This feature offers a capsule look at three horses warming up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve aren’t as strong as they were a few weeks ago.
In this edition, the focus is on the 3-year-old stakes races that have taken place over the past three weeks. With the action on the Derby track heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze the biggest movers as the first leg of the Triple Crown approaches.
Now that the Kentucky Derby 100-point prep races have begun and will conclude this weekend, the focus is on the 3-year-olds who have the best chance of winning the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs.
On the way to the Kentucky Derby classification
With a weekend of big Kentucky Derby prep races remaining on the schedule, I think Epicenter has put itself on solid ground to be the favorite in the May 7 race for the roses at Churchill Downs. Sure, we could get a monster performance this weekend that knocks him off that perch, but I can’t see any set of circumstances where Epicenter isn’t one of the top two betting picks in the Derby, provided that he stays healthy and on track for the race. I believe in the Ragozin Sheets and the 6 ¼ he earned for winning the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby on March 26 at Fair Grounds gives him some cachet strong win the competitor. Likewise, an improvement pattern of 87-88-98-102 Beyer Speed Figures since Dec. 26 indicates he’s on track and capable of a big run with six weeks off between the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby. His four consecutive Equibase 97 speed figures are a little less convincing, but he completed the last three sixteenths of a mile in the Louisiana Derby in just over 18 seconds, which is fast for a 1 3/16 mile race. He also has good tactical speed, which has become increasingly important in recent years, and the versatility to set the pace, pick up the pace or keep pace with Hall of Fame coach Steve Asmussen. It ticks all the boxes.
2. White Shelter
The only Kentucky Derby Future Wager I did this year was over White Abarrio at 22.50-1, so I believed in his chances of winning the first Triple Crown jewel ahead of his 1 ¼ length victory in the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Xalapa on April 2 at Gulfstream Park. Prior to the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby, he missed practice with a fever but still ran very well. This leads me to hope that we still haven’t seen his best yet. He earned an Equibase speed figure of 102 and 99 for the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, respectively, while his Beyer speed figures were 97-96. He’s right there with the best 3-year-olds in terms of ability with a small step forward in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. It’s two shots against White Abarrio in my opinion. First, his only loss in five starts came at Churchill Downs when he was third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. The argument here is that he’s a horse for the course at Gulfstream Park where he’s 4 for 4, but I’m not buying him. He ran reasonably well on his debut in the stakes that day at Churchill in what was a robust class test and has improved since then. Second, he finished his final eighth mile in the Florida Derby in 14.09 seconds. This reason is more compelling because he doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby with that finishing kick. For my Future Wager bet, I’m hoping it might not be fully launched yet and there’s plenty left in the fuel tank for May 7th.
While Cyberknife was the obvious third option here, I really had a hard time giving it to Charge It if not for its slow last eighth of a mile in the Curlin Florida Derby presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Xalapa . Both Cyberknife and Charge It had outstanding performances in their final prep races – Cyberknife winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park by 2 ¾ lengths for their first career victory and Charge It finishing second to White Abarrio in the Florida Derby on his stakes debut. – but the extra foundation of the first (six starts) and the last furrow in 13.18 seconds give him a slight advantage. I also think there’s a chance that Cyberknife showed in the Arkansas Derby that he’s starting to figure things out a bit. Although he jettisoned his driver before the race and then drifted down the stretch, he achieved a career-best Beyer speed figure of 92 and an Equibase speed figure of 95 which is five points off his career high. I featured Cyberknife for this week’s Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshot, and the main takeaway is that he’s a serious talent with some maturation to do over the next five weeks. I’ll be keeping an eye on him at Churchill Downs in the days and weeks leading up to the Derby to see how he handles the spotlight. Perhaps the Arkansas Derby was a major turning point for him. I think it’s at least possible.
