Derby Dozen: The 12 we think have the best chance of winning the Kentucky Derby

awincze@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2014 

The 12 horses we think have the best chance of wearing the winner's circle roses on May 3 at Churchill Downs

BOBBY'S KITTEN

Owner Ken Ramsey's faith in Bobby's Kitten's talent has been rampant from Day One, evident in the fact he named him in honor of late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.

Conditioned by Frankel protege Chad Brown, Bobby's Kitten was tabbed as the Ramseys' best shot at a Breeders' Cup win last November but ended up third in the Juvenile Turf after running off on the front end through fractions of :22.27 and :45.70.

The reason for the high hopes to begin with was the ability Bobby's Kitten showed when he won the Grade III Pilgrim Stakes by 61/4 lengths going 11⁄16 miles on the Belmont Park turf last October. That effort came after the bay colt broke his maiden going the same distance at Saratoga on Aug. 24.

Bobby's Kitten has shown he can carry his high cruising speed a route of ground but the $64,000 question as far as his Kentucky Derby prospects go is how he will handle running on dirt.

His grandsire Forestry was a Grade I winner on dirt and, while the brunt of Bobby's Kitten's career may ultimately be suited for turf and synthetic surfaces, so too was the case for champion Animal Kingdom — who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby in his first start over a dirt track.

Owners: Ken and Sarah Ramsey

Trainer: Chad Brown

Breeder: Ken and Sarah Ramsey

Bloodline: Bay colt by Kitten's Joy-Celestial Woods, by Forestry

Career record: Four starts, 2-0-2, $285,500

Last start: Third in Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1

Next start: Likely to make season debut in an allowance race

Latest work: 4 furlongs in :48.60 on the dirt at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 3

Potential trouble: Unproven on dirt and was rank in the Breeders' Cup.

BOND HOLDER

Taking five tries to break one's maiden can sometimes raise a cautious eyebrow in assessing Kentucky Derby potential. Bond Holder got over that hump in Grade I fashion, however, prompting trainer Doug O'Neill to think he has a third straight trip to Louisville ahead.

After saddling I'll Have Another to victory in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and getting Goldencents to the dance last year, Team O'Neill has emerged as a regular West Coast threat.

Bond Holder is being dubbed "the real deal" by O'Neill, having broken his maiden in the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita last September and finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and CashCall Futurity.

Considering the perceived speed bias of the Santa Anita track on Breeders' Cup weekend, Bond Holder's run from next-to-last deserves more credit than the end result would suggest. O'Neill attributes the colt's earlier losses to the fact Bond Holder likes to grind it out from well back, saying those outings at a mile or less were too short for him.

"Nothing about him makes you think one turn, 2-year-old kind of horse," O'Neill said. "He's just a long striding, powerful colt with a real quiet mind on him. The first couple starts, although he didn't win he left us smiling and thinking the future was going to be bright."

Owner: Reddam Racing

Trainer: Doug O'Neill

Breeders: Lazy Lane Farms

Bloodline: Bay colt by Mineshaft-Cielo Girl, by Conquistador Cielo

Career record: Seven starts, 1-1-2, $366,000

Last start: Fourth in Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 14

Next start: Grade II, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 22

Latest work: 6 furlongs in 1:12.20 Feb. 6 at Santa Anita

Potential trouble: Running style leaves him susceptible to pace scenarios and traffic woes.

CAIRO PRINCE

Kiaran McLaughlin usually toes a diplomatic line when discussing his charges. So when the Lexington native proclaimed how shocked he'd be with anything but a win from Cairo Prince prior to that one's victory in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes, he might as well have been pointing and calling his shot.

Cairo Prince put truth behind McLaughlin's praise when he sat a perfect stalking trip and kicked home under mild urging for a 53/4-length victory in the 11⁄16-mile Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.

A couple inches the other way in last November's Grade II Remsen Stakes and the gray colt would be unbeaten in four starts with three graded stakes triumphs. After winning the Grade II Nashua at Aqueduct in his second start, Cairo Prince overtook Honor Code for the lead in the stretch of the Remsen but was caught at the line when his rival — carrying 6 pounds less that day — fought back on the inside.

Cairo Prince already has wins over three different tracks and boasts a tactical style that makes him a threat whether the half goes in :52 and change or :46.

"The day he was in his maiden race at Belmont, (co-owner) Paul Braverman said to me, 'Do you have any Kentucky Derby horses so far?' and I pointed to him and said, 'He's our best one,'" McLaughlin said. "We still have a ways to go before the first Saturday in May but if we can keep him healthy and happy, I feel like we have the horse to beat."

