As easy as it is to heap praise upon a Kentucky Derby hopeful off one impressive outing, it can be equally tempting to write a horse off due to one bad day at the track.
Though Mucho Macho Man lost some of his cache when he finished fourth in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30, the bay colt earned back a measure of respect when he defeated a deep field in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday.
Mucho Macho Man first put himself on the radar when he ran second to To Honor and Serve in both the Grade II Remsen and Nashua Stakes last year. Though he faded after contesting a demanding pace in the Holy Bull, Mucho Macho Man ran without blinkers for the first time in the Risen Star and was a much more relaxed horse as a result.
The son of Macho Uno is 2-for-3 in two-turn races for his career and figures to improve when the distances get longer. Just weeks after being considered a bit of a disappointment following his season debut, the bay colt is now a contender to be one of the top Derby threats.
Like Mucho Macho Man, the connections of J P's Gusto are hoping a trip Midwest can kick-start his Derby hopes. The son of Successful Appeal is slated to make his 2011 debut in Monday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn where he will aim for his first win on dirt and his first triumph beyond 7 furlongs.
J P's Gusto captured the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September but has lost his last three races — all at 11⁄16 miles. Some have already written J P's Gusto off for his apparent distance limitations so his effort in the Southwest will likely go a long way in determining if he remains in the Derby discussion or gives way to another burgeoning talent.
1. Uncle Mo: Although the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 has been targeted as the most likely spot for the juvenile champion to make his seasonal bow, trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole are now considering the $100,000, 1-mile Timely Writer Stakes — also run on March 12 — that Gulfstream Park recently wrote into the condition books. The Timely Writer would require Uncle Mo to make just a short trip from his base at Palm Meadows but there is also the risk the race won't fill. The son of Indian Charlie continued his preparations either way, working 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 at Palm Meadows on Sunday.
2. To Honor and Serve: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:03 at Payson Park on Feb. 13 as he gears up for his 2011 debut in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26. Trivia time: Should the bay son of Bernardini manage to win the Kentucky Derby, he would be the second Derby winner in three years to emerge from a first-crop stallion. Mine That Bird, who was part of Birdstone's initial crop of foals, took the 2009 running of the roses.
3. Dialed In: The addition of the Timely Writer Stakes to the Gulfstream program also gives trainer Nick Zito another option to consider as he debates between running the son of Mineshaft in the Fountain of Youth or training up to the Florida Derby.
4. Brethren: Son of Distorted Humor emerged from his win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes last weekend in fine order and will likely be pointed next to the Tampa Bay Derby, according to WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden. If the bay colt does end up in that spot, one has to wonder if it will be further incentive for Pletcher to give the Timely Writer a harder look for Uncle Mo in order to keep two of his protégés apart.
5. Mucho Macho Man: The colt's effort in the Risen Star not only flatters To Honor and Serve but also Holy Bull winner Dialed In, who finished 41/2 lengths in front of him that day.
6. Jaycito: Trainer Bob Baffert opted to hold the Grade I winner out of this weekend's San Vicente in favor of the Grade II San Felipe Stakes going 11⁄16 miles at Santa Anita Park on March 12. Son of Victory Gallop worked 7 furlongs at Santa Anita on February 15, covering the distance in 1:25.40.
7. Stay Thirsty: Continues to quietly prep for his expected start in the Grade III, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 5 by drilling 5 furlongs in 1:00.65 at Palm Meadows on Sunday.
8. Wilkinson: Trainer Neil Howard decided to err on the side of caution with the son of Lemon Drop Kid, holding him out of Saturday's Risen Star Stakes and opting to wait for the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26 instead. "These horses are still young and very vulnerable at this stage of their careers, so I've found out that when you're in doubt like that the best thing to do is stay in the barn," Howard said.
9. Santiva: Runner-up effort in the Risen Star left the son of Giant's Causeway plenty to build off of as it was his first start since winning the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27. Still not sure how much speed the bay colt has but he is a gritty sort who has yet to finish off the board in five career starts. "We'll benefit from (the Risen Star) and move forward," trainer Eddie Kenneally said.
10. Soldat: Impressed trainer Kiaran McLaughlin by covering 4 furlongs in :47.60 on Saturday at Palm Meadows Training Center in his final major move before the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It remains to be seen how the son of War Front performs over a fast dirt track but, with six career starts already under his belt, McLaughlin feels the colt's experience could get him an edge over some of his foes. "He's battle tested, as some people would say, and it's exciting to know he's doing as well as he's doing," McLaughlin said.
11. Anthony's Cross: Trainer Eoin Harty said the winner of the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes would remain in California to prep for a possible Kentucky Derby start. "There's no reason to move him," Harty said. "I've got to decide whether to give him one more start before the Santa Anita Derby (April 9) or just sit and wait. It's a long time between now and then so it takes some serious consideration."
12. Silver Medallion: Put himself in the discussion with his win in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 12, but the son of Badge of Silver has yet to start on dirt. The Steve Asmussen trainee has trained well over the dirt, however, and could get his first test over that surface in either the Santa Anita Derby on April 9 or the Sunland Derby on March 27. "We have a tremendous amount of options with this horse," said Asmussen.
The next dozen: Casper's Touch, Toby's Corner, Astrology, Comma to the Top, Rogue Romance, Gourmet Dinner, J P's Gusto, Shackleford, Riveting Reason, Sweet Ducky, The Factor.
Alicia Wincze Hughes