One main contender goes out and it changes the entire complexion of the field.
That scenario is what happened Thursday when trainer Bob Baffert announced that unbeaten morning-line favorite Bayern would scratch out of Saturday's Grade II San Felipe Stakes because of a bruised quarter. You could argue it is also a metaphor for the current 3-year-old landscape as more would-be contenders threaten to tap out during the annual wrestling match with attrition.
Juvenile champion Shared Belief can't figure into the Kentucky Derby discussion right now as foot problems have prevented him from recording a workout since Jan. 3. Grade I winner Bond Holder has been sent to a clinic in Ocala, Fla., to help combat foot trouble of his own that developed in the aftermath of his rough flight from California to New Orleans.
And those who declared Bayern a freak after his 15-length allowance win at Santa Anita on Feb. 13 will need him to be uber-special if he is to make the Derby field. He was already at a disadvantage, having not started as a 2-year-old. Now, at best, he will have three career starts going into the first Saturday in May and only one try in stakes company.
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Seeing Candy Boy, Tamarando and Kobe's Back — all horses Shared Belief defeated handily last season — come back to win graded stakes this year makes it hard to get past what might have been had the horse who was crowned the most talented of his division held together. While no 3-year-old has taken over the top spot with the authority the reigning champ carried, the parity has allowed some intriguing, if still under the radar, contenders to get to the forefront.
Newly minted San Felipe morning-line favorite California Chrome is one such horse. Already with eight starts, he has been overshadowed on the West Coast circuit while quietly putting together a consistent record full of upside.
Under the guidance of trainer Art Sherman, California Chrome was beaten only about 13/4 lengths when he ran sixth in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September. After ending his juvenile year with a 61/4-length win in the King Glorious Stakes, he opened his 2014 season by beating Tamarando in the 11⁄16-mile California Cup Derby at Santa Anita on Jan. 25.
Like many, he still has to prove he can handle the next level of pressure the marquee Derby preps bring. But the anticipation over the potential he and some of his brethren have yet to unearth takes some of the sting off the reality that some contenders might be left behind.
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: Following a couple of easier moves, the son of Pioneerof the Nile threw down a bullet work last Saturday, covering 5 furlongs in 59.95 while working in company with 4-year-old multiple stakes winner Long River. "He always works better in company, a little faster," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "Going into the Holy Bull, too, he went in 59 and three, 59 and four. That's a good sign."
2. Top Billing: Decision on where his next start will be is still to come. There are some critics that argue he should have been closing faster than he was on the leaders in the Fountain of Youth given the fractions, but I'm still sold on the fact he was able to close at all over that Gulfstream strip.
3. Candy Boy: Trainer John Sadler is holding arguably his best potential hand of sophomores ever with this one, Kobe's Back and Kristo all in the barn. Candy Boy continues to prep for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5, working 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 at Santa Anita on Thursday.
4. Honor Code: In a surprise move, it was announced Friday that Honor Code would bypass next Saturday's Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and instead was entered in an 81/2-furlong allowance event over the Gulfstream Park main track on Wednesday. Honor Code, who has not started since winning the Grade II Remsen Stakes last November, drew post four in a field of five and will have regular rider Javier Castellano aboard.
5. Intense Holiday: Has come from well off the pace in his last few outings and no doubt he is effective in that style. Looking back to his maiden victory, however, he actually wired the field that day. That would suggest he has the acceleration needed if one is going to live and die by coming up through field.
6. Tapiture: Put in his first move since winning the Southwest Stakes, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 at Oaklawn last Sunday. Very strong bunch slated to face him in the Rebel Stakes next weekend but has shown he can sit close to the pace but relax enough not to cook himself.
7. Strong Mandate: Put in a more leisurely 5-furlong work in 1:03.60 at Oaklawn on Thursday. The bay son of Tiznow has been throwing down one bullet move after another in recent months, so his latest work may be a sign trainer D. Wayne Lukas is trying to get the colt to settle more.
8. Samraat: He has not ventured/won outside of New York and he's beaten largely the same class of horses in that time. That said, the fight he has shown in winning both the Gotham and Withers over Uncle Sigh — two efforts that could easily knock out a lesser 3-year-old — is everything you want to see in a Derby contender. He has brilliance, but can rate. He can run lessers off their feet but metaphorically punch you in the eye if you dare look him in the face. And he has yet to lose. Whether or not he makes and/or wins the Kentucky Derby, you can't help but love this kind of runner.
9. Conquest Titan: Breezed an easy 5 furlongs in 1:02.25 last Saturday in advance of this weekend's Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Mark Casse has stated he is most impressed by the explosive nature of this colt when the button is pushed for him to make his rally. Not the deepest bunch he is facing in the Tampa Bay Derby, but this is a real opportunity to prove he can be in that top level of 3-year-olds at the moment.
10. California Chrome: While injuries and setbacks have taken their toll on many West Coast-based 3-year-olds so far, this chestnut son of Lucky Pulpit just keeps running and improving. He proved he could win on dirt when he beat Tamarando in the California Cup Derby, and the door is open for him to get that first graded stakes triumph — and a ton more respect — in the San Felipe.
11. General a Rod: Trainer Mike Maker confirmed Friday that the Fountain of Youth Stakes runner-up would make his next start in the Grade I Florida Derby on March 29. "There were pros and cons that weighed into it, but he's right here, he can run right out of his own stall, and he's run well here," Maker said. General a Rod is slated to have his first work since the Fountain of Youth on Saturday morning over the main Gulfstream track.
12. Albano: Like that he keeps showing improvement with each start this year and he looked a winner every step but the last in the Risen Star. There is concern over the fact he got away with relatively soft fractions up front that day and was still caught, if barely.
The Next Dozen
Uncle Sigh, Constitution, Wildcat Red, Kobe's Back, Vinceremos, In Trouble, Tamarando, Vicar's In Trouble, Bayern, Tonalist, Bobby's Kitten, Kristo.