Coady Photography

Coady Photography

He began February as a maiden. He’ll begin April as a Kentucky Derby contender. For living, breathing proof that these 3-year-olds can improve dramatically and quickly, there’s Cupid, the winner of Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. And so suddenly the vanguard on the road to the Kentucky Derby is looking a little crowded.

Like most people, I expected Cupid to run well at Oaklawn. After all, his trainer, Bob Baffert, had appropriated the race long ago, transforming it into his private proving ground. And if Baffert sent the handsome gray colt here — well, he had to be a runner. Although always careful not to burden a horse with heavy expectations, Baffert said as much when I spoke with him. And knowing that just a week earlier Cupid had worked with Whiskey Ticket, last year’s Illinois Derby winner, and having seen the colt’s maiden victory, where he cruised along before making an explosive move down the lane, I even expected him to win the Rebel — well, I expected him to win as much as you can expect anybody to win such a contentious race. But I didn’t expect this. Cupid won in sensational fashion, suggesting he could be a major player in the division and in the Triple Crown.

A little antsy in the gate, Cupid didn’t break sharply. I focused on him as I watched the race from the Oaklawn Park press box high atop the grandstand. And after the break, I looked down at my program to write a trip note next to Cupid’s name: “hes/st,” meaning he hesitated at the start. But when I looked up, Cupid was leading the field of 14 into the first turn. “How did that happen?” I wondered to myself.

When I saw that despite the slow start Cupid ran the opening quarter-mile in 22.96 seconds, I cursed under my breath and thought, “That’s too fast on this track; he’ll crawl home.” And when I saw Whitmore rolling into the lane and saw Cupid veer inward, almost slamming into the rail, I thought, “If he can hang on for second, that’ll be a big effort for him.” But Cupid out-performed every expectation. Outperformed them even though they were high.

In his maiden win, he bobbled slightly at the start. And he had some trouble with the start again, leaving the gate slowly or, as Baffert later said, “flat-footed.” The horses around him, quickly filled the void his slow break created but then just as quickly parted, opening up a path. And then jockey Martin Garcia, delivering his best horse racing rendition of that “Unto the breach” speech in Henry V, hustled Cupid through the opening, and they were on their way.

Much was made about Cupid’s 24-second “breather,” as the announcer called it, of a second quarter-mile, as if to suggest that the other speedsters in the field just let Baffert win the Rebel. That they let Cupid cruise to an easy, casual lead. Such a suggestion, of course, is flapdoodle. Pure, unadulterated, sour-grapes flapdoodle. The simple truth is the other speedy types — Madtap, American Dubai and Siding Spring — couldn’t keep up when they turned up the backstretch and into a stiff wind. Cupid actually ran the second quarter-mile in 23.86 seconds, not 24. And among the eight two-turn races Saturday at Oaklawn Park, Cupid’s second quarter-mile was easily the fastest. In the Razorback, for example, which attracted an accomplished group of older horses, Shotgun Kowboy, the early leader, ran the second quarter-mile in 24.35 seconds. He faded to fourth, finishing about a length behind Upstart. And in the Azeri Stakes, High Dollar Woman, the early leader, ran the second quarter-mile in 24.72 seconds. She faded to last in the field of eight. Shotgun Kowboy and High Dollar Woman, by the way, are both multiple stakes winners. And in the day’s final race, a maiden affair that brought together a promising group, Big Taco, the early leader, ran the second quarter-mile in 24.23 seconds. In the field of 11, he also faded to last. At every point, Cupid’s Rebel was faster than any other two-turn race that day.

He ran the opening half-mile in 46.82 seconds (compared to Shotgun Kowboy’s 47.50), three-quarters in 1:12.11 (compared to Untapable’s 1:13.15 in the Azeri), and completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.84 (compared to Upstart’s 1:44.44). And Cupid did all that despite a sluggish start and a — well, whatever that was at the top of the stretch. Maybe he shied from something he saw or perhaps he just overreacted to Garcia’s prompting to change strides, to his right lead, but whatever that was, it seemed for a moment to cost him both momentum and victory. But again, he outran expectations. After veering sharply toward the inner rail, Cupid, as well as his rider, responded with remarkable athleticism. And when Whitmore drew alongside in deep stretch, Garcia switched the stick to his right hand, and Cupid surged, running the final sixteenth of a mile in 6.19 seconds (compared to Upstart’s 6.35). He won by a little more than a length, but a moment later, in the gallop-out, he was several lengths in front.

