Even before the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was run, the race was given added importance on the road to the 2016 Kentucky Derby
Last August, the Juvenile was assigned double the points of previous years toward qualifying for the first leg of the Triple Crown, with the winner getting 20 instead of 10. That decision has already played a major role in scheduling this season as trainer Doug O’Neill had the freedom to start undefeated Juvenile winner and champion Nyquist in the Grade II San Vicente — which offers no qualifying points — last month instead of having to chase points in a prep that might not have been as ideal.
This weekend will offer greater insight into just how widespread an impact the rest of the Juvenile runners will have come May 7. Brody’s Cause, Exaggerator and Riker — the third-, fourth- and sixth-place finishers in the Breeders’ Cup behind Nyquist — are all slated to start Saturday in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Exaggerator is part of a stout field of six set to go to post in the $400,000, 1 1/16 -mile San Felipe. His runner-up finish in the San Vicente showed the son of Curlin is making positive progression from 2 to 3 years of age, though he still needs to prove he can convincingly beat the big boys, not just hang with them.
However, Brody’s Cause and Riker will both be making their season debuts in the 1 1/16 -mile Tampa Bay Derby. And while the Tampa Bay surface can yield some quirky results, there figures to be enough pace and quality opponents in the 10-horse field for one to get a reasonable read on where these two youngsters stand.
Brody’s Cause has a whole lot less at stake. Trained by Dale Romans, Brody’s Cause won the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October in his third career start and was flying at the end of the Breeders’ Cup under jockey Corey Lanerie. Unless his form has done a 180 this winter, the son of Giant’s Causeway just needs an honest outing Saturday in order to march on to the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 9.
Riker is more the unknown in what will be his first start since being transferred to the barn of Mark Casse. Riker won his first four outings all at Woodbine, including the Grade III Gray Stakes, and set the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his first try on dirt.
The Casse barn has been wowed by how smooth the dark bay colt is in his morning works so the dirt question isn’t too much of a concern. With graded stakes winner Airoforce off the Derby trail and Conquest Big E disappointing again in last weekend’s Gotham Stakes, Riker could be the one that gets Casse Racing back in play in the classic ranks.
“The first time I worked him, I was hesitant to let him work real strong because he had only had a few half-mile works under him to that point,” said Norman Casse, assistant to his father, Mark. “We said let’s just go an easy five-eighths with him and see where we’re at and he was just impressive, he just moved so effortlessly that he kind of won me over from Day One.”
The Derby Dozen
1. Mohaymen: Continues to leave trainer Kiaran McLaughlin a happy man as he observes the way the unbeaten son of Tapit bounces out of his races. The gray colt got back on the worktab for the first time since his win in the Fountain of Youth, handling a slow Palm Meadow Training Center track to post a 4-furlong move in :49.40 on Friday. “It’s been windy and dry here so I think the track was definitely dull. It (the work) was probably the equivalent to :48,” McLaughlin said. “But he worked great. I feel like he has come out of the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth great. Since Dec. 1, he’s just gained weight, filled out. We are going in the right direction.”
2. Nyquist: Was officially credited with working 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 by Santa Anita Park clockers on Thursday but trainer Doug O’Neill had the unbeaten juvenile champion working a mile in 1:46 as he prepares for his showdown with Mohaymen in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2. “It was a solid work,” O’Neill said. “We plan to leave for the Florida Derby on March 28.”
3. Mor Spirit: Headlines a bang-up field of six for Saturday’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes. There figures to be enough speed on paper with Danzing Candy and Smokey Image to set up beautifully for Mor Spirit to come with his steady-as-he-pleases kick. As lackadaisical as he can be in his a.m. training, you’d sure rather have a horse who knows when it’s time to get down to business rather than a morning glory.
4. Brody’s Cause: Like Mor Spirit, he should get some pace to close into as he makes his first start since running third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Oct. 31. Romans has been toeing the line to try to keep him from doing too much too early in his works, but his fitness should be on point as he hasn’t really been out of training since the Breeders’ Cup. “Hopefully he will come running Saturday, get past all of them and have a nice gallop-out, to Kentucky,” Romans said.
5. Zulu: Trainer Todd Pletcher has said the main thing he has to work on with this colt is his maturity and professionalism. Have to figure he got a fair amount of education running second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth, which was also his first start around two turns. If he can get the mental game to catch up with his physical talent, he could be a bear to handle wherever he turns up for his final Kentucky Derby prep.
6. Exaggerator: This big colt always puts in a game run and it would be a surprise if he is not right there at the finish of the San Felipe. His last two works have both been 5-furlong moves in 1:00.40, which is right in line with trainer Keith Desormeaux’s style of not wanting to leave too much on the tracks in the mornings. He’s in tough this weekend but he has a big chance to get over the hump and beat some of his better classmates.
7. Gun Runner: Worked 5 furlongs in an easy 1:01.20 at Fair Grounds on Tuesday as he prepares for the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26.
8. Mo Tom: Returned to the worktab in strong fashion last Saturday, breezing a half-mile in :47.80. That move alleviated any concerns about the gash he suffered on his leg during the Risen Star as trainer Tom Amoss said the son of Uncle Mo was well in hand throughout the move. “It was a good work as far as all that goes and was very relaxed,” Amoss said. “If anything it was quicker than I thought. Hopefully he just stays like this through the Louisiana Derby.”
9. Greenpointcrusader: Turned in his fifth work since running second in the Holy Bull Stakes, going 4 furlongs in :49.75 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Friday. His works leading up to the Louisiana Derby haven’t been particularly fast but perhaps trainer Dominick Schettino is trying to focus on stamina as he readies his charge for what will be only his second start since October.
10. Smokey Image: The San Felipe will serve as his proving ground where we’ll find out if he is a legitimate player on the Kentucky Derby trail or a good horse who has beaten up on state-breds. His 5-furlong move in :59.60 last Saturday was one jockey Victor Espinoza called “unbelievable.”
11. Suddenbreakingnews: Trainer Donnie Von Hemel did a little more with the Southwest Stakes winner last weekend, sending him out for a 5-furlong move in 1:00.60 on March 5 at Oaklawn Park in preparation for the Rebel Stakes. “(Jockey) Luis (Quinonez) said he stretched out nicely down the lane and still had some in the tank,” Von Hemel said.
12. Danzing Candy: He joins Smokey Image in that the San Felipe is his class litmus test. We know he has speed, so trainer Cliff Sise Jr. has been working on getting him to relax in his moves, the last being a 5-furlong drill in 1:01 last Saturday.
The Next Dozen
Shagaf, Destin, Cherry Wine, Fellowship, Whitmore, Forevamo, Flexibility, Uncle Lino, Economic Model, Rafting, Matt King Coal, Ralis.
Saturday’s Derby preps
Tampa Bay Derby
When: 5:24 p.m.
Where: Tampa Bay Downs
Favorite: Brody’s Cause (5-2)
San Felipe Stakes
When: 6:04 p.m. EST
Where: Santa Anita Park
Favorite: Mor Spirit (2-1)