Honorable mention: I mentioned charge it above and he was clearly the last in my top three. With just three starts, he lacks the basics of some of the other contenders, but I think his advantage is significantly higher. After pairing 93 Beyer Speed Figures, he has a chance to move on and run well on five weeks rest in the Kentucky Derby in his fourth career start, but I’m not sure he’s a contender. entitled to victory. …I love the winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby pride of the crownthe odds of May 7 at Churchill Downs are better than most of the winners of this Dubai prep race and far more than the second summer is tomorrow, but I just can’t approve of a 3 year old coming out of this race. There’s a reason no Kentucky Derby winner has ever come out of the UAE Derby; it’s a tough road to Louisville. … Tiz the bomb was impressive again at Turfway Park winning the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the synthetic main track and trainer Kenny McPeek confirmed he would go to the Kentucky Derby, but his missed (beaten by more than 20 lengths) in the Holy Bull Stakes on land is hard to overlook. He’s a star talent on grass and synthetic, but I couldn’t support him in the Kentucky Derby after a first clay-court win at Ellis Park last July. If he beats me, I’ll tip my hat to him and his connections. …Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby finalist Zozo and second in the Arkansas Derby barber’s road could spice up big-ticket Exotics. Both are worth watching. … Slow down Andy won the Sunland Park Derby by half a length on March 27, but I doubt he’s fast enough to be a big factor on the first Saturday in May. … It should also be mentioned that 15-length winner Robert B. Lewis Stakes Messier has been transferred from trainer Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen, so he will be eligible to earn points in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, April 9. I think he will finish in the top two and qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Messier is an elite talent.
RETURN TO CALM
1. Classic roadway
The good news is that Classic Causeway finished without placing in the Curlin Florida Derby presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Xalapa in good order; the bad news was basically everything else. The quick Sam F. Davis Stakes and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner returned on a short rest for the Florida Derby and faded badly after setting the pace. Classic Causeway finished last of 11 while being beaten by 21 ¼ lengths. Suffice it to say, that’s not how you like to see a 3-year-old perform in his final preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Brian Lynch told Horse Racing Nation on Tuesday that he was unsure about what’s next for Classic Causeway when it comes to the first Triple Crown jewel. Last week he looked like one of the likely favorites for the 1 ¼ mile classic and a week later he could miss the race altogether.
2. Call me midnight
After Call Me Midnight’s impressive victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January, trainer Keith Desormeaux opted to skip the Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford in favor of training until Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. With just 10 points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, that meant a strong performance in the Louisiana Derby was absolutely essential for Call Me Midnight and it came a little short. The colt of Midnight Lute passed a few late horses but the nearest never seemed to find his best stride and finished sixth, beaten by 8¼ lengths by the winner Epicenter. A slow start didn’t help Call Me Midnight’s chances, but a 12-point drop from an Equibase speed figure of 96 for the Lecomte to an 82 for the Louisiana Derby is less than ideal. He will also most likely be on the outside when it comes to qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
Traded from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen ahead of the Arkansas Derby to help him rack up qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, San Felipe Stakes runner-up Doppelganger was another 3-year-old whose Kentucky Derby hopefuls Kentucky rested on a run. The Into Mischief colt didn’t run badly finishing well beaten fourth, but the 10 points he earned in the Arkansas Derby only lifted him to 33rd on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with the classic race capped at a maximum of 20 runners. He’s a sweet 3-year-old with a bright future, but it doesn’t look like that future includes a start in the first Triple Crown jewel on May 7 at Churchill Downs.
To note: Uno Ojo, the 75.40-1 winner of the Rebel Stakes, endured a brutal trip in the Arkansas Derby that included being slammed twice into the rail so hard it opened a gash on his left shoulder that required staples surgery to close. It wasn’t ideal final preparation for the Kentucky Derby, but you can draw a line through the race as he was moving pretty well at the time of the incident. Thanks to the 50 points he earned for winning the Rebel Stakes, Un Ojo remains on track to compete in the Kentucky Derby.