Kentucky Derby Trail: Odd Assortment of Derby Preps This Weekend

Kentucky Derby Trail: Odd Assortment of Derby Preps This Weekend
Photo: Adam Coglianese
Smarty Jones among contenders testing the Derby trail this weekend.
Is there any possibility that the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner can come out of the Miracle Wood, Baldwin Stakes (gr. IIIT), Southwest Stakes, John Battaglia Memorial or Borderland Derby? Not likely, but that doesn't mean there won't be any potential Derby contenders competing this weekend.

You have Minister Eric and Saint Afleet looking to use the 6 1/2-furlong Baldwin on grass as a steppingstone to two-turn dirt stakes; the highly touted Capac getting his first two-turn test in the Miracle Wood; the undefeated and untested Smarty Jones prepping for the Rebel in the Southwest; and Silver Minister, White Mountain Boy, and Revolver Six promising a stirring battle in the Battaglia.

If there is a legitimate Derby contender running this weekend, it could very well be Eddington, an impressive maiden winner who comes back in a first level allowance race at Gulfstream against another colt with promise, Tiger Heart. Eddington looks to have the ability, and he certainly has the pedigree. Now he just has to step up and beat winners before moving on to stakes company. A victory Saturday and he can start making some serious noise on the Derby trail. Tiger Heart should improve off his nose defeat when he was going two turns for the first time. Another allowance race to watch is at Oaklawn, where Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) runner-up Gran Prospect makes his 3-year-old debut.

Although Buddy Gil used the Baldwin as a prep for his victories in the San Felipe (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) last year, this is not a good spot, timing-wise, unless you're going to follow it with two stakes races, preferably two turns. That means anyone coming out of this race will have to race again by the weekend of March 20 (Lane's End, Rebel, and one-turn Gotham) in order to accomplish that. Anyone waiting for the 1 1/16-mile WinStar Derby on the 27th will be left in no-man's land with five weeks until the Derby and no 1 1/8-mile prep. Of course, anyone daring enough to wait a week and jump right into the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) or Illinois Derby (gr. II) can conceivably get to the Derby, but with minimal two-turn foundation.

So, Dick Mandella, trainer of Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) runner-up Minister Eric, and Craig Dollase, trainer of Sunshine Millions Dash winner Saint Afleet, will have to carefully map out a plan of attack after the Baldwin. If it's taken off the turf, which is a distinct possibility, it would help both horses.

The most fascinating race this weekend will be the Battaglia, where Silver Minister attempts to make it four in a row at Turfway, following runaway victories in the Turfway Prevue and WEBN Stakes, both run on 'off' tracks. If the track is fast and the pace strong, Revolver Six can be a factor, after coming by way of Cincinnati Airport to finish second in the WEBN. A mere speck in the snow-shrouded distance, he staged an incredible rally to somehow get up for the place at odds of almost 70-1. All we know about him at this point is that he's by a well-bred sire in Fort Chaffee and his female family is inundated with some of the top class and stamina influences in the world. What really makes this race interesting is the presence of the undefeated White Mountain Boy, who ships in from his home base at the Bowie training center. This colt is tough, gutsy, and versatile, and ran his eyeballs out against some good horses in the seven-furlong Goss Stryker, dropping back from 1 1/8 miles. His sire, Meadowlake is more speed-oriented, but he has a very classy female family.

Add the one-two finishers of the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, Little Matth Man and Risky Trick and you've got a very competitive field.

While White Mountain Boy departs Maryland, Capac ships in from the Camden training center in South Carolina. Earlier in the month, he shipped to Laurel to win a seven-furlong allowance race by almost four lengths in 1:23. Remember, this is the colt Bob Baffert tried very hard to purchase after his maiden victory last year, and who also caught the interest of Bobby Frankel and Team Valor. His main threat in the Miracle Wood will be Water Cannon, who has won two straight in impressive fashion since getting blinkers.

Another Mid-Atlantic track that will have a say in the weekend's races is Philadelphia Park, the home of the brilliant Smarty Jones, who shipped to Oaklawn in early January after winning the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct by five lengths. In his previous start, he won the Pennsylvania Nursery by 15 lengths in a sizzling 1:21 4/5, earning a 105 Beyer, and before that he broke his maiden by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:11 flat. He's bred to be a miler at best, but he's already won around two turns and obviously has a world of talent.

He should get a good test from Bob Holthus' pair of El Prados, Proper Prado and Pro Prado. The former was third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) before getting beaten in allowance company in his last start, while Pro Prado won the six-furlong Mountain Valley after finishing fourth in the Iroquois (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. Others expected are Wildcat Shoes, Pyramid Performer, Got the Goods, and Archie B. California shipper Number Juan disappointed in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), but has good speed and could be a factor if he can rebound off his last race.

The Borderland Derby at Sunland Park will feature Hi Teck Man, who is developing into a very good horse. He has a good stamina in his pedigree, but has not been nominated to the Derby.

On the Florida Derby front, trainer Nick Zito is strongly considering running The Cliff's Edge following the colt's second-place finish in the Sam F. Davis, in which he broke from the 11 post and had to circle the field, going six-wide, on the far turn. With Read the Footnotes, Value Plus, and Master David in the race, it should be pretty competitive on or near the front end, and could set up for The Cliff's Edge to pick up a good piece of it.

More 'Action' than one might think

Action This Day continues to progress toward the San Felipe, working six furlongs in 1:13 3/5. Although many feel the champ is too slow and beat a mediocre field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he is still the most legitimate Derby horse in training. His Beyers have climbed from 74 to 79 to 92 to 97. In the Sham, he was making his first start in 3 1/2 months going 1 1/8 miles, and gave seven pounds to the winner. He made a big run on the turn over a speed-favoring track, lost a ton of ground and was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths, closing his final eighth in :12 2/5. Continued improvement off that race should bring his Beyer (for all those who follow Beyers) up into Derby-winning range by the first Saturday in May.

As for the Breeders' Cup, granted it was not a strong field and the race set up for him, but he did throw in a third quarter in :23 2/5 and a final sixteenth in a respectable :06 3/5, winning going away, with five lengths separating the second and third horses. He didn't plod home from the clouds in the final furlong, but split horses with a good burst of speed midway on the far turn. And he was only coming off a nose maiden victory, in which he staged a remarkable rally despite an eventful trip, and was giving away a lot of seasoning and experience to major stakes horses like Chapel Royal, Cuvee, Tiger Hunt, Minister Eric, and Siphonizer. It just seems hard to knock a horse who has done as much as he has with so much room left for improvement.

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