And so Cupid, who moved into the Top 20 last week after that monstrous workout, joins the vanguard at No. 6, and maybe that’s too low.

Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds has attracted four horses in the Top 20: Gun Runner, who could again enjoy a perfect trip as he stalks from the inside; Greenpointcrusader, who should also enjoy a stalking trip; Mo Tom, who could benefit from a lively pace; and Forevamo, who’ll have to overcome his post position. Also among those in the Louisiana Derby are Candy My Boy, who blistered the pace in the Risen Star and could be a threat here if he restrains some of that natural speed; Battery, whom Todd Pletcher said deserves a shot in stakes company after an impressive score at Gulfstream Park; and Dazzling Gem, who’s unbeaten in two races and will be making his stakes debut.

The top 20 on the road to the Triple Crown:

  1. Danzing Candy

Trainer: Clifford Sise

Sire: Twirling Candy

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Cupid set a lively pace while leading virtually throughout in the Rebel Stakes, but the San Felipe remains the fastest-paced two-turn race in this year’s run-up to the Triple Crown. When everything’s adjusted for the surface and the run to the turn, Danzing Candy actually ran about three lengths faster in the San Felipe for the opening half-mile than Cupid did in the Rebel. Of course, Cupid hesitated slightly at the start, and neither horse would profit from so toasty a run through the opening half-mile of the Kentucky Derby. But the point is this: Danzing Candy is so quick that he’ll be a threat to take any race from start to finish. This, too, remains true: In the San Felipe, with Hall of Famer Mike Smith riding, Danzing Candy gave the best performance so far this season by a 3-year-old. For his final preparation before traveling to Kentucky, he’ll run in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

  1. Mor Spirit

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Eskendereya

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 44

Comment: Mor Spirit is one of the few horses on the road to Kentucky who looks as if he actually could step forward and significantly improve at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. He, of course, finished second in the San Felipe, but he had to race in traffic and check coming out of the first turn, and then he altered course down the lane. He finished two lengths back, but he ran about two lengths farther than the winner. As his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, pointed out, the San Felipe might have been the perfect race for the colt, preparing him for a better effort on April 9 and setting him up for a lifetime best performance in Kentucky.

  1. Nyquist

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—6-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 30

Comment: Last Friday, Nyquist worked five-eighths of a mile at Santa Anita in 1:01.40, running the final quarter-mile, according to the official clocker, in 23.80 seconds. And so he seems to be, according to all the reports coming out of California, training sharply for the Florida Derby on April 2, when he’ll run in pursuit of a million-dollar bonus in a showdown with Mohaymen. Coming out of the seven-furlong San Vicente, where the champion juvenile of 2015 returned to competition with an impressive victory, Nyquist will probably control the pace at Gulfstream Park. He possesses considerable natural speed. So from here, he looks like the likely winner of that race. And this talented colt knows how to win. But his ability to excel at the classic distance remains a huge question, even larger for him than for most on this list since his dam’s only victories were sprinting. Mario Guiterrez is the colt’s regular rider, and so this is the same team that won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another.

  1. Mohaymen

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—5-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 70

