American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
I know, what’s he still doing at No. 1 when Dortmund and Carpe Diem looked so good? Well, I’ve come this far with him, why not just wait another week and see what happens in the Rebel and go from there, especially after his jaw-dropping 6f work in 1:10 3/5 that had Baffert hurling out superlatives. Plus, I couldn’t separate Dortmund’s and Carpe Diem’s performances, they both ran such big races. Look, if he runs off the screen in the Rebel, there’s going to be a traffic jam trying to get on his bandwagon, so what’s the rush to drop him now? If his sensational works don’t translate to what he does on Saturday, then no problem putting Dortmund or Carpe Diem as the new No. 1. Both deserve the top spot. But until he proves me wrong I still think he has superstar potential and does everything like a special horse. But until they actually make the transition from 2 to 3, especially rebounding from an injury, there’s always going to be a big fat question mark. We’ll find out one way or the other soon enough.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
Last week, an unexploded bomb from WWII was discovered in Dortmund, Germany. This week, a Dortmund bomb of another sort went off at Santa Anita, all but blowing apart the 3-year-old picture in California…at least for now. After his last and best ever work, he turned in the kind of race everyone was looking for from the nearly 1,300-pound behemoth, who showed once again he can beat you in a number of ways. It’s remarkable that no two of his races have been alike other than perhaps his first two. This time, unlike his last race against Firing Line when he allowed his foe to open a length on him, he took the initiative from the start and was able to kick in gear when faced with a serious challenge. He seems to take one stride to the other horses’ two strides, and for such a big horse is very light on his feet and just bounds along without hitting the ground hard. Now, going 1 1/4 miles in a 20-horse field is a another matter, and because of his mammoth size and stride, the strategy from here on is simple: get good position up near the leaders, don’t get stuck behind a cavalry charge, and just use that stride and his intimidating presence to run his opposition off their feet. Because of his physical prowess, he can run often and keep winning and still have room for improvement, so there is little fear of peaking too soon. Despite his third straight tough race, in which he out-dueled and outfinished some very talented horses, he was not even blowing that hard after the San Felipe, according to Baffert. He probably should have been No. 1, but it’s so close between him and Carpe Diem, so why not give it one more week and see what American Pharoah does.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
Although Dortmund beat a far more talented field, he looked better mechanically than any 3-year-old I’ve seen this year, and that’s why the two colts are in a virtual deadlock. This was a perfect case of a horse running to his works, which have been sensational all winter. Having only two starts before the Derby, his connections could not have asked for a better debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. I stated from the beginning this horse has a look of class about him, and I maintain that there is no 3-year-old racing now whose action is more pleasing to the eye. His strides are so long and fluid and he is so light on his feet, and has such a high cruising speed, he is your quintessential Derby horse and is what every horsemen looks for with the classics in mind.In the Tampa Derby, he was able to sit behind horses on the inside while getting dirt kicked in his face. He quickly pounced on Sam Davis runner-up Divining Rod, showing off his athleticism, and blew right by him. John Velazquez threw a cross on him and then hit him once right-handed and he veered in toward the rail, getting that little rustiness out of the way. Once he dropped down and leveled off, he pinned his ears and began to lengthen his stride as Velazquez kept pushing on him to the wire with a strong hand ride, which is exactly what he needed. It wouldn’t have done him any good to win in a canter, so he got just what he needed out of this race. I came very close to putting him or Dortmund No. 1, but rather than agonize over it, I decided to hold off until the Rebel. The reason I gave Dortmund the No. 2 spot is the quality of horses he beat, his five-race unbeaten record, and Ocean Knight never firing in the Tampa Bay Derby. But there is little doubt this is one colt who is suited for the Kentucky Derby. I’ll tackle the dilemma of No. 1 again next week.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
Well, the Wood Memorial is now out of the picture and he will remain in Florida to point for the Florida Derby, which really should not come up that tough, especially with Khozan gone and several others leaving town. Breezed a sharp half in :48 2/5 to keep the edge on him and he definitely is going to be extremely tough to handle on March 28. Everyone is searching for that one big angle to determine who is their Derby horse, but sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees and that horse may be right in front of our nose and we keep looking past him for something more glitzy. He is one of those rare blue collar horses who keeps going out and getting the job done, while many of the others remain in the barn having mini vacations between races.
Bolo Carla Gaines
Temple City —Aspen Mountain, by Chief Seattle
All I was looking for was a performance on dirt that rivaled his electrifying performances on grass and he delivered in that respect, despite likely being a short horse, and will move way forward off this race. And Dortmund in my mind cost him second by drifting out into his path inside the eighth pole, causing Victor Espinoza to pull back on the reins and duck to the inside. That brief hesitation and loss of momentum proved costly, as Prospect Park just got up to beat him a half-length for second. But let’s focus on the positives, such as tracking Dortmund in third the whole way and then kicking in with that quick move he’s demonstrated on the grass to pull up to the favorite’s flank. He switched leads very smoothly and right on cue, which is what you want to see, and kept trying hard to catch Dortmund, while continuing to stride out beautifully. What is most important to remember is that he is coming back from a physical ailment that kept him out of the Robert Lewis, which means he hadn’t run in 2 1/2 months and had to be a short horse going into this race. As noted in the first Dozen, he has plenty of stamina and dirt in his pedigree, with his dam being a half-sister to the dam of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan. If I played the Future Wager, this is the horse I would have laid my money on at 34-1, and if he can pick up enough points in the Santa Anita Derby, he should be a force to reckon with on the first Saturday in May.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
Dortmund’s impressive victory in the San Felipe boosts his reputation even further, especially since it showed what a big, tough, intimidating horse he was eyeballing in both of their battles. He breezed a sharp 5f in 1:00 4/5, which should have him ready for a monster effort in the Sunland Derby. The Santa Anita Derby is the alternative, but the feeling here is that he can use a confidence builder and a fairly easy race after those two gut-wrenchers. He does not possess the physical attributes of Dortmund, who can shrug off hard races much more easily. This colt gives 100 percent every time and you can certainly forgive him for letting Dortmund come back and beat him in the Robert Lewis. Gary Stevens knows him a lot better, although I don’t feel Stevens made any mistakes on him in the Lewis. His colt just got a bit tired at the end and will benefit greatly from the experience.
Prospect Park Clifford W. Sise, Jr.
Tapit —Quiet Romance, by Bertrando
The San Felipe was his big class test and he passed by overcoming a wide trip early, rallying between horses and closing strongly to get second behind Dortmund, coming home his final sixteenth in under :06 He’s made tremendous progress over the past couple of months and is another who should move forward off this race. He was forced to go four-wide into the first turn and then remained outside down the backstretch. As the field closed around him he had to rally between horses, then was eased to the outside where he began to cock his head noticeably toward the crowd. Once he got his act together, he closed resolutely and just got up for second while under nothing more than a mild hand ride. He has a bit of a high leg action, but there have been a number of top-class dirt horses who had the same kind of action, such as Skip Away and Barbaro just to name a couple.
Texas Red Keith Desormeaux
Afleet Alex—Ramatuelle, by Jeune Homme
He arrived at Keith Desormeaux’s barn on March 9 and will work over the next three Saturdays in an attempt to make the Santa Anita Derby. If Desormeaux feels he needs another week, then the Arkansas Derby will be the other option. The first work back will be very important, as it will let us know just how sharp and fit he is and how hard he’s going to have to be trained in order to not only make the Kentucky Derby, but be competitive. He’s been having three types of aerobic works per day, as well as aqua-tread therapy and swimming etc. With the top horses from the San Felipe expected to return for the Santa Anita Derby, it’s not going to be easy to pick up the necessary points with only three works in him, and he cannot afford to come up short. Perhaps another work and a trip to Oaklawn might serve him better, but let’s see how American Pharoah fares in the Rebel and whether or not Texas Red has a chance to beat him in the Arkansas Derby. In short, he needs to run no worse than second wherever he goes, although there’s still an outside shot he can sneak in with a third and 30 total points. Right now I’m just looking for any reason to put him back up closer to the top where he belongs.
Far From Over Todd Pletcher
Blame—Alchemist, by A.P. Indy
Breezed a half in :49 4/5 at Palm Beach Downs for his return to New York for the Wood Memorial. His connections felt skipping the Gotham was the best move for the horse, but they’ll have to buck history, which has shown us it is no easy task. Having a pair of eventful 2-turn races will help. His supporters also had to feel good about seeing El Kabeir run such a dynamite race in the Gotham. He is in need of points and having Upstart pass the Wood for the Florida Derby also will help. There really isn’t too much left to say about him. We know he has talent and courage and determination and could turn out to be something special. But as of now he has a tall order trying to get the necessary bottom and experience to be ready for the Kentucky Derby having had only two career starts on Aqueduct’s inner track heading into the Wood. And there is a big class difference between the inner and main tracks. Smarty Jones is the only horse ever to win the Derby having won a stakes on the Aqueduct inner track.
