By J. Keeler Johnson
We’re almost there, folks. The first of the final Kentucky Derby prep races are being held this weekend, namely the $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes (gr. III) at Turfway Park and the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) at Sunland Park. These races are going to be particularly important since the winners are unlikely to run again before the Kentucky Derby, and determining the strength of their performances will be a crucial component of handicapping the Derby itself. But I suppose I’m getting too far ahead of myself—for the moment, let’s take a look at the two races and see if we can’t unlock a couple of winners!
Spiral Stakes (gr. III)
This race has drawn an interesting blend of dirt, turf, and synthetic specialists, all vying for the 50 Kentucky Derby qualification points offered to the winner. Of the eleven horses in the race, ten look fairly evenly matched on paper, with one—Tamarando—seeming to stand above all.
With the Spiral being run over Turfway’s Polytrack racing surface, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Tamarando has compiled a record of four wins, a second, and a third from seven starts on synthetic tracks, including a victory in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) last year. Furthermore, Tamarando enters the Spiral off of an impressive win in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. IIII) on the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields, in which he ran down the good colt Dance With Fate to win by a half-length. In my opinion, these performances—coupled with his strong speed figures—make him a standout.
The other colt I really like is We Miss Artie, who made a strong middle move in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) last time out before retreating to finish eighth. As a juvenile, We Miss Artie won the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) on the Keeneland Polytrack by 2 ¾ lengths, and a return to synthetic could be just what he needs to take another step forward. I think he’s the most likely to pull an upset in the event that Tamarando fails to fire.
Sunland Derby (gr. III)
Since this race became a grade III Kentucky Derby prep in 2010, it has been generally dominated by shippers such as Govenor Charlie, Daddy Nose Best, and Endorsement. But it’s not as if the locals get thrashed every year, as they often give the shippers quite a scare at attractive odds. Remember Show Some Magic, runner-up in the Sunland Derby last year at odds of 26-1? Or Isn’t He Clever, who nearly beat Daddy Nose Best in the 2012 edition of the race?
If you want to support the shippers, there are plenty to choose from, including two apiece from the barns of Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. The horse I’m most intrigued by is Chitu, runner-up in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) last time out. In that race, the Baffert-trainee tracked strong fractions while making his first start beyond six furlongs, held the lead passing the eighth pole, and only gave way late to lose by a half-length to Candy Boy. It was a very impressive effort from a colt making his first start around two turns, and his strong tactical speed should prove an asset at Sunland Park, which tends to play kindly toward front-runners.
Midnight Hawk, Chitu’s stablemate, was a bit of a surprise entry, having run second just two weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. Like Chitu, Midnight Hawk possesses a great deal of early speed, but since both colts are trained by Baffert, a speed duel between the two seems unlikely. There are a few reasons why I give the edge to Chitu over Midnight Hawk, one of them being that Chitu beat his stablemate fairly and squarely in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, despite having less experience. Also, the fact that Midnight Hawk has already run in three major Derby preps this year makes me wonder if Chitu will simply be a fresher horse this Sunday.
The top local contender appears to be Rebranded, winner of the Riley Allison Futurity and runner-up in the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park. Although he lost the latter race by two lengths to Proceed, Rebranded was in turn 12 ¾ lengths clear of the rest of the field. Granted, this race is a pretty big rise in class for Rebranded, but the recent record of the locals suggests that having a prep at Sunland is a major advantage in the Sunland Derby, so I give him an excellent shot at cracking the trifecta at a solid price.
Who do you like this weekend?