The Super Saturday of the Kentucky Derby prep season is upon us. With it comes the last chance for established contenders to shore up their cases for classic success and for those outside the velvet rope of contention to bust into the club that allows a maximum crowd of 20.
There is enough quality in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Grade I Santa Anita Derby and Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct that some well-regarded hopeful is going to suffer a setback their connections will try and explain away. Maybe they won’t get the right trip, maybe the pace scenario isn’t going to go just right. Maybe Mother Nature will throw an added wrench into the equation.
Even if a seemingly valid excuse can be unearthed, recent history has shown this is not the time to be going backward.
Beginning with Unbridled’s win in 1990, 21 Derby winners either won or finished second in their final prep races and none were worse than fourth. Since the Kentucky Derby points system was implemented in 2013, favorites have captured the last three editions of the first leg of the Triple Crown and all since 2011 have been victorious in their final prep.
Though it can be tempting to fire up excuses for horses with back class that have off days right before the Derby (see: Pyro, 2008 and Stay Thirsty and Soldat, 2011), a full-on rebound in form after dropping off from a peak is something few have achieved. Thunder Gulch, hero of the 1995 Kentucky Derby, is the rare poster boy for that as he finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes in his final prep after winning the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.
Because prep races are not the end game, it’s not win-or-bust where these youngsters are concerned. However, wherever they are in their form, they will be sorely up against it in a few weeks if they are not moving forward.
The Derby Dozen
1. Nyquist: How much more can a horse answer the bell? The reigning juvenile champion turned a supposed showdown against Mohaymen into a no contest with his 3 ¼-length victory in the Grade I Florida Derby last Saturday to remain unbeaten in seven career starts. The son of Uncle Mo shook off the attempt by a couple of long shots to put pressure on him down the backstretch, and when Mohaymen came to him on the far turn, he smacked the son of Tapit in the mouth and kicked away from the field like a horse with plenty in reserve. He did miss a few days of training at Keeneland this week due to a slightly elevated white blood cell count but is slated to return Saturday morning. That little setback is more cause for concern than any stamina questions at this stage.
2. Danzing Candy: Has yet to prove he can win while not on the front end, but it doesn’t look like Saturday’s Grade I Santa Anita Derby is going to serve as a learning experience. “Strategy? We’ll go to the front,” trainer Cliff Sise Jr. said. “If we were outside, we could sit off the speed, but coming out of the three hole, we’ll go to the lead. The horse is doing great.”
3. Mor Spirit: Has really cranked things up with his last three breezes, including going 4 furlongs in 47 seconds flat at Santa Anita Park on April 4. There appears to be enough speed in the Santa Anita Derby to set him up for a big effort, but jockey Gary Stevens is looking big picture with the son of Eskendereya. “Yeah, the Santa Anita Derby is a million-dollar race and I want to win it, but we need a good race out of him and I don’t want to have to go to the well to do it,” the Hall of Fame jockey said.
4. Cupid: Worked 7 furlongs in a bullet 1:24.60 at Santa Anita Park on Wednesday in preparation for the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16. The son of Tapit is a half-brother to graded stakes winner Heart Ashley, though that filly was a sprinter. His pedigree may not scream 10 furlongs but his action is effortless and efficient, which is most crucial as distances increase.
5. Mohaymen: Not giving up entirely off his fourth-place effort in the Florida Derby as he did have a wide trip and he never looked comfortable racing over a wet track for the first time. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said the son of Tapit emerged in good order, didn’t appear to be blowing hard in the immediate aftermath, and is looking at shipping to Churchill Downs on April 17 to have his final pre-Derby works. The big concern is the regress in his final prep.
6. Gun Runner: Is back at his base at Churchill Downs and worked 4 furlongs in :50.60 on Monday. Trainer Steve Asmussen is just aiming to keep the Louisiana Derby winner steady and happy until May 7.
7. Zulu: The only real substance we’ve had to judge him on is his runner-up effort behind Mohaymen in the Grade II Fountain of Youth. With Mohaymen coming up as empty as he did in the Florida Derby, it’s hard to judge how dangerous Zulu is going to be in the Blue Grass Stakes. Handling the environment will be half the battle with him — and a key toward his Kentucky Derby progress.
8. Shagaf: Has a chance to provide a pick-me-up for owners Shadwell Stable, who also owns Mohaymen, when he breaks from post No. 1 as the favorite in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday. The son of Bernardini has been pretty adaptable in his three career starts, and while his speed figures aren’t blowing the doors off of anyone, he looks to have plenty in the way of stamina. “I think everyone will agree that it looks like longer the better will be better for him,” trainer Chad Brown said. “He never runs shorter than a mile. But I think it comes down to speed figures and the faster horses are going to garner most of the attention.”
9. Mo Tom: Has returned to Churchill Downs for his last bit of fine tuning before the Kentucky Derby. Love his spirit but hate his knack for finding trouble.
10. Destin: Turned in a 5-furlong work in 1:01.04 at Palm Beach Downs on Friday. His connections are taking a bold chance bringing the Tampa Bay Derby winner into the first leg of the Triple Crown on May 7 off an eight-week layoff.
11. Whitmore: Co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett said the Rebel runner-up was “perfect” following Saturday’s half-mile work at Oaklawn in advance of the Arkansas Derby. Moquett said of the chestnut gelding after that move, “He’s the kind, he likes to follow horses. He never starts until somebody else jumps in front.” That may be part of the problem with the son of Pleasantly Perfect as he needs to finish the job in one of these stakes outings.
12. Brody’s Cause: Moving him back into the top 12 in advance of his Blue Grass outing. Trainer Dale Romans offers zero excuse for his seventh-place run in the Tampa Bay Derby other than the colt ran similarly uninspired in his career debut, two starts before winning the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October. “Maybe he’s just the type of horse that needs to race,” Romans said. “First time out I thought he would win and he ran terribly. He ran dead last and then came back and won two in a row and was starting the Breeders Cup. Hopefully he’s just a horse that needs to trip.”
The Next Dozen: Exaggerator, Suddenbreakingnews, Lani, Fellowship, Cherry Wine, Dazzling Gem, Tom’s Ready, Flexibility, Creator, Discreetness, Uncle Lino, Majesto.
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes
What: Kentucky Derby prep race
Where: Keeneland Race Course
When: 6 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Favorite: Zulu (5-2)
Saturday’s other Derby preps
$1 million Wood Memorial
Where: Aqueduct Racetrack
When: 5:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
$1 million Santa Anita Derby
Where: Santa Anita Park
When: 6:45 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network