Are we living in a parallel horse racing universe these days, one in which trainers actually see the Big Picture and don’t push their Kentucky Derby candidates to win early? Todd Pletcher holds juvenile champion Uncle Mo out of traditional prep races like the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in favor of a specially-written race (the $100,000 Timely Writer) at Gulfstream over eight furlongs—one that the Toddster makes sure happens by nominating 12 other horses for it. Off his victory in the one-turn mile Grade 3 Holy Bull, Nick Zito enters Dialed In against older allowance horses going nine furlongs—and gets beat by his own stablemate. Bill Mott is “pleased” after previously-undefeated To Honor and Serve finishes third in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, having “needed the race.” Is it a brilliant strategy or just plain crazy? Obviously, that yet remains to be seen, but call me leery.
These unconventional paths to the first Saturday in May appear almost schizophrenic, but I wonder how much they are in reaction to the litany of injuries suffered by last year’s top contenders.
Meanwhile, there are those for which hope ever springs eternal, like Bob Baffert still thinking The Factor is anything but a sprinter; ditto for Rick Dutrow-trainee Flashpoint. However, tempering those with Derby fever are owners like those of Borderland Derby winner Fusa Code and apparently even Todd Pletcher-trained Cal Nation. Call me shocked when, immediately after her Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks victory, Turbulent Descent’s trainer Mike Puype ruled out a Kentucky Oaks run, based on her distance limitations. Since when does the realistic outlook seemingly dominate trainers’ thinking? Truly amazing.
Every year I base my Derby contenders list on a mixture of performance and pedigree, so this year’s peculiar campaigns don’t make it easy. Thus, for better or worse, I’m leaning on pedigree and potential rather than actual accomplishments in my thinking. My top 10 list this week:
1. Stay Thirsty
Based on his decent performance in the Gotham and his pedigree, Stay Thirsty should have no problem getting the Derby distance. His half-brother Andromeda’s Hero ran a strong second behind a dominant Afleet Alex in the Belmont Stakes; his second dam Make Change (by stamina-rich sire Roberto) was Grade 1-placed multiple times going 9 to 12 furlongs. Next: Grade 1 Florida Derby, April 3.
2. Dialed In
Yes, he finished behind stablemate Equestrio in an allowance race on Sunday, but I’m looking at that effort as nothing more than a glorified workout. With a small five-horse field, there was no speed, and Julien Leparoux never asked Dialed In to run until he moved from the rear around the final turn. I was pleased that he easily got the 9 furlong distance, so I’m still on board the Dialed In bandwagon. Next: Grade 1 Florida Derby, April 3.
3. To Honor and Serve
Unlike others, I’m willing to give Bill Mott the benefit of doubt. His damside has plenty of 8.5 furlong winners—Afleet Deceit, India, and Rahy’s Attorney, not to mention his dam Pilfer. That little extra Bernardini influence may carry him even further. Next: Grade 1 Florida Derby, April 3.
4. Uncle Mo
I’m becoming less and less enchanted with Uncle Mo—regardless of witnessing his dominating Breeders’ Cup victory in person. As an Indian Charlie colt, the stamina question lingers for me and starting his 3-year-old campaign in a one-turn mile event doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he’ll have enough backbone to go 10 furlongs. Next: non-graded Timely Writer, March 12.
Turf or dirt, this War Front colt has got it done. His damsire Coronado’s Quest won the Grade 1 Travers, but there’s much to indicate some distance limitations on this one. Still, based on his current level of performance, he ranks high among contenders. Next: Grade 1 Florida Derby, April 3.
For the very reasons I liked Super Saver last year, his little half-brother Brethren rates highly in terms of getting the Derby distance. Next: Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, March 12.
7. Rogue Romance
Last year’s third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile began his 3-year-old campaign with a late-closing third in the Grade 2 Risen Star. His half-brother Tizbig finished strongly running second to Mint Lane in the 2008 Grade 2 Dwyer, a race won in 1986 by their second dam’s half-brother Ogygian. This is also the family of Grade 1 Met Mile victor Honour and Glory. He’s got the right running style, not to mention having already run well at Churchill Downs. Next: Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, March 26.
Not many have this Lemon Drop Kid colt in their top 10, but I liked his gutsy finish in the Grade 3 Lecomte. Yes, I do think his win there was almost solely based on jockey Garrett Gomez’s ability to “carry” a horse over the wire, but his pedigree features a second dam by the great turf router Manila. I also respect trainer Neil Howard tremendously. Next: Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, March 26.
9. Sway Away
Yes, he’s not yet raced beyond 7 furlongs or won a graded event, but the way he closed in the Grade 2 San Vicente against speedy The Factor makes me believe this is perhaps the best California-based contender. What a tremendous stamina pedigree, by Afleet Alex out of a Seattle Slew mare, and his second dam by Summer Squall. Still, without actually trying route races, it’s hard to move him up farther. Having Garrett Gomez stay aboard for the Rebel is a promising sign, though. Next: Grade 2 Rebel, March 19.
10. What The Toccet
I’m bored with the typical contenders, so here’s my wild card—a Sunland Park-based maiden trained by Shannon Ritter. He’s bred to run all day, by Toccet out of a Coronado’s Quest mare who is a half-sister to Grade 1 Donn winner Spring at Last, Grade 1 Las Virgenes victress Sharp Lisa (who won going 10 furlongs) and Grade 1-placed router Sharp Susan. This is also the family of multiple Grade 1 router Bien Bien (who even won at 14 furlongs)—if he wins the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, a serious Derby contender. Next: Grade 3 Sunland Derby, March 27.