Now that we’ve gotten the first major coast-to-coast weekend out of the way, this is as good a time as any to look at the top contenders and see just how the Derby trail is shaping up. What we have is strength at the top and a rapidly growing group of brilliant horses who are just emerging on the scene and will have to play catch-up to make the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Let’s start with a list of the top 15 contenders (all of whom have run in stakes company) and then move on to other Derby doings.
1— Nobiz Like Shobiz/Barclay Tagg/Albert the Great—Nightstorm, by Storm Cat
The Holy Bull (gr. III) will do more for him than if he had won off by himself. He doesn’t seem as comfortable on the lead as he does stalking and then blowing his opposition away. He drifted in when clear and didn’t change leads until inside final eighth, and basically needs to grow into that big stride a little more. If he bounces out of the Holy Bull in good order, the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Wood Memorial (gr. I) would seem the logical path.
2—Ravel/Mike McCarthy (Todd Pletcher)/Fusaichi Pegasus-Let, by A.P. Indy
He answered a lot of questions in the Sham (gr. III), especially going from synthetic surfaces to dirt. He was trapped the entire way and looked to be in trouble, but showed a quick turn of foot when finally clear and put away a very good horse in Liquidity. He’s an impressive-looking colt; he has beautiful action, and he’s been the consummate professional with no apparent flaws. In short, he has all the makings of a star. The hope is he has two more starts before the Derby, so the historical whammies (four career starts, two preps) don’t rear their ugly head. We have enough question marks already surrounding some of the top contenders.
3— Street Sense/Carl Nafger/Street Cry – Bedazzle, by Dixieland Band
Not too much to report. He’s had two easy breezes and is still on a two-prep schedule, debuting in the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson (gr. II) and then the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I). That means he will go into the Derby off a sprint and a race on Polytrack. Conservative approach brings with it questions, which won’t be answered until first Saturday in May. What he has on his side is a Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) victory unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
4—Any Given Saturday/Todd Pletcher/Distorted Humor–Weekend in Indy, by A.P. Indy
Getting down to business with a bullet 5-furlong breeze in 1:00 flat at Palm Beach Downs. He has to look impressive in Feb. 17 Sam Davis and then Tampa Derby if he’s to unseat Ravel as top banana in the Pletcher barn. If he’s made the transition from 2 to 3, he should have no trouble against whoever shows up at Tampa. He has a ton of ability, but greenness may have cost him a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II).
5—Circular Quay/Todd Pletcher/Thunder Gulch—Circle of Life, by Belong to Me
Yes, Pletcher again, but the guy is loaded, pure and simple. He’s had a series of five-furlong works at Hollywood, but they keep getting slower, the most recent being 1:03 1/5 handily. But there is little doubt he’ll be ready for a top effort in the Risen Star (gr. III) against a tough field, including Notional and Zanjero. The long Fair Grounds stretch should be to his advantage and he drew well.
6— Hard Spun/Larry Jones/Danzig—Turkish Tryst, by Turkoman
You never like to see a setback force a change of plans, but the switch from the Risen Star (gr. III) to the Southwest following a virus may actually work out better for him. He’ll be at home and have nine extra days. He just needs to step up in class to show how good he really is. We love those undefeated horses, especially when they win the way he does.
7—Great Hunter/Doug O’Neill/Aptitude—Zenith, by Roy
Another with a two-prep campaign planned, which is a bit of a concern. He has the style and the pedigree, and looks like a Derby horse, but, like Street Sense, he is sitting in limbo right now. He does have a good 2-year-old foundation, which should help. After Barbaro’s Derby win off a five-week layoff, maybe another Derby trend is about to fall this year. But until it does, there just have been too many good horses fail in their attempt to win the Derby off two starts.
8— Drums of Thunder/Bill Kaplan/Concerto-Parental Uproar, by Future Storm
His second to Nobiz was no fluke. Whoever watched his remarkable score in the What a Pleasure after a trip from hell had to like him here at 27-1. Talk about defining moments, in that race, he leaped in the air at the break, falling back to last, and then was sandwiched in tight quarters for a long way. He had to be steadied sharply on the far turn, dropping out of the race, and then came flying on the far outside to mow down favored Green Vegas, who was making a winning move himself. This colt has improved dramatically since going two turns and should keep improving.
