It is a little early in the game to demand validation from some of these 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prospects, especially since the real make-or-break prep races don't start rolling out until the end of the month.
But for two colts in particular who have gained oodles of touts without having gobs of experience, Saturday is being viewed as an early proving ground.
Bob Baffert-trainee Flashback and Todd Pletcher-conditioned Verrazano have a total of four starts, four wins, and one graded stakes score. That they have combined for a win margin of 333/4 lengths is why they head into their respective races this weekend at or near the top of many polls, ahead of more accomplished classmates.
A couple hours after Verrazano makes his graded stakes debut against eight others in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, Flashback will have his rapid development tested when he faces the likes of graded stakes winner Goldencents in the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita Park.
The term brilliance has been liberally used when describing both Flashback and Verrazano as each has run away and hid from their competition in their two starts. Though his demolitions have come against maiden and allowance company, Verrazano's 161/4-length victory going a mile at Gulfstream on Feb. 2 generated so much buzz, he was the top-rated individual betting interest in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
"You know, it's funny that we're on the top of a lot of people's lists and we only have those two wins," said Bryan Sullivan, managing partner of Let's Go Stable, which owns Verrazano in partnership with Coolmore Stud. "So yes, sure. I guess there'd be some kind of validation there (to win this weekend)."
After breaking his maiden last December, Flashback stepped into the Grade II Robert B. Lewis, also on Feb. 2, and wired the four-horse field by 61/4 lengths. Baffert used the phrase "monster" to describe the son of Tapit in the aftermath, and if he can look that impressive in the San Felipe, it could be a term that sticks.
With Goldencents also having tactical ability and the speedy Salutos Amigos in the field, Flashback probably will not have things as easy as he did in the Robert B. Lewis. Goldencents showed his ability to relax in winning the Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 5, and if both fire, he and Flashback could be eyeball to eyeball for West Coast supremacy in the lane.
"Bob (Baffert) has been excited about this horse from day one so ... Bob's very rarely wrong when he's high on one," said Dennis O'Neill, brother and assistant to Doug O'Neill, trainer of Goldencents. "(Flashback) is a formidable horse. We're definitely going to get a test here to see where we're at. But, you know, I'm a little biased. I think we have a brilliant racehorse."
The Derby Dozen
1. Itsmyluckyday: Worked a bullet 5 furlongs in 1:01.60 at Calder last Saturday, his second breeze since his 2-length victory over champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull. The form of the Holy Bull got an endorsement when Clearly Now, third in that race, won the Grade III Swale Stakes last weekend. The Grade I Florida Derby on March 30 should be a fun one.
2. Orb: Fun fact — jockey John Velazquez, who piloted Orb to his win in the Grade II Fountain of Youth, also rode Orb's dam, Lady Liberty, when she notched her final career win going 11/2 miles on the turf at Keeneland in April 2004. Orb is also his mother's son in that they shared near identical late-running styles. Mama obviously didn't have an issue stretching out, either, something to keep in mind.
3. Vyjack: You want versatile? How about this unbeaten gelding completely changing his up-close running tactics by coming from next-to-last in the 11-horse Gotham Stakes to win by 21/4 lengths. "He doesn't know what he's doing yet," trainer Rudy Rodriguez said last Sunday. "I was looking for him to run that way, taking dirt in the face because we have been working with him like that." Won't venture outside of New York for his final prep, probably staying for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 6.
4. Revolutionary: Worked 4 furlongs in :49.85 at Palm Meadows Training Center last Sunday. The horses who finished behind him in the Withers — runner-up Escapefromreality and third-place finisher Siete de Oros — were ninth and fourth, respectively, in the Grade III Gotham, but he's certainly not the only horse having the form of his main win questioned. The Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 30 not shaping up as wildly tough at the moment.
5. Flashback: The break will probably be the key in the San Felipe with Flashback in the No. 2 hole and Goldencents next to him in post No. 3. If he can sit off fractions and come home with the same authority he did in the Robert B. Lewis, his bandwagon will blow up before he gallops out.
6. Shanghai Bobby: Continues to go about his business on the work tab, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.90 at Palm Meadows last Sunday. "We've had a plan mapped out after the Holy Bull and everything's been going to plan so far," trainer Todd Pletcher said after Sunday's move. "We still have a ways to go (to the Florida Derby), but he'll continue on a weekly work schedule until the race."
7. Verrazano: Has trained forwardly going into his graded stakes debut, and if he is what his form suggests, the Tampa Bay Derby is his by open lengths. "When you have one that trains as well as he does and has run as well as he has, you want to see more of the same," Pletcher said.
8. Goldencents: If you want to see him run one more time before the Kentucky Derby, you might not want to see him win the San Felipe. Dennis O'Neill said during a teleconference this week they could train the son of Into Mischief up to the first Saturday in May if all goes well this weekend. "I would say that if he runs well in the San Felipe we may not run in the Santa Anita Derby," O'Neill said. "I could see us, if we had enough points, just training him up to the Derby and making sure we had a really fresh horse for that."
9. Normandy Invasion: The fifth-place finish by Overanalyze in the Gotham didn't silence those who question the form of the Remsen, in which Normandy Invasion was second behind the former. Unlike Overanalyze's recent run, Normandy Invasion had some obvious excuses for his off-the-board outing in the Risen Star. Thus, he's getting some added rope toward redemption for now.
10. Oxbow: Is now bound for the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16 along with stablemate Will Take Charge. Oxbow, who worked 6 furlongs in 1:13.80 at Oaklawn on Tuesday, will have a new jockey for the Rebel with Hall of Famer Mike Smith taking over for Jon Court.
11. Super Ninety Nine: Speaking of the Grade II Rebel, this Bob Baffert trainee is also likely to turn up there after firing a bullet 4-furlong move in :46.40 at Santa Anita on Monday, fastest of 44 moves at the distance.
12. Rydilluc: Might be the best turf sophomore right now in the wake of his 31/2-length victory in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream last Saturday. Though the son of Medaglia d'Oro was off the board in his only dirt try at Belmont last October, his pedigree says it's in him to handle the surface. Will likely get his chance to make his Derby case in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, according to trainer Gary Contessa.
The next dozen
Ive Struck a Nerve, Falling Sky, Shakin It Up, Uncaptured, Treasury Bill, Dynamic Sky, Palace Malice, Delhomme, West Hills Giant, Tiz the Truth, Den's Legacy, Code West.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.