The major Kentucky Derby prep races of April were more enigmatic that conclusive and more disappointing than encouraging. Most of all, they were, as a whole, rather slow. But they weren’t without important implications.
Among the 34 races offering Kentucky Derby qualifying points, you might have expected the final round of major preps (the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby) to produce some superlative performances. They produced one, Exaggerator’s romp in the slop at Santa Anita; even more, the final round suggested that some horses, specifically Mohaymen and Shagaf and Zulu, might not be as talented as once thought and that another, Danzing Candy, might not possess the requisite poise for success in Kentucky. In this final round, you might have expected a few horses to step forward and separate themselves from the crowd. But the group that stood out in mid-March as being within reach of the sort of performance generally needed to win a Kentucky Derby hasn’t changed much. Five horses are there; a few are on the cusp. And after Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, the last of the 34 preps, you might even have expected to know exactly which way you were leaning in terms of trying to pick a Derby winner. But this year, even more than most, the final week or so of training at Churchill Downs could be telling.
This much, though, is certain: Cupid’s out; Creator’s in.
Cupid faded to 10th as the 4-5 favorite in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Bumped around at the start, Cupid got bumped around some more in the run to the first turn. He chased a lively pace — 46.33 for the opening half-mile, set by Gettysburg — but essentially the pace was no faster (when adjusted for the track and the run to the turn) than it was in the Rebel, where Cupid won by more than a length. No, something obviously went wrong here, and that something became apparent Monday, when Cupid traveled to the Rood and Riddle Equine Center in Lexington, Ky., where he was to have throat surgery. If all goes well — and it’s a rather simple procedure — he could return to competition in the Preakness, said his trainer, Bob Baffert.
As for Creator, he put himself clearly in the Derby picture with his Arkansas victory, which earned him 100 qualifying points. He ran the second turn at Oaklawn well, he accelerated when necessary, he finished strongly and he galloped out even more strongly. He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.87 seconds. The final time, 1:50.14, was solid, but it didn’t scintillate. It was more than a second slower than Effinex’s winning time in the Oaklawn Handicap (1:49.00). But it’s probably useful to remember at this point that Effinex ranks among the best older horses in the country.
Creator, in other words, did everything to confirm that he’s improving rapidly and to suggest that with more improvement he just might be able to challenge in Kentucky. He’s one of those horses on the cusp. And so he’ll give his trainer, Steve Asmussen, a second starter in the Derby. Asmussen also trains Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner.
“I think for both horses you could see a scenario that would allow them to win,” Asmussen said.
Everybody with a Derby horse has to be concerned, Asmussen said, about the distance, the draw (of post positions), the pace and the run, which can be frenetic and crazy, to the first turn. “But we feel very good about the condition our horses are in,” he said, “and about how they’re heading into the Derby.”
Of all the horses in this final round of preps that emerged somewhat unexpectedly, Creator would seem to be the one with the best chance to have an impact in Kentucky.
And so here’s the Top 20 on the road to the Kentucky Derby:
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Sire: Uncle Mo
Kentucky Derby points: 130
Comment: Nyquist got back to work last week. After he easily won the Florida Derby, aka the clash that clanged, he had an elevated white blood cell count that delayed by a few days his resumption of training. But last Friday at Keeneland, he worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.60, with a final quarter-mile in 25.40 seconds, according to track clockers. He’ll have two more workouts at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., before traveling down the road to Churchill Downs on either April 30 or May 1, according to his trainer, Doug O’Neill. Although it almost seems apostasy to question the likelihood of his winning the Kentucky Derby — the likelihood, not his talent — reasons exist for skepticism. The classic distance, of course, is a question for all the horses; it’s the big unknown. But it looms even larger for Nyquist because his pedigree emphasizes speed over stamina. And then there’s his preparation. It has been somewhat unconventional; even more, it has been undemanding. He’ll enter the Kentucky Derby after a sprint (the San Vicente) and an easy win at Gulfstream Park (the Florida Derby). Will that have him ready for the most challenging and demanding of races? On the other hand, Nyquist knows how to win. And O’Neill, of course, knows what it takes to win the Derby. With jockey Mario Gutierrez, this is the same team that won the roses with I’ll Have Another.
