Of the 18 horses that have represented WinStar Farm, either solely or in partnership, during the first leg of the Triple Crown, those who delivered some of the strongest runs shared some key intangibles.
In 2010, the WinStar team watched Super Saver get incrementally better in each of his prep races before blossoming in a victory over the Churchill Downs track. And while some were stunned to see Battle of Midway outrun his 40-1 odds and finish third last season, the physical impression the colt made in the lead-up touted the upside within.
These are early days on the 2018 Road to the Kentucky Derby, but WinStar Farm president and racing manager Elliott Walden is already seeing some of those familiar patterns from Holy Bull Stakes (G2) winner Audible.
"Two things really stick out. One thing is his progressive nature. He's getting better all the time, and the horses we've had success with on the Triple Crown trail just continue to bloom physically—and he's doing that," Walden said of the colt WinStar owns in partnership with China Horse Club and SF Racing. "The second thing is that they get faster as the spring goes along. And his works have improved as well."
Audible got back to the business of building himself into a classic contender when he returned to the work tab Feb. 22 for the first time since his 5 1/2-length victory in the Feb. 3 Holy Bull Stakes (G2). The son of Into Mischief covered four furlongs in :49.50 for trainer Todd Pletcher at Palm Beach Downs. He is slated to train up to the March 31 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park, Walden confirmed.
"He worked super. He worked great," Walden said. "He went in :49 and a couple, but he went the last quarter in :23 1/5 so he's really doing well."
The Holy Bull marked the first step into stakes company for Audible, a test he passed with surprising ease. He won two of his three starts as a juvenile, including a 9 3/4-length victory going a mile at Aqueduct Racetrack Dec. 6. The fact he was able to turn back the likes of grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy and grade 2 victor Enticed without appearing to fully extend himself prompted more than one pundit to take notice.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I expected him to beat Free Drop Billy by five lengths, but we expected (Audible) to run well," Walden said. "I liked his progressive nature. Each race was better than the last, and he's a great-looking horse who has talent. I didn't think he would do what he did, but I thought he would run well, for sure."
Out of the Gilded Time mare Blue Devil Bel, Audible was bred in New York by Oak Bluff Stables.
Since Audible's statement-making season debut, WinStar has had a couple more prospects announce themselves as possible contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). The Feb. 17 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) saw homebred Noble Indy—owned by WinStar and Repole Stable—finish third in just his third career start and first stakes outing. The buzz horse of the weekend, however, was Justify, the Bob Baffert-trained son of Scat Daddy—Stage Magic, by Ghostzapper, who won by 9 1/2 lengths first time out, going seven furlongs at Santa Anita Park Feb. 18.
Also owned by WinStar, China Horse Club, and SF Racing, Justify will likely go straight to graded stakes company next time out with designs on being a candidate to end the "Curse of Apollo," relating to the fact no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without starting as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
"We're looking at the (grade 3) Sunland Derby (March 25) possibly, or something like that to see if he can step up," Walden said of Justify.
Justify, a $500,000 Keeneland September yearling sale buy in 2016, was bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther.
"With Noble Indy, I liked his run," Walden said. "I think it was a race where if he had gone to the lead, he might have won it, but he learned more by not going to the lead and getting some experience. He was a little green about coming through the hole ... his first two starts he was on the lead, so that was the first time he's had to get in that spot."