This year's road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) has only a few more doors left to pass through. But the scene so far at each one has resembled a slapstick comedy routine where everyone tries to go through a door at the same time, and no one gets through.
Not only were the favorites in Saturday's grade II San Felipe and grade III Gotham and Tampa Bay Derby all defeated, but other than Lawyer Ron's almost freaky performance in the Rebel as favorite, there were no real standout efforts, and we came away with more questions than we had going in.
It is just as important to eliminate horses from the Derby trail each week as it is to discover new stars and confirm the status of the current ones. For the most part, we did none of those on Saturday unless you're willing to look beneath the surface a bit. There you will find enough promising efforts to suggest that stardom could very well be awaiting several of Saturday's runners over the next month and a half.
Rather than simply go over each race, we've reached a point where it's best to concentrate on the horses, regardless of where they ran, and try to assess the current Derby picture and who and what to watch for in the final preps.
In a nutshell, this past weekend produced one brilliant performance, 13 performances that were good enough to keep the horse on the Derby trail, three breakout performances, and two upsets in which the favorites had legitimate excuses.
As mentioned earlier, Lawyer Ron
was by far the star of the day with his powerful, effortless, off-the-pace victory in the Rebel Stakes. It wasn't the performance itself that was freaky, it was the fact that he seems to be getting better despite having made at least one start in every month for the past nine months. That's 13 starts, going non-stop since July, while racing at seven different racetracks at seven different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles on dirt, grass, and Polytrack. Either the son of Langfuhr
is some sort of iron horse throwback or the engine is due to start shutting down. As of now, he certainly hasn't shown any signs of that happening.
The most impressive part of Lawyer Ron's performance was the way he rated and cruised to the lead outside horses, with jockey John McKee not even moving his hands. It must be said, however, that he did drift out in the stretch, and McKee had to crack him six times right-handed to straighten him out, and then hit him four more times inside the final sixteenth. But Lawyer Ron finished full of run, and it took an outrider to pull him up.
His last two races were eerily similar to Smarty Jones
' Southwest and Rebel in that he seemed to be all out in the Southwest to win by a narrow margin and then came back and blew by the field in the Rebel.
The breakout performances alluded to were turned in by Point Determined and Racketeer in the San Felipe, and Sweetnorthernsaint in the Gotham. All three horses were able to put themselves in the center ring and now look like legitimate Derby contenders.Point Determined
is still immature and a bit lazy, and you have to really push him a long way out. But he showed in the San Felipe he has the ability to sustain his run and build up momentum the farther he goes. The son of Point Given
should relish the longer distances, as well as the long stretch at Churchill Downs. He also demonstrated his ability to come between horses. He was relentless on Saturday, but just ran into a better horse on that day.Racketeer
had already defied his pedigree by showing excellent speed going six furlongs against some extremely fast horses. The son of Awesome Again
, out of a Skip Trial mare, looked to be crying out for longer distances. In the San Felipe, he sat back in second, and then found himself between horses on the far turn. When they turned up the heat, he could have easily taken himself out of the fight due to his inexperience and lack of seasoning, but he battled every step of the way with A.P. Warrior, Bob and John, Refinery, and Point Determined - while stuck down on the inside. He finished fourth, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths, and was nosed out for third by the even-money favorite Bob and John.
There doesn't seem to be any reason why he wears blinkers, but trainer Bobby Frankel figured they worked for Ghostzapper, another son of Awesome Again, and he is confident Racketeer will take back farther off the pace next time even with the blinkers. He probably got as much out of this race as any horse that ran on Saturday. With a two-turn race under him, one which tested his mettle, he should be ready to take another step forward in his next start and be ready to peak on Derby Day.Sweetnorthernsaint
also passed a big test on Saturday. Although he had to settle for third behind front-running longshot Like Now and the highly regarded Keyed Entry, he was beaten only three-quarters of a length after breaking from the 10-post (a disastrous post going 1 1/16 miles on the inner track) and going four wide into the first turn and three wide on the far turn.
On the negative side, new rider Kent Desormeaux hit him three times left-handed before they even reached the quarter pole, and he did try to lug in a bit on Greeley's Legacy, with Desormeaux getting into him again left-handed. He then drifted out in the final sixteenth, but what was encouraging was the way he finished strongly on his own even with Desormeaux pretty much shutting down on him in the final yards and standing up a stride or two before the wire.
The son of Sweetsouthernsaint
, out of a Waquoit mare, should have no distance problems, and it will be interesting to see what strategy they employ next time.
Two of the beaten favorites did not lose any stature at all. Bob and John
got hammered coming out of the gate and was taken way out of his game plan. This race was suited to his normal stalking style, and by having to come from eighth in the nine-horse field, he did well to finish a solid third, beaten 2 1/2 lengths, after making a strong outside move on the far turn. He and Point Determined give Bob Baffert a solid one-two punch, and both should relish the mile and a quarter.
Many people will be down on Bluegrass Cat
after his second-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, but the son of Storm Cat
threw a front shoe, and actually ran a terrific race under the circumstances.
