By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman
Dortmund! Carpe Diem! Frosted! These three colts, all well-regarded Kentucky Derby contenders as early as last fall, did nothing to dispel that belief when they swept the three Derby preps across the country last Saturday, stamping themselves among the favorites for the Run for the Roses.
Certainly the most anticipated race of the day was the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO), in which Dortmund was favored at 3-5 to extend his unbeaten record to 6-for-6. The son of Big Brown did not disappoint, seizing the early lead while setting fractions of :22.46, :46.36, and 1:10.57 before drawing off to win by a decisive 4 ¼ lengths while stopping the clock in 1:48.73 for nine furlongs. For his victory, he received a Beyer speed figure of 106, his third-straight triple-digit Beyer.
Several aspects of Dortmund’s performance made his effort particularly impressive. For one, the rail did not appear to be the best part of the racetrack on Saturday, yet Dortmund raced on the inside throughout after breaking from post one. For another, Dortmund stumbled slightly at the start of the race and lost a shoe, so the fact that he was able to win in the manner that he did—despite running on just three shoes!—is impressive.
The final three-eighths of the Santa Anita Derby were timed in :38.16, a solid fraction, albeit not particularly eye-catching. But it should be noted that the main track at Santa Anita was not playing very fast on Saturday, and while he was urged hard down the homestretch, I don’t believe that Dortmund was actually all-out in the absence of any challengers. To me, Dortmund appeared to be well in command of the situation and probably wasn’t giving his all, and keeping in mind that he ran over the bad rail while setting a fast early pace and still finished solidly… I think he has earned the status as favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and I believe he thoroughly deserves it.
Finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby was Dortmund’s stablemate One Lucky Dane, who tracked Dortmund’s early pace before coming under urging on the far turn. He appeared to be retreating as the field approached the homestretch, but re-rallied with determination in the final furlongs, edging clear of his pursuers to finish clearly second-best. It was encouraging to see him rate so willingly after scoring both of his previous victories in gate-to-wire fashion, and while he is bound to be overlooked in the Kentucky Derby, his effort on Saturday suggests that he could be in the mix if he doesn’t go too fast early.
Disappointing in the Santa Anta Derby were Bolo and Prospect Park, a pair of well-regarded contenders that finished third and fourth. The way Bolo ran—sitting a few lengths off the lead and then failing to put in a strong finish—suggests that he didn’t handle the distance, and given how impressive he has been on turf, it’s very possible that dirt isn’t his best surface. Prospect Park had the excuse of a poor trip, racing in between horses throughout while waiting for racing room before shifting inside in the stretch, where he failed to accelerate in the slower going. It wasn’t a great effort, but given how well he has run in the past, I would not be afraid to use him strongly in the Derby exotics if he trains well during the next four weeks.
The Wood Memorial Stakes (gr.I) (VIDEO) at Aqueduct also yielded very intriguing results. The winner was Frosted, who returned to the scene of his close runner-up effort in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) to score a convincing two-length victory in Aqueduct’s final Derby prep. After prepping for the Wood with a fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II)—a race in which Frosted looked like a winner at the top of the stretch before fading badly—trainer Kiaran McLaughlin made many changes to try and get Frosted to rebound with a better effort, even trying minor surgery to eliminate the possibility of breathing issues. The changes worked perfectly, as Frosted unleashed a strong rally from the back of the pack to wear down Tencendur and stop the clock for nine furlongs in 1:50.31. Given that the main track at Aqueduct was playing slowly, this time translated to a very strong Beyer speed figure of 103.