Itsaknockout Todd Pletcher
Lemon Drop Kid—Stormy B, by Cherokee Run
He also breezed a half in :49 4/5 for the Florida Derby, where he’ll have to go it alone after the injury to Khozan, unless Pletcher put another, like Materiality, in there. He at least will be making his fourth career start, and we’ll see if he can beat Upstart fair and square this time. With the dead surface in the Fountain of Youth, he will get much needed bottom and experience and we should see a sharper, more professional performance next time. Not many people are talking about him as his Fountain of Youth performance seems to have gone unnoticed with all the talk about the disqualification. But as I mentioned last week, he could turn out to be a real sleeper for a grade II winner, considering his morning line odds for the Future Wager were 20-1, yet he closed at a mouth-watering 30-1. He is another on who I wish I had a ticket.
International Star Mike Maker
Fusaichi Pegasus—Parlez, by French Deputy
As of March 9, he still hasn’t worked since the Risen Star. He is one of the few Derby contenders who is still going about his business the old fashioned way by racing regularly and avoiding few spots, while showing the ability to compete at the highest level on all three surfaces. The Fair Grounds-based 3-year-olds don’t appear to be an overly strong group, so we’ll have to see who ships in. As of now, we have him and War Story and Keen Ice, which is a solid group, but we haven’t seen anything extraordinary yet, so one would think the Louisiana Derby will be wide-open, with International Star and War Story renewing their budding rivalry. One would think Pletcher will come up with something to send there.
El Kabeir John P. Terranova, II
Scat Daddy—Great Venue, by Unbridled's Song
He is another who is from the old school, and he is always full of surprises, as you never know what kind of race he’s going to run. He’s gone from speed freak to stalker to Silky Sullivan, winning the Gotham from far off the pace and doing it by design and not due to a bad start or early traffic problems. This is a fascinating colt, who like another Zayat 3-year-old, Mr. Z, is indefatigable and tough as nails, and you can’t help but admire horses like this, who go out race after race and fight to the finish every time. In the Gotham, he was taken to the back of the pack, dropping more than a dozen lengths off the lead and looked to be totally out of the race. But he made a long sustained run and just kept getting stronger, mowing down horses one by one and easily drawing off to a clear-cut victory. Granted, this was a weak field, but he sure did it the right way. There is a question whether he wants any part of 1 1/4 miles, but Derby horse or no Derby horse this is a fun horse to have in the barn who is going to win a lot of races this year.
Knocking At The Door
I came oh so close to putting the Mike de Kock-trained MUBTAAHIJ on the Dozen, but for now I have him unofficially at No. 13. If you look at the whole picture, this colt has all the qualifications to be a serious Derby contender. First off, de Kock, one of the world’s greatest trainers, would not bring him if he didn’t feel he had a big chance. The horse has already won at about 1 3/16 miles, so in a world where most horses are a guess to get the distance, he’s already been close to running that far, and on that deep Meydan surface he might as well have run the full Derby distance. In the Al Bastakiya, the second leg of the Dubai Triple Crown, he had no trouble defeating Sir Fever, an undefeated “4-year-old” Southern Hemisphere champion who was 10-for-10 in his career, sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown with ease before being sold to Godolphin. To show how slow the track was, Mubtaahij ran the about 1 3/16 miles in 1:59. By comparison, African Story, last year’s Dubai World Cup winner, won the third leg of the Maktoum Challenge, covering the about 1 1/4 miles in 2:04 4/5.
Mubtaahij has a fascinating pedigree that has a strong mile influence, but enough stamina to get him classic distances. His sire Dubawi is by the runaway Dubai World Cup winner Dubai Milennium. His broodmare sire, Pennekamp, bred by Magalen O. Bryant, who bred last year’s Travers’ winner V.E. Day, won the 2,000 Guineas and a pair of other group I races. Pennekamp is by French Derby winner and Arc de Triomphe runner-up Bering, who is by the great Sea-Bird’s group I-winning son Arctic Tern. Mubtaahij also is inbred to the great racehorse and sire Mill Reef. He seems to have all the tools, is three-for-four on dirt, his only defeat coming when he was beaten a head by Godolphin’s MAFTOOL in the UAE 2,000 Guineas after having crushed Maftool in the Guineas Trial. If he gets enough points in the UAE Derby, he likely will head to Churchill Downs, as would Maftool.
This week’s Pletcher Prattle: you lose one you pick up another, as the machine keeps cranking them out. So, he loses KHOZAN and picks up another lightly raced Derby horse in MATERIALITY, who frankly looks more like a Derby horse than the ultra brilliant Khozan, who is another of those early Pletcher dynamos that never made it to the Derby. Sometimes you don’t want them to come out firing on all cylinders and running monster speed figures. As the saying goes: Too fast to last.
Pletcher has had a number of lightly raced horses who flashed early brilliance and started their careers undefeated, only to fall off the Derby trail. Khozan won his first two races in laughers, including a first-out 103 Beyer, and then got hurt. Discreet Dancer won his first two races by a mile and then was injured in the Fountain of Youth and was out a year. Algorithms and Violence won their first three races and were injured soon after and were retired. And Constitution won his first three races and was injured after the Florida Derby and was out for over six months.
