This is the first list of leading Kentucky Derby contenders, compiled by Steve Haskin, senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse magazine, that will be published weekly until the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is held at Churchill Downs May 5. The two other races comprising the Triple Crown are the May 19 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico and the June 9 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
The sophomore class of 2007 has some pretty big shoes to fill following the number of brilliant and memorable performances by last year’s 3-year-olds, including the heroics—on and off the racetrack—of Barbaro.
But from all indications, there is no reason why this year’s crop shouldn’t provide as much excitement as its predecessors, considering the magnitude of its accomplishments in 2006 and the stamina-laden pedigrees of its top stars.
At this time last year, Barbaro, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), had never run on dirt, Preakness (gr. I) winner Bernardini was still a maiden, Belmont (gr. I) winner Jazil had won only a maiden race, and Discreet Cat was a maiden winner training in Dubai, a faint blip on the radar screen.
That leads to the question: Should we even pay that much attention to the exploits of last year’s 2-year-olds, regardless of how impressive they were? It is reassuring at least to know that veteran Kentucky Derby-winning trainers Carl Nafzger and Barclay Tagg are sure to do right by Street Sense and Nobiz Like Shobiz. And Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, is back with the promising Chelokee.
With only a few small steps taken on the Derby trail so far, here is how the cream of the 3-year-old crop shapes up, although it must be mentioned that horses that have excelled only on synthetic surfaces remain a question mark. It is not easy getting a true gauge on accomplished horses like Belgravia, who has yet to run on a “dirt” track, or Roman Commander, who either moved up big-time on Hollywood’s synthetic surface or simply improved after stretching out to two turns.
1) Street Sense — It sounds strange, but his 10-length romp in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) was too good to be a true gauge of his ability and where he fits among this group. But until he shows just how big a fluke that effort was, he has to be the leading Derby contender. Right trainer, right pedigree, right running style. If the Juvenile turns out to be legitimate, then you have to be concerned that it may have been too much too early. That’s where Nafzger’s expertise will prove valuable. He’s planning only two starts before the Derby—a one-turn race (possibly the grade II Hutcheson) and then the grade I Toyota Blue Grass.
2) Nobiz Like Shobiz — This big, grand-looking colt with the kick-fire acceleration is likely going to be the huge bandwagon horse this winter. He has all the tools, is in good hands with Tagg, and is bred to run all day. Many no doubt will put him on top of their Derby lists, but he didn’t face the same caliber of competition that Street Sense did. He did run huge in his only defeat, a rough trip in the Champagne (gr. I). All in all, he has Derby horse written all over him. His five-furlong work in :58 3⁄5 suggests he won’t need much to be ready for his debut.
3) Tiz Wonderful — Hard to fault this powerful Tiznow ridgling, who is unbeaten in three starts and who showed his willingness to fight when challenged by Any Given Saturday in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) following two runaway victories. He has shown push-button acceleration, but can also grind it out, as he did in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He’s still maturing and should only get better. Quite a nice homecoming gift for Steve Asmussen, who will go the Arkansas route with him.
4) Any Given Saturday — He’s still green, but has tremendous scope for improvement. His gutsy second to Tiz Wonderful was enough to establish him as a top contender, but it was his explosive, sweeping move on the turn in his previous start at Keeneland, in which he went from eighth to first before drawing off to win by three lengths, that was the real eye-opener. Drifted out at the quarter pole in the Kentucky Jockey Club and drifted again in the final furlong, which may have cost him the race, so he’ll have to work on that. He’s always been highly regarded in the Todd Pletcher barn, which has no less than nine quality Derby hopefuls.
5) Circular Quay — Lost a bit of his luster following defeats in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but his three previous victories, including a big win in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), stamp him as a top Derby contender. His monster stretch runs were in sprints, and he hasn’t shown that same big kick in two-turn races, but everyone who has been around him says he’s something special. You can certainly make excuses for his two defeats—first time over Polytrack, which he didn’t seem to handle as well as dirt tracks, and a rough start and wide trip in the Juvenile over a seemingly rail-biased track.
6) Great Hunter — Tough and consistent colt, trained by Doug O’Neill and owned by Paul Reddam, he had an old-fashioned 2-year-old campaign, running seven times, five of them in stakes. Son of second-crop sire Aptitude was crying for two turns following three stakes-placings in sprints and proceeded to turn in a big effort winning the Breeders’ Futurity, in which he out-closed Circular Quay and won going away. Yes, it was on Polytrack, but he had run big races prior to that. Throw out his well-beaten third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he came from ninth to reach contention turning for home. He may have been a bit over the top going into that race after a tough campaign. Love his inbreeding (three times) to Buckpasser.
7) Scat Daddy — Another of Pletcher’s many Derby hopefuls, and another who has been a forgotten horse following his distant fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. As he is a son of Johannesburg, some will question his ability to get 1 1⁄4 mile, but sire pedigrees seem to be getting less and less important, and it’s still too early to establish just how far the Johannesburgs want to go. He ran a very professional race to win the Champagne, running down two talented horses in Nobiz Like Shobiz and Pegasus Wind, coming home his final quarter in :24 flat.
8) Hard Spun — His bandwagon is filling up fast based in part on the parallels to Smarty Jones , but he does appear to have the talent to justify it. The Pennsylvania-bred not only has four runaway victories, he is by Danzig, and his broodmare sire, Turkoman, was a classy 1 1⁄4-mile horse. His second dam is a half-sister to Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current, by Roberto, so there is a ton of class and stamina in his pedigree. He’s a long-striding horse who reaches out with his head and neck. He got a bit sloppy turning for home in the Lecomte, but leveled off and drew away impressively.