Trainer: Keith Desormeaux
Kentucky Derby points: 126
Comment: Exaggerator gave what was arguably the best performance of the season when he won the Santa Anita Derby. His charge from next-to-last to first in about a quarter-mile was scintillating. As Santa Anita announcer Michael Wrona said, Exaggerator swept by the leaders “like they were tied to the rail.” And in doing so, he improved about four lengths beyond his San Felipe effort and joined the rather small group of horses that are within reach of the sort of performance that will win the Kentucky Derby. But was that genuine improvement, or was it a consequence of circumstances? Probably some of both. The Santa Anita surface was a watery gruel. It was just the sort of track that Curlin, Exaggerator’s sire, ran over when winning the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and, the next year, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Did Exaggerator inherit his sire’s affinity for sloppy conditions? It would seem so. His jockey, Kent Desormeaux, explained afterwards that the late-charging colt “enjoyed the mud.” If rain falls on the Derby, Exaggerator would become a probable winner. But it wasn’t all about the mud. The Desormeaux brothers also agreed that Exaggerator exuded confidence going into the race, and the way he ran around the second turn added to the impression that he took a step forward. (He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.28 seconds and the second half-mile in 47.76.) Most Kentucky Derbies are won with a powerful move around the second turn, and that’s where this colt excels. Exaggerator has lost to Nyquist three times, but the distance of the Derby — or perhaps a muddy track — could tilt the advantage the other way.
- Mor Spirit
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Kentucky Derby points: 84
Comment: Just when he was expected to move forward, Mor Spirit regressed in the Santa Anita Derby, finishing second, more than six lengths behind Exaggerator. But did he step back, or was the performance a consequence of the sloppy track? And if he hated the surface, was the performance actually a game and determined effort? Does he deserve kudos for not capitulating? Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit’s Hall of Fame jockey, said the long-striding colt got “hit with the first wave of mud going into the first turn” at Santa Anita, and from that moment on he just “slipped” around there. He’s clearly capable of much better, but is he capable of stepping up to a Derby-winning performance on May 7? Mor Spirit will travel to Churchill Downs on Friday to begin local preparations for the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Sire: Giant’s Causeway
Kentucky Derby points: 51
Comment: It has become commonplace in recent years for trainers to space horses’ races more generously. That has been the case even for horses aimed at the Kentucky Derby, which certainly ranks among the most demanding of races. Mine That Bird, Orb, Barbaro and Big Brown all won the Kentucky Derby after a final prep five weeks earlier. In 2011, Animal Kingdom won the Spiral Stakes at Turfway and then, six weeks later, won the Derby. Such an approach wasn’t unprecedented. In 1956, Needles also had six weeks between his final prep, the Florida Derby, and his victory as the 8-5 favorite in Kentucky. But Destin will enter the Kentucky Derby after a break of eight weeks, not having raced since his victory in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12. That will probably discourage some horseplayers from supporting him; in the thoughts of many, the eight weeks will suggest a diminution of Destin’s chances. But is there another way to look at this, not through an historical window but perhaps through a window of trainer patterns? Destin’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, excels in these situations. He has enjoyed much success taking exactly this kind of approach. Since 2010, Pletcher has won 706 races with horses returning in one-to-three months, according to Equibase. That’s 706 winners from 2,887 starters, or more than 24 percent. He’s even better with horses who return after layoffs of three months or more — 172 winners, or with more than 27 percent of his starters. Pletcher’s numbers suggest the eight weeks won’t be a problem; in fact, the approach could be an advantage, an asset. Destin’s Tampa Bay victory, with Javier Castellano riding, remains one of the best performances by a 3-year-old this season. On that particular Saturday, four 3-year-olds, in fact, gave outstanding performances — Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit in the San Felipe; Destin and Outwork at Tampa Bay — and three of them regressed in their next outings. Even Outwork arguably took a step backwards in his Wood Memorial victory. Was it a case of too much too early, or was it just coincidental that they regressed? The only one of the four that hasn’t regressed, of course, is Destin, who hasn’t raced. The question is whether, having basically skipped that final prep, he’ll be better prepared to move forward on May 7. In preparation for the Derby, in company with Savoy Stomp (a 4-year-old who has earned $148,225), Destin worked five-eighths of a mile last Saturday at Palm Beach Downs in 1:00.94.