You should always expect a bump in the road on the Derby trail, and his came at the right time. It was his second race back off a layoff, and this was a race he could afford to lose. Now that his bump is out of the way, look for him to forge ahead to Churchill Downs with good momentum.
There's no way of knowing for sure where he threw the shoe, but right from the start, he seemed uncomfortable, cocking his head to the outside and then running up on horses and tossing his head about. He settled nicely down the backstretch, four wide, and was in perfect position right behind the eventual winner, Deputy Glitters, whom he had beaten in the Sam Davis.
When Deputy Glitters kicked in gear, John Velazquez asked Bluegrass Cat, but the colt began spinning his wheels. At one point he seemed like a sure bet to finish a distant fourth. After turning for home, he ducked to the inside and looked like a mess. It was obvious this was not the same horse who had looked so professional in the Remsen (gr. II), Nashua (gr. III), and Sam F. Davis. But inside the final furlong, with Deputy Glitters long gone, Bluegrass Cat suddenly leveled off and found his best stride. He quickly burst clear of the others and, although he was beaten two lengths by Deputy Glitters, he was striding out beautifully at the end. This was a total throw-out race for him, and he in fact moves up in the rankings off this effort. Deputy Glitters
obviously is one of the most improved 3-year-olds on the Derby trail, but we'll just wait for one more race, at a different track, to confirm that. When a horse runs three poor races and then moves way up at a track like Tampa, you want to make sure it wasn't just an affinity for the surface.
As for some of the others who ran on Saturday, A.P. Warrior
finally was allowed to run the way he wants, and is now back to where he was last fall when he finished a fast-closing second to Brother Derek in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) and soundly defeated Bob and John in an allowance race. Once you saw him settle on his own and not expend his energy fighting the restraint of his rider, you knew he was going to run big. He probably hit the front a bit too soon, but dug in gamely when Point Determined came charging up on his inside.
But because the son of A.P. Indy
has thrown in three clunkers in his career, we do need to see this kind of race again in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) to have confidence in him going into the Kentucky Derby. He no doubt is a tremendously talented colt, and after watching him in the San Felipe, there is every reason to believe this is the final product, as long as he's ridden correctly.Like Now
picked everyone's pocket in the Gotham, but now whenever he shows up, you can bet everyone will be keeping an eye on him, and their pockets.
Not knowing the prognosis for Gotham favorite Achilles of Troy
, who supposedly suffered an injury and was vanned off the track, it's difficult to know where he stands, or if he stands, on the Derby trail. But if the injury turns out to be minor and he comes back in good shape, the Gotham should not be held against him, injury or no injury. He was caught off guard at the break and came out awkwardly, stumbling and dropping back to last. That alone was enough to cost him all chance. He moved up quickly along the inside, but had to steady pretty sharply when another horse came in and shut him off.
He eventually got a decent position, but was well off the rail and had to go five wide into the far turn. He was able to make two moves, but finally called it a day after turning into the stretch. This was a nightmare trip in every regard, and if he's OK, he definitely deserves anther chance. As of Monday, the colt seemed to be fine with no apparent problem.Keyed Entry
, like First Samurai in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), lost some of his sharpness coming off that blazing Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II), but it was encouraging that he was able to rate off the pace. He was striding out well in the final furlong, and we'll just have to wait to find out if he can use this race as a springboard to bigger and better things, while continuing to stretch out in distance.
Others who ran well enough to keep going on the Derby trail are Red Raymond
, and Well Said
, all of whom closed well to finish second, third, and fourth, respectively, in the Rebel; and also Greeley's Legacy
, who was a bit closer up than normal in the Gotham and finished evenly for fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths.
If Private Vow
had run the race he did in the Rebel back in February, one could throw the race out, feeling he was a bit rusty coming back off a layoff and returning in a tough spot. He would still have another race to get back in gear and prepare him for his final Derby prep. But with the two-race schedule he was on, he couldn't afford to finish a tiring seventh. It's going to be difficult now for him to bounce back enough in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) to get him ready to win the Kentucky Derby.
Because of his past tendencies to get a little headstrong early in his races, there was the danger of his being too sharp for the Rebel. He again was rank early, but eventually settled well. Turning for home, however, he had his head up and began shortening stride. The son of Broken Vow
has always been highly regarded here, but he's now up against it.
If you're looking for a positive, it's that he was beaten 7 1/4 lengths, which is not an insurmountable amount to make up, but he is going to have to make extraordinary progress between now and the Arkansas Derby to run well enough to send him into the Kentucky Derby with a legitimate shot.
Other disappointments over the weekend were Refinery
, Music School
, Storm Treasure
, New Joysey Jeff
, and Sky Diving
. It still might be too early to give up on Little Cliff
, who ran another dull fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby, until he's given a shot over a different surface. He's another who seemed to be struggling with the track.
In addition to the Derby Dozen that will be posted Tuesday, here are the others sitting right behind – Flashy Bull, My Golden Song, Sweetnothernsaint, Strong Contender, Sacred Light, Deputy Glitters, Great Point, Steppenwolfer, Red Raymond, Sunriver, Sharp Humor, Discreet Cat, Well Said, Saint Augustus, Refinery, High Cotton, and Little Cliff. Achilles of Troy is on hold for now.