American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
Forget the slow fractions. This was all about visuals, and it was pure poetry. You cannot ask a horse to look any smoother, while generating more power; skipping and bounding over the ground with flawless strides, perfectly erect, legs under him perfectly, ears straight up, whip put away. This was a textbook video of what a Thoroughbred is supposed to look like in action, and he did it after springing a shoe pretty good after bobbling at the start over a wet, heavy track that was getting wetter and heavier as the day went on. A photo shows the shoe a good inch or more separated from the hoof, so he definitely dodged a bullet. Some will downplay the race because of the slow fractions (1:15 1/5), but slow is actually what you want to see from him right now, not some ridiculously fast speed figure. We know he’s fast; it’s all about relaxing and harnessing that speed to go 1 1/4 miles. And remember, although the Razorback, which drew a classy field, was run four-fifths faster, with a much faster three-quarters, that was a stretch-long duel between two talented older horses carrying four pounds less than American Pharoah, and they came home in :32 1/5 compared to :30 2/5 for American Pharoah, who was never really asked to run. The questions now are, how much did he get out of the race, and do we know if he is capable of sitting behind horses? You know Baffert, of all trainers, will make sure he’s dead fit, considering his long works are faster than most horses run in races. And any horse who relaxes on the lead the way he does, flicking those ears back and forth, should be able to settle anywhere. He never pulls and just outruns his horses with that high cruising speed. The ideal scenario now would be to see him tested to some degree in the Arkansas Derby, but it’s not 100 percent necessary as long as he gets enough out of it to move him forward.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
This is quite a powerful one-punch Baffert has heading into the big final preps. Baffert says it’s like having Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the barn. The question is how do the Baffert pair stack up to Pletcher’s Magnificent Seven? Looks like a battle of the Titans is imminent. Unlike Baffert’s past Derby duos, Indian Charlie and Real Quiet and Point Given and Congaree, Dortmund and American Pharoah have fairly similar running styles in that they want to be on or near the pace. But the Kentucky Derby has a way of making one alter their running style, and we’ve already seen Dortmund come from several lengths off the pace. In fact, his two biggest margins of victory have come when he rallied from fifth and sixth in his first two career starts. I cannot remember seeing two horses from the same barn who cover ground the way these two can. And the owners of both horses are due for some good luck on the Derby trail after some frustrating and disappointing injuries and hard-luck defeats.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
He is still the leader of the Pletcher pack until one of the other six proves otherwise. As I’ve mentioned he does everything the right way and is the consummate pro in his races. He just has to correct whatever got into him before the start of the Tampa Bay Derby. You don’t want any gate issues at Churchill Downs. But it didn’t affect him at all in the race. It’s still tough figuring out his pedigree in regard to staying the mile and a quarter, as Giant’s Causeway and Unbridled’s Song are both kind of on the edge and there are a number of other nine-furlong influences in his pedigree. But I still believe his natural talent and class and his flawless action can get him that extra furlong. He is even smooth and graceful coming back after his races. He just does everything like a good horse and everything about him is pleasing to the eye. Expect him to be much better loading in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
Breezed 6f in 1:13 2/5 at Palm Meadows, as Violette called an audible and had him go a strong extra eighth. Following his powerful 3-year-old debut and big speed figure, Violette backed off a bit on his training and expected a possible slight regression in the Fountain of Youth. But he wasn’t expecting such a deep, laboring track that took its toll on a number of horses. Despite the regression and struggling over the track, he still finished first and ran hard, turning back two challenges from Itsaknockout, only to be disqualified on a call that could have gone either way. With Violette deciding not to travel to New York and stay put for the Florida Derby, you can expect a tighter track and a tighter Upstart. By remaining in Florida, it allows Violette to train him up to the Kentucky Derby at Palm Meadows, which is a great place to train after most of the horses have departed for points north. He has sort of gotten lost in all the Pletcher—Baffert buzz, but judging by his performances, quality of his races, and his consistency at 2 and 3, he’s right up there with any of them.
