Each trainer has their own way of trying to map out the road they hope will eventually lead to the first Saturday in May.
Some circle the date and work backward from there. Others adhere to the ‘Let the horse tell me when they’re ready’ refrain. All of them hope to manipulate that fine line in timing so their 3-year-old is on the upswing if they are fortunate enough to draw a post position in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Positioned six weeks out from the first leg of the Triple Crown this year, the contenders in the Grade II, $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on Saturday will have an extra hurdle to overcome even if their best-case scenarios manifest in the 1 1/8-mile test. Should those in the 11-horse field choose not to run back in coming weeks, they will have to do what only Animal Kingdom (2011) and Needles (1956) have achieved since 1929 in winning the Kentucky Derby off a six-week hiatus.
For all its grand history, the Louisiana Derby has been in a downturn recently in terms of producing Kentucky Derby winners. No horse has come out of Fair Grounds’ signature prep race and won the Kentucky Derby since Funny Cide ran third in the 2003 Louisiana Derby two starts before his upset triumph. Grindstone in 1996 stands as the last horse to pull off the Louisiana Derby-Kentucky Derby winning double.
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Neither Funny Cide nor Grindstone went straight from Fair Grounds into the Kentucky Derby, however, with the former running back in the Wood Memorial and Grindstone wheeling back in the Arkansas Derby. In the current era of trainers wanting to give their prospects more time, one has to wonder how many would try to fit one more start in, especially if they earn a chunk of the 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points up for grabs in both the Louisiana Derby and $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai this Saturday.
“This has been the schedule for him going into the Derby,” said trainer Dominick Schettino, who will saddle Grade I winner Greenpointcrusader in the Louisiana Derby in what will be his second and final prep before the Kentucky Derby. “As long as he runs his race and runs the way he ran in the Champagne, we should be OK. (His style) is one of the reasons we picked this spot. He has a nice finish and it’s a long stretch. There are some nice 3-year-olds like Gun Runner and Mo Tom so…it’s a tough race.”
What some of the top Louisiana Derby contenders do have going for them is a fair amount of foundation to draw from if this indeed is their final pre-Louisville effort. Mo Tom, the winner of the Lecomte Stakes who finished third in the Risen Star after getting slammed in the stretch resulting in a superficial gash on his leg, will be making his third start this year, his seventh outing lifetime, and owns a win over the Churchill Downs surface having taken the Street Sense Stakes last November.
Risen Star winner Gun Runner showed he could run well off a layoff when he captured the 1 1/16-mile test in what was his first start since Nov. 28 while stakes winner and Risen Star runner-up Forevamo is also making his third start of 2016.
The Derby Dozen
1. Mohaymen: The unbeaten son of Tapit cleared his last major hurdle before his expected meeting with Nyquist in the Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby April 2 when he worked 4 furlongs in 48.95 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Thursday. The scary thing – among many things – with this horse is you get the feeling he hasn’t ever been fully cranked, yet he keeps winning with casual ease. “We’re ready to go. We wouldn’t change anything,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said from Dubai, where he has Frosted entered in the $10 million Dubai World Cup Saturday.
2. Nyquist: Also knocked off his final pre-Florida Derby breeze without issue, going a very easy 5 furlongs in 1:03 at Santa Anita Park on Friday.
3. Danzing Candy: Trainer Cliff Sise Jr. said the San Felipe winner is scheduled to work 5 furlongs under Mike Smith on Saturday morning. Has yet to show if he can be effective without getting the lead but no one has been able to make him answer that question yet. Speed is always dangerous and this son of Twirling Candy has that in spades.
4. Mor Spirit: Trainer Bob Baffert said the son of Eskendereya was “a willing participant” when he worked 4 furlongs in company in 47.80 at Santa Anita Park on Thursday, second fastest of 27 moves at that distance. Jockey Gary Stevens invoked the name of 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm last week when discussing Mor Spirit and the latter is certainly matching the former to this point in terms of consistency. Both had never been worse than second heading into the Santa Anita Derby and it’s important to remember that these prep races are just that — preps designed to put foundation and education into these sophomores toward the bigger goal.
5. Cupid: Talk about jumping onto the Derby scene in a massive way. Baffert’s mastery of Oaklawn Park continues with this son of Tapit giving the Hall of Famer his sixth win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes in the last seven years. In his fourth career start – having only broken his maiden on Feb. 7 – Cupid showed several dimensions in the Rebel as had to be used to make the lead after not breaking well, cut an opening quarter in 22.96 then relaxed enough to get a breather in carving out the half in 46.82. He even ran green coming off the final turn but rebroke and was drawing away from Whitmore when that one challenged him in the stretch. “When that horse came rolling down the middle of the stretch I thought we’ll see what he’s made of,” Baffert said post-race. “That’s what you want to see this time of year, them showing some grits and guts.”
6. Destin: This full brother to Grade I winner Creative Cause has come into his own with wins in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade III Sam F. Davis. Judging horses off that Tampa Bay Downs surface can be tricky just because that main track is one horses tend to either love or hate. It also has a history of getting horses fit and we will get to see how Destin’s improving talents translate elsewhere as he could have his final prep in either the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes or Grade I Wood Memorial.
7. Zulu: Has only turned in the one work, 4 furlongs in 50.98 on March 18, since his runner-up effort in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Todd Pletcher still sorting out where the son of Bernardini will have his final Kentucky Derby prep.
8. Gun Runner: His connections have talked about how tractable the son of Candy Ride is and he will need to call upon that while being stuck on the rail of the 11-horse field in the Louisiana Derby. “You can put him in between horses or on the fence, or you can make a move with him and then slow him down a little bit,” said David Fiske, manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds which co-owns Gun Runner. “I won’t tell you he’s push button because I’ve never ridden him, but he does seem to have a lot of tactical advantages that some horses don’t have.”
9. Mo Tom: Trainer Tom Amoss took a somewhat unconventional route and has only worked the Lecomte winner twice in the five-week break between the Risen Star and Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, including two half-miles in 47.0 and 48.60 and on March 5 and March 13, respectively. “It has been by design to just have two works,” Amoss said. “If for some reason he’s aggressive in this race and that takes him out of his game, it’ll just prove that we’re on a learning curve with our horse.”
10. Shagaf: Turned in his first work since winning the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 5, breezing 4 furlongs in 48.74 over the training track at Belmont Park last Saturday. Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9 still on tap for his final Kentucky Derby prep race.
11. Whitmore: The good news: The gelded son of Pleasantly Perfect delivered another honest run to finish second in the Rebel Stakes and likely cemented himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The bad news: He had Cupid measured and couldn’t get by him. Is developing a bit of a bridesmaid syndrome but it will be interesting to see how much he can improve for the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16.
12. Greenpointcrusader: We get to stop speculating about his progress and have some tangible evidence to work with when the winner of last year’s Grade I Champagne Stakes makes his start in the Louisiana Derby, his first outing since running second to Mohaymen in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30.
The Next Dozen
Suddenbreakingnews, Exaggerator, Brody’s Cause, Outwork, Fellowship, Creator, Cherry Wine, Forevamo, Flexibility, Uncle Lino, Discreetness, Frank Conversation.
Saturday’s Derby preps
Where: Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans
When: 6:12 p.m. EDT
Purse: $1 million (Grade 2)
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Favorite: Mo Tom
Where: Meydan Racecourse in Dubai
When: 9:35 a.m. EDT
Purse: $2 million (Group 2)
Distance: 1,900 meters (about 1 3/16 miles)
Favorite: Polar River