- Danzing Candy
Trainer: Clifford Sise
Sire: Twirling Candy
Kentucky Derby points: 60
Comment: Aside from the horses that are on the fringe in terms of qualifying points, Danzing Candy probably benefited more than anybody from Cupid’s withdrawal from the Derby. Cupid was one of the few horses aimed at the Derby who possessed sufficient speed to run with Danzing Candy early and push him through fast fractions. Left alone to control the pace and acquiescent to Mike Smith’s restraint, Danzing Candy is capable of delivering an exceptional performance, as he did in the San Felipe. But he has other issues. In the gate prior to the Santa Anita Derby, he was restive and antsy. And then, of course, he ran the opening half-mile through the slop in 45.24 seconds, which left him spent and unable to finish with any energy in the stretch. He faded to fourth, badly beaten. Will Danzing Candy be able to maintain his composure in a field of 20, before 150,000 fans? And then will he control his natural speed rather than run headlong into the first turn like a wild horse? He’s to train at San Luis Rey Downs in San Diego County before traveling to Kentucky, where he’ll be among the most intriguing horses to watch.
- Gun Runner
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Sire: Candy Ride
Kentucky Derby points: 151
Comment: With regular jockey Florent Geroux riding, Gun Runner worked five-eighths of a mile Tuesday at Churchill Downs in 1:00.60. He began the workout a length behind stablemate Gold Hawk, a stakes-placed 5-year-old gelding, and finished two lengths in front, running the final quarter-mile in 24.20 seconds and galloping out three-quarters in 1:13.20, according to Churchill clockers. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, said he was very pleased with how Gun Runner handled the surface, and that comment could be telling. Gun Runner’s only loss came in last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill, but the surface, Asmussen said, wasn’t the reason. In fact, Gun Runner won his debut at Churchill last September and could enjoy something of a home field advantage for the Derby. He will have a serious move next week before a relatively easy workout Derby week. And he’ll enter the Derby on an upward trend, his victory in the Louisiana Derby representing definite progress from his win in the Risen Star Stakes.
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Sire: Uncle Mo
Kentucky Derby points: 120
Comment: The Wood Memorial is like one of those weird trompe l’oeil paintings. It’s all about perspective. On the one hand, Outwork raced three-wide through the slop, battled with Matt King Coal through a fast pace, running the first half-mile in 46.93 seconds, and then hung on to win a major stakes in only the fourth start of his career and only his second around two turns. In doing that, he accomplished something his more celebrated sire, Uncle Mo, failed to do. On the other hand, Outwork ran the second half-mile in 51.59 seconds and then the final furlong in 14.02 seconds, and somehow he and John Velazquez won, but by only a head over an 81-1 long shot named Trojan Nation. A maiden, he saved ground for the entire journey and rallied from last when everybody else was looking for a Barcalounger. Moreover, Outwork’s winning time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:52.92, making this the slowest nine-furlong Wood ever. Two races earlier at Aqueduct, on an equally sloppy surface, Lewis Bay won the Gazelle Stakes in 1:52.60. And so from one perspecitive, Outwork is clearly a talented and lightly raced colt with a bright future; but from another perspective, it’s hard to imagine his winning the Derby coming off that Wood performance.
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Kentucky Derby points: 110
Creator seems to have arrived at a high level of performance at precisely the right moment. For three months now he has moved steadily forward and upward, winning for the first time and then finishing third in his stakes debut and then, last Saturday, rallying from last to take the Arkansas Derby. And he’s one of the few horses on the Derby trail who actually should improve at the 1 1/4 miles. When he won most recently at Oaklawn Park, he obviously finished with considerable energy, running the second half-mile more than a full second faster than he ran the opening half-mile and then finishing the final furlong in about 12.60 seconds. Then he galloped out strongly. Although his margin of victory was about a length, beyond the wire he put himself many lengths in front. He looks like he was born to run the classic distance. In fact, his dam, Morena, won at 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/8 miles and 1 1/2 miles. Creator could make some noise in Kentucky.
Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel
Kentucky Derby points: 50
Comment: Suddenbreakingnews finished 1 1/4 lengths back in the Arkansas Derby, but with a wide trip he spotted the winner at least that much. In the stretch, he finished widest of all, but he finished well. He didn’t gallop out as strongly as Creator, nor did he run the second turn as well, but Suddenbreakingnews indicated he’ll enjoy the long stretch at Churchill Downs.
- Brody’s Cause
Trainer: Dale Romans
Sire: Giant’s Causeway
Kentucky Derby points: 114
Comment: Expectations were high for Brody’s Cause when the year began, but they fell precipitately when he finished seventh in the Tampa Bay Derby. He partly restored those expectations, however, with his victory in the recent Blue Grass Stakes. It wasn’t a surpise; the winner of last year’s Breeders’ Futurity, he obviously loves Keeneland. With Luis Saez riding, Brody’s Cause rallied behind a lively pace and advanced steadily around the second turn and into the stretch. He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.62 seconds and the final furlong in 12.94 to draw clear and win the Blue Grass by almost two lengths. He had a good trip, and the Keeneland surface appeared to favor late-running types; still, the victory suggests he’s back on track. And just in time.