Bolo Carla Gaines
Temple City —Aspen Mountain, by Chief Seattle
Let’s summarize what we got from him in the San Felipe. Missed the Robert Lewis with a physical issue, first start in 2 1/2 months, first start on dirt, shows a good turn of foot to pull on near-even terms with Dortmund, has to alter course in the stretch, and runs 43 feet farther than Dortmund. Yet he is beaten less than two lengths and just gets nailed for second, losing valuable momentum when Dortmund drifted into his path and forced him to duck to the inside. It’s hard to imagine this colt not improving in the Santa Anita Derby. As mentioned earlier, his dam is a half-sister to the dam of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan. Also, his broodmare sire, Chief Seattle, a son of Seattle Slew, was one of the most brilliant 2-year-olds of his generation (finishing a strong second in the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) before being sold to Godolphin for $4 million and then suffering a career-ending injury. And this colt reminds me of Chief Seattle, with his “Black Stallion” look and excellent tactical speed. As for stamina, his sire won the 1 1/2-mile Cougar Handicap on Del Mar’s Polytrack and placed in major grass stakes at 1 1/2 miles and 1 3/8 miles, and his paternal grandsire is the major stamina influence Dynaformer, who is by Roberto.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
We should have a little better idea of his talent level after we see how impressive he looks in the Sunland Derby following his two gut-wrenchers against Dortmund. He’s as sharp as ever after his :59 4/5 work, and I’m expecting a huge performance. This is a good spot for him after his slugfests with the imposing Dortmund, in which he battled gamely to the wire, getting beat a head both times. And you have to remember that in his defeat in the 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Futurity he was stretching out from 6- and 6 1/2-furlong races. And he has another angle going for him – second race Gary Stevens. Horses always improve for Stevens after he’s ridden them once. Finally, his Beyer figures have improved with every race, and he’s already right up with the best after his 103 Beyer in the Robert Lewis. With six weeks to the Kentucky Derby after this race, he is going to need a huge effort to continue his progress, especially if they plan on not giving him another race. Frankly, I can’t see anyone beating him if he runs anything even close to his last two races, although Lord Nelson could give him a run for his money if he finally puts it all together going turns.
Prospect Park Clifford W. Sise, Jr.
Tapit —Quiet Romance, by Bertrando
I realize five of the top seven horses are based in Southern California, but it is an exceptional group out there and the Eastern horses as a whole still have not done anything to match them. This colt is one of the late additions to the party and there is nothing but upside with him. He made the bridge from allowance to graded stakes horse with his excellent second-place finish in the San Felipe, and there is no doubt watching him run that he is still a work in progress and has some greenness to get rid of, as well as smoothing out some of the edges. He is looking more and more like a horse who can help owner/breeder Marty Wygod forget selling Shared Belief as a 2-year-old. I emphasize the world “help,” and this colt will decide the degree of that help. But a Kentucky Derby victory sure would do the trick.
Far From Over Todd Pletcher
Blame—Alchemist, by A.P. Indy
I sort of understand the reasoning behind skipping the Gotham and going into the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts, but I can’t help but wish he would have run and tried to nail down that 50 points and inclusion into the Derby field rather than letting it all on the line in the Wood Memorial and hoping there’s no traffic problems that could cost him second. You can run a huge race and get beat two noses and get left out of the Derby. But on the other hand I have to commend them for doing what they think is best for the horse, even at the risk of blowing the Derby. And even if they get in the race with only three starts, they’re bucking history, trying to do something that has been done by only one freak of a racehorse in the past 93 years. So they are letting the horse earn his way in and then prove he can do something historically extraordinary on the first Saturday in May. To his benefit, and what could separate him from the other few horses who have tried, he has gotten so much out of his first two starts, having to prove his courage under constant fire in his first race and demonstrating his ability to overcome a disastrous trip and still beat class horses like El Kabeir and Classy Class in only his second start. So this is a colt who has squeezed four races worth of experience into two races, and we really have no idea just how good he is.
