For all of Turfway Park's strife, how its signature Grade III Spiral Stakes is viewed has been on the uptick in the grand Kentucky Derby prep scheme. Amazing what producing a Derby winner (Animal Kingdom, 2011), runner-up (Hard Spun, 2007) and fourth-place finisher (Went the Day Well, 2012) in three of the last six runnings can do for the reputation of a race.
Such renewed respect for the Spiral — which is sponsored by Horseshoe Cincinnati Casino this year and offers a $550,000 purse — has contributed to what is a full field of 12 for Saturday's running that boasts one of its best assemblages of contenders in years.
While Sunday's lucrative Grade III, $800,000 Sunland Derby counts San Vicente winner Shakin It Up as the lone graded winner in its nine-horse field, graded stakes winners Uncaptured and Balance the Books are both making their anticipated 2013 debuts in the 11⁄8-mile Spiral. Breeders' Cup Juvenile third-place finisher Capo Bastone is seeking his first graded score in this spot.
Though Uncaptured has the cache of winning the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November and Capo Bastone is yet another contender from trainer Todd Pletcher's armada, a win by Balance the Books could put trainer Chad Brown in position of having his first Kentucky Derby starter — one of the few things that has eluded him since going out on his own in 2007.
Brown, who has already conditioned two female turf champions in Stacelita and Zagora, went into this year with Remsen Stakes runner-up Normandy Invasion as his main Derby hopeful. With Normandy Invasion finishing fifth in the Grade II Risen Star and desperately needing points to make the Derby field, Balance the Books could lock up 50 points of his own should the huge run he made to get third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf translate to what will be his first try over a synthetic surface.
Given the success Brown has already enjoyed in his brief career, many feel a Derby starter and classic win is only a matter of time for the trainer.
He, like the race he is attempting to win this weekend, is on a decided upswing.
The Derby Dozen
1. Itsmyluckyday: His works since his win in the Grade III Holy Bull have been consistently excellent, the latest being a bullet 5-furlong move in 1:01 at Calder last Saturday. Based on figures, something freaky would have to happen to keep either this one, Shanghai Bobby or Orb from prevailing in the Florida Derby. "He'll just have an easy half-mile breeze next weekend and that's it," trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said. "It's been a long wait, but I think we've done the right thing with him."
2. Verrazano: Has reportedly been full of himself in his trips to the track since his Tampa Bay Derby win. Trainer Todd Pletcher said a showdown with fellow unbeaten Vyjack in the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 6 remains the target and that among the many encouraging things from Verrazano's latest triumph was how the colt shrugged off Tampa Bay Downs' tricky surface. "It's a demanding surface and provides a good foundation," said Pletcher, who added Verrazano will return to the worktab at Palm Meadows on Sunday. "The fact he was able to go there and win first time over it gives us encouragement that we can ship him just about anywhere and that he'll run well."
3. Orb: Had another nice 4-furlong move on Monday at Payson, clocking in at :48 flat. Trainer Shug McGaughey said the son of Malibu Moon was "rough" in the gate his first two starts but that his win in the Fountain of Youth marked the best he'd ever broken. They're not changing Orb's late-running style by any means but his being able to get away better could help him maintain closer contact to the leaders early on.
4. Vyjack: Had another impressive move on Friday, working 5 furlongs in :59.07 at Aqueduct in company with graded stakes winner Head Heart Hoof. The undefeated Into Mischief gelding broke off a couple lengths behind his stablemate but finished about a half-length in front with a monster gallop-out. "He kind of sat outside the other horse, and when Gustavo (Rodriguez, aboard for the work) set him down he was very relaxed," said owner David Wilkenfeld of Pick Six Racing. "Usually after the works he kind of waits on the other horse, but it looks like he kind of kept going."
5. Revolutionary: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.65 at Palm Meadows last weekend in preparation for the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 30. The field for that race grew by one more with Titletown Five now being added to the mix, so this colt with a knack for finding trouble should have another large group of foes to navigate.