Although Materiality has a ton of speed in his tail female line, he is by Afleet Alex, and his broodmare sire, Langfuhr, although a sprinter/miler, did sire Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando, as well as the Whitney and Woodward winner and Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up Lawyer Ron and Canadian Oaks winner Kimchi.
Materiality easily won his career debut in the slop going six furlongs and then stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in an overnight stakes, not an easy task, especially going up against his highly regarded stablemate Stanford, who was sent off as the 6-5 favorite. Turning into the backstretch, Stanford seemed to simply blow the turn and came out sharply and took out Materiality, who started a chain reaction that eventually resulted in Stanford’s disqualification from second. But Materiality quickly recovered and settled beautifully right behind Stanford. The pair opened up on the field, with Materiality putting Stanford away in a flash after changing leads smoothly. He continued to draw clear, but it was obvious he resented the right-handed whip John Velazquez gave him, as he stuck his tail up and ducked in a bit. Velazquez just hand rode him the rest of the way and he continued to draw away, winning by 5 3/4 lengths in a very solid 1:49 1/5.
It’s too bad that Materiality got such a late start and is playing catch-up, but having only three career starts going into the Derby doesn’t faze Pletcher a bit, as he has never hesitated to try it in the past. The bottom line is, I believe this is a talented colt who is improving at a rapid rate, and it’ll be interesting to see where he shows up next.
Getting back to the weekend stakes action, and there was plenty of it, the Dozen lost LORD NELSON, OCHO OCHO OCHO, who had been working up a storm, and OCEAN KNIGHT. If Kiaran McLaughlin is going to make it to the Derby after so much early promise, one of his horses is going to have to make a dramatic turnaround, and I still haven’t given up on FROSTED, who for a brief instance, looked like a Top 5 Derby contender when he seemingly had the Fountain of Youth all but won at the top of the stretch, only to throw his head up, step on the brakes, and simply put, blow the race. As good as he looked nearing the quarter pole, when he was merely coasting along and had Upstart and Itsaknockout under a full drive and going nowhere trying to catch him, that’s how horrible as he looked in the stretch, but he still was beaten only 4 3/4 lengths and a neck for third. Was it the addition of blinkers, in which he worked like a tiger leading up to the race? It looked at one point as if the blinkers had turned him into a superstar. So, who knows? Whatever bizarre occurrence befell him, he still deserves another chance to straighten himself out and get back to the consistent and improving colt we saw earlier. I can’t wait for his next race to see just what we’re going to get. I still feel this is a very good colt and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he bounced back big-time. But it sure would be nice to know what the heck happened to him. As for Ocean Knight, he was struggling trying to close in on the leaders and was all but eased from the top of the stretch. That also was a puzzler. We know he’s a much better horse than that.
As for Ocho Ocho Ocho, he was cut off by Dortmund coming out of the gate and lost position and then was bumped hard by THE GOMPER and never got in the race after that. He deserves another chance for sure. I was convinced Lord Nelson’s pedigree would get him a distance, but once again he ran like he wants one turn, so it seems I was off base on that one.
One defeated horse who actually moved way up the ranks is Tampa Bay Derby runner-up AMI’S FLATTER, who responded to first-time Lasix and the addition of blinkers and ran a big race to finish a clear-cut second. The son of Flatter, out of a Victory Gallop mare already has a second in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes this year before running an even fourth in the Sam F. Davis. It is also important to note that Flatter sired a two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and both of Ami’s Flatter’s grandsires won the Belmont Stakes.
Another defeated horse to enter the Derby picture is TIZ SHEA D, who came off a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Parx to finish a good second in the Gotham Stakes. He is another with only two career starts who would be playing major catch-up. But he looks like he has a bright future.
Finally, American Pharoah returns to the races this weekend in the Rebel Stakes, and it was hoped that TAKE CHARGE BRANDI would force him to sit back and use her as a target, as opposed to him going to the front again and showing us little that we don’t already know about him. Without her, we'll have to see who goes in there and how the race plays out. If there is a horse to watch in the stretch it is THE TRUTH OR ELSE, on whom I went into great detail last week. This race will prove if his last was as good as it looked in so many ways. If he is that good, Kenny McPeek has got himself a Derby horse.
Looking ahead, I have never anticipated a Polytrack Spiral Stakes as much as I do this year, with the showdown between ROYAL SON and METABOSS, who I believe are both legitimate Derby contenders. You have a powerful pace horse against a powerful closer who are both coming off sensational victories. And, despite his disappointing 3-year-old debut, you have to throw IMPERIA into the mix, assuming the former grass star will improve big-time over the synthetic surface.