Recent injuries and a weekend of upsets—most notably the shocking defeat of Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial (gr. I)—has left us without a clear-cut Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorite.
With less than a month remaining, the very real possibility exists that there will be no standout when Derby 137 goes to post on May 7 at Churchill Downs. The only horse that can likely keep that from happening is The Factor, who will lead an expected large field in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park.
The Factor is a brilliantly fast 3-year-old. That much is not in dispute. He broke his maiden in track record time at Santa Anita last December and carried that speed into stakes company when winning the Feb. 20 San Vicente (gr. II). Even after that win, however, trainer Bob Baffert was not convinced that the son of War Front was a true Derby horse because of his front-running style that he likened to a runaway train. At that time, Baffert still believed that The Factor was best suited as a miler type.
It wasn’t until The Factor won the March 19 Rebel (gr. II) in his first two-turn start and his subsequent two works at Santa Anita that has him reconsidering that thought. If The Factor can handle the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby—after facing what is likely to be a stiff challenge on the front end of what is expected to be a solid pace—there will be little doubt: The Factor will be the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby.
That big “if” will be answered Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark., in what has all of a sudden become the most important Derby prep race of the season.
“I think he’s always going to have to jump through these hoops and a big hoop was jumped through last month when he went from a fast, one-turn sprinter in three races to a two-turn more settled horse,” said George Bolton, who co-owns The Factor with Fog City Stable. “If he runs in the top three and is finishing well (in the Arkansas Derby), I think Bob will tell us to go (to the Kentucky Derby). But I think he has to do well in that final eighth of a mile for us to go to Churchill in three weeks.
“The scary thing about the horse is that he can cruise at a very fast pace—:23, :46, 1:10. He’s dangerous if he can get a relaxed lead. I don’t think the (extra) sixteenth of a mile is a problem as long as they don’t gang up on him too early."
The Factor set a quick pace in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel and was still able to draw off to win by 6 1/4 lengths. However, he was alone on the lead in that race, a luxury he may not have in the Arkansas Derby. Dance City, one of two expected starters for Todd Pletcher, has enough early speed to go with The Factor, as does J P's Gusto, who shows two bullet works since his disappointing seventh-place Rebel finish and adds blinkers for Joe Petalino. The Factor is probably going to have to show that he can take early heat, and still go on.
“The good news is that the last work—which was 1:12 and 1, out in 1:38 for the mile—he was never rank in the work; not the first 100 or 200 yards” said Bolton, who also co-owns Derby possible Astrology. Bolton was also a partner in two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who was third in the 2007 Derby. “He didn’t go blazing out of there, so that was good news. He’s getting more sensible. We’re trying to…catch up…I’d say is the right word to use with a horse that had his first start in a sprint race on Nov. 28.
“I think if he settles and doesn’t get an eyeball drilling him :22, :45 in Arkansas, and can go slightly slower fractions, he could get the extra sixteenth.”
The fact that the connections are even in a position to think about the Kentucky Derby is a surprise to everyone involved. The Factor, who is out of the Miswaki mare Greyciousness, was bought for $250,000 as a 2-year-old in training. They did not buy him with roses on their minds.
“The family basically looked like milers, so we thought we were buying a miler,” Bolton said. “He’s a fairly long horse and has a huge stride. We thought that would be the spot he’s be most brilliant. But, we’ll see. He’s obviously stretched out nicely for us.
“After his maiden win, Bob just couldn’t slow him down. He had a bruised foot and he was working rank. But after the San Vicente, he started to calm down and Bob said the horse is starting to figure it out. His stride is so good, he’s so efficient, and has great cruising speed.
"We’ve had fun just taking it step by step. We paid a lot of money for Curlin and had to win a grade I around two turns with him. When we bought this horse we were just hoping for a nice miler and to have some fun. He’s kind of taken us through hoops each time and the next big hoop is a 13-horse field in the Arkansas Derby, probably with more pressure. He has to thrive there for us to go to Derby.”
The Factor arrived in Arkansas by plane from California on Tuesday without incident.