Owners: Namcook Stables, Paul Braverman, Harvey Clarke, Craig Robertson III.

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

Breeders: Richard Elam and Katherine Elam

Bloodline: Gray/roan colt by Pioneerof the Nile-Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull

Career record: Four starts, 3-1-0, $512,000

Last start: Won Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25

Next start: Likely for Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 29

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Will probably have just one more start before the Kentucky Derby so seasoning/fitness could come into play.

CANDY BOY

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has repeatedly said the reason he ended his seven-year retirement last season was to triumph again on racing's biggest days.

Another Kentucky Derby victory is certainly on his storybook bill, and thus it is all the more meaningful that Stevens has tabbed Candy Boy as his early favorite to bring him that opportunity.

With juvenile champion Shared Belief battling a quarter crack, Candy Boy took command of the West Coast ranks when he rallied in deep stretch to win the Grade II, 11⁄16-mile Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.

The race was billed as a showdown between Candy Boy and Grade III Sham Stakes winner Midnight Hawk. While the latter flattened out in the lane to finish third, Candy Boy finished up under Stevens like a horse who can really get rolling once the distances stretch out.

Candy Boy took four tries to break his maiden but showed real promise when he made a sustained move to the lead in the CashCall Futurity before running second to Shared Belief.

"For a big horse, he has a lot of acceleration," Stevens told HRTV after the race. "We really haven't squeezed the trigger yet. He never took a deep breath. The further the better for him."

Owner: C R K Stable

Trainer: John Sadler

Breeder: Lea Searing and Susan Searing

Bloodline: Bay colt by Candy Ride-She's an Eleven, by In Excess

Career record: Six starts, 2-2-0, $305,600

Last start: Won Grade II Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita Park on Saturday

Next start: Likely for Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Not sure how strong the West Coast contingent is as a whole at the moment.

COMMISSIONER

If you fell over yourself watching Top Billing draw off to victory on the Holy Bull undercard, Commissioner should be lighting up your radar with equal vigor.

It is almost a given in recent years that the combo of WinStar Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher will bring forth a key contender on the Kentucky Derby trail, and Commissioner is flirting with that mantel this season. The homebred son of A.P. Indy defeated Top Billing by a neck in a 11⁄8-mile allowance test at Gulfstream on Jan. 3 in what was his first start since breaking his maiden going 11⁄8 miles at Saratoga in August.

"We just felt like we wanted to give him the time pointing toward the spring last summer and felt like the time would let him mature," said WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden. "To see him come back out and run the way he did was just vindication for us making that decision. We're really pleased how he came back."

In addition to being from the final crop of A.P. Indy, both of Commissioner's grand sires are also Belmont Stakes winners — which pretty much told his connections that starting off in sprints might be futile.

"Based on pedigree and he didn't seem like the kind of horse who would run five-eighths," Walden said. "We ran him at Monmouth at a mile, and that allowed us to run him back in Saratoga."

Owner: WinStar Farm

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: WinStar Farm

Bloodline: Bay colt by A. P. Indy-Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold

Career record: Three starts, 2-1-0, $85,100

Last start: Won 11⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 3

Next start: Grade II, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22

Latest work: 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Feb. 2

Potential trouble: Top Billing flattered him but neither is proven yet in big spots.

CONQUEST TITAN

Mark Casse already knew Conquest Titan could deliver a winning effort at Churchill Downs. In the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes, the son of Birdstone confirmed to his trainer he deserved to be on a path back to Louisville for this spring.

After finishing off the board in two prior tries in graded stakes, Conquest Titan closed from last in the 11-horse Holy Bull field to run second behind Cairo Prince. That effort was pretty much everything Casse was hoping to see from the dark bay colt, who has a pedigree that cries out for classic-type distance.

"Going in, I had told the owners, 'I'm just trying to find out if we fit with these horses.'" Casse said. "I said, 'Look, if we just come running and we're finishing on them, I'll be happy.'"

Conquest Titan was last of 13 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but Casse takes the blame, saying he got caught up in the speed bias and gave orders to go to the front, taking the colt out of his game.

Encouragement came later in November when Conquest Titan made a last-to-first run to win a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs by 13/4 lengths.

"We know he likes Churchill Downs so that's nice," Casse said. "And I think with him being so push-button, I don't see the mile-and-a-quarter being an obstacle for him."