But Beyers and sharp time aside, I believe the most noteworthy aspect of Frosted’s performance was the final three furlongs, which he ran in the stellar time of about :36.50. Granted, a tailwind in the homestretch may have helped him finish as fast as he did—the finishing times were quite strong in several other races that afternoon as well—but that is an average of about :12.17 seconds per furlong, and that is remarkable at the finish of a dirt race. It’s been fifteen years since a Wood Memorial winner went on to claim the Kentucky Derby, and in recent years, the Wood winners have been relegated to rounding out the Derby superfecta at best. But with plenty of front-runners and pace stalkers targeting the Derby, Frosted’s powerful finishing kick could be an advantage on the first Saturday in May, and as long as he trains well in the lead-up, I will strongly consider him as a major player on Derby day.
Rounding out the trifecta were Tencendur and El Kabeir. The former tracked the early pace while racing wide and fought on gamely in the homestretch, only giving up the lead late in the race while finishing 3 ¾ lengths in front of El Kabeir. In contrast to Tencendur’s previous efforts, this was a huge, huge improvement, but it’s not as though improvement was unexpected. The colt had been entered in the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) back in January while still a maiden, suggesting that his connections believed him to be a very talented colt, and his efforts in the Withers (gr. III) and the Gotham (gr. III) were solid given that he didn’t receive the best of trips. And it’s also important to keep in mind that the Wood Memorial was run on the Aqueduct main track and not the inner track, and there are horses that prefer one to the other. Perhaps a switch in surfaces is all Tencendur has needed to run an improved race, so I would be inclined to believe that his form in the Wood Memorial is a more reliable indicator of his talents than his runs in the Withers and Gotham.
As for El Kabeir, he was in last place heading down the backstretch and into the far turn, but put in a solid rally to finish a clear third. Although he actually lost a length on Frosted in the final three-eighths, he still ran that fraction in a very respectable :37.10. I have long viewed El Kabeir as a talented horse, albeit one too slow to contend in a race like the Derby. But after seeing him finish with such strength in the Wood Memorial, I’m starting to change my opinion. He might not win the Derby, but his new late-running style could certainly get him a piece of the purse if the pace is fast, and he has already won a graded stakes race at Churchill. Don’t let him slip through the cracks!
The third Derby prep of the day was the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) at Keeneland. Todd Pletcher’s once-beaten runner Carpe Diem was sent off as the heavy favorite and lived up to expectations, scoring a solid three-length victory in the time of 1:49.77 for nine furlongs. Visually, this performance was impressive—Carpe Diem tracked the pace through even fractions of :24.15, :48.05, and 1:12.18 before drawing off with authority and maintaining his advantage under urging to win. It was a very solid effort in his second start off a layoff, and I believe it will set him up for a peak effort in the Derby. His versatility in running style—he can set the pace, track the pace, or come from way behind—is very valuable for the Derby, and his pedigree suggests that he will have no trouble with ten furlongs. The lone concern is that his time in the Blue Grass earned a Beyer of just 95, substantially lower than the figures earned by Dortmund and Frosted. But after giving the matter some thought, I’m not worried about his low figure. In my opinion, Carpe Diem was well within himself tracking the pace in the Blue Grass and could have gone much quicker early and still finished strongly in the homestretch, which would have allowed him to post a better time and earn a better figure.
The runner-up in the Blue Grass was Danzig Moon, who unleashed a strong rally from fifth-place to finish second, 2 ½ lengths in front of pace-setting Ocho Ocho Ocho. I loved the way he leveled off in the homestretch and kept plugging away at Carpe Diem, actually gaining on him slightly through the final furlongs. With his breeding (by Malibu Moon out of a Danzig Moon mare), this is another colt that should appreciate the extra distance and typical fast pace on the Derby.
And lastly, I would like to briefly mention Frammento, who finished fourth in the Blue Grass with a mild late rally. Although he never threatened the top three finishers, Frammento did spend the entire race on the rail, which seemed to be the worst part of the track at Keeneland as well as Santa Anita. With 20 Derby qualification points, there is a chance that Frammento could draw into the Derby, and if he does, watch out—this is exactly the kind of colt that could sit way, way back early on and pick up the pieces in the homestretch.
Now it’s your turn! Which horses impressed you the 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!