The first morning at Churchill Downs brought sunny skies and warm temperatures, as the Kentucky Derby horses began their final stretch to racing's biggest day. From here on, there is no room for error. We'll give a brief rundown of the day's activities and continue with the plusses and minuses of each contender.
Another Kentucky Derby is upon us, and most of the talk has been about the inconsistencies and slow speed figures of this year's crop of 3-year-olds. Before we get into all the observations and analyses, and attempt to figure out this daffy Derby there is one point that must be addressed first.
With the Derby getting closer, we're doubling up this week to take a look at the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) and mostly to discuss what may turn out to be one of the most important works on this year's Derby trail.
Well, should we talk about the vagaries of Polytrack form for the umpteenth time or concentrate on the weekend's racing?
Well, we're down to our final two major preps, the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II), with the Coolmore Lexington (gr. II) and Holy Bull (gr. III) thrown in for good measure. The question right now is: what did we learn from last Saturday's preps?
By now, just about every superlative has been used to describe Big Brown's performance in the Florida Derby (gr. I). How many times do you think the word "freak" has been uttered since Saturday? Well, there is no doubt that the colt has accomplished freakish things in his brief career, but so did Curlin, and he couldn't win the Derby off three career starts.
Despite being ranked No. 1 or 2 on just about every Derby poll, Pyro, for some reason, has been branded by many a slow horse and simply the best of a bad lot. Yes, the pace in his two starts this year has been slow, and his final times have not exactly set the Fair Grounds teletimer aflame, but is this horse really as slow as many of the experts say he is?
On Saturday, in one corner of the country, the mighty Pyro once again crushed his foes, winning the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) in grand style. On the same day, in the opposite corner of the country, a humbly-bred colt who sold for meager $1,000 as a yearling, Autism Awareness, mowed down his field to win the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III).
So, did Saturday's Sham Stakes (gr. III) showcase two exceptional 3-year-olds or was it simply about two top horses running agonizingly slow early and coming home fast late over a synthetic surface? We'll know the answer when they hit the quarter pole at Churchill Downs on May 3.
Three-year-olds around the country continue to get "zapped" by the Derby trail's three-headed monster. You know, zap, as in Nick Zito, Steve Asmussen, and Todd Pletcher.
The Kentucky Derby trail received the spark it had been looking for when Pyro put on a spectacular exhibition in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III). There is no doubt Pyro is a top-class horse with a powerful closing kick, but before we get too euphoric, let's not forget that this has happened many times at Fair Grounds.
Be careful how you handle Crown of Thorns. As we're well aware, the impressive winner of the Feb. 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) has never run on a real dirt track. But with that said, let's pretend it will make no difference, and that he will be as good on dirt as he looked in the Bob Lewis.
It used to be so simple. Every step horses took on the Kentucky Derby trail was on good old Mother Earth. Now, we have no idea what some horses are putting their feet into.
As we head into December, a well-funded trainer is looking for a potential Kentucky Derby horse, but does not want a horse based in Southern California. At the same time, a well-funded gambler is looking for a solid Derby horse to bet in the future book, but he, too, is looking away from California. The reason behind their thinking is quite simple.
You know it's early when you start carving into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) before your Thanksgiving turkey, but this is a good time to start evaluating the 2-year-olds and get a jump on this week's grade II Remsen and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and grade III Hollywood Prevue.
We had a little bit of everything this week, with Nobiz Like Shobiz back to his winning ways; the dejaÂ vu-like return of Team Giacomo; and some shifts in the Todd Pletcher power structure. So, with links to Funny Cide and Giacomo providing a sense of recent history, the Kentucky Derby trail heads into its final big weekend of preps.
Well, we've got our first big horse heading to Churchill Downs following Scat Daddy's victory in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and judging from the other cards trainer Todd Pletcher is holding, he's going to have a full house come May 5. But who knows if runner-up Notional will be the first of four aces held by Doug O'Neill.
Not even a change to green silks on St. Patrick's Day for Any Given Saturday could deny 2-year-old champ Street Sense a hard-earned victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). Also on Saturday, rapidly emerging stars Cobalt Blue and Curlin burst on the Derby scene with impressive scores in their two-turn debuts.
The strangest thing happened while in Florida this past week. I came upon a crystal ball that amazingly revealed the winners of all the major Derby preps this year, although some images were clearer than others. To obtain this privileged information, just continue reading.
Nobiz Like Shobiz, Great Hunter, Stormello, and Scat Daddy will get most of the headlines in the Fountain of Youth and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (both gr. II), but there is undiscovered talent just waiting to take the Derby trail by storm, including a couple trained by two familiar names
Although most of the talk surrounding the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) was on the near disastrous spill at the head of the stretch, the bottom line is that we saw the emergence of a classic contender in Notional, who displayed a number of attributes you want to see in a Derby horse.
Many times when looking back on the career of a Kentucky Derby winner, you can find one defining race or defining moment within a race that stamps the horse as a legitimate classic contender. This is the first of several attempts this winter to find such moments.
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.
You know it's a strange day on the Triple Crown trail when you have four stakes and the two most impressive horses seen are in a maiden race and a workout. Although heavy favorites Brother Derek and First Samurai emerged victorious, the latter on a disqualification, it still left most people wanting more.
Lawyer Ron took another step forward with his victory in Saturday's Southwest Stakes, extending his winning streak to four. But he still left a major question unanswered. Despite the lack of stakes action last week, there were several horses around the country who stepped up and made people take notice.
Several of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps fell apart last weekend, and the Southern California invaders got hammered by the boys up North in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), but we did see an honest, classy colt in Cause to Believe, and there was plenty of other news on the Derby trail.
The journey on the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) Trail officially began last weekend, and although none of the major stars were in action, there were enough solid performances – both gutsy and explosive -- to start the year off in a positive way.
Racing seems to have its share of ills these days, which is why the first injection of Derby Fever is being given out earlier and earlier each year. Even taken in small doses in November, it can start the blood pumping, and what better way to brace for the long winter than by getting a brief whiff of roses or hearing even the faintest strains of "My Old Kentucky Home?"
There was no one on Bellamy Road (also known as the Aqueduct stretch on Saturday) except one lone traveler who cruised along in isolated splendor as if out for an afternoon joy ride. But the Wood Memorial (gr. I) was not the only big race last weekend, despite what one may think of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
With the next Kentucky Derby Trail column not until Wednesday, March 30, when the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) and UAE Derby (UAE-I) will be discussed belatedly, this seems like a good time to offer some lingering thoughts, facts, and observations left over from last weekend.
Expect some frazzled nerves on March 19 when the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) picture either becomes crystal clear or gets turned upside down. We saw a sneak preview of the latter last weekend when newcomers High Limit and Bellamy Road dropped out of the sky and caused some big explosions in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and in Florida.
The Kentucky Derby (gr. I) picture finally cleared up a bit last Saturday as Declan's Moon and Afleet Alex returned in grand style and Nick Zito put the finishing touches on his powerful four-horse Derby package, all of whom are coming off impressive victories. But the weekend's events still left us with several questions.
Although there are only two minor stakes this weekend, Nick Zito and Shug McGaughey will have important tests for two of their big horses. This also is a good time to see if there are still any live longshots in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) future book lurking out there who might be worth taking a hard look at.
Even though folks are aware the future book is normally a bad bet, with good horses priced way too low, some still can't help taking the plunge. So, here's a look at what's out there.
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