Itsaknockout Todd Pletcher
Lemon Drop Kid—Stormy B, by Cherokee Run
Breezed a half in :49 2/5 March 14 for his rematch with Upstart in the Florida Derby. As much as Upstart should improve off the Fountain of Youth, Itsaknockout could improve even more, considering how big a race he ran off two career starts and struggling over that deep tiring track. He had to be pushed a long way out and seemed to be going nowhere, but to his credit he kept coming and proved a tough and determined foe the rest of the way, while being bothered by the far more experienced Upstart, resulting in a disqualification. Because of the odd nature of the Fountain of Youth, the race continues to intrigue me, and the more I watch it the more impressed I am with Itsaknockout, and firmly believe he could be a very live Derby horse. Many claim Luis Saez embellished the incident with Upstart, but I don’t see it that way. He really did seem in danger of clipping heels and had to stop riding his horse. Whether it was embellished or not, he did stop riding and that’s what is most important looking ahead. Itsaknockout made not one, but two strong runs at Upstart, almost making contact both times, and that is impressive in itself. He seemed to be finding his best stride when bothered the second time, and I can’t help but expect a major step forward in the Florida Derby with this experience behind him.
International Star Mike Maker
Fusaichi Pegasus—Parlez, by French Deputy
Finally returned to the work tab March 14, breezing 5f in 1:02 4/5 over a muddy track. One would imagine he’ll be meeting some new faces in the Louisiana Derby, but for now it looks pretty much like a another showdown with budding rival War Story, who breezed 4f in :49 2/5, with Keen Ice and Mr. Z. also posing threats. International Star, who is trying to win the Kentucky Derby the old fashioned way, by actually racing, has one of my favorite pedigrees of all the Derby contenders. By Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, International Star is inbred to Halo, a major class and stamina influence and sire of two Kentucky Derby winners, and also is inbred to Elmendorf’s Speak John through his multiple stakes winning son Verbatim, winner of three grade I-equivalent stakes, including the Whitney, and Hold Your Peace, 10-length winner of the Flamingo Stakes. International Star’s second dam, Speak Halory, is a half-sister to Halory Hunter, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes and placed in the Florida Derby, Fountain of Youth, Champagne, and Remsen, and a fast-closing fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Speak Halory also is a half-sister to Van Nistlerooy, a $6.4 million yearling who was a group II winner and group I-placed in Ireland before an injury ended his career; and to Brushed Halory, winner of the Delaware Oaks.
Daredevil Todd Pletcher
More Than Ready—Chasethewildwind, by Forty Niner
I decided to wait a week to let the Swale sink in, and in spite of his having only 16 furlongs of racing before the Derby, I can’t get away from his performance and how much I feel he got out of the race. It was a very fast-run race and I like that he had to chase a brilliant sprinter the whole way from the rail. And he did in on a fast track for the first time. So, now I can go back to his Champagne (my favorite 2-year-old race) and appreciate more what a huge effort that was and the ease with which he beat Upstart. As for his next race, how can he not run in the Wood Memorial? His sire has sired a Wood winner in Verrazano, his two owners both won the Wood with Verrazano and Gemologist, his breeder won the Wood as an owner/breeder with Irgun, and his trainer has won the Wood three times. Now for the big question of pedigree. On the surface there appears to be distance limitations, but further scrutiny could prove that incorrect. On the sire’s side, More Than Ready did finish a strong fourth in the Kentucky Derby and has sired a horse to finish third in the Belmont Stakes, as well as a Wood Memorial and Haskell winner. More Than Ready’s broodmare sire, Woodman, sired a Belmont and Preakness winner in Hansel, and his paternal grandsire, Halo, sired two Kentucky Derby winners – Sunday Silence and Sunny’s Halo. On the dam’s side, his second dam, Race the Wild Wind, winner of the Fantasy Stakes, is by Kentucky Derby winner Sunny’s Halo, making him inbred to Halo, which is huge. Daredevil's broodmare sire, Forty Niner, was beaten a neck in the Kentucky Derby and won the Travers and Haskell. Daredevil's fourth dam, Lady Marguery, is a half-sister to the dam of the great Trillion, champion in the U.S. and France and the dam of Triptych, who won or placed in an amazing 24 group I stakes, 23 of them against the boys, from one mile to 1 1/2 miles. Another descendant of Trillion is two-time Arc de Triomphe winner Treve. So I’m going against my old fashioned principals and going mainly on sheer talent and room for improvement.