9) Stormello — Have no idea where to put this colt, whose last three races bear a similarity to Brother Derek’s campaign in 2005. His game victories in the Norfolk Breeders’ Cup Stakes (gr. II) and Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) stamp him as the most accomplished California-based juvenile, but he tired in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He gets headstrong early, which you don’t like to see. A son of Stormy Atlantic , his broodmare sire is Carson City, so, while his pedigree doesn’t exactly shout 10 furlongs (nor does his running style), he’s proven himself at least to be a gutsy and consistent colt.
10) Two more O’Neill-Reddam horses — Liquidity and Notional — share this spot. Tough to separate them right now. Liquidity, runner-up in the Hollywood Futurity, has a stronger distance pedigree, but Notional should go on as well, and looked good winning the San Rafael (gr. II), although it was not a strong field. His only two defeats have come over the synthetic surface at Hollywood, where he trains brilliantly. Liquidity’s poor effort in the Champagne is a blot on his record, but he rebounded off that effort after returning home.
KNOCKING AT THE DOOR
Lumped in the next group are deep closers Roman Commander and Belgravia, the third- and fourth-place finishers, respectively, in the Hollywood Futurity; Boyd Gaming’s Delta Jackpot (gr. III) winner Birdbirdistheword, trained by Kenny McPeek, who also has impressive Gulfstream allowance winner Bold Start; the intriguing, undefeated New York-bred Lawrence the Roman, who has romped in all three of his races for state-breds; the improving Sam P. and the Matz-trained Chelokee, who finished one-two, respectively, in a solid allowance race at Churchill Downs; the consistent, late-closing Cal-bred Pirates Deputy; San Miguel winner E Z Warrior, who has yet to race farther than six furlongs; Nashua (gr. II) winner Day Pass, who has been sent to Dubai, as has Godolphin’s recently acquired Minefield, winner of both his starts for Pletcher; Spectacular Bid winner Buffalo Man and runner-up Out of Gwedda, who should show big improvement next time out; Pletcher-trained Cowtown Cat was impressive winning allowance sprint at Gulfstream Jan. 14; the Tiznow colt Boutrous, come-from-behind winner of two straight at Hollywood; the Calder-based Drums of Thunder and Green Vegas; Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) winner Soldier’s Dancer; Vicarino, trained by Greg Gilchrist, who has a ton of speed, but needs to show he can stretch out; hard-knocking Sapling (gr. III) winner Xchanger, who has run well in his last two after a dull effort in the Champagne; San Rafael runner-up Tenfold, who has to learn to harness his speed; Gulfstream allowance winner Our Sacred Honor and especially runner-up Arcata, who ran big after racing wide the whole way; and the Nick Zito-trained C P West, who will have to be excused for his poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after a big runner-up effort in the Futurity Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) winner Horse Greeley is still on the sidelines. Sunny Slope winner Dilemma has not been on the work tab since his nose defeat in the Hollywood Prevue Stakes (gr. III) Nov. 18. Best Pal (gr. II) winner Principle Secret, who ran a gutsy second in the Norfolk Stakes, has some rebounding to do following a last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and an eighth-place finish in the Hollywood Futurity. Arlington-Washington Breeders’ Cup Futurity (gr. III) dead-heat winners Officer Rocket and Got the Last Laugh each turned in a pair of dismal efforts after that. Miller High Lite Cradle winner Passport also turned in two poor efforts after that win. Another who needs to bounce back is Pegasus Wind, who was well beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But this D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt has a good deal of talent and should be a force at Oaklawn Park. Sightseeing, from trainer Shug McGaughey’s stable, looked good finishing second in the Nashua Stakes, but showed little in the Remsen. The highly touted Johannesburg Star has to prove there is more to him than his second-place finish to longshot Pink Viper in the Count Fleet Stakes. Futurity winner King of the Roxy will be kept at a mile or under and is not considered a Derby horse.
ONES TO WATCH
This is the interesting group for those who want to get in on the bottom floor on unproven, yet promising youngsters that looked brilliant in maiden races. But remember, only a handful will go on to fulfill the promise they showed against maidens.
At the top of the list is the Pletcher-trained Ravel, who looked sensational winning a 1 1⁄16-mile maiden race at Hollywood Dec. 3. This colt has a quick turn of foot. It must be noted once again that he has yet to run on a “dirt” track, having also finished second to the speedy Teuflesberg at Keeneland.
Another impressive maiden winner, Soaring By, trained by Pletcher, is back on the work tab after a long layoff. Saint Paul broke his maiden by 8 1⁄4 lengths at a mile Dec. 29 at Calder, which has been the main market for young horses. The Bobby Frankel-trained Les Grands Trois was awesome breaking his maiden last summer. Frankel’s First Defence, a runaway maiden winner who then finished a solid second behind Zanjero in a Churchill Downs allowance race Nov. 2 has not been seen on the worktab. The Darley pair of Came To Pass and Mandurah won a split maiden event at Gulfstream Jan. 13, with the former running a full second faster. Impressive Saratoga maiden winner Longley has been working at Palm Meadows for Graham Motion.
A recent maiden winner who looked like he could be something special is Exhale, who drew off impressively to win by five lengths in 1:15 4/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs. The son of Millennium Windis bred to run all day.