With April right around the corner, are there any relatively obscure horses still out there who could burst on the Derby scene this weekend?
We have clear-cut favorites in the three major stakes – Mucho Macho Man in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), Astrology in the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III), and Positive Response in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III).
But the challenge on the Derby trail is always to find those diamonds in the rough who are about a minute and 50 seconds away from becoming overnight stars. And there are plenty of possibilities out there.
In the Louisiana Derby, the obvious ones are Elite Alex and Machen, who both have had an early following, but have failed to catch fire so far. A victory by either of these two intriguing colts will propel them way up near the top of everyone’s Derby list. Machen is still immature and has had problems breaking from the gate in all three of his starts. His highest Beyer figure (94) came in his career debut going six furlongs. He has not been able to duplicate that going two turns, and he is out of a More Than Ready mare, so there is a question about his ability to stay 1 1/4 miles. But he does have enormous talent, so we’ll see where he is right now. His stablemate, Wilkinson, looks like a hard-trying, honest colt, but he hasn’t quite dazzled anyone yet.
Elite Alex has had his own problems, either breaking from the gate, drawing bad posts, or being forced seven-wide in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III). Like Machen, it is imperative he gets a clean trip so we can learn once and for all where he fits. His second start, in which he was beaten a head by Alternation, was one of the more impressive performances we’ve seen this year, even in defeat, and could be an indication of just how good this colt is and how much more there is to come.
If you’re looking for a new face who also will be a big price, watch out for Nacho Business, a horse that caught our attention in his career debut when he ran down Bowman's Causeway with great determination to win going a flat mile. He looked like a colt loaded with class who ran as if he’d been doing this his whole life. He then returned to the winner’s circle as if he’d been out for a gallop. In his second start, the son of Rahy was beaten at 2-1 by the stretching out Arch Traveler going 1 1/8 miles after getting stuck down on the rail over a slow surface, which changed later in the day. He did close well in the stretch after being pulled out for racing room and was getting to the winner. His Beyer was a paltry 75, down five points from his maiden score, and he now must step way up against far better competition. It’s a tall task winning the Louisiana Derby off only two career starts, but the feeling here is that he is going to improve in leaps and bounds and could very well win it all with a good trip.
If he is going to be a serious Derby contender, he not only has to run big here, but come back in three weeks for a final prep. He simply doesn’t have the foundation to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three races and a six-week layoff. If he doesnt make the Derby definitely watch him down the road.
His stablemate, Pants On Fire, was entered pretty much to assure a fast pace for him, but the LeComte (gr. III) runner-up has been doing so well and training so well since the Risen Star (gr. II), trainer Kelly Breen is starting to think that he could be a factor in here as well.
We were particularly impressed with the wire-to-wire maiden victory by Majestic Harbor, who aired in his first attempt going two turns after closing from far back to finish second and third in sprints. But this is a big step up for him.
At Turfway Park, trainer Graham Motion had been hoping to run Crimson China in the Spiral Stakes and Animal Kingdom in the Rushaway Stakes on the undercard. But as he feared, Crimson China did not have sufficient earnings to make it into the 12-horse Spiral field, so he swapped places. If Animal Kingdom runs back to his maiden victory at Keeneland, in which he ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 flat and came home his final eighth in :12 1/5, he will be tough in here and should be a decent price.
Positive Response, like Mucho Macho Man at Fair Grounds, is going to take an awful lot of beating, but this race is such a hodgepodge of synthetic, dirt, and grass horses, who knows what’s going to happen?
Another horse to watch is California shipper Thirtyfirststreet, who has run well on both dirt and synthetic and ran a decent fourth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) after bobbling at the start and breaking slowly. Although he hasn’t run since Feb. 12, he is coming off two excellent seven-furlong works, including one in a sharp 1:24 1/5. But all in all, you can probably make some kind of case for anyone in this field.
A feel-good story would be King Congie, but we’ll get into that if he wins.
It is the Rushaway that actually may turn out to be the most revealing. The big horse looks to be the Larry Jones-trained The Ole Gen, but the horse that is most interesting is the aforementioned Crimson China, who we have written about extensively on several occasions. His grass allowance score at Gulfstream in his U.S. debut was a thing of beauty, and the feeling here is that this could be a very good horse. He’s already won on Polytrack in England, but he has enough dirt influences and versatility in his pedigree to suggest he may be just as good on dirt. We would have liked him in the Spiral, so we surely like him in this spot. Alan Garcia comes in to ride both Motion horses and this could turn out to be a productive afternoon for his trainer and owner Team Valor. We would love to see Crimson China run huge here and then come back on dirt in three weeks in the $1 million Arkansas Derby, but if they are thinking Kentucky Derby, the temptation will be great to go for the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
The $800,000 Sunland Park Derby (gr. III) will be highlighted by the long, long-awaited debut of Astrology, who has been frequenting the Derby Dozen for what seems like ages, based mainly on the surgery he had to correct his entrapped epiglottis. He wound up drawing the 11-post, which mean’s he’ll have to be used early, and that’s not what you want to do going 1 1/8 miles in your first start of the year. Fortunately, he has two stone closers directly inside of him.
But if you’re looking for a favorite to beat, he could be vulnerable, unless that surgery was so successful and he’s getting so much more air now that he will come out like a bear.
There are some pretty intriguing horses in this race, which served as a steppingstone for Mine That Bird’s successful assault on the Derby. Again, we have Kelly Breen with two horses. His main hope is with Nacho Saint, who ran a strong fourth in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III). He probably should have finished no worse than second after he got crowded along the rail, losing all his momentum, while making a strong run to get within three-quarters of a length of the leaders. He and stablemate Ruler On Ice worked in company at Sunland, going a half in a bullet :46 4/5. That should put Ruler on Ice, who breaks from the rail, right up near the lead, tracking the speedy Sinai, to help set it up for Nacho Saint, the same strategy Breen is using in the Louisiana Derby.
Supreme Ruler, with two excellent performances in his career, is one to watch as well. He's shown he has a big kick on the turn. But a horse we’ll be keeping a close eye on is Beer Meister, who was a monster overlay in the Turf Paradise Derby at 40-1, stretching out to two turns for the first time. Considering he’s a son of Pleasant Tap, there was a good chance the stretch-out was going to prove fruitful. He came from 22 lengths back and unleashed a wicked stretch run to inhale his field, drawing off to win by two lengths. He faces far better horses here, and speed often wins this race, but who knows how good he is.
One other race to watch is a mile and 70-yard allowance race on the Louisiana Derby undercard that will feature the exciting Bind, who is stretching out from six furlongs after turning in one the most impressive maiden victories of the year, winning by 9 1/2 lengths in a blazing 1:08 4/5, earning a 105 Beyer figure. He is bred to go long, so this could be the start of something big for the connections of Blame – trainer Al Stall and owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider.
So, to summarize, the new faces to watch, in addition to the obvious Elite Alex and Machen who are going to be short odds, are Nacho Business in the Louisiana Derby, Animal Kingdom and Thirtyfirststreet in the Spiral Stakes, a loud endorsement for Crimson China in the Rushaway, and Nacho Saint and Beer Meister (in the exotics) in the Sunland Derby. Sinai is a definite threat to steal this race if he can stretch out, but he should be a big bet-down horse.