My biggest regret this week is leaving off BOLO and PROSPECT PARK, both of whom are scheduled to run Saturday in the San Felipe. But there are five horses in that race that I feel are major Derby contenders, including three already on the list, and there is no way you can have five horses who are running against each other in the top 12. Something’s gotta give. But although I admit this is a very tough spot for Bolo to prove he’s a dirt horse, I am still intrigued by the possibility that this colt could be something very special, which is why he was ranked high on my first Dozen this year. He’s back on the Derby trail now and if he proves he’s not as special on dirt so be it. He still has a terrific future on grass. But if he’s in the first three at the wire and is able to give these horses a run for their money, watch out. Victor Espinoza gets the mount. Regardless of how he does on Saturday, he is one horse worth following this year, as he possesses major star potential.
As for Prospect Park, he could very well be the big bet-down horse, based on his impressive allowance score, and it would come as no surprise if he’s right there at the finish, despite his lack of stakes experience.
The San Felipe offers some of the most attractive Future Wager odds if you’re willing to take the gamble on the quick turnover from now until Saturday. I would have taken Bolo at 34-1, Lord Nelson at 39-1, and even Ocho Ocho Ocho at 24-1 in a heartbeat. Any one of them could be the biggest bargain of the year by Saturday evening.
It is logical after watching the John Battaglia Memorial to assume that ROYAL SON woke up on the synthetic surface. However, I believe it was more the ‘woke up’ than the surface. I’m sure he loved the Polytrack, and his performance probably looked better than it was after THE GREAT WAR bled and quickly retreated, leaving Royal Son all alone turning for home. But I also believe it’s very possible that The Great War bled because he tried so hard to keep up with Royal Son, who not even raising a sweat on the lead. And the feeling here is that the reason Royal Son woke up in his fifth career start was the addition of blinkers more than anything else.
If you watch this colt’s races, you can see an early pattern. In his first and third career start, he seemed comfortable enough on the lead until two horses came charging up on his outside. He seemed almost intimidated and began backing out of it. But once in the stretch, he dug in and battled back both times. The first time, at Saratoga, he actually came back to beat the horses who had seemingly put him away, but another horse came charging late out in the middle of the track to beat him a length, In his third start, he again started backing up when two horses came up to him on his outside, and once again he battled back along the rail, finishing a close second, eventually being placed first on a disqualification.
In his second start, going seven furlongs, he ran into an absolute monstrous performance by El Kabeir and exhausted himself chasing this runaway colt through a half in :44 4/5. He did try hard to make a run at him, but was overmatched, and while El Kabeir was drawing off to 10 3/4-length win, Royal Son was digging in and holding off the late bid by King Rontos to finish second.
In his stakes debut, the Sam F. Davis, he again broke from the inside and again was in tight down on the inside, with no place to go. Down the backstretch, he quickly lost his position and tried to make another run, but, as in his other races, he just never seemed
comfortable with horses on his outside, and this time he was totally boxed in. It’s quite possible he also wasn’t handling the quirky Tampa surface.
In any event, Todd Pletcher, whose number of Derby horses is getting to be obscene, put blinkers on for the Battaglia, and we saw a completely different horse – one who appeared to be more focused, more confident, and in total command. Although I haven’t seen him in the flesh and only briefly in his replays, he looks to be a grand-looking colt with a big beautiful stride. I love the way he moves and appears to glide over the ground.
So, was it the synthetic surface that turned him around? I can’t say no, but I did see many other things that convinced me that it was the blinkers and a case of the light bulb going on.
I also don’t think it was the synthetic surface because of his pedigree, which is all dirt. First off, he’s by Tiznow, so enough said about his sire line. Look, he had to be considered somewhat special for WinStar to give him the name Royal Son. Second, his female line is chock full of goodies. His dam, Mama Nadine, is a stakes winner who is out of 2-year-old filly champion Countess Diana, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Spinaway, and Alcibiades. Mama Nadine is inbred 3x3 to Lassie Dear through Weekend Surprise, dam of A.P. Indy, and Deerhound, giving Royal Son the much coveted RF (Rasmussen Factor, being inbred to a top-class mare). That also makes Royal Son inbred to Buckpasser, and he’s also inbred 3x4 to Seattle Slew. The tail-female line traces to War Exchange, who is the third dam of Curlin, and to Your Hostess, dam of Gay Hostess, who produced Majestic Prince. As I said, this is a dirt pedigree through and through with enough connections to classic horses.
