Haskin: Should we look elsewhere than obvious Saturday winners like Proud Accolade (above) for true Derby prospects?

Haskin: Should we look elsewhere than obvious Saturday winners like Proud Accolade (above) for true Derby prospects?

Associated Press

Kentucky Derby Trail: 'Great Bandini' Takes Center Ring

With each big weekend of stakes races, the 3-year-old picture is supposed to get a little clearer. But that doesn't seem to be the case any longer. In fact, over the past several years, the opposite has been true. So it was this past weekend, when we had to turn to non-stakes events to find potential Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contenders.

Not to take anything away from Holy Bull (gr. III) winner Closing Argument, Hutcheson (gr. II) winner Proud Accolade, and Sham winner Going Wild, but nothing really jumped out of those races to make you feel as if you've seen the next Derby winner. With the Holy Bull and Sham run at 1 1/8 miles, both races seemed a bit too far at this time for many of the participants who showed up. Give credit to Going Wild for a gutsy front-running performance, stretching out from six furlongs. But the final eighth in :13 4/5 did not bode well for the horses who could not get by him the entire length of the stretch, and that includes Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) runner-up Giacomo, who had dead-aim on Going Wild. Finishing second and fifth, at odds of 8-1 and 5-1, were maidens. Runner-up Papi Chullo actually was 2-1 co-favorite for a long time.

It was the allowance races at Gulfstream, and in some cases losing performances, that stood out in the search for Derby horses. If someone said the Derby winner definitely ran on Saturday, the logical choice would be runaway winner Bandini, with beaten horses on the card, Vitruvian and Survivalist, and the maiden winner Noble Causeway also having to be considered. But more on them later. And on the stakes front, the most impressive performance visually was by Snack, winner of the WEBN Frog Stakes at Turfway Park.

Getting back to Going Wild, he did come home slowly, but he cut out some solid fractions of :46 4/5 and 1:10 3/5 and dug in gamely to turn back challenges on his inside and outside. He actually is bred to run long, and if D. Wayne Lukas can get him to settle off the pace, and with this race under his belt, he should continue to show improvement. And most important, he has won three in a row.

It's difficult to get a line on the Holy Bull, in which the 3-5 favorite, High Fly, had an ugly trip to finish third, getting hung four wide on the first turn, then ducking in badly in the final sixteenth, steadying and jumping back to his left lead. That, in turn, caused the winner, Closing Argument, to also shy to the inside and switch back to his left lead. This could be a throw-out race for High Fly, or it's possible he either regressed off his monster performance in the Aventura Stakes four weeks earlier or simply wasn't ready to go nine furlongs.

Closing Argument is tough and consistent, and he has shown by his solid efforts at Saratoga, Delaware Park, Calder, Delta Downs, and Gulfstream that he can run anywhere. He also is a bit of an enigma in that he's now won at 1 1/8 miles, but has a speed-oriented pedigree top and bottom, with his broodmare sire and maternal great-grandsire the brilliant sprinters Mr. Greeley and Groovy. His sire, Successful Appeal , was also a sprinter who won the one-mile Withers, and he is by the speed influence Valid Appeal. How he will progress from here is anybody's guess. The big disappointment was Dearest Mon, the 3-1 second choice who was never in the race.

The third major stakes of the day was the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, won convincingly by the 4-5 favorite Proud Accolade, who got shuffled back and had to steady briefly at the five-sixteenths pole before being steered to the outside and launching a strong bid that carried him to a 4 1/2-length victory. But, once again, we have the nagging question, can this colt win around two turns? He's now four-for-four around one turn and winless in both his two-turn races, turning in dismal performances each time.

The most visually impressive aspect of the Hutcheson was the explosive run on the turn by last year's Futurity (gr. II) winner Park Avenue Ball, who had to overcome a bad start, in which he broke to the inside, losing his footing. The move he made, going from last in the field of six to first, was one of the highlights of the day. He fanned wide turning for home, carrying Proud Accolade out with him, then was unable to sustain his move and was no match for the winner. Defer had a perfect trip, and although the distance was too short for him, he was expected to be a bit more competitive than he was. Also, remember, the final time of 1:29 4/5 was only two-fifths faster than a 7 1/2-furlong maiden race run earlier on the card. That race was won by California shipper Natural Phenomenon, who was coming off two terrible races, and was making his first career start in a sprint.

And now, ladies and gentleman and children of all ages, we present "The Great Bandini."

