With the recent running of two of the major mid-season preps this past weekend, the Kentucky Derby picture is becoming a little clearer.
The most competitive race of the season thus far, the Fountain of Youth (Gr. 2) was a race full of surprises. The early Derby favorite, Nobiz like Shobiz, ran a disappointing third, running flat all around the track, showing his inexperience lugging in around the first turn and into the stretch run. One thing was apparent, however, and that is that Nobiz like Shobiz never managed to switch his lead and make a powerful charge. Nobiz like Shobiz proved that while he is definitely the most talented horse in the race, he has a lot more learning to do, and only one more prep race to do it in, which definitely puts him in a bind.
Two other horses made their splash onto the derby scene in that race, however, Stormello, and the eventual winner of the Fountain of Youth, Scat Daddy. Stormello had a heck of a trip down to Gulfstream Park from his Southern California home, and had a monster trip, nearly wiring the field despite his tiring trip and his two month layoff. Scat Daddy, on the other hand, overcame doubts about his ability to handle a two-turn race, and showed a lot of tenacity coming from behind to win. If these horses get any better, they are going to make a big impact later on in the season. Adore the Gold, the fourth place finisher, and early pace pressure for Stormello, also ran well in his 3-year-old debut. His outside post position proved to be a little too hard to overcome, however, so he will have to prove himself in his next start.
In California, Great Hunter made a phenomenal and visually impressive 5-wide move into the stretch of the Bob Lewis stakes (Gr.2). While he didn’t beat any real competition in that race, the challenges he overcame to get the win were enough to make him my new favorite for the first Saturday in May. Great Hunter already has enough graded stakes money to ensure a spot in the derby, so his trainers can now focus more on conditioning, giving him an excellent chance to make it to Kentucky healthy.
The Louisiana Derby brought out derby hopefuls Circular Quay and Liquidity, along with several other worthy competitors. Circular Quay proved that he really would have won the Risen Star had he not run into trouble, rallying strongly from far back to score the victory over front-running local hope, Ketchikan, who finished second. Liquidity, the most widely traveled horse in the race, finished a disappointing 6th. Zanjero and Imawildandcrazyguy, the second and third placed finishers in the Risen Star, lacked the late-running charge they typically display, and are both unlikely to do well in the Triple Crown.
At Aqueduct, Summer Doldrums looked like he should have dominated his competition in the Gotham Stakes (Gr. 3), but finished a tiring third to Todd Pletcher’s young newcomer Cowtown Cat. Cowtown Cat won the race by closing strongly, weaving between traffic in the final two furlongs, and really appreciated the added distance. He gets a free trip to the Wood Memorial, but is he really as good as he seems? Summer Doldrums was sparingly trained in the weeks leading up to this race, with his trainer fearing a bounce after the performance of a lifetime in the Whirlaway Handicap earlier this year. It appears that he needed a little more conditioning to be in his prime for this race. Despite this setback, the New York contingent is surprisingly weak this year, and Summer Doldrums looks to be, by far, the best representative from Aqueduct. Whereever he goes from here, Summer Doldrums will be a force to be reckoned with.
Another minor Derby Competitor, Bwana Bull, also ran this weekend in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. 3). Because he is from Northern California, however, he beat almost nobody worth mentioning, and looks like a shoe-in for the Derby with the earnings he picked up in that race. Whether he is really as good as he seems remains to be seen.
Who am I looking at right now as the top horse for the Derby? With a performance as solid as Great Hunter’s, you can’t avoid putting him solidly at the top of any list of contenders. His main California competitor, Ravel, is working well towards his debut, and also remains a big threat, despite the odd prep schedule his trainer has decided upon. Stormello will benefit from having another race, and should show improved stamina in his second start off of a layoff. He also seems to be one of very few front-running types who have a distinct chance to make the Derby, and a wire-to-wire victory could be in his sights, much like 2002’s Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem. Chelokee, one of the undercard winners on Fountain of Youth Day at Gulfstream, had a lightning quick final quarter in his recent allowance race, and seems destined for a race like the Florida Derby or Kentucky Blue Grass Stakes for his stakes debut. Circular Quay gave an indication of exactly how good he is, running against some stiff competition in the Louisiana Derby, and has to be considered off of that effort. Scat Daddy may have been the best of the bunch in the Fountain of Youth, but still has to prove that he will handle an imperfect setup.
In the coming weeks, we will have many more questions answered as a number of horses are making their stakes debuts for 2007. The Tampa Bay Derby is likely to be the coming out party for Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Winner Street Sense, who will face up against Any Given Saturday (personally, I feel that Street Sense is unlikely to try the Derby. His pedigree indicates that he is a sprinter, or miler at the very most, and because of his trainer’s conservative philosophy, he looks unlikely to run for the roses. He will stay on a prep schedule for the Derby just in case, though Any Given Saturday is my early pick to take the Tampa Bay Derby). Ravel is going to make his presence felt in California for his one and only prep race of the year for the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, where he is likely to meet all-star filly Rags to Riches, who may eventually put her name in the hat for the Kentucky Derby. Another Derby hopeful will get his ticket stamped in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, where first-time stakes runners Air Commander, Grapelli, and Cobalt Blue are likely to run. Next weekend’s Rebel Stakes (Gr.3) looks like Officer Rocket’s race to lose, as he faces Kentucky Derby improbables Teufelsburg, Flying First Class, and Curlin, who all have a lot to prove. At Turfway Park, inexperienced horses like Hard Spun, and Chelokee are likely to get their first graded stakes earnings in the Rushaway or the Lane’s End Stakes. Belgravia, recovering from a lung infection, has yet to put in any official workouts, and is likely now to skip the Kentucky Derby Schedule all together, as are Exhale and Buffalo Man, both recently injured.