There isn’t much to add about the three weekend stakes other than the obvious, so let’s concentrate on the obvious for the most part. With the victory of American Lion in the Illinois Derby (gr. II), it is possible that WinStar Farm could have as many as five Derby starters. Endorsement, American Lion, and Rule are already in the field. Super Saver probably only needs a fourth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) to get in, and there is talk about running Drosselmeyer in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) in order to get more earnings. If all make it in, WinStar would have an unprecedented 25% of the entire Derby field, making it one of the great achievements ever by an owner.
There is still plenty of speed likely for the Derby, but if Conveyance doesn’t run, Sidney's Candy would be the only true speed horse in the race. Super Saver has early speed, but he doesn’t have the sprinter’s speed of Sidney’s Candy. Rule is another horse who has been on the lead in all his two-turn races, but trainer Todd Pletcher said of the two, he feels Rule is more ratable than Super Saver. Of course, there is a plethora of stalker types, such as Eskendereya, Endorsement, American Lion, Noble's Promise , Jackson Bend, and Discreetly Mine, as well as Rule and Super Saver.
But Sidney’s Candy could outrun them all, and if he handles dirt the same way he handles the synthetic, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him run a Bold Forbes—Spend a Buck—Winning Colors—War Emblem type of race. One thing he possesses that makes him dangerous is the ability to come home fast…very fast. And he keeps going after the wire. Of course, he’s been doing it setting slow fractions, but those fractions would equate to a faster pace on the dirt.
Put a line through Lookin at Lucky ’s race. Actually, come to think of it, don’t put a line through it. His third-place finish was huge considering what a horrible trip he had and should be considered a step forward. After three straight eventful trips that would have knocked most horses right out of the money, watch him wind up getting a dream trip in a 20-horse Derby field. This horse has proven he is incapable of running a bad race. No matter how many lumps he takes he’s still right there battling to the end.
I’ve been a firm believer that Setsuko should be a much better horse on the dirt, and despite his less-than-impressive career record, he could be a very live horse on the first Saturday in May. He has a very efficient stride and looks to be just getting warmed up at 1 1/8 miles. And he is coming to his own at the right time.
If there is a wish horse to get in the Derby it is Caracortado, this year’s Cinderella horse who deserved much better in the Santa Anita Derby. He was in excellent position early, saving ground just off the pace. But he never could get a running lane and kept losing his position. When it was time for him to start running, Lookin at Lucky got stopped just in front of him and began backing up into him. Jockey Paul Atkinson finally got him going, but he was so far back he had way too much to do. Setsuko came flying on his outside and closed off any clear path that might have been available. He actually wound up in tight quarters after turning for home, and could only follow Setsuko after that. He was closing as fast as anyone at the end, but the race had passed him by and he did well to finish fourth, beaten 2 3/4 lengths for second. He could conceivably still get in the Derby with $153,000 in graded stakes earnings if things work out for him, but he’ll need a lot of help. The bottom line is, this horse deserves to be in the Derby.
As for the Wood Memorial (gr. I), there is nothing to say about Eskendereya that will be revealing in any way or add to the Derby Dozen comments. Right now, he’s on another plateau and actually seems to be getting better. As mentioned in the Derby Dozen comment, the only question is how he’ll handle a much quicker pace. But with his cruising speed and stamina, it looks like he can adapt to any pace. Regardless of what happens next weekend, he is the one to beat and someone will have to run the race of his life to beat this horse in the Derby.
Jackson Bend is one tough little horse, and although he simply cannot compete with Eskendereya, he refuses to let anyone pass him for second. He’s probably much better suited to the Preakness (gr. I) right now, but he does have the earnings, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go for the Derby, at worst to compliment his late-closing stablemate Ice Box . He can do a lot of damage in that first tier.
The horse to watch coming out of the Wood is Awesome Act. It was no surprise that he regressed a bit off his Gotham (gr. III) victory, but considering he stumbled at the start, threw a shoe, and was victimized by a slow pace, perhaps he didn’t really regress that much at all. A European who likes cover, he could have an ideal trip in the Derby and is one horse who may be peaking on that day.
The Illinois Derby (gr. II), as usual, is a puzzlement. Year after year, horses just don’t seem to close in this race, except on a rare occasion, and many of them simply don’t pick their feet up. This year, only two of the eight starters did any running and they finished 11 1/2 lengths ahead of the third horse. American Lion passed his first dirt test, coming again in the stretch to defeat Gotham runner-up Yawanna Twist, who appeared to have him measured, but started to get late in the final furlong. Yes, the final time of 1:51.31 was slow, as was the final fractions of :25.02 and :13.07, but this track was dead all day and these actually were quite respectable fractions compared to the others times.
At this point, who knows what to make of this race? It was by far the weakest of the three preps, and American Lion still is a question mark, especially with his running style. But other than the top two or three contenders, he does fit with the others.