The swiftness at which fortunes can change in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby is something horsemen fully expect, but never get used to.
In early February, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was quietly bullish about his slate of Derby hopefuls this year as he had about five 3-year-olds he thought could make an impact in the major prep races.
Fast forward to these opening days of April and it would be safe to deem McLaughlin's winter a disappointment — a decline that started with Frosted and Imperia running fourth and fifth in the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star Stakes, respectively, on Feb. 21 and continued when graded stakes winner Ocean Knight finished seventh, beaten more than 28 lengths, in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.
Rebounds can happen just as quickly. With a couple of good outings Saturday in the Grade I Wood Memorial and Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, McLaughlin can bring himself back full circle to having multiple prospects for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
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McLaughlin will try to turn around what has been a brutal couple months when he sends out Frosted in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Classy Class to take on seven others in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
"It needs to be (a good weekend)," McLaughlin said this week. "We started with five and we're down to these two. We need to have a big day this Saturday."
Hopes were especially lofty for Frosted not so long ago, given that he ended his 2014 campaign with a runner-up finish in the Grade II Remsen Stakes and then was second to Upstart in his season debut in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 24.
Turning for home in the Grade II Fountain of Youth, Frosted appeared on his way to a clear victory only to stop abruptly in the lane and finish fourth.
McLaughlin has said they found nothing physically wrong with the son of Tapit. However, they did get him away from Gulfstream Park's tiring surface and, with a top-three finish in the Wood, he should have enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field.
Like his stablemate, Classy Class also has 13 points on the Derby qualifying system and is coming off back-to-back third-place runs in the Grade III Withers and Grade III Gotham Stakes.
The Blue Grass field has a massive standout in Grade I winner Carpe Diem, but beyond him points are there for the taking. How far Classy Class ultimately wants to go has been questioned by his connections, but his typical stalking style should put him in good stead to deliver, at the very least, another top-three outing.
"His last race, he didn't break great and still came from last and weaved his way through a little bit of traffic," McLaughlin said. "This will be a true test for him ... but he's an honest horse who tries hard.
"We have to run two big races to move forward or we'll just have to wait for another year."
The Derby Dozen
1. Dortmund: He's facing only five opponents in Saturday's Grade I Santa Anita Derby but that prep is arguably the most intriguing of the three this weekend. Prospect Park looks like an improving horse, and the way Bolo handled the dirt in the San Felipe means he could jump up with a big outing this time. It feels like everyone keeps waiting for Dortmund to take a step backward after each of his wins and he just doesn't. He is wonderfully light on his feet for his size and there is no knocking a horse who has done nothing wrong. "He's not a big, deep-chested horse, but he's big, long," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's quick, he's a quicker horse than (2001 Horse of the Year) Point Given. He has more speed. In his works I've seen where he can get up and go quicker. He's more agile than Point Given was."
2. American Pharoah: Continues to dazzle every time he hits the track. In his first major move since winning the Grade II Rebel Stakes, the Zayat Stables homebred worked 5 furlongs in :58.60 at Santa Anita Park on March 29, second-fastest of 89 moves at the distance. "He's fast, but he does it effortlessly," Baffert said of the reigning juvenile champion. "He cruises effortlessly. He hasn't been in a dogfight, so we don't know how he's going to respond. I think after his next race (the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 11) we'll know a lot more about him."
3. Carpe Diem: He is deserving of being the massive favorite in the Blue Grass Stakes. Expect Ocho Ocho Ocho to be on the lead as he attempts to rebound from his eighth-place effort in the San Felipe, but Carpe Diem has shown he can stalk just fine. Keeneland's main track is going to be drying out from Friday's deluge of rain, but the son of Giant's Causeway handled the surface with ease in winning the Grade I Breeders' Futurity last October and has already raced over four different tracks.
