Top Barns to Battle in Sunland Derby
Photo: Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park
Castaway is one of two entrants in the Sunland Derby for trainer Bob Baffert.

One need only scan the names of multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainers Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Steve Asmussen to realize that New Mexico's $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) March 25 has come of age as a regular steppingstone on the Triple Crown trail.

Recognition began in 2009, of course, when a little-known gelding name Mine That Bird parlayed a fourth-place finish at Sunland Park into a rail-skimming victory at odds of 50-1 in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

The following year, the Sunland Derby gained grade III status. Since then, the race has become a good opportunity for trainers in the national spotlight with late-developing 3-year-olds needing graded earnings to qualify for the Derby field.

And so it is that Baffert will be represented by a pair of colts in this year's 1 1/8-mile event: Southwest Stakes (gr. III) divisional winner Castaway and Stirred Up. Pletcher has sent Ender Knievel, and Asmussen entered El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) winner Daddy Nose Best. Trainer Tim Ice, who conditioned Summer Bird to victory in the Belmont Stakes in 2009, shows up with No Spin.

Also in the mix is local powerhouse Isn't He Clever, the Borderland Derby winner conditioned by Henry Dominguez.

A field of eight 3-year-olds was entered in the Sunland Derby, which was inaugurated in 2003 and was previously known as the WinStar Derby. It is the highlight of the biggest day of racing at Sunland, including the $200,000 Sunland Oaks. The 13-race card offers purses totaling $1.6 million. The Sunland Derby is the 12th race with a 5:45 p.m. MDT post.

Isn't He Clever, who drew post 4, is 2-for-2 over the Sunland oval. He won the Riley Allison Futurity by 11 3/4 lengths prior to his victory in the Feb. 25 Borderland, which he won in stalking style by 1 3/4 lengths. In between those two races, he finished a fading fifth after setting a hot pace in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita, which was his first try at 1 1/16 miles.

The key, Dominguez feels, is that Isn't He Clever can rate.

"It's hard to win on the lead all the time and he's such a versatile horse that you could just about do anything with him," he said.

To be ridden for the first time by Luis Contreras, Isn't He Clever drilled a bullet five furlongs locally in :59 2/5 March 17.

"This horse is just maturing as time goes on," said Dominguez, a one-time assistant for D. Wayne Lukas. "You know, what I like about Isn't He Clever is he doesn't get excited about anything. He's real good about anything that you want him to do."

Isn't He Clever is not currently nominated to the Triple Crown.

"I don't know how we've missed that, but I think he would be (nominated) if he wins on Sunday," Dominguez noted.

Owned by J. Kirk and Judy Robison, the gelded son of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) winner Smarty Jones   has won four of six lifetime starts and earned $215,960.

Castaway and Daddy Nose Best qualify as the most accomplished of the field thanks to grade III victories in their last starts.

The Baffert-trained Castaway drew the rail, which, with his forward running style, may not be that much of a disadvantage. In the one-mile Southwest at Oaklawn Park Feb. 20, jockey Rafael Bejarano was forced to use the son of Street Sense   early to get a position from post 11. Castaway, while making his first start against winners, still proved much the best. After pressing the pace, he took command in the stretch and scooted away to a 3 3/4-length victory at odds of 6-1.

Owned by Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith, the Kentucky-bred was a $435,000 yearling purchase. He has won his past two starts after losing his first five, while earning $209,930. Bejarano will retain the mount.

Baffert also entered Robert LaPenta's Stirred Up, who will be stepping up off a maiden special weight win March 3 at Santa Anita in his third lifetime start. The son of Lemon Drop Kid   is another expensive Keeneland September yearling, having cost $420,000.

Baffert previously won this race in 2006 with Mike Pegram's Wanna Runner.

Daddy Nose Best ran a tremendous race to defeat Lucky Chappy by a nose in a thrilling stretch duel in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. That was the first start on a synthetic track for Mary and Bob Zollars' son of Scat Daddy  , who has done most of his running on grass. The colt, a modest $35,000 yearling buy, began his career on dirt, finishing second to Exfactor on the Churchill Downs main track in his debut last June.

Regular rider Julien Leparoux makes the trip to ride Daddy Nose Best, who owns a 3-2-1 lifetime mark in nine races while earning $233,623.

John Velazquez is named to handle Ender Knievel for Pletcher. Velazquez rode Alto Racing's son of Distorted Humor   for the first time Feb. 5, when they teamed up to produce a 7 3/4-length maiden win at Gulfstream Park. Ender Knievel, who has worked well at Palm Meadows since then, will be facing winners for the first time. This will also be the chestnut gelding's first try around two turns.

No Spin ran sixth behind Castaway in the first division of the Southwest last time. Black Gold Racing's Johannesburg colt looks to turn things around for Ice after being unplaced in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn to begin the year.

Tequila Factor, and Justanoldsong, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Borderland, complete the field.

$800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III, Race 12, 5:45 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer
1. Castaway (KY), R Bejarano, B Baffert
2. Ender Knievel (KY), J R Velazquez, T A Pletcher
3. Stirred Up (VA), M Garcia, B Baffert
4. Isn't He Clever (KY), L Contreras, H Dominguez
5. No Spin (KY), C Hill, T A Ice
6. Daddy Nose Best (KY), J R Leparoux, S M Asmussen
7. Tequila Factor (KY), M Hernandez, C L Wilson
8. Justanoldsong (KY), R Eikleberry, D Wolochuk
All carry 122 pounds.
 

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