Derby Watch: Crucial time for jockeys seeking run at roses

In NASCAR, the time of year when free-agent drivers start swapping teams is deemed "Silly Season," as heads spin trying to keep track of the litany of rides suddenly coming up for grabs.

Count this point in time as Thoroughbred racing's answer to that as the annual game of musical jockeys aboard Kentucky Derby mounts began in earnest this week.

This season's house of cards began falling on Wednesday when John Velazquez, who suffered a fractured rib and chipped bone in his wrist during a spill at Aqueduct last Sunday, gave up his ride on Grade I Florida Derby winner Orb to stick with unbeaten Grade I Wood Memorial hero Verrazano come Kentucky Derby Day.

Shortly thereafter, it was reported that Joel Rosario would gain the coveted duties on Orb, Garrett Gomez would be on Vyjack, and — in a mild upset — Javier Castellano would be giving up the ride on Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary to stay with Wood Memorial runner-up Normandy Invasion.

Not surprisingly, this weekend's prep races will probably have a huge impact on which jockeys fill out the remaining slots as the services of Calvin Borel, Rosie Napravnik, Rafael Bejarano and Mike Smith are among the top ones who could theoretically be up for grabs once Saturday's Grade I Arkansas Derby and Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes are in the books.

With three Kentucky Derby victories, Borel — who rides Texas Bling in the Arkansas Derby — stands as a no-brainer for someone to snatch up with past karma suggesting he could be an ideal fit for Revolutionary.

It was Borel who brought both Revolutionary's trainer Todd Pletcher and the colt's owner WinStar Farm their first Kentucky Derby triumphs when he guided Super Saver home in 2010. And when a colt who has had a tendency to find trouble in past races needs to navigate a field of 20, Borel's rail-hugging ways become even more amplified in importance.

So while the obvious focus Saturday evening will be on whoever prevails in the last two major Derby preps, attention should be paid to some faces who may miss the winner's circle this weekend but end up winning a bigger prize three weeks from now.

The Derby Dozen

1. Orb: As a result of Velazquez opting to stick with Verrazano, Orb is being reunited with his old pal Rosario, who guided the son of Malibu Moon in his first five starts. Trainer Shug McGaughey says Orb has a tendency to pull himself up a bit when he makes the lead and that he believes things will get easier for the colt as distances get longer "because you're not going to have to nudge him along and keep his mind on what he's doing."

2. Verrazano: The fact he won the Grade I Wood Memorial by only three-quarters of a length in a not-spectacular time seems to be overshadowing the fact he won the race. After blowing out his rivals in his first three starts, the experience of having to fight a little will serve him well heading into the 20-horse cavalry charge in May. "He didn't show me anything to say he won't (handle a mile and a quarter)," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "I think he's shown he'll sit behind soft fractions, if necessary. It's nice to see that he'll do that."

3. Revolutionary: Kudos to whichever jockey lands on the Louisiana Derby winner as there is no reason to think he is not prepared for both the Kentucky Derby's 10-furlong distance and the in-race challenges that require his maneuverability. Injury robbed his sire War Pass and grandsire A.P. Indy of their Kentucky Derby opportunities so there would be fulfillment on many levels should the dark bay colt prevail on May 4.

4. Itsmyluckyday: Returned to the workout tab Thursday, breezing 5 furlongs in 1:01 at Calder Race Course, fastest of nine moves at the distance. Still think that ample time between starts is just not his thing and that he needed the race in the Florida Derby.

5. Goldencents: The job trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Kevin Krigger did between the colt's fourth-place run in the San Felipe and his Santa Anita Derby win deserves the slow-clap. Goldencents was unable to relax and settle in the San Felipe, so O'Neill focused on slowing him down during his morning works, breezing him 6 furlongs in 1:16 and 1:14 coming into the Santa Anita Derby where he was previously clocking in at 1:10.40 and 1:11.60 heading into the San Felipe. The result was a professional 11/4-length win over Flashback, who emerged from the race with a knee chip, and the opportunity for O'Neill to become the first since Bob Baffert (1997-98) to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. "The errors last time (in the San Felipe) were not Kevin or the horse, I think it was more me and the human connections," O'Neill said after the race. "And this time, I think we did it right."

6. Normandy Invasion: He didn't win but his late surge to get up for second in the Wood Memorial was the equine equivalent of hitting a buzzer-beater to survive and advance. Not only did the 40 points for second secure him a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, but the way he closed impressed Castellano enough to get off a multiple graded stakes winner who hasn't lost this year. If one follows the recent profile of Kentucky Derby winners — no Grade I wins at age 2, two preps at 3, trainer that would be a first-time winner — Normandy Invasion fits the description to a tee.

7. Vyjack: Reportedly bled slightly in running third in the Wood Memorial and some mucous was found in his scope after. The slow pace probably didn't help his cause, and there are still distance issues to consider but there was nothing disgraceful getting beat just more than three-quarters of a length by the likely Derby favorite.

8. Oxbow: Based on his bloodlines, the Arkansas Derby's 11⁄8 miles should be exactly what he is crying out for, especially against a field that isn't overwhelming in its strength. Will have Hall of Famer Gary Stevens in the irons for Saturday's Grade I test.

9. Will Take Charge: Is going to train up to the Kentucky Derby, a somewhat unusual move by trainer D. Wayne Lukas who certainly doesn't baby his classic-bound horses. Good as he looked in the Rebel Stakes, he has yet to put together back-to-back wins. Had an old-school 1-mile breeze on Friday, covering the distance in 1:40.80 at Oaklawn.

10. Black Onyx: If you think getting time over the Churchill Downs surface is important, put a star by this one as he was the first one on the grounds after his win in the Grade III Spiral Stakes. Is a wild card of a contender if he continues to improve in the weeks ahead.

11. Rydilluc: Trainer Gary Contessa has maintained the colt is training as well as any horse he's had at this point heading into Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes but admits he's had horses look great in the mornings over Polytrack and then not so special in race conditions. "When you're in hand and just skimming over the top of it, most horses go well here, and he's doing really good over this track," Contessa said.

12. Uncaptured: Will have enough Derby points to make it to Churchill as long as he is on the board in Saturday's Blue Grass and should be able to get himself forwardly placed out of the No. 7 hole. No questioning this horse's guts, but how much farther he wants to go lingers as his albatross.

The next dozen

Den's Legacy, Govenor Charlie, Mylute, Palace Malice, Departing, War Academy, West Hills Giant, Java's War, Code West, Falling Sky, Overanalyze, Dynamic Sky.

Off the trail: Ive Struck a Nerve, Delhomme, Hear the Ghost, Shanghai Bobby, Flashback.

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