4. Firing Line: Has six weeks to train between his win in the Sunland Derby and the Kentucky Derby, working 4 furlongs in :48 flat at Santa Anita on Friday. That is the same amount of time he had between his runner-up finish in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis and his 141/4-length, win-for-fun outing at Sunland Park, so we know he can run well fresh. The California-based 3-year-olds seem the class of the bunch, and this one has been there with the best of them.
5. International Star: Whatever you think of the competition this horse has beaten at Fair Grounds, you have to give him respect for the way he has answered every bell this year. His neck victory over Stanford in last weekend's Grade II Louisiana Derby gave him a sweep of the Fair Grounds Derby prep races and demonstrated, once again, that this little horse can finish fast and with remarkable grit.
6. El Kabeir: Think of him in the same vein as International Star in that they take knocks for the quality of what they've beaten but have been nothing but hickory tough. Has to handle the switch from Aqueduct's inner track, where he won the Grade III Gotham last time out, to the main track in Saturday's Wood Memorial. With Withers winner Far From Over sidelined because of injury and morning-line favorite Daredevil questionable going two turns, El Kabeir might end the day with the respect that has been slow to come his way.
7. Upstart: Don't know what to make of his runner-up effort to Materiality in the Grade I Florida Derby last weekend. He was bothered in the stretch by Materiality coming out on him, and the way the Gulfstream Park track played yet again makes evaluating form challenging. He did have every chance to go by in the lane and couldn't. And after two hard races over that track, you wonder how much he has left in him.
8. Prospect Park: By all accounts, has been training fantastic in advance of Saturday's Santa Anita Derby. Looking at the race on paper, one would think he would get a great stalking set-up as he attempts to hand Dortmund his first career loss. "It looks perfect, but ... in the San Felipe, there were five horses and they all had speed but nobody went (for the lead)," trainer Clifford Sise Jr. said. "But on paper on Saturday, you couldn't ask for anything better."
9. Materiality: This son of Afleet Alex got a lot of buzz after his win in the Islamorada Handicap March 6 and he legitimized that by wheeling back 22 days later to win the Florida Derby over a proven class horse in Upstart. One big problem: He was unraced at 2 so the curse of Apollo is in effect. There is a reason it's been since 1882 that a horse who was unraced as a juvenile hasn't won the Derby.
10. Mubtaahij: The UAE Derby has an ignominious track record when it comes to its winners' record in the Kentucky Derby with its best finisher China Visit (sixth in 2000). That said, Mubtaahij is probably the most legitimate UAE winner that has been pointed to the first leg of the Triple Crown. Trained by Mike de Kock, Mubtaahij won last weekend's UAE Derby by 8 lengths and has won four of seven lifetime starts. His lone loss on dirt came to Maftool in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 12. "I kept some energy for the future, especially if he goes to the Kentucky Derby," jockey Christophe Soumillon said after the UAE Derby.
11. Far Right: Is set to have his final work for the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn this weekend, trainer Ron Moquett said. The ridgling son of Notional has had only two published works since his win in the Southwest, but Moquett said that has been by design. "We did a two-minute clip the other day, which is exactly how we got him up to the Southwest," Moquett said. "If I would have called in any time, at any distance, he could have gotten a time. But I just said it was a two-minute clip. Every horse is different. He trains so hard every day, I don't have to do much."
12. Bolo: Ran third to Dortmund in the San Felipe on March 7 in his first try on the dirt. While Dortmund was much the best that day, Bolo was making his first start since taking the Eddie Logan on the turf on Dec. 27 and he had missed about three weeks of training time in between. "He definitely had a license to need that race and it should move him forward," said jockey Mike Smith, who will ride Bolo in the Santa Anita Derby. "You just hope it moves him forward enough."
THE NEXT DOZEN
Ocho Ocho Ocho, Daredevil, Frosted, Dubai Sky, Frammento, Stanford, Itsaknockout, Ami's Flatter, One Lucky Dane, Madefromlucky, Gorgeous Bird, War Story.