El Kabeir John P. Terranova, II
Scat Daddy—Great Venue, by Unbridled's Song
There are so many horses I can put in this final spot, but I decided to stick with him, because of his overall record, consistency, and versatility, and because he keeps coming back and giving 100 percent, whether on the lead, stalking the pace, or coming from the clouds. His Beyer speed figures are too consistent without showing improvement, for whatever that’s worth, and there is a major question how effective he’ll be going 1 1/4 miles. But we’ll let him take us as far as he can; he deserves it. And it’s not like his pedigree is inundated with sprinters, as his sire and broodmare sire and maternal great-grandsire all won the Florida Derby. But there are a number of speed influences top and bottom and we don’t know if there is enough stamina to override them. Owned by Zayat Stables, along with the speedy and game Mr. Z., I imagine the Zayats will think long and hard about whether to point El Kabeir and Mr. Z to the Derby or possibly contemplate the Preakness. But that is still a long way off. Let’s see how they run in the Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby, respectively, and how American Pharoah does in his next start. The bottom line is, this is a horse anyone would love to have in their barn.
Knocking At The Door
For those looking at AMERICAN PHAROAH’S female family and wondering about his relatively unknown broodmare sire Yankee Gentleman and even more unknown maternal great grandsire Ecliptical, hold on to your hats. The dam of Yankee Gentleman is Key Phrase, who just happens to be a half-sister to Common Hope, the dam of Shared Belief. Ecliptical was bred by the legendary John Nerud and is a half-brother to Roundup Rose, the dam of Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby winner Codex.
Common Hope and Key Phrase are out of Sown, who is by Irish stakes winner Grenfall, a son of champion Primonetta, who is also the dam of multiple grade I winner Cum Laude Laurie, Florida Derby winner Prince Thou Art, and Gazelle and Ashland winner Maud Muller, who also placed in the CCA Oaks and Mother Goose. I wrote a column on Grenfall and Shared Belief last year.
With four Pletcher horses now in the top 12, I have to admit I could easily have put the other three – ROYAL SON, MADEFROMLUCKY, and MATERIALITY -- on there as well. It could be that’s where the future book bargains are. And remember, Pletcher also had KHOZAN and J.S. BACH on the Derby trail earlier in the year. Pletcher’s one-for-40 record and huge number of out of the money finishes in the Derby continue to shadow him this time of the year. A great number of Pletcher’s Derby starters really didn’t have much of a chance for a variety of reasons. But he can’t use that excuse this year, as he holds his most powerful hand yet, with seven legitimate contenders, all with the credentials and pedigrees to get the job done. If he gets lucky and all make it to the Derby, despite several likely having to run against each other, he will have more than a third of the field and the expectations are going to be sky high for him to get one of them home first.
LORD NELSON is going to come right back in Sunday’s Sunland Park Derby and certainly is not out of the Derby picture. Most people feel this is a sprinter who is not at his best at two turns, despite eight generations of classic Argentine blood in his female family. And why not, as he is three-for-three in sprints and has been out of the money in all three of his two-turn races. In two of his defeats going two turns, he had to chase wire-to-wire winners American Pharoah and Dortmund, while being stuck down on the rail both times. And he had no shot against Pharoah stretching out to a 1 1/l6-mile grade I stakes off one five-furlong maiden win on Polytrack. Then El Kabeir stole the Ky. Jockey Club, while he had a horrible trip and got shuffled to the back of the pack. But consider this. It just may be possible that the San Felipe, in which he was fourth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths, was actually too short for him and not too long as one would assume and he just didn’t have quite enough bottom in him coming off the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes. The fact that he tracked the pace on the inside, had a big opening along the rail, and just ran evenly without threatening the top three, suggests it’s possible he simply was unable to outrun those horses going 1 1/16 miles, and that 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/4 miles will be more to his liking. There is no way of knowing if that’s the case, but it is something to contemplate. We’ll see how he does against Firing Line on Sunday, and that will tell us one way or the other.