Owner: Conquest Stables

Trainer: Mark Casse

Breeder: Michael Edward Connelly

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Birdstone-Miner's Secret, by Mineshaft

Career record: Six starts, 2-1-0, $191,495

Last start: Second in Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25

Next start: Grade II, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 22

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Still seeking a top-level victory.

HONOR CODE

There is never a good time to have setbacks on the Kentucky Derby trail, but Honor Code's back class — and the fact he is back training — is giving him a temporary pass to remain one of the ones to beat.

Trainer Shug McGaughey announced last week the ridgling son of A.P. Indy had missed about 10 days of training and would not make his expected season debut in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes because of some minor bruising in his hind ankles. If all goes well as Honor Code resumes daily training, he could still make the Grade II Gotham at Aqueduct on March 1.

If he can stay healthy and move forward off his juvenile form, Honor Code will be one pundits salivate over heading into May. Aside from the sentimental tug of him being from A.P. Indy's final crop, he showed precocity in winning with a last-to-first rally in his career debut at Saratoga and was second by a neck in the Grade I Champagne next time out.

By all rights, he should have been beaten in the Grade II Remsen when Cairo Prince ran past him in the stretch but showed incredible mettle by re-rallying on the inside to get up by a nose.

"We'll just have to see if everything goes right here," McGaughey said. "I don't think he's out of the picture yet."

Owners: Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm

Trainer: Shug McGaughey

Breeder: Dell Ridge Farm

Bloodline: Dark bay ridgling by A. P. Indy- Serena's Cat, by Storm Cat

Career record: Three starts, 2-1-0, $388,000

Last start: Won Grade II, $400,000 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 30

Next start: TBA

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Can he get healthy in time to have a major impact in the Derby run-up?

SAMRAAT

After toying with challengers in his first three starts, Samraat was faced with a head-to-head battle every step of the Grade III Withers and managed to deliver arguably his most impressive outing yet.

The most exciting prep race in these infant stages of the 2014 Kentucky Derby trail was the virtual match race between Samraat and Uncle Sigh in the Withers as the two ran side by side on the front end throughout the 11⁄16-mile test before Samraat edged clear late to prevail by a length.

As much as trainer Rick Violette relished watching Samraat win his first three outings by a combined 253/4 lengths last year, the venerable horseman loved that the dark bay colt could handle being looked in the eye without folding up.

"You got to (have a tough race) before you get to the bigger races," Violette said after the Withers. "They have to learn how to fight. I really thought that happened to (1988 juvenile champion) Easy Goer his 3-year-old year. He had never really been in a fight until the Preakness, and he became a better horse after that."

Though Samraat stayed right on Uncle Sigh's flank during their front-end duel, he showed ability to relax off easy fractions after heading practically every point of call in his previous starts.

Owner: My Meadowview Farm

Trainer: Rick Violette

Breeder: My Meadowview Farm

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Noble Causeway-Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie

Career record: Four starts, 4-0-0, $283,200

Last start: Won Grade III, $250,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 1

Next start: Likely for Grade I, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5.

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Jury is still out on the quality of what Samraat has been beating.

STRONG MANDATE

Last season was the year Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas taught all those who considered his legendary skills past their prime a lesson in premature declarations. Fresh off conditioning the champion 3-year-old male of 2013 in Will Take Charge, the old ball coach is feeling restless for spring once more thanks to the presence of Grade I winner Strong Mandate in his shedrow.

Prior to Strong Mandate's third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Lukas proclaimed, "I've had some good horses but that's a damn good 2-year-old." That the son of Tiznow was defeated in the Breeders' Cup didn't really take must luster off considering he dueled with Conquest Titan through an opening half in :45.38 but still dug in gamely in deep stretch.

A strapping dark bay specimen, Strong Mandate has shown tactical ability and been great with his alertness out of the gate. He loped to a 93/4-length win in the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last September and his subsequent seventh-place run in the Grade I Champagne saw jockey Jose Ortiz take the colt well back at the start, a move that drew Lukas' ire and eventually cost Ortiz the mount.

"He's got great tactical speed, he's a big, strong horse that is developing every day," Lukas said. "He's one of the most exciting prospects ... This is a good one."

Owners: Robert Baker and William Mack

Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

Breeder: G. Watts Humphrey Jr.

Bloodline: Bay colt by Tiznow-Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister

Career record: Five starts, 2-0-1, $432,900

Last start: Third in Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2

Next start: Grade III, $300,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 17

Latest work: 4 furlongs in a bullet :48.60 at Oaklawn on Feb. 2

Potential trouble: Has to show he can settle if the situation calls for it and harness that early speed.