Comment: Also last Friday, Mohaymen worked five-eighths of a mile at Palm Meadows in 1:01, the bullet for the morning. Ami’s Flatter, an older stakes horse, had the second-fastest time for the distance that morning, 1:01.45. So although the time wouldn’t turn any heads, Mohaymen’s move was impressive, and it indeed prompted a positive review from the colt’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. Mohaymen ran the final quarter in 24.60 seconds, according to clockers, and went out three-quarters of a mile in 1:15. A beautiful colt with conspicuous talent, the $2.2 million yearling hasn’t revealed any flaws or weaknesses. And many regard him as the leader in what more and more is starting to look like a strong group. From here, though, he doesn’t have the natural speed of Danzing Candy or the gears of Mor Spirit. And there’s another concern, although, granted, it’s possibly a trivial one, an aphid on a rose petal: All the Derby winners since at least World War II had some experience racing in large fields of 10 or more horses before their great success in Kentucky. In 71 years, American Pharoah has been the only exception. Mohaymen will try to become the second. He defeated only five horses while winning the Holy Bull, and five again while winning the Fountain of Youth. The Florida Derby also will have a relatively small field of maybe seven or eight. How big a factor is this? It wasn’t much of a factor at all for a great horse with superlative talent. But did their inexperience in dealing with large fields contribute to the Derby defeats of Curlin, Indian Charlie, Louis Quatorze, Strodes Creek, Soul of the Matter and many others? Maybe. And could the same inexperience compromise Mohaymen’s chances in Kentucky? Junior Alvarado has ridden Mohaymen in all five of his races.

  1. Destin

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 51

Comment: Like Cupid, Destin has improved significantly in a short time, approximately 17 lengths since the addition of blinkers in his first start this year. He proclaimed himself to be a serious Triple Crown candidate in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he rose not just to a new level of performance but also to a new level of professionalism. Yes, with Javier Castellano riding, Destin had a perfect stalking trip, but the colt set a track record, running the fourth quarter-mile in a very solid 24.54 seconds and completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.82. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, mentioned three possibilities for the colt’s final preparatory race — the Arkansas Derby, Wood or Blue Grass.

  1. Cupid

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby Points: 50

Comment: With his victory in the Rebel, Cupid advanced from being one of the most intriguing horses on the Triple Crown trail to being one of the most exciting and promising. For a horse making only the fourth start of his career and his first after a maiden win, that was quite a performance at Oaklawn Park. The race was fast — 1:43.84 for the 1 1/16 miles compared to 1:44.12 for the older Upstart in the Razorback — and Cupid displayed speed, tractability and determination. That’s a tripod that can support a dazzling campaign. Although still a little green, he could be a major talent. He’s a very late foal (May 19), and so there’s a concern, albeit a minor one, that, like Destin, he already has come very far very quickly. Only two Kentucky Derby winners, Thunder Gulch (May 23) and Northern Dancer (May 27), have had a later foaling date than Cupid’s. How much better will he become over the next 6 1/2 weeks? A day after the Rebel, Cupid traveled home, to his base in Southern California. But he will return to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby, which will be run on April 16, Baffert said. It looks like Martin Garcia, who rode Dortmund to a third-place finish last year and did an excellent job as a frequent exercise rider for American Pharoah, could have another very live Derby mount of his own.

  1. Exaggerator

Trainer: Keith Desormeaux

Sire: Curlin

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 8—3-2-1

Kentucky Derby points: 26

Comment: For a moment in the San Felipe, he looked as if he might threaten, but then he flattened out in the stretch. Last after a half-mile, Exaggerator ran the next quarter-mile in 23.54 seconds to reach contention. But, of course, he couldn’t sustain that move and checked in third, but he finished less than a length behind Mor Spirit and only 2 3/4 lengths behind Danzing Candy. In other words, with some improvement and the perfect circumstances, Exaggerator could compete with the leaders of the division. Still, he’s starting to look like the sort who, when facing the best, is always close, but seldom in the winner’s circle; he finished third in the San Felipe, second in the San Vicente and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup. On the other hand, his sire, Curlin, continued to improve throughout his 3-year-old campaign until he became Horse of the Year with a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. Will Exaggerator continue to improve, too, for the Desormeaux brothers?

  1. Outwork

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 20

Comment: All things considered, Outwork’s performance in the Tampa Bay Derby was outstanding. Stretching out from three-quarters of a mile to 1 1/16 miles, in only his third start, Outwork finished second behind a genuine Derby contender who was setting a track record. With John Velazquez riding, this son of Uncle Mo dug in gamely after setting the pace, but just couldn’t stay with Destin in the final sixteenth of a mile and finished a length back. It’s worth noting, though, that It was another seven lengths back to third. Yes, Outwork was able to steal away in relatively quiet fractions, with an opening half-mile in 47.88 seconds, but plenty of improvement is possible. He won his debut last April at Keeneland, and so the Blue Grass would seem a logical place for his next start, but New York and Arkansas are also options.