9— Liquidity/Doug O’Neill/Tiznow—Boa, by Rahy
He ran a strong race in the Sham, but it’s time for this colt win one of these battles. Have to question the strategy, battling on the lead with a 26-1 Sunland Park sprinter. Need to see him come off the pace and win before he can be ranked any higher. O’Neill said he may open his blinkers a little bit, so maybe that will help in his next dogfight or allow him to settle a bit better off the pace.
10—Scat Daddy/Anthony Sciametta (Todd Pletcher)/Johannesburg—Love Style, by Mr. Prospector
No way of knowing if he’s improved from 2 to 3 after his race in the Holy Bull. The pace was on the slow side, but still can’t imagine, with his closing punch, he wants to be battling on the lead, especially with a horse like Nobiz. Until we see what he can do coming off the pace again he deserves another shot. But he needs to take a major step forward next time.
11—Stormello/Bill Currin/Stormy Atlantic—Wilshewed, by Carson City
Can’t remember seeing a horse with his experience work the way he has for so long without running. Drilled seven furlongs in 1:25 1/5 the day before Sham. Maybe he wasn’t ready for nine furlongs, but it’s time to hit the Derby trail. With his running style, he has to give some indication that a mile and quarter is within his scope.
12— Notional/Doug O’Neill/In Excess—Truly Blessed, by French Deputy
Wasn’t flattered by Tenfold’s defeat in an allowance race, but he at least beat him pretty handily. We’ll just have to wait to see how he handles a horse like Circular Quay in the Risen Star, as well as Zanjero and several others. But drawing post 12 of 14 is going to make it tough. He’ll need racing luck. Imagine, 14 in the Risen Star, and they’re coming from all over the country. Looks like the rush is on already for graded earnings.
13— Adore the Gold/Michael Gorham/Formal Gold-Amore E Baci, by Dixieland Band
He was intent on getting the lead in the Swale, which you normally don’t like to see, but he’s shown speed in his sprints and has rated going long, so he looks to have the ability to adapt, and he has the right kind of disposition. Dover Stakes score by 2 1/2 lengths could be his defining moment, as he defeated Pletcher’s Whirling Ash winner Air Lord; Kong’s Revenge, who was third in the Belmont Futurity (gr. II); Kong the King, who went on to finish third in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II); and Crafty Bear, winner of Saturday’s Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel. This is an intriguing prospect who could be any kind.
14—Zanjero/Steve Asmussen/Cherokee Run – Checkered Flag, by A. P. Indy
Remsen runner-up has a good allowance victory at Churchill Downs over highly touted Frankel colt First Defence, seems to be improving, and recently breezed a bullet 6 furlongs in 1:13 at Fair Grounds for Saturday’s Risen Star. Also has a strong maiden score going two turns at Keeneland in 12-horse field, in which he was six-wide at the head of the stretch. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against Circular Quay, Notional, and several other good ones, but he’ll have a lot to do breaking from post 10.
15—C P West/Nick Zito/Came Home – Queen’s Legend, by Dynaformer
Been waiting for his first work, and he finally showed up on the tab Feb. 1 with a :36 4/5 breeze. An impressive maiden winner at Saratoga, he came off that race and finished a strong second to stakes-placed King of the Roxy in the Belmont Futurity (gr. II). Came out of his sixth-place finish in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) with an ankle injury. Zito said he’s “walking a tightrope” as far as the Derby is concerned, and will only go that route if it’s not going to hurt the horse. Pedigree says distance should be no problem.
Lurking in the wings
The following are horses who still have to prove their class in stakes company, but have made a big enough impression to suggest they are “live” Future Book wagers, and they provide enough incentive to play the mutual field in the upcoming first Future Wager. But they, like C P West, are walking a tightrope.
Several horses have already been mentioned, but in order to lump them together, they have to be mentioned again. Maiden winner Rescue Party has tremendous potential, but is a big, leggy colt, and trainer Shug McGaughey will space his races apart. Watch for him in an allowance race at the end of February. He could be a good one. Although he doesn’t belong in this category, stablemate Sightseeing is being pointed for an allowance race this weekend. The son of Pulpit closed well to finish second to Day Pass in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III) and then was fifth in the Remsen after steadying and clipping heels on the far turn. He’s been working sharply at Payson Park. Still believe there is a Derby out there with McGaughey’s and Phipps’ name on it.