What was so impressive about this son of Fusaichi Pegasus  was not so much his winning margin of nine lengths. It was the colt himself and how he did it. One look at him and you immediately see class. He is a sleek, dark racing machine with a beautiful head and the look of a true distance horse. Most important, he has a smooth, effortless way of moving, and has great extension to his stride. He is just efficient in every way, and jockey John Velazquez never moved a muscle on him around the turn. After opening up on his own, he drew off with every stride and seemed to be getting stronger the farther he went. Despite racing on the lead the whole way, he still managed to close his final eighth in a solid :12 4/5. Coming back, he looked as if he were ready to go around again. The only thing he did wrong was ducking in badly at the start from the one-hole, and Velazquez had to give him a left-handed crack, as he appeared to be on a collision course with the rail.

As impressive as Bandini was, and his dominance over his field, there still was room for accolades for runner-up Vitruvian, who definitely bears watching after this performance. On a track that was favoring speed horses and stalkers in two-turn races, horses coming from far back were pretty much left floundering up the track in the stretch.

Breaking from the 11-post, he got hung out six-wide on the first turn, then dropped back to 11th, some 13 lengths off the lead. When he started to launch his bid around horses going into the far turn, he was still six-wide. Approaching the quarter pole, he was four-wide, and had pulled to within a half-dozen lengths of Bandini, who hadn't even been asked to run yet. Although Bandini took off and won by nine, Vitruvian still managed to finish 7 3/4 lengths ahead of the third horse, despite having problems changing leads. A son of Lemon Drop Kid , he had been put on the grass for one start by Bobby Frankel, who felt his numbers on the dirt were too slow, even though he had broken his maiden by almost 11 lengths on the dirt at Belmont. If he continues to mature, and progresses off this start, he should start making a name for himself in stakes. He'll relish 1 1/4 miles and could make great strides by Derby Day.

The other performance of note on Saturday was the third-place finish by Survivalist in a seven-furlong allowance race. Coming off a four-month layoff after breaking his maiden by eighth lengths, he had his head turned at the start and broke slowly, dropping back to last. He eased his way between horses and had dead-aim on the leaders, while five-wide turning for home. At the three-sixteenths pole, however, eventual first-place finisher Qureall came out into Holy Rocket, who in turn plowed into Survivalist, knocking him a good three paths farther out. Despite the sound bump, Survivalist never broke stride and stayed on his right lead. He gathered himself and kept coming, giving a final burst right before the wire, just missing the place spot. Of course, this was a far cry from graded stakes competition, but it was an excellent comeback race, and showed this well-bred son of Danzig is agile and not intimidated. He should only get better, and with the failure of High Fly in the Holy Bull, there really is nothing even resembling a standout in Florida, leaving the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) pretty much a crap shoot.

Another horse to keep an eye on is Noble Causeway, who broke his maiden by two lengths going 1 1/8 miles. With three of Nick Zito's Derby hopefuls – Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm, and G P's Black Knight – all finishing out of the money Saturday (the last named was eased in the Holy Bull), it should move Noble Causeway up in the pecking order in Zito's barn. A son of Giant's Causeway  and a $1,150,000 yearling purchase, he had a nice rail skimming trip, slipped through along the inside turning for home and steadily drew clear in the final furlong. Although he was more professional than in his previous races, he still switched back to his left lead near the sixteenth pole for no apparent reason.

If there was one move Saturday that made you take notice, it was Snack's explosive turn of foot in the WEBN Stakes. This is a very interesting colt. Bred in Indiana, he went from a maiden claiming race at Churchill to two maiden special weight races at Mountaineer before finally breaking his maiden at Hoosier Park. He has now won three straight, capturing the Indiana Futurity, Turfway Prevue Stakes, and WEBN. In each race, he unleashed a devastating move – the first two in the final furlong and the last around the far turn. What also was impressive was that he was able to sustain his run, drawing off to a three-length victory over Catch Me, who ran a strong race in his own right. And he ran straight and true down the stretch over the muddy track. He is by Afternoon Deelites, out of a Fred Astaire mare, and was a $15,000 buy-back at the Keeneland September yearling sale. This could be a great story in the making.

The other stakes on Saturday, the one-mile Miracle Wood at Laurel, was won by the late-closing Malibu Moonshine, trained by King Leatherbury. But also keep an eye on runner-up Legal Control, trained by Dick Small, who a made a powerful wide move on the far turn. A stalker in his last four starts, he had to come from last in the 11-horse field, got his head in front, but was unable to match strides with the winner, who had to overcome traffic problems and a bad post (11). These are two pretty nice horses.

So, in summation, Bandini is the horse to watch, but you can bet his future book odds have taken a big plunge already. Also, Vitruvian and Survivalist definitely are two to follow, and you can probably still get very good prices on them. Expect Noble Causeway to keep improving at the longer distances, and pay particular attention to Snack, who could be a Cinderella horse in the making.