  1. Greenpointcrusader

Trainer: Dominick Schettino

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 14

Comment: He worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.20 last Friday at Palm Meadows in preparation for his return in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. John Velazquez, who was on the colt in the Holy Bull, will be in New Orleans to ride him again, which has to be an encouraging sign. Greenpointcrusader should be poised to take a big step forward Saturday. When second in the Holy Bull, he basically duplicated, or matched, his best performance as a juvenile despite finding himself in an unfamiliar position on the early lead. And now, in his second start of the year, he needs to move forward. The expectation here is that he will. He’s 7-2 in the morning line for Saturday’s race.

  1. Gun Runner

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Sire: Candy Ride

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 51

Comment: On Monday in New Orleans, in what has become a common pattern for horses in the barn of Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner worked an easy half-mile in 50.80 seconds, and this came exactly one week after he fired a bullet five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.60. Gun Runner, of course, made an auspicious seasonal debut when he won the Fair Grounds’ Risen Star Stakes. Yes, he enjoyed a perfect ride from Florent Geroux, who kept the colt inside, on what seemed to be the best part of the surface. But that was only his first race of the season and his first start since November; so Gun Runner can reasonably be expected to progress over the next two months, and his pedigree insists he’s going to improve with more distance. With post position No. 1, he’s the 3-1 second favorite in the morning line for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby.

  1. Mo Tom

Trainer: Tom Amoss

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-0-3

Kentucky Derby points: 22

Comment: At 5-2 in the morning line, he’s the favorite for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. Mo Tom finished third in the Risen Star, where he had a rough trip, having to alter course in the stretch. But then he galloped out well beyond the winner. On the other hand, he was the beneficiary of a very hot pace in the Risen Star. And his style will always leave him vulnerable; he has so little speed that he’s forever dependent on the pace and the trip. Corey Lanerie, who could have a few options for the Triple Crown, has ridden Mo Tom in five of his six races.

  1. Zulu

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 20

Comment: Friday at Palm Beach Downs, he had his first published workout since finishing second in the Fountain of Youth: a half-mile in 50.98 seconds. The Fountain of Youth was only his third start and his first around two turns; so a brief respite was probably in order. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has indicated Zulu will pass the Florida Derby and will instead focus on the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass or the Arkansas Derby for his final Derby prep. Velazquez has ridden the colt in all his races and, like Lanerie, could have a few Triple Crown options.

  1. Flexibility

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bluegrass Cat

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 15

Comment: Saturday at Belmont Park, Flexibility worked what appears to be another solid half-mile, in 48.65 seconds. The runner-up in both the Nashua and the Remsen, Flexibility won the Jerome with a powerful effort, but then, four weeks later, he disappointed as the odds-on favorite in the Withers, where a slow pace could have compromised his chances. After running hard in four major stakes in three months, he was due a break; his trainer, Chad Brown, indicated that indeed had always been the plan for the colt. So a rested and ready Flexibility is aimed at either the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass, both run on April 9. He could be very tough in either race. Irad Ortiz, Jr., has ridden the colt in his last three races.

  1. Matt King Coal

Trainer: Linda Rice

Sire: Cool Coal Man

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-1

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: He obviously needs to earn some points if he’s going to the Derby,  and he quite possibly will in his next outing, the Wood Memorial. On the Sunday following the Gotham, making his first start in more than four months, Matt King Coal returned to competition with an impressive win. He appeared to get a little weary in the final furlong, but he held on well and actually galloped out much more strongly than the charging runner-up, My Man Sam. A big strong colt who’s naturally fast and seems to possess a high cruising rhythm, Matt King Coal could be a player. J. L. Ortiz has ridden Matt King Coal in all his races.