6. Shanghai Bobby: Hard to imagine a juvenile champion in the role of forgotten horse but it sure feels that way since his runner-up effort in the Holy Bull. Continues to put down strong moves in advance of the Florida Derby, working 5 furlongs in 1:00.14 at Palm Meadows last Sunday. "I think he's training as well as he was going into the Holy Bull, maybe better," Pletcher said.
7. Hear the Ghost: The ground-swallowing San Felipe Stakes winner went back to the worktab last Sunday, covering 4 furlongs in :50.80 at Hollywood Park. For all the concern about Verrazano having the albatross of not running as a juvenile, consider that Hear the Ghost didn't make his career debut until Dec. 15 and has made just three starts himself. And like Verrazano in the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby on April 6 will mark just the fourth career start for this gelded son of Ghostzapper.
8. Flashback: Looks like he'll be joined in the Santa Anita Derby by stablemate and fellow early-speedster Super Ninety Nine, who ran fifth as the favorite in the Grade II Rebel Stakes last Saturday. Trainer Bob Baffert isn't going to let his entries burn each other in a duel so don't look for one of them to pull a Goldencents and engage early on. Worked 4 furlongs in :48.40 at Santa Anita Park on Monday.
9. Will Take Charge: The big, striking son of Unbridled's Song rebounded off his sixth-place clunker in the Southwest Stakes to edge stablemate Oxbow with an outside rally in the Grade II Rebel Stakes. The beautifully bred son of multiple Grade I winner Take Charge Lady showed a similar kick when he broke his maiden at Keeneland last October, but hasn't been able to put together back-to-back strong runs, finishing off the board following each of his previous two wins. "I will keep them separated," said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who trains both Will Take Charge and Oxbow. "If I had to make a decision today — which I don't — the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass are obvious."
10. Oxbow: He and Den's Legacy should have lunch because they're always right there at the finish. Made a big move to take over the lead off the far turn of the Rebel but his big-striding stablemate just caught him at the wire. Was beaten only about a half-length running fourth in the Risen Star so his effort last weekend bolsters the form of that race as well. May not always get there but the son of Awesome Again shows tons of heart.
11. Rydilluc: Impressive Palm Beach Stakes winner worked 5 furlongs on the turf at Palm Meadows in 1:02.02 on March 14 as he readies for the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The Palm Beach-Blue Grass path is a proven one, with Paddy O'Prado (third in 2010 Kentucky Derby) and Dullahan (third in 2012 Derby) each going that route, so dismiss Rydilluc at your own risk at this point.
12. Normandy Invasion: Is going to be up against it in the Wood Memorial with Vyjack and Verrazano to contend with and needing a top-two finish to get enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field. Delhomme, third behind Normandy Invasion in the Remsen last year, did displace his palate while being eased in the Rebel Stakes but the form of the Remsen as a whole continues to not be encouraging.
The next dozen
Uncaptured, Den's Legacy, Shakin It Up, Goldencents, Palace Malice, War Academy, West Hills Giant, Tiz a Minister, Java's War, Code West, Departing, Mac the Man.
Off the trail: Ive Struck a Nerve, Delhomme.
What: Kentucky Derby prep race for 3-year-olds
When: Saturday, 5:50 p.m.
Where: Turfway Park
Distance: 11⁄8 miles
Derby points: 50 to winner, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Balance the Books Chad Brown Julien Leparoux 7-2
2 Channel Isle D. Wayne Lukas Jon Court 15-1
3 Uncaptured Mark Casse Miguel Mena 3-1
4 Fear the Kitten Mike Maker Rosie Napravnik 15-1
5 My Name is Michael Bill Mott Joel Rosario 10-1
6 For Greater Glory Steve Hobby Robby Albarado 20-1
7 Mac the Man Jeff Greenhill Norberto Arroyo Jr. 10-1
8 General Election Kellyn Gorder Albin Jimenez 12-1
9 Black Onyx Kelly Breen Joe Bravo 10-1
10 Giant Finish Tony Dutrow Jose Espinoza 15-1
11 Taken by the Storm Ken McPeek Alan Garcia 12-1
12 Capo Bastone Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 9-2