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.
Also, the inner track at Aqueduct and the Ocala Training Center provided additional Derby contenders with the victories by Summer Doldrums in the Whirlaway Stakes and Buffalo Man in the Ocala Breeders' Championship.
While it's true that the Risen Star favorite Circular Quay lost all chance when he had to take up sharply to avoid Slew's Tizzy, who clipped heels of the horse directly in front of him, throwing jockey James Graham, that in no way takes away from Notional's performance, in which he had to overcome the 12-post and go four-wide into the first turn. By putting on a display of broken-field running, altering course on a dime and accelerating between horses in the stretch, one can now feel confident in his ability to handle many of the obstacles the Kentucky Derby will throw at him.
Although some may feel the mile and a quarter is a question mark, his sire, In Excess, won the 10-furlong Suburban Handicap (gr. I) in a track-record 1:58 1/5. Notional also is inbred to the top-class mares Durazna and Myrtlewood.
Notional, along with Sham (gr. III) runner-up Liquidity and last year's Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) winner Great Hunter, gives trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam a firm grip on this year's Derby picture. Great Hunter is expected to make his 3-year-old debut in the grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes (formerly the Santa Catalina Stakes).
The Risen Star also catapulted runner-up Imawildandcrazyguy into the Derby picture. The gelded son of Wild Event, who was coming off a 10-length romp in a Calder allowance race in December, extricated himself from a logjam at the head of the stretch, and was really motoring in the final furlong. As he did in his previous start, he was reaching out with long, powerful strides and building up a great deal of momentum, as if he will relish the longer distances. This looks like a horse who is just now figuring everything out, and is worth keeping an eye on.
Trained by Bill Kaplan at Calder, he is a stablemate of Holy Bull (gr. III) runner-up Drums of Thunder, who also is on the improve, giving his trainer a strong one-two punch.
Third-place finisher Zanjero turned in a solid effort in his 3-year-old debut, rallying from last in the field of 12 to get clear lead in mid-stretch. He was no match for Notional, who charged by on his inside, and was just nipped on the wire for second.
As for Circular Quay, you certainly cannot hold this race against him, and in fact, he must be given credit for finishing a fast-closing fifth after appearing to be eased and out of the race following the incident, in which he displayed a great deal of athleticism to avoid Slew's Tizzy. He, too, will gain a lot of experience from this race, and still has to be considered one of the top Derby contenders.
So, it is refreshing to be able to write positive comments on four horses in this race, all of who have serious designs on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The find of the weekend, however, could very well be Summer Doldrums, who showed a great deal of class winning the Whirlaway Stakes. The dark bay son of Street Cryis extremely handy, is light on his feet, and covers a good deal of ground, despite not being a big horse.
He has shown the ability to come off the pace or battle on the front end, and basically can be placed wherever the jockey wants him.
What was most impressive about his victory in the Whirlaway was the way he drew off on his own and continued to open up on his field despite being geared down by jockey Mike Luzzi in the final 70 yards. In fact, he showed his disdain for the whip when Luzzi gave him a left-handed tap and he threw his tail in the air.
Yes, this was the Whirlaway Stakes over the inner track, in which the odds-on favorite Lawrence the Roman failed to fire, finishing fifth of six. So, it is prudent to restrain one's enthusiasm until Summer Doldrums starts meeting better quality horses in graded stakes. But, just from what was seen in this race, there is an excellent chance the colt simply is a class act who will continue to improve.
It must be pointed out that Summer Doldrums' final three splits were :24 1/5, :24 4/5, and :06 1/5 for a final clocking of 1:42 1/5, which is an exceptional time. In a nutshell, this was a top-class performance in every way.
Stamina will be no problem at all, with Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) winner Street Cry on top and broodmare sire Unaccounted For on the bottom. Unaccounted For was the only horse in 1995 to make Horse of the Year Cigar break a sweat when he pushed him to hard-earned one-length victory in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).
Trainer Rick Violette said he was devastated when Summer Doldrums finished up the track in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II), a race he said he was confident of victory despite the presence of Nobiz Like Shobiz. That confidence now has returned following two runaway victories.
Another versatile colt who looks to be on the upswing is Buffalo Man, trained by Cam Gambolati, who gained fame by saddling Spend a Buck to victory in the 1985 Kentucky Derby.
Buffalo Man is a son of the stamina influence El Prado, who has sired such classy distance horses as Medaglia d'Oro , Borrego, Kitten's Joy, and Asi Siempre. Prior to his victory in Monday's 1 1/16-mile OBS Championship over No Reply and Green Vegas, in which he came home his final sixteenth in :06 1/5, he won the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes in 1:09 3/5. The race before that, he romped by 7 ¾ lengths in mile and 70-yard Storm Cat Stakes at the Meadowlands.
One maiden winner to keep an eye on is the Nick Zito-trained Optimistic Steve, a son of Stephen Got Even, who closed fast to defeat the A.P. Indycolt Marchfield going a mile in his second career start.
In Sunday's seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), the speedy Noble Court eked out a victory over the Bob Baffert-trained Law Breaker, who was dropping back from 1 1/16 miles. In four career starts, he has been involved in four dogfights, winning two and losing two. You have to admire the son of Silver Deputy, who has run his heart out every time. And there is no reason to think he won't get better with added distance.
In other Derby news:
--Two-year-old champion Street Sense continues to work toward his 3-year-old debut, breezing five furlongs in 1:03 2/5.
--Hard Spun indicated his sharpness for Monday's Southwest Stakes, breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59 flat.
--Great Hunter also is getting sharp, working six furlongs at Hollywood in 1:13 2/5.
--In other works, the exciting Exhale drilled five furlongs in 1:00 3/5; Any Given Saturday tuned up for Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes breezing five furlongs in 1:02; Major Pleasure, scratched from the San Vicente, worked six furlongs in 1:13 4/5; and the Bobby Frankel-trained Les Grands Trois continued on the comeback track with 1:00 2/5 drill at Hollywood.