In conclusion, don’t underestimate Royal Son just because he improved big-time on Polytrack. This was a visually stunning performance by a superbly bred horse who looks as if he’s finding himself at just the right time, with the help of blinkers. He should get a good test in the Spiral Stakes against METABOSS, IMPERIA, and perhaps an improving PEPPER ROANI, a strong second in the Battaglia, and we’ll see where he goes from there. That race could set him up well for a return to the dirt on the first Saturday in May if that’s the path they choose.
The other horse who caught my eye the more I looked at his races is THE TRUTH OR ELSE. Not only did I love his race in the Southwest and the way he exploded past horses on the far turn, while racing wide most of the way, I thought he ran huge in the stretch even though he got beat when FAR RIGHT snuck through along the rail. If The Truth or Else hadn’t drifted out at a crucial point in the stretch while battling with MR. Z, he might have won it all. The fact that he outgamed the indefatigable and gritty Mr. Z says a lot in itself. And it’s important to remember this was his first race with Lasix.
But it’s not just the Southwest that made me a believer in this colt’s ability. It was mainly his maiden victory at Belmont Park, in which he not only drew off to a 2 1/2-length victory over a good field in his dirt debut, he did it by coming home his final quarter in :23 3/5 without once being touched by the whip, as Joel Rosario just sat on him, barely moving his hands. If you can break your maiden at Belmont going a flat mile in 1:35 2/5 and come home that fast, while doing it with so little effort, you know there is a lot of natural talent in there.
Now, he is by Yes Its True, whose pedigree is all speed, although he did sire a classy two-turn horse in Aikenite. But there is an abundance of stamina in his female family, as reported last week, mainly through broodmare sire Colonial Affair and a tail-female line that traces to a number of top-class Phipps family horses, such as Buckpasser, Glamour (dam of Poker and granddam of Number Account), and Striking (granddam of Dapper Dan), as well as going back to the great La Troienne. So, take your pick who wins this battle – the sire’s family or dam’s family. If it’s the latter, then you’re talking serious Derby horse with a heckuva turn of foot.
While the Truth or Else will stick around to take on American Pharoah in the Rebel Stakes, two other horses who showed a big stretch kick on Feb. 28 – FRAMMENTO in the Fountain of Youth and KEEN ICE in the Risen Star – will head to the Blue Grass Stakes and Louisiana Derby, respectively. GORGEOUS BIRD, who did not appear to handle the Gulfstream surface in the Fountain of Youth, also is scheduled to point for the Blue Grass. Another horse to keep an eye on who closed well in the Southwest Stakes is fourth-place finisher BOLD CONQUEST from the barn of Steve Asmussen.
Jim Cassidy might have another Derby prospect in addition to Ocho Ocho Ocho. Cassidy sent out his improving former claimer VERRACO to upset the heavily favored CYRUS ALEXANDER in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer at Santa Anita Feb. 27. The son of Old Fashioned, who broke his maiden for a $50,000 claiming tag, rallied from fifth in the five horse field and charged to the lead at the three-sixteenths pole, opening up a length lead at the eighth pole. It looked as if Cyrus Alexander, who was stuck behind horses most of the race, might come back and beat him after finding room, but Verraco hung tough to win by a neck in a respectable 1:43 3/5. He may go next in the Sunland Derby.
Can you imagine if the Fab Five in the San Felipe all get beat by a former Zia Park horse with the unappealing name of PAIN AND MISERY? The son of Bob and John, who was turned over to Dick Mandella, was impressive winning a pair of six-furlong sprints at Zia Park before heading to Southern California, where he finished a good second, beaten a neck, in the about 6 1/2-furlong Baffle Stakes. He’ll be stretching out to two turns for the first time in the San Felipe.
One horse who could be forgotten come Santa Anita Derby time is CROSS THE LINE, winner of the California Derby and a troubled second in the El Camino Real Derby. It all depends on whether he’s as effective on dirt as he is on synthetic.