It's not often we get to see the probable 2-year-old champ and early favorite for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) running in January. But not only is Stevie Wonderboy making his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's San Rafael Stakes (gr. II), he'll be facing another leading juvenile and major Derby contender in Brother Derek.
Basically, that's about all there is to the San Rafael, which drew a field of six, two of whom are coming out of claiming races and one being a former claimer. The only other horse with solid credentials is the Bob Baffert-trained Wanna Runner, winner of two straight, including a 1 1/16-mile allowance score in his last start.
But, this is a two-horse race, and for Stevie Wonderboy, it's not even a question about winning or losing, but how he makes the transition from two to three, and where this race puts him in relation to his final two Kentucky Derby preps.
The son of Stephen Got Even
still has to answer the question of two turns, while Brother Derek has already won the 1 1/16-mile Norfolk (gr. II) and Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and has proven himself a tough horse to run down. On the other hand, Brother Derek was soundly beaten by Stevie Wonderboy in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), the only time they've faced each other.
As far as the two turns, that will not be a problem for Stevie Wonderboy, who should get better the farther he runs. He's coming off a sharp 6-furlong breeze in 1:12 3/5, and trainer Doug O'Neill has him ready to fire first time out. And that is the key to the race. Although O'Neill obviously wants to see Stevie Wonderboy win, he doesn't want to see some breathtaking performance in blazing time or have him gutted trying to catch Brother Derek. He has to go in trying to win, but not afraid to lose if Brother Derek gets loose on the lead and proves tough to crack in the stretch.
Like most Derby preps, this is like a pool shot. Not only do you want to sink the ball, you have to leave yourself in good position to make the next shot. And for Stevie Wonderboy, that next shot probably won't come until March 4 in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II). The next prep, the San Felipe (gr. II), is two weeks after that, and two months is long time to wait between races.
With that said, Stevie Wonderboy still should win the San Rafael. With Sailors Sunset coming off a six-furlong maiden claimer, in which he battled on the lead in :21 4/5 and :44 4/5, and Wanna Runner, a tough, tenacious horse who doesn't mind slugging it out on the lead, Brother Derek may be forced to take back off the pace. He was a bit rank early in the Hollywood Futurity, so we don't know how kindly he'll take to that.
The bottom line is that there is no one in here who can match Stevie Wonderboy's closing kick. It'll just be a question of where Brother Derek is at the quarter pole and what he had to do to get there. If he has a clear lead after relatively soft fractions, he'll be tough. If Stevie Wonderboy is within striking range he should run him down.
Brother Derek is a powerful foe to face so early in the year, and should he happen to win and Stevie Wonderboy is closing fast in his first two-turn start, it's no big deal. Yes, he'll show he's not invincible, and, yes, his connections will have to accept the Eclipse Award coming off a defeat. But invincibility in January does not win the Derby. Having him peaking physically and mentally on the first Saturday in May is the main priority, and it's important to remember this is only the first step in a long, grueling journey.
So, let's look for Stevie Wonderboy to win by a length or two in solid, but not spectacular, time over Brother Derek. If the track should come up wet, then it's anyone's guess what's going to happen.
From Brother Derek's standpoint, it's important to see what he can do rating off the pace. He has enough stamina in his pedigree to suggest he'll get the 1 1/4 miles. After this race, he'll have run in September, October twice, December, and January, the last four in major stakes. If he puts in another big effort Saturday, a two-month layoff to the San Felipe might be something trainer Dan Hendricks will want to consider, in order to freshen him a for the big push.
It also must be noted that Wanna Runner has proven himself to be a gutsy colt, and while he's not in the same class as the two favorites, he is sharp right now and could hang around for a while.Pletcher hits the road in Risen Star
Todd Pletcher, with no less than 10 promising Derby hopefuls in his barn, has the luxury of shipping one of them to Louisiana Downs for Saturday's Risen Star Stakes (gr. III), where he'll face mostly unproven horses. Pletcher will send out Dogwood Stable's Saint Augustus, who is coming off a 2 1/2-length victory in Calder's What a Pleasure Stakes. The son of Saint Ballado was flattered when the runner-up, Big Lover, finished a solid fourth in last Saturday's Aventura Stakes at odds of 43-1.
Saint Augustus looks to be a long-striding horse who is improving, but we don't know how much brilliance he has. Among his main foes will be the undefeated Mark of Success, who broke his maiden for a price at Churchill Downs before wiring an allowance/optional claiming field at Louisiana Downs by 4 3/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles. The classiest of his rivals is Hyte Regency, a stakes winner on grass at Louisiana Downs and third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). There is also Lawyer Ron, who has made 10 starts already and is coming off runaway victories at Louisiana Downs and Evangeline Downs.
There are three horses coming off impressive maiden scores – Red Bordeaux, Malameeze, and Midway Man. The last named is trained by Steve Asmussen, who already has Private Vow and Doctor Decherd. The son of Awesome Again could be the horse to beat, having looked impressive winning by 5 lengths at Louisiana Downs. Malameeze won going away at Turfway Park in a 12-horse field.
This is a tough race to handicap. Saint Augustus and Hyte Regency look to have a class edge on these horses, so it's hard to look past them. But don't be surprised to see Midway Man run a big race, and Lawyer Ron is on a roll, winning his last two starts by a combined margin over 19 lengths.
At Gulfstream Saturday, there is an interesting allowance race going 6 1/2 furlongs. Nick Zito is running his undefeated colt, Fabled, and Allen Jerkens, as he's done so often with horses who run disappointing races, is wheeling Saint Daimon right back in a week after the colt failed to fire in the Aventura Stakes. Even if he bounces back and wins, we still won't know if he's a sprinter or whether he'll be given another chance stretching out.