  1. Suddenbreakingnews

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Sire: Mineshaft

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 10

Comment: Suddenbreakingnews disappointed as the 5-2 favorite in the Rebel, where he finished fifth. What a difference a month made. When he won the Southwest Stakes, the long-legged gelding enjoyed a perfect trip, rallying strongly behind a lively pace. But he had a very different experience in the Rebel. When he tried to rally in the second turn, he was blocked behind traffic and then virtually stopped. Checked sharply behind a rapidly retreating American Dubai, Suddenbreakingnews dropped back to 13th in the 14-horse field. He lost all chance at that point. Still, he rallied with energy and was beaten less than five lengths. Where would he have finished without the trouble? Hard to say, but he’ll be one to watch closely in the Arkansas Derby, where he could rebound with a big effort. Luis Quinonez has ridden the gelding throughout his career.

  1. Whitmore

Trainer: Ron Moquett

Sire: Pleasantly Perfect

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 24

Comment: Whitmore looked like the Rebel winner when he turned into the stretch at Oaklawn Park. With Irad Ortiz, Jr., keeping him clear, Whitmore had moved strongly into contention and had aim on Cupid. In mid-stretch, with plenty of momentum, Whitmore drew up alongside the leader. But then Cupid refocused and drew clear. Or did Whitmore come up empty in the final sixteenth of a mile? Either way, it offers little reason to believe Whitmore can turn the tables in the longer Arkansas Derby. Still, he ran the best race of his career in the Rebel and continues to move forward, but some others are moving faster.

  1. Shagaf

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Comment: Returning to the worktab following his oh-so-slow win in the Gotham, Shagaf breezed a half-mile last Saturday at Belmont in 48.74 seconds. Despite his unbeaten record and his lofty rating, Shagaf remains one of the larger mysteries on the road to the Triple Crown. How good is he, or isn’t he? The Wood will probably provide the answers. Clearly he’s talented and tractable, but from here he still looks like a colt that has a great deal to prove. Irad Ortiz, Jr., who could soon have to make some choices, has ridden Shagaf in all of the colt’s races.

  1. Unbridled Outlaw

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Unbridled’s Song

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—1-1-2

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: Injured coming out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he returned Saturday at Oaklawn Park, but not in the Rebel. In an earlier race on the card, against older horses, he finished second, beaten nearly two lengths by Fourth Of July. With Corey Lanerie riding and fresh from the layoff, Unbridled Outlaw jumped out to an early lead, ran his fourth quarter-mile in 24.82 seconds and then tired in the final sixteenth of a mile. But it was another six lenghts back to the third horse. The stakes winner Wolf Man Rocket finished fourth, 7 1/2 lengths behind the 3-year-old. Unbridled Outlaw is a talented colt who had nothing but bad luck and nightmarish trips as a juvenile. It might be too late in the day for him to get into the Derby, but he could be a player in the division. He also could be a significant player in the Arkansas Derby.

  1. Adventist

Trainer: Leah Gyarmati

Sire: Any Given Saturday

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—1-0-2

Kentucky Derby points: 12

Comment: He worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:17.55 last Friday at Belmont Park in preparation for the Wood Memorial. This colt is talented, but he hasn’t flipped the switch, hasn’t turned the light on yet. In the Gotham, for example, where he raced against an inside bias, he again ducked in from a right-handed whip. But he didn’t look quite as lost as he had in the stretch of the Withers. So he’s making progress. He’s a slow learner, but he can learn. Significant improvement remains possible. He needs to take that next step forward if he’s to threaten in the Wood. Kendrick Carmouche has been riding him.

  1. Forevamo

Trainer: Al Stall, Jr.

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—1-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 9

Comment: Forevamo worked a half-mile Sunday in 48.40 seconds in preparation for the Louisiana Derby, where he’ll start from the No. 11 post position. He’s 10-1 in the morning line. A long-striding colt who looks like he can handle more distance despite a pedigree that emphasizes speed, Forevamo didn’t have the best of trips when he closed well to be second, a half-length back, in the Risen Star Stakes. He, too, galloped out beyond the winner. The light has come, and if he can avoid a wide trip around the first turn he could be dangerous Saturday. Colby Hernandez has ridden the colt in his last four outings.