A Fair Grounds horse worth keeping an eye on is the Steve Asmussen-trained Forty Grams, who is improving in leaps and bounds with every race. After coming from off the pace with a powerful four-wide run to break his maiden by 3 1/4 lengths going a mile, the son of Distorted Humor destroyed an allowance field by 13 lengths, just toying with his opponents. He’s a smooth-striding colt who has a presence about him and the look of a class horse.
Another maiden winner who looks to have a bright future is Major Pleasure, who was very impressive breaking his maiden at Santa Anita, splitting horses in the stretch and drawing clear to win by two lengths in a sharp 1:22 2/5 for the seven panels.
Bob Baffert has always been high on Air Commander, and the long-striding son of Point Given found the winner’s circle in his third start on Feb. 4, winning by three-quarters of a length over the $2.5 million yearling purchase Pavarotti, from the Pletcher/McCarthy stable. Air Commander had displayed greenness in his previous races, but he seems to be getting his act together.
Saturday at Gulfstream brought some new exciting faces into the picture. There doesn’t seem to be much chance of Curlin making the Derby (at least with a legitimate shot of winning) with his only career start coming in a seven-furlong maiden race on Saturday. But the son of Smart Strike had jaws dropping with his 12 3/4-length romp in 1:22 1/5, despite racing very wide and not changing leads. This was a freaky performance.
Just prior to that race, the Distorted Humor colt Spin Master made it two for two with an upset wire-to-wire score over a strong allowance field that included runner-up Soaring By from the Pletcher/Sciametta stable, third-place finisher Longley from the barn of Graham Motion, and fourth-place finisher Boogie Boggs from the Zito barn. Look for big improvement from Soaring By next time out. It is interesting to note that Curlin, despite making his career debut and winning off by himself, ran a fifth of a second faster than Spin Master.
Speaking of Zito, he has himself a runner in Swale Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Forefathers, who was unable to wear down a stubborn Adore the Gold, but pulled 6 1/4 lengths clear of 3-2 favorite Cowtown Cat. He’s fast and he runs hard, but there is a question of how far he wants to go.
A highly regarded maiden winner is the Darley Stable colt Came to Pass, who broke his maiden Jan. 13 going seven furlongs for Tom Albertrani. The son of Came Homehas a ton of stamina in his female family, but with only the one maiden sprint, the Derby appears to be a stretch..
One of the most impressive maiden winners of the year, Exhale, has not worked since winning on Jan. 15, so time obviously is running out on the son of Millennium Wind. Another colt to follow who has not faced stakes company yet is the Michael Matz-trained Chelokee, a 13 1/4-length maiden winner at Delaware Park and a strong second to Sam P. in a mile allowance race at Churchill Downs.
In other Derby news
-- Roman Commander, a fast-closing third in the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), is off the Derby trail with a tendon injury.
-- Big test coming up in Saturday’s Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct for exciting New York-bred Lawrence the Roman, who has been demolishing state-breds. A victory in open company by the regally-bred son of Point Given will catapult him up the contenders list and make him a legitimate Derby contender. But he’ll still have to step up again after that. His three victories have all been spectacular.
-- On the comeback trail after suffering an injury in the Best Pal Stakes is maiden winner Cobalt Blue, from the powerful Doug O’Neill stable. Always highly regarded, the son of Golden Missile is getting sharp and fit quickly, working six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 at Hollywood.
-- The Dave Hofmans-trained Desert Code, who was so impressive breaking maiden at Hollywood before finishing a non-threatening fourth in the San Miguel Stakes, has been tearing up the track in the mornings, working five furlongs in :58 4/5 and six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. He could be attractive at a price in Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes (gr. II).
-- In the rotten post position department, the fast and versatile Buffalo Man, winner of the Spectacular Bid Stakes, drew the outside in the field of 14 in the Risen Star Stakes. The son of El Pradoromped by 7 3/4 lengths in the mile and 70-yard Storm Cat Stakes at the Meadowlands and then dropped back to six furlongs in the Spectacular Bid and defeated Out of Gwedda and Green Vegas in 1:09 3/5. He no doubt will have to come busting out of the there.
-- The aforementioned upset of the Bob Baffert-trained Tenfold came at the hands of $50,000 maiden claiming winner Court the King, who is now two-for-two for John Sadler.
-- Bobby Frankel’s exciting Les Grands Trois, who has not run since his 9-length score in a maiden race last summer, is stepping up in his works, drilling five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Hollywood.