Another word about MUBTAAHIJ; his trainer Mike de Kock works his horses over a heavy dirt track back home in South Africa, which could account for his big efforts over the deep Meydan dirt surface, and would make him possibly the most fit horse in the Kentucky Derby, especially having already won at 1 3/16 miles. De Kock, like American trainers, gives his horses speed works, but he calls it controlled speed. We’ll know more about Muftaahij on March 28 when he takes on Kentucky Derby candidate MAFTOOL, winner of the UAE 2,000 Guineas, and a likely much improved Sir Fever in the UAE Derby. If he runs another big race coming back in three weeks and gets enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, do not dismiss this horse.
CROSS THE LINE, winner of the California Derby and a troubled second in the El Camino Real Derby, will head to the dirt in the Santa Anita Derby after breezing six furlongs in 1:14 at Golden Gate.
The impressive El Camino Real Derby winner METABOSS breezed six furlongs in 1:14 4/5 at Santa Anita as he prepares to head to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes. The diminutive son of Street Boss, who won’t turn 3 until the day after the Preakness, is owned in small part by the Facebook group Homeless Handicappers, a couple of whose members stated on Facebook they would prefer it if I didn’t like their horse. If he doesn’t run well in the Spiral, they’ll get their wish. If he is as impressive as he was at Golden Gate, sorry, they’re stuck with me. Choose your poison.
Also working for the Spiral, which drew an overflow field of 15, was IMPERIA, who breezed a half in :48 4/5 at Palm Meadows. Last week, I wrote that his stablemate FROSTED ran too bizarre a race for it to be an accurate gauge on where he is right now and that he deserves another chance. Did the blinkers, in which he worked so brilliantly, help or hurt or was it something totally unrelated? There are still no answers in the McLaughlin camp. But to add to the confusion, Frosted went out and turned in a sensational six-furlong breeze in 1:11 3/5 the same day Upstart breezed in 1:13 2/5. This colt can bounce back with a huge effort next time and it wouldn’t come as a surprise. If you just look at his recent works and consider how incredible he looked at the head of the stretch in the Fountain of Youth, the only conclusion you can make is that there is a talented horse in there crying to get out. Horses are not supposed to look that good one second and that bad a second later. Very strange indeed. If anyone can unlock the mystery of Frosted, it is McLaughlin.
Remember how high everyone was on GORGEOUS BIRD after his impressive maiden score, only to come back and disappoint in the Fountain of Youth? Well, if you’re one of those who are tossing the race because of that crazy track, take note that the son of Unbridled’s Song breezed a sharp five furlongs in 1:00 flat breezing at Palm Meadows March 15 for his likely start in the Blue Grass Stakes. Also pointing for the Blue Grass is Nick Zito's late closer FRAMMENTO, and these late-developing Zito closers are always dangerous.
At Parx Racing, the well-bred UNRIVALED, a son of Super Saver, out of an Unbridled mare, followed up his 15-length maiden romp with a five-length score in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race. He will now move up to the big-time in Blue Grass Stakes. Unrivaled has flourished at Parx since being claimed from WinStar Farm for $30,000 at Keeneland last October and then sold privately to Team Valor.
KEEN ICE, third in the Risen Star, breezed five furlongs in 1:01 at Gulfstream, as he tries to get trainer Dale Romans back to the Kentucky Derby with a big effort in the Louisiana Derby. Kent Desormeaux has been named to ride MR. Z. in the Louisiana Derby.
John Servis and Pat Chapman of Smarty Jones fame will see if their Smarty Jones colt NASA can put them on the Triple Crown trail with a good performance in Saturday’s rescheduled Private Terms Stakes at Laurel. He breezed a half in :49 2/5 at Parx March 17.
I had reluctantly decided to drop TEXAS RED and keep him in limbo for a couple of weeks and wait for his next work and a definitive plan as to his next start. But his connections eliminated any suspense by officially taking him off the Derby trail, which was a great loss for sure. It was good to finally see him back on the work tab, but his :51 2/5 breeze suggested it was just going to be too much of a push to make the Santa Anita Derby and be competitive against what promises to be a very tough, deep field. The Arkansas Derby had been the other, and more logical, option, but that was scrapped as well. If given the proper time to get back in top shape, he is going to have a big year and kudos to them for not jeopardizing that to try to make the Derby. It just seems as if there’s been too much time lost to force the issue.