HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The fabric of Thoroughbred racing's history has been altered as much by the exploits of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas as any modern figure in the sport. Thus it stands to reason if anyone can turn a recent Kentucky Derby trend on its ear, it is the all-time king of the American classics.
Since 1980, only five Kentucky Derby winners have been Grade I victors at age 2 — the last being Street Sense in 2007. Lukas often jokes such stats are more a concern to the media who pick his brain rather than him and, with Grade I winner Strong Mandate on the trail this year, being an exception to the rule is the only thing running through the mind of the man who has captured four Kentucky Derbies and 14 total Triple Crown races.
Heading into Saturday's Grade II, $600,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Strong Mandate is seeking to regain the same awe-inspiring look he held when he won the Grade I Hopeful Stakes by 93/4-lengths at Saratoga last September. The son of Tiznow has since had three excuse-filled outings, the most recent being his runner-up finish to Rebel morning-line favorite Tapiture in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 17.
The Southwest saw Strong Mandate get an ugly break, rush up down the backside and run erratically in the lane. Also compromising the colt's outing that day was the fact that his training schedule leading up to the race had been interrupted because of inclement weather in Hot Springs.
Taking all of the above into consideration, Lukas remains bullish that the horse he called one of best 2-year-olds ever last fall won't be one of those precocious prospects who never again peak the way they did early on.
"What happened is he's had three rough trips and after a horse has those trips a couple of times it affects them mentally as far as getting it done perfectly," Lukas said Friday morning. "Not only that, he only had one half-mile work in 15 days because of the weather. Those two things compromised him but I'm not making excuses, the other horse ran wonderful. I think we'll have a little better horse this time but we have to go over there and prove it every time now."
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: His connections look wise right now in the decision to get the Holy Bull Stakes winner fresh for the Grade I Florida Derby rather than cramming another prep in between. While many of his brethren have fallen off the trail, Cairo Prince keeps clicking off steady works, the latest being an easy four-furlong move in 49.45 last Saturday after working a bullet five furlongs the week before. "The reason we backed up and went slower is because we can't go 59 and four every week or there will be not much left of him," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said.
2. California Chrome: Talk about a horse who hasn't put a foot wrong in months, the hard-knocking son of Lucky Pulpit dazzled in taking the Grade II San Felipe by 71/4 lengths, proving his improving form could bring it against open stakes company. With nine career starts of seasoning already, trainer Art Sherman can bypass the Grade I Santa Anita Derby if he so chooses. For those who wonder if a son of Lucky Pulpit can be a live Derby horse, remember the same type questions were asked about a son of Leroidesanimaux (Animal Kingdom 2011) and Boundary (Big Brown 2008).
3. Candy Boy: Had a good tightener on Friday, drilling five furlongs in 59.40 at Santa Anita Park, second fastest of 57 moves at the distance. He and California Chrome have taken command of the West Coast ranks and it is admittedly difficult to separate the two now and they have largely beaten the same pool of contenders in Midnight Hawk, Tamarando, etc.
4. Tapiture: Both Tapiture and Strong Mandate are best on or near the front end and break right along side one another in post Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, for Saturday's Rebel Stakes. "I'm a little concerned with the weight that he gives quality horses tomorrow (122 pound highweight), but he's doing well," trainer Steve Asmussen said.
5. Intense Holiday: Put in his first work back since taking the Grade II Risen Star on Feb. 22, covering four furlongs in 47.90 at Palm Meadows last Saturday. The Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 29 remains his target.
6. Strong Mandate: Lukas says his exercise rider "overreacted a little bit" when he guided Strong Mandate through a five-furlong work in 1:03.60 last Thursday but getting the son of Tiznow to relax more on the backside is the goal, especially with Tapiture next to him in the Rebel. "I thought he was a little more aggressive going down the backside than I wanted so I was trying to get him to relax then finish," Lukas explained. "His last work, probably my exercise rider ... went a little slower than I would have liked in a perfect world."
7. Samraat: This is the point where we mentioned that if he's going to suffer a first career loss, the Grade I Wood Memorial would be an ideal place for it since Wood winners haven't hit the board in the Kentucky Derby since Empire Maker in 2003 and haven't won since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.
8. General a Rod: Joel Rosario, who rode General a Rod to a victory in the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1, will be back aboard the Roman Ruler colt when he makes his next start in the Grade I Florida Derby, trainer Mike Maker announced this week. "The horse is doing great, and he looks fabulous," Maker said.
9. Ring Weekend: Four weeks after breaking his maiden in his fifth try, the Tapit gelding has brought Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion back to the trail with his three-length, gate-to-wire victory in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. Motion said the tipping point toward the positive came after his charge was gelded following his third start as a 2-year-old at Keeneland. A start in the Calder Derby on April 5 is a likely spot for his final pre-Kentucky Derby prep race.
10. Bobby's Kitten: Owner Ken Ramsey stated again this week that any horse of his who qualifies on points is going to the Kentucky Derby, dirt form or no dirt form. Bobby's Kitten set himself up to fulfill that this past Saturday when the Grade III-winning son of Kitten's Joy handily captured a one-mile allowance race on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs and is now set to start in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 12.
11. Albano: Continues to work toward an expected start in the Louisiana Derby with a five-furlong move in 1:03.60 at Fair Grounds this past Monday.
12. Social Inclusion: What to make of the horse who throttled Remsen Stakes winner Honor Code in that one's seasonal debut? For starters, Social Inclusion's track-record setting, 10-length victory in the 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Wednesday has owner Ron Sanchez fielding reported multi-million dollar offers for the son of Pioneerof the Nile. He has won both his career starts by a combined 171/2 lengths on the lead at Gulfstream but how much he has been aided by that track playing into his style and how legit of a freak he is remains to be seen. Both the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial on April 5 are under consideration for his next start.
The Next Dozen: Wildcat Red, Constitution, Honor Code, Tamarando, Uncle Sigh, Hoppertunity, Kobe's Back, In Trouble, Vinceremos, Conquest Titan, Midnight Hawk, Vicar's In Trouble.