Discovering where one fits in among his peers can be an angst-ridden part of growing up. Consider this point in the Kentucky Derby prep season that awkward stage for 3-year-olds.
Saturday's Grade III Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and Sunday's Grade III Sunland Derby mark the last of the prep races worth 50 qualifying points to the winner. Beginning with next weekend's Grade I Florida Derby, Grade II Louisiana Derby and U.A.E Derby, the last round of major preps will each offer 170 points, meaning a top-three finish in any of those will most likely be enough to qualify for the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
More than just the points, hitting the board in the last pre-Derby start is a key indicator of a realistic shot at the Derby. Since Unbridled's win in 1990, 19 Derby winners either won or finished second in their final prep races with no winners during that time finishing worse than fourth in their final prep.
"With the points, it really doesn't matter what you've done up to this point, it's basically up to the last start," said trainer Mark Casse, who will saddle Coastline in the 11⁄8-mile Spiral Stakes. "Now it's all about we need to be really good in April and May."
With Coastline, Casse is using Saturday's Spiral to find out whether the son of Speightstown still merits being on the Derby trail. The gray colt finished third in the Smarty Jones Stakes and was fourth behind race-winner Tapiture in the Southwest Stakes, but hasn't shown definitively he can handle better competition going beyond a mile.
Coastline has a lot of company in horses who have been in the mix but need to show major improvement during the next six weeks to earn their way in. There is no shame in going to Plan B if this path doesn't pan out. And Casse would rather start plotting that now than lead himself on.
"We haven't totally given up on him running 1¼ miles and running in the big races. But if he struggles with the distance at Turfway, we do have the Derby Trial and we know a mile at Churchill Downs is right in his wheelhouse," Casse said of Coastline. "We're hoping for the best Saturday but trying to figure out which direction we want to go.
"We're giving them every chance but we also don't want to just go (to the Kentucky Derby) to say we're running."
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: It feels like his Holy Bull victory was a lifetime ago but his workouts have been strong. His move last Saturday, a 5-furlong work in company in 1:00.80, was staunch without being over the top and you get the feeling his connections can't wait to get him in a competitive setting again in the Grade I Florida Derby. "He's probably doing better than I am, waiting all this time," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He continues to train great and we're very pleased with him. He's ready."
2. California Chrome: Trainer Art Sherman confirmed Thursday that California Chrome will make his next start in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5, adding that the colt would likely blow out a half-mile Saturday at Los Alamitos. The son of Lucky Pulpit ran so huge in winning the Grade II San Felipe there is some concern whether he'll back up some form-wise in his final prep. On the flip side, better he regress a little there than potentially bouncing on Kentucky Derby Day.
3. Candy Boy: Like Cairo Prince, seems like an eternity has passed since his Robert B. Lewis win. While no one has taken the 3-year-old division by the throat yet, credit the West Coast contingent for holding arguably the most depth-laden contenders. Someone will have to give when Candy Boy and California Chrome meet in the Santa Anita Derby, and Candy Boy showed his readiness by posting a 5-furlong move in company in :59.40 last Friday.
4. Tapiture: Focusing purely on the horse in this space and not the recent allegations lodged against his trainer, Steve Asmussen. Though he crossed the wire second after a roughly-run stretch drive in the Grade II Rebel Stakes last Saturday, the son of Tapit showed guts in bulling his way through an opening that wasn't really there and only falling a half-length short despite carrying 5 more pounds than race winner Hoppertunity. Hasn't taken a step backward since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November and showed he won't be intimidated in a pack.
5. Intense Holiday: Fired a bullet move last Saturday when he covered 4 furlongs in :48 at Palm Meadows in preparation for the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 29.
6. Samraat: Returned to work last Saturday for the first time since his Grade III Gotham Stakes victory, breezing 4 furlongs in a leisurely :50.55 at Palm Meadows. There is no need for trainer Rick Violette to drill him hard leading into the Grade I Wood Memorial. Fitness is not this horse's problem.
7. Hoppertunity: Yes, he has the whole Curse of Apollo thing going as he was unraced as a 2-year-old. However, you have to figure he's gotten some huge lessons in his last two starts, eating dirt while rallying to get fourth in the Grade II Risen Star and then digging in during a dogfight to win the Grade II Rebel Stakes. Jockey Mike Smith said after the Rebel that Hoppertunity seemed to get mad and respond even more after being bumped. He can always get more experience but you can't teach that kind of mettle.
8. General A Rod: Put in a strong work at Gulfstream Park last Saturday, going 5 furlongs in :59.50 in advance of the Florida Derby. "He's an easy horse. He can train himself," trainer Mike Maker said. "If you want to go fast, that's fine; if you want to go slow, that's fine, too. We picked it up a little and it was no problem at all."
9. Ring Weekend: Trainer Graham Motion said via text Friday that the Calder Derby on April 5 remains the target for Ring Weekend. The Calder Derby doesn't offer any points toward the Derby but Ring Weekend pretty much locked himself in with his Tampa Bay Derby victory. This plan also means one less time he has to ship before his expected venture to Louisville.
10. Tamarando: They don't get much more consistent than this colt. He will be making his eighth start over a synthetic track in Saturday's Spiral Stakes but has not been worse than third in three tries on the dirt. "He is a good horse, and so I expect him to win on different kinds of racetracks, but most of his opportunities have been on the synthetic," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "That's why he's done better on synthetic, because he's had more opportunities."
11. Social Inclusion: Owner Ron Sanchez said Thursday they are "close to a deal" to sell a majority interest in Social Inclusion, but added that he's prepared to decide whether to send the colt to the Florida Derby on March 29 or the Wood Memorial on April 5 if he has no contract by this weekend.
12. Albano: Has fired every time he has run and most recently worked 5 furlongs in a bullet :59.60 at Fair Grounds on Monday. Is following a similar work pattern as he did leading up to the Risen Star, when he was beaten a nose in the final jump by Intense Holiday.
The Next Dozen
Honor Code, Wildcat Red, Bobby's Kitten, Strong Mandate, Uncle Sigh, Ride On Curlin, Constitution, In Trouble, Vicar's In Trouble, Midnight Hawk, Conquest Titan, Vinceremos.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.