By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman
The first three 100-point Kentucky Derby qualification races were held last Saturday, and the results—while not overly surprising—served to further confuse a puzzling Kentucky Derby trail, resulting in more questions asked than answered.
We’ll begin with the UAE Derby (UAE-II) at Meydan in Dubai, which was being held on dirt for the first time since 2009. Although UAE Derby runners have not had much of an impact on the Kentucky Derby—their best finish was a fifth from Master of Hounds in 2011—in my opinion, Mubtaahij might be the horse to break that trend. To be honest, I thought his performance on Saturday was breathtaking. After rating behind runners early on—and thus getting dirt kicked in his face, which is good practice for the Kentucky Derby—Mubtaahij shifted outside in the homestretch and took command with spectacular acceleration. The replay of the race can be viewed here, but in my opinion, this angle doesn’t do justice to how explosive Mubtaahij’s acceleration really was. When watching the overhead replay, one can see how Mubtaahij accelerated in the blink of an eye as soon as he was outside of horses, pulling away with a tremendous turn-of-foot to leave his rivals far behind. And again, the most impressive aspect of his performance was that his acceleration was instantaneous—no hesitation at all, barely any extra strides needed to get going.
Granted, it’s fair to question the caliber of the opposition Mubtaahij defeated—perhaps his turn-of-foot was more of an illusion created by his rivals tiring than by Mubtaahij actually speeding up. But according to the Trakus result chart, Mubtaahij ran the final 300 meters (about 3/16ths of a mile) in :18.74 seconds, or an average of :06.25 seconds per sixteenth. Over a surface as slow and tiring as Meydan, that is very impressive.
Another factor to consider is that Mubtaahij is scheduled to be shipped to Churchill Downs much earlier than other recent UAE Derby starters—he is expected to arrive around the middle of April, which will give him time to do some serious training over the Churchill dirt. This early arrival, coupled with Mubtaahij’s strong acceleration and willingness to rate, has me thinking that this colt could be a major contender on the first Saturday in May.
In the United States, the two major Derby preps were a bit less visually impressive, although they still had their share of excitement. In the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO), what was expected to be a rapid pace battle between several front-running colts turned into exactly the opposite when Stanford seized the early lead and was pressured by no one except Mr. Z, who was content to track the pace in second without challenging for the lead. As a result, Stanford was able to get away with slow fractions of :24.03, :48.59, and 1:13.27, which left him with plenty in the tank for the homestretch… which is why I am all the more surprised that International Star managed to rally and defeat him by a neck! For the third consecutive race, jockey Miguel Mena gave International Star a perfect ride, saving ground throughout before rallying up the rail to engage Stanford in a battle for the lead. International Star had to be urged very hard by Mena to wear down Stanford, but the gritty colt proved up to the challenge, securing the advantage inside the eighth pole and holding on gamely to triumph in the time of 1:50.67 seconds. The time wasn’t blazing, but it’s important to note that International Star ran the final three furlongs in about :36 3/5, a stellar time that suggests he could be a factor in the Derby. We know that he can rally through tiny openings and doesn’t mind racing inside of horses, and with plenty of front-running colts targeting the Derby, there should be plenty of early pace to set up International Star’s late rally.
I also wouldn’t forget about Keen Ice just yet. The son of Curlin was compromised by the slow pace of the Louisiana Derby and could only rally mildly to finish fourth, but he has quietly earned 22 Derby qualification points, which may be enough to get him into the starting gate. A fast pace and ten furlongs should be perfect for him, and I won’t be shocked to see him rally for a spot in the Derby superfecta at a giant price.
This brings us to the Florida Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO), which was probably the most confusing prep race of all. Visually, it was very impressive to see Materiality and Upstart pull away from the field on the far turn, and Materiality showed great determination in turning back Upstart to triumph by 1 ½ lengths, with Ami’s Flatter another 12 ½ lengths back in third. But here’s where things get interesting—the final time was a very, very slow 1:52.30, and Materiality ran the final three furlongs in :39.79 seconds. Of course, it’s important to note that the main track at Gulfstream has not been fast at all in recent days—for example, earlier on the Saturday card, a seven-furlong maiden special weight for 3yo fillies was timed in 1:27.32, with the top four finishers strung out over nearly eleven lengths.
That the track was slow is unquestionable, and there’s little doubt that Materiality and Upstart ran better than the final time implies. But how much better? Believe it or not, Materiality was awarded a Beyer speed figure of 110, the highest figure earned by any member of his generation thus far. Now, it was probably challenging to create the speed figures for Gulfstream, given that the track was being watered in between races and the surface was probably shifting throughout the day. But it’s hard to ignore a 110 Beyer, and slow time aside, Materiality should receive a lot of respect for that performance.
On a side note, it’s fair to argue that Upstart may have run better than Materiality, given that he raced wider than his rival on both turns and lost ground as a result. But I believe Materiality actually turned in the better performance since he was racing on the rail, which has not been the place to be at Gulfstream recently. Keeping that in mind, it might actually have been an advantage for Upstart to race wide.
One other note—while the time and closing fractions of the Florida Derby suggest that Upstart and Materiality aren’t well suited to ten furlongs, I don't think it necessarily means that they can't get the distance. When Materiality won the Islamorada Handicap over a much faster surface, he ran nine furlongs in 1:49 and change and finished pretty well, suggesting that he could get ten furlongs under the right circumstances. In a general sense, I don't think Materiality and Upstart will relish ten furlongs as well as some of the other Derby contenders, but I do think their tired finishes in the Florida Derby were more the result of the track than a lack of stamina.
Now it’s your turn! Which horses impressed you most last Saturday?
In order to aid in keeping track of all the Kentucky Derby prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Also, here is the link to the complete entries and current standings for our "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing!