Hold on to your hats. The Todd Pletcher and Doug O’Neill express trains are about to start rolling toward Louisville and should reach breakneck speed by early to mid-February. With Pletcher expanding to California this winter, and both trainers expected to make stops in New Orleans, we can expect some early collisions on the Derby trail.
Talking to Pletcher about his 3-year-olds is like talking to other trainers about their entire stable. The names just go on an on. Each year at this time, he appears to be fully loaded for an all-out assault on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), but this looks like his strongest group ever. Not only do they boast Derby-type pedigrees and running styles, six of them have already won or placed in stakes, including two grade I winners (Circular Quay and Scat Daddy) and a grade II runner-up (Any Given Saturday).
O’Neill has a grade I winner (Great Hunter), a grade II winner (Notional), and a grade I runner-up (Liquidity), all owned by J. Paul Reddam.
“At this stage, I think this is the strongest group we’ve had,” Pletcher said. “But only one horse can win the Derby, and you have the right one. But we should have some fun this spring and hopefully all of them can stay healthy.”
O’Neill also is looking forward to this year’s Derby trail after losing early Derby favorite Stevie Wonderboy last winter. “We’ve got a very exciting campaign ahead of us,” he said. “All three are training great, and we’re going to do our best to keep them away from each other. Hopefully, they can all hook up on the first Saturday in May. Great Hunter is a proven grade I winner, but the other two are fresh-legged; they didn’t have that kind of 2-year-old campaign.”
A harsh reminder of how the fragile young 3-year-olds are was the injury to the undefeated Tiz Wonderful, who rapped a tendon on his right foreleg one day before he was scheduled to have his first work of the year.
But life on the Derby trail goes on, and before the Pletcher and O’Neill express trains start picking up speed, let's hop aboard and check out the passenger lists.
The first confrontation will come in the Feb. 3 Sham Stakes (gr. II) when O’Neill’s improving Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) runner-up Liquidity squares off against Pletcher’s exciting maiden winner Ravel, who demonstrated an explosive kick on the far turn, winning by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16-miles. By Fusaichi Pegasus, out of an A.P. Indy mare, this colt could be something special. At least Pletcher thinks so, which is why he has no second thoughts about wheeling him back in a stakes race off a maiden. He’s a light-framed horse, and Pletcher doesn’t want to over race him. He turned in a solid five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 on Sunday.
Pletcher could have Champagne (gr. I) winner Scat Daddy running at Gulfstream that day in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III). Pletcher is undecided whether to run the colt two or three times before the Derby. He is looking at the Florida Derby (gr. I) as his last start before the Run for the Roses. The same day, watch out for Pletcher’s Sam P. in a two-turn allowance race. The son of Cat Thief is tough as nails and is the one horse Pletcher has no reservations about running often if he needs to. After finishing second to Any Given Saturday in a Keeneland allowance race, Sam P. was impressive winning a one-mile allowance at Churchill Downs, beating Michael Matz’ 13 1/4-length maiden winner Chelokee by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:35 3/5. Pletcher has tried to run him three times already at Gulfstream, but none of the races filled.
The following week, on Feb. 10, Pletcher will send out Hopeful (gr. I) winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Circular Quay in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds, where he will run into O’Neill’s San Rafael (gr. II) winner Notional, who like Liquidity has shown improvement with the addition of blinkers.
Pletcher will be back in action on Feb. 17 when Any Given Saturday runs in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, followed by the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. I) and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). The son of Distorted Humor is still a bit green and may have cost himself a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) when he drifted out at the quarter pole and then again in the final sixteenth and still was beaten only a half-length by Tiz Wonderful.
O’Neill will have to wait until March 3 to get his first glimpse of Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner Great Hunter in action. With a tough 2-year-old campaign behind him, the son of Aptitude will have only two starts before the Derby. O’Neill says the colt has a tremendous disposition and is as sound as the proverbial dollar.
O’Neill’s under-the-radar horse is the Merv Griffin-owned Cobalt Blue, who broke his maiden impressively before pulling a ligament in his next start. He’s back on the work tab, drilling a half in :48 2/5, and is about three weeks from a race. This colt was first purchased for Robert LaPenta by Nick Zito, who wanted desperately to keep him, but lost him in the Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale when he was pinhooked back.
Back to Pletcher. Two other promising colts he may be running at Gulfstream on Feb. 3 are recent allowance winner Cowtown Cat, who could go in either the Swale Stakes (gr. II) or wait a couple of weeks and run in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, and the impressive Saratoga maiden winner Soaring By, who has been sharp at Palm Beach Downs, breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5, and may show up in an allowance sprint. Also possible for the Southwest is Out of Gwedda, undefeated at two, who ran a bang-up second in the Spectacular Bid Stakes coming off a six-month layoff.
More? OK, how about recent Gulfstream allowance winner Our Sacred Honor, another Southwest candidate; Grapelli, third in the San Rafael; Meritocracy a good second in a Gulfstream allowance, who could run in the Sam Davis or wait for the Fountain of Youth (gr. II); and Bourbon County Stakes winner Twlight Meteor, who will point for the Hallandale Beach on the grass before heading to the Polytrack and the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II). And remember, Pletcher lost the undefeated Minefield, who was sold to Godolphin after winning both his starts impressively.
There have been several performances already that are worth mentioning. Although the big horse in Kenny McPeek’s stable is Boyd’s Gaming Delta Jackpot (gr. III) winner Birdbirdistheword, another horse to watch is Bold Start, who turned in one of the most impressive performances of the year winning a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream. The son of the A.P. Indy stallion Jump Start was tucked in on the rail, with Kent Desormeaux, as per instructions, keeping him down in there in order to get dirt kicked in his face. Appearing hopelessly trapped approaching the quarter pole, he angled out sharply when a small seam opened. Desormeaux threw a wide cross on him, and the colt took off as if he were given a hotfoot. With a final furlong in :12 flat, he ran down the Todd Pletcher/Anthony Sciametta-trained Meritocracy, who was running a monster race himself, finishing 8 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher, 9-5 Silver Express, trained by Nick Zito. The time of 1:36 1/5 was four-fifths faster than the other division, won by Our Sacred Honor, also trained by Pletcher/Sciametta. He’ll be stepping way up in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) against Nobiz Like Shobiz, and a good effort there would make him a serious horse.
Bold Start broke his maiden at Churchill Downs before finishing third in the Miller Lite Cradle Stakes, while stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles and battling on the lead the whole way. His only poor performance was a sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Futurity over Polytrack, which he didn’t seem to handle. As for Birdbirdistheword, he is right on schedule and will have his first work on Feb. 3.
Another notable performance was the victory by Exhale, who was nothing short of brilliant winning a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita by five lengths in 1:15 4/5 for John Sadler. It wasn’t the margin of victory or the final time that was impressive as much as the way he did it. This colt looks to have a ton of class and a smooth, powerful way of going. As good as he looked, it was only a maiden sprint, and he has a long way to go before he can be regarded as a serious Derby horse. A son of Millennium Wind out of a Manila mare, his pedigree says he’ll stretch out with no problem.
When the undefeated New York-bred Lawrence the Roman tackles open stakes competition for the first time in the Whirlaway Stakes Feb. 10, not only will he have to contend with Pink Viper and Johannesburg Star, the one-two finishers in the Count Fleet Stakes, but two newcomers who could be any kind. Summer Doldrums, a son of Street Cry, rebounded from a dismal performance in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) to win a mile and 70-yard allowance race by 8 1/2 lengths for Rick Violette. Another undefeated New York-bred is Gansevoort, who broke his maiden by 6 1/4 lengths before stretching out to two turns and romping by 8 1/4 lengths against state-breds for Gary Contessa.
Although he hasn’t been farther than six furlongs, and has a good deal of speed influences on both sides of his pedigree, you still have to keep a close eye on the Bob Baffert-trained E Z Warrior, who is now undefeated in three starts after winning the San Miguel Stakes in 1:08 4/5. It was the son of Exploit’s first start since winning the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III) last July. Baffert also sent out the dead-game Law Breaker, who won a 1 1/16-mile allowance race in his debut on dirt. It was his third stretch battle, and he’s come out on top in two of them. Tom Albertrani thinks highly of Gulfstream maiden winner Came to Pass, a son of Came Home who won first time out going seven furlongs.
Under the radar
Each week, we’ll look for horses who are not on many radar screens, but could be ready to make a name for themselves. One of those is the Maryland-based Adore the Gold, a son of Formal Gold, whose only blemish in four career starts was a fifth-place finish in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III), after which jockey Joe Rocco told trainer Michael Gorham the colt hated the track and was spinning his wheels the whole way. He rebounded with an impressive four-length score in the seven-furlong H. Steward Mitchell Stakes at Laurel, and has since turned in a bullet five-furlong work in :58 4/5 at Gulfstream. He’s already won at six furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/16 miles. He’ll run next on Feb. 3, and Gorham will decide where after he sees how the Holy Bull shapes up.
Two other colts who have been working well are Boutrous, a son of Tiznow who has won his last two starts at Hollywood Park with powerful stretch runs. He’s turned in solid six-furlong works in 1:13 1/5 and 1:12 3/5 for Craig Dollase and bears watching, as does the Mike Mitchell-trained Ididn’tdoanything, who is undefeated in two fast-run sprints. The son of Trippi worked six furlongs in 1:13 and five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 at Hollywood, but there is a question of how far he wants to go. One promising colt who needs a race if he’s to have any chance of being ready for the Derby is Longley, a son of Seeking the Gold who won his only start at Saratoga by 4 1/2 lengths. He’s only been 5 1/2 furlongs but is bred for stamina on both sides and recently turned in a bullet five-furlong work in 1:00 3/5 at Palm Meadows for Graham Motion. Aqueduct maiden winner Mister White Socks, whom trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has been high on, ran up the track in a Gulfstream allowance, but came out of the race with mucus in his lungs; he’ll run back on Feb. 3.
Other horses who have been working well are Stormello, who breezed five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Hollywood and followed that up with a six-furlong breeze in 1:13 2/5; the Patrick Biancone-trained Belgravia, winner of the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) and a fast-closing fourth in the Hollywood Futurity, who came out running with a :47 4/5 half-mile at Hollywood; Cradle Stakes winner Passport, who has had three solid breezes at Gulfstream; Pegasus Wind, a close third in the Champagne, who has had three five-furlong breezes at Oaklawn for Wayne Lukas; and Arlington-Washington dead-heat winner Officer Rocket, who has been working well at Oaklawn for Bob Holthus.