- Mo Tom
Trainer: Tom Amoss
Sire: Uncle Mo
Kentucky Derby points: 32
Comment: With the withdrawal of Cupid, Mo Tom is in the Kentucky Derby. His 32 qualifying points put him a tie with three others, but because he has more earnings in non-restricted stakes, he ranks above them, at No. 20, among the horses aimed at the Derby. And, of course, the field will be limited to 20. So he’s in. It’s the first break he’s had in some time. His luck had gone sour in New Orleans — his racing luck, that is. He had become something of a Tom Sawyer, seemingly always in trouble. If not for a troubled trip, he would have finished no worse than second in the Fair Grounds’ Louisiana Derby. As it turned out, jockey Corey Lanerie had to stomp on the brakes for a sixteenth of a mile, and Mo Tom finished fourth as the 2-1 favorite. He also had a troubled trip when third in the Risen Star Stakes. But he has a spot in the Derby starting gate and a chance to see if he can turn his luck around. Last week, he had his first workout at Churchill, a half-mile in 48.40 seconds, and Wednesday he returned to the worktab with a lively half-mile in 47.00.
Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin
Kentucky Derby points: 80
Comment: Did he peak too early? When he finished fourth in the Florida Derby, did he just have one of those days? Or was he perhaps overrated? After all, the horses that finished behind him in his celebrated stakes victories have done little since then. Zulu, for example, who ran second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth, finished 12th as the favorite in the Blue Grass. And Flexibility, who ran second to Mohaymen in both the Nashua and the Remsen, finished seventh of eight in the Wood Memorial. And so just how strong were those stakes victories? Not too long ago, Mohaymen was one of the early Derby favorites, but he’s starting to look more like an intriguing long shot possibility in Kentucky. After all, he didn’t have the best of trips in the Florida Derby. Mohaymen’s bandwagon probably still has a few passengers. And they might have been heartened by his first workout over the Churchill surface, a bullet half-mile on Wednesday, 46.80 seconds.
Trainer: Ron Moquett
Sire: Pleasantly Perfect
Kentucky Derby points: 44
Comment: With about three-sixteenths of a mile remaining, Whitmore looked like he just might win the Arkansas Derby. But he couldn’t finish with Creator, and in the final furlong he couldn’t stay with Suddenbreakingnews. And so Whitmore finished third, nearly three lengths back. But once again, he delivered a solid performance with a terrific effort. Admirably reliable, he deserves a stakes victory, but it’s unlikely to be in the Kentucky Derby. More and more, he’s looking like a horse that, for the moment anyway, isn’t going to excel at longer distances. Victor Espinoza will ride Whitmore in the Derby, replacing Irad Ortiz, Jr., who’s staying with My Man Sam.
- My Man Sam
Trainer: Chad Brown
Sire: Trappe Shot
Kentucky Derby points: 40
Comment: In only his fourth career start, with Julien Leparoux riding him for the first time, My Man Sam rallied from last, raced wide in the second turn, even wider into the stretch and got up to finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes. And despite giving up some real estate, he finished less than two lengths behind the winner. My Man Sam at this point is more exciting than successful, which is to say he does most of his serious running in the stretch but has yet to win anything other than a maiden race. He actually ran the final three-eighths of a mile of the Blue Grass a little faster than Brody’s Cause. While that style seldom wins the Kentucky Derby, it often produces a consolation prize. Irad Ortiz, Jr., will retain the mount for the Derby.
