When it comes to dissecting Kentucky Derby contenders, virtually everyone has their own set of criteria they claim as the gospel in determining what it ultimately takes for a horse to claim the roses.
Some lean heavily toward pedigree. Others feel there is no substitute for being battle-tested. Still others say versatility is the key intangible for a horse to hold up over the Derby trail and beyond.
On the heels of his gate-to-wire victory in Saturday's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Soldat would appear to have all of the above traits.
A graded stakes winner on the turf last season, Soldat proved his 10 3/4-length win in a 1 1⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Jan. 21 wasn't just the product of a sloppy track that day. The son of War Front was just as proficient in the Fountain of Youth — his seventh career start and his first trip over a dry dirt surface — putting away the highly regarded To Honor and Serve at the head of the lane to give McLaughlin arguably the best Derby prospect of his career.
McLaughlin believes Soldat is as tractable as he is talented. Though he led every point of call in his last two wins, Soldat stalked the leader when he captured the Grade III With Anticipation last September and rallied from off the pace to get second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
"He absolutely could rate," said McLaughlin, who added Soldat would have his final prep in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 3. "We have no worries about that."
Though Soldat's sire had his best success sprinting, War Front himself is a son of the legendary Danzig — the late Claiborne stallion who could literally get you any type of runner.
Danzig was the sire of another Claiborne stallion by the name of Boundary who, like War Front, had success as a sprinter. His distance limitations, however, didn't stop Boundary's son Big Brown from storming to a stunning triumph in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
We are still a long way from solving this year's Derby quandary on May 7. But as it stands now, Soldat is one of the few on the trail that has more answers to his credit than questions.
1. Uncle Mo: His connections opted to point the son of Indian Charlie to the 1-mile Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream on March 12, but said they would go in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby that same day should the former not fill. I don't personally love the idea of him having potentially just one two-turn prep race this year prior to the Kentucky Derby, but, if he really is that good, he isn't going to be felled by historical trends. Continues to train strongly, drilling 5 furlongs in a bullet 1:00.60 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Sunday in company with stablemate Stay Thirsty.
2. Soldat: Love the way he was able to relax on the front end and then turn it on when asked by jockey Alan Garcia. Finished like a horse with plenty left in reserve.
3. Dialed In: Put in a strong 5-furlong breeze on Friday, covering the distance in 59:95 at Palm Meadows. Trainer Nick Zito still hasn't made up his mind if/when the colt will get a start prior to the Florida Derby, but Dialed In continues to impress. Gourmet Dinner, whom Dialed In soundly beat in the Holy Bull, came back to run a solid second in the Fountain of Youth.
4. Brethren: Worked 4 furlongs in :49.40 at Palm Meadows on Sunday in advance of his expected start in the 11⁄16-mile Tampa Bay Derby. Know that trainer Todd Pletcher wants to keep his charges apart, but would love to see this one and Uncle Mo both run in Tampa Bay to get a real read on his talent.
5. Mucho Macho Man: Trainer Kathy Ritvo said Sunday they would likely decide by Wednesday which start would be next for the winner of the Risen Star Stakes. History says it's not such a bad thing if the son of Macho Uno does not run back in the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26 as only two winners of that race — Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996 — came back to capture the Kentucky Derby.
6. Jaycito: Worked 7 furlongs in 1.24:80 from the gate at Hollywood Park last Monday in advance of his expected season debut in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 12. Form of the California-based horses has been spotty thus far, but a win in 11⁄16-mile San Felipe could easily vault Jaycito to the head of West Coast pack.
7. Stay Thirsty: Owner Mike Repole reiterated this week that "they're leaning 95 percent" toward starting the son of Bernardini in the Grade III, 11⁄16-mile Gotham at Aqueduct on March 12. "Even if Stay Thirsty wins by 10 lengths, his next race probably won't be in New York because we plan to have Uncle Mo in the Wood," Repole said.
8. To Honor and Serve: Trainer Bill Mott wasn't too concerned over the way the son of Bernardini flattened out in the stretch of the Fountain of Youth because he likely needed the race, having not run since taking the Grade II Remsen Stakes on Nov. 27. Would have liked to have seen a little more punch after getting a dream trip but not jumping off the bandwagon yet.
9. Santiva: As is the case with To Honor and Serve, will be very interested to see how much this colt improves in his next start, which could come in the Louisiana Derby or the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 16. His speed figures in the Risen Star were an improvement over his 2-year-old form, and he just seems like the type that could peak at the right time.
10. Gourmet Dinner: Hasn't won since taking the Grade III Delta Jackpot last November, but his runner-up finish in the Fountain of Youth was the latest in a string of strong efforts. Son of Trippi is probably a notch below the top horses, but he's been off the board just once in eight career starts.
11. Wilkinson: Worked 4 furlongs in 49:20 at Fair Grounds last Monday as he prepares for what is shaping up as a strong Louisiana Derby.
12. Anthony's Cross: Pointing to the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Worked 4 furlongs in 48:80 at Hollywood Park on Friday.
The next dozen: The Factor, Silver Medallion, Archarcharch, J P's Gusto, Rogue Romance, Astrology, Toby's Corner, Sway Away, Sweet Ducky, Comma to the Top, Beer Meister, Machen
Alicia Wincze Hughes