TOP BILLING

His stablemate Honor Code carried the early designation as Shug McGaughey's best prospect for the first Saturday in May, but it was Top Billing who drew eerie comparisons to McGaughey's 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb with his allowance win on Jan. 25.

Just as Orb did a year earlier, Top Billing rallied from seventh and last over a Gulfstream Park surface that isn't always kind to closers to draw off for victory on the undercard of the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes. That win marked the second victory in three starts for the son of Curlin and — with Honor Code battling bruising in his hind ankles — earned him a chance in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22.

What McGaughey routinely marveled at last year was how Orb's early races seemingly took little out of him, and he finds himself doing much the same in assessing Top Billing. Out of an A.P. Indy mare, distance should be the least of his worries going forward, and he showed a good enough turn of foot to win by 51/4 lengths first time out going 6 furlongs at Laurel Park on Dec. 6.

"He got to those horses and got by them pretty fast the other day from being in last," McGaughey said. "He's going to have to step it up and keep developing ... but I thought it is kind of incredible how well he's coming out of his races."

Owner: William S. Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr.

Trainer: Shug McGaughey

Breeders: William S. Farish and E. J. Hudson Jr. Irrevocable Trust

Bloodline: Chestnut colt by Curlin-Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy

Career record: Three starts, 2-1-0, $56,835

Last start: Won 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25

Next start: Grade II, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 22

Latest work: 4 furlongs in :49.30 at Payson Park Training Center on Feb. 8

Potential trouble: Few holes in form thus far. Let's see how he progresses against stakes horses.

VICAR'S IN TROUBLE

Owner Ken Ramsey loves a good gamble as much as anyone, but even the gregarious native of Artemus conceded that tossing Vicar's in Trouble into graded stakes company off a maiden win against state breds was going deep even for him.

Overwhelming triumph defined the Ramsey operation in 2013 and so too did it for Vicar's in Trouble as he rolled to a 63/4-length victory in the Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Jan. 18.

Of the Ramseys' potential Kentucky Derby candidates, Vicar's in Trouble is ahead of the curve in that he has proven form on dirt. The son of Into Mischief ran third first time out at Keeneland before breaking his maiden by 13 lengths going 6 furlongs at Fair Grounds in December, heading every point of call.

Along with his raw brilliance on the front end, there is still some greenness to be worked out with the way the dark bay colt runs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when one is trying to get a horse to reach peak form three months from now. His pedigree doesn't scream out for distance, but Into Mischief was represented by two Derby runners last year in Goldencents and Vyjack.

Owners: Ken and Sarah Ramsey

Trainer: Mike Maker

Breeder: Spendthrift Farm

Bloodline: Dark bay colt by Into Mischief-Vibrant, by Vicar

Career record: Three starts, 2-0-1, $148,900

Last start: Won Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Jan. 18

Next start: Likely for Grade II, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 22

Latest work: 4 furlongs in :49.40 at Fair Grounds on Feb. 2

Potential trouble: Distance questions in pedigree and has to show he can relax and rate.

VINCEREMOS

The Tampa Bay Downs surface has produced some quirky results over the years and taken down its share of promising sophomores.

With that in mind, the fact Vinceremos was able to prevail in what ended up being a cavalry-charge finish in the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Feb. 1 stands as a measure of encouragement even if the quality of that race was suspect.

Prior to the Sam F. Davis, WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden described Vinceremos as "a horse with some talent, but he's very green." Vinceremos could have thrown in the towel traveling on the inside during the stretch with Cousin Stephen, Matador and eventual runner-up and stablemate Harpoon bearing down.

While it looked like Harpoon's big strides were going to swallow all of them, Vinceremos kept responding under jockey Edgar Prado to take the photo finish by a nose.

"When (Cousin Stephen) took the lead, (Vinceremos) put the brakes on," Prado said. "So around the turn I let the other horses go by and see if I could get going again in the stretch."

An off-the-pace-runner, Vinceremos didn't debut until Nov. 30, running second going 6 furlongs at Gulfstream Park before breaking his maiden going a mile at Gulfstream on Jan. 4.

Owners: WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breeder: Machmer Hall

Bloodline: Dark bay by Pioneerof the Nile-Kettle's Sister, by More Than Ready

Career record: Three starts, 2-1-0, $153,600

Last start: Won Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 1

Next start: Likely for Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 8.

Latest work: TBA

Potential trouble: Hasn't been tested against the better sophomores.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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