Trainer: Mikio Matsunaga
Kentucky Derby points: 100
Comment: Lani has been training at Churchill Downs for a couple weeks, getting acclimated. Wednesday, he had his first workout over the track: five-eighths of a mile in 1:06. It was the slowest of the 21 moves at the distance that morning. A handsome gray colt from Japan, Lani’s talented — but just how talented he might be remains something of a mystery. His big win in Dubai earned him 100 qualifying points, but it wasn’t at all fast. And even if he were as talented as the leaders on this list, the Derby represents a huge challenge. He has traveled halfway around the world into a completely unfamiliar environment and a foreign setting, and he’ll attempt to compete at the sport’s highest level. His connections deserve kudos for their sporting spirit. But can Lani be a contender? With Yutaka Take riding him in the $2 million UAE Derby, Lani stumbled to his knees at the start, moved boldly on the backstretch, raced three-to-four wide in the second turn and then got up in the final yards, defeating the formerly unbeaten filly Polar River. In other words, Lani overcame considerable trouble. But history lines up solidly against him. No horse out of the UAE Derby has come close to winning the Kentucky Derby, the best finish being Master of Hounds’ fifth in 2011. Only eight horses that had been competing exclusively outside of North America have even raced in the Kentucky Derby: Dr. Devious finished seventh in 1992; Thyer 13th in 1992; Citadeed ninth in 1995; Ski Captain 14th in 1995; China Visit sixth in 2000; Curule seventh in 2000; Castle Gandolfo 12th in 2002; and Mubtaahij eighth last year. Like Lani, Ski Captain was based in Japan. (Venezuela’s Canonero II and Puerto Rico’s Bold Forbes both raced in America as juveniles and, of course, both won the Kentucky Derby. When the English colt Bold Arrangement traveled here in 1986, he first raced in the Blue Grass before finishing second in the Derby.)
- Tom’s Ready
Trainer: Dallas Stewart
Sire: More Than Ready
Kentucky Derby points: 44
Comment: Last Thursday, after Tom’s Ready worked five-eighths of a mile at Churchill Downs (1:01.60), his trainer, Dallas Stewart, was effusive in his praise of the colt’s progress. “I know he has to improve,” Stewart said, “but he is improving. He’s training great.” A week earlier, Tom’s Ready, the Louisiana Derby runner-up, had worked a bullet half-mile at Churchill. He’ll be an extreme long shot in the Derby. But Stewart has a talent for hitting a big moment squarely, and he has a history of Derby success with such long shot improbabilities. In 2013, for example, he sent out of Golden Soul, who finished second in the Derby at 34-1. And in the next year’s Derby, he sent out Commanding Curve, who finished second at 37-1. Could Tom’s Ready make some unexpected noise in Kentucky, too?
Trainer: Mark Casse
Sire: Awesome of Course
Kentucky Derby points: 32
Comment: Fellowship is No. 21 on the list of Derby horses. In other words, he needs a defection if he’s to get into the race. And after he worked a half-mile Sunday in 48.80 seconds, his new trainer, Mark Casse, sounded as if he might like to take a swing at first event in the Triple Crown. Casse said he was impressed. Fellowship, of course, finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, third in the Fountain of Youth and third again in the Florida Derby, where he raced wide in the second turn and finished just 4 1/4 lengths behind Nyquist. But, as Casse pointed out, Fellowship’s rallying style might be better suited to Churchill Downs than it was to Gulfstream Park.
Trainer: Gustavo Delgado
Kentucky Derby points: 40
Comment: While Nyquist was drifting out in the Gulfstream Park stretch, Majesto and jockey Javier Castellano cut the corner and got up for second in the Florida Derby. He had an easy maintenance workout last week at his base in Florida, five-eighths in 1:02.40. The long-striding colt seems to be improving. Even more, the son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow looks like he could continue improving with more distance.
Trainer: Chad Brown
Kentucky Derby points: 50
Comment: Except for a little bump at the top of the stretch, Shagaf had a perfect trip in the Wood Memorial. He didn’t get involved in the hot pace, he saved ground and he found running room in the lane. He had every opportunity to win; all he had to do was run the final three-eighths of a mile in about 39 seconds and he would have won by daylight. But he had little to offer when clear, and so he finished fifth, four lengths behind the winner. Perhaps he didn’t like the sloppy-saturated Aqueduct surface, and it’s that possibility that will give his fans some Derby hope. Joel Rosario has the mount for the Derby, leaving Irad Ortiz, Jr., to ride My Man Sam.
Trainer: Leah Gyarmati
Sire: Any Given Saturday
Kentucky Derby points: 32
Comment: Adventist is another who has 32 points, but he’s No. 22 on the list of Derby hopefuls. Third in the Withers, the Gotham and the Wood Memorial, he has improved steadily, but not dramatically, and so remains more than a few lengths behind the leaders of the division. If he doesn’t get into the Derby, he’ll probably run May 14 at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan Stakes.
Also eligible: Oscar Nominated (50 points), Trojan Nation (40 points), Laoban (32 points).