The final weekend of the "Prep Season" in the new Kentucky Derby scoring system featured a pair of stakes, Saturday's El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate and Monday's Southwest at Oaklawn Park, and the latter played like a movie we've seen before, with Bob Baffert sending out the winning Super Ninety Nine.
Super Ninety Nine was sent straight to the lead on the sloppy track and took no prisoners, rolling to an impressive 11 1/4-length victory, and the chestnut son of Pulpit emerged as a serious Kentucky Derby contender in the process. He will bring strong BRIS Speed numbers into his next assignment, posting a 101 in the Southwest after getting a 103 in his two-turn debut, a January 31 allowance score at Santa Anita.
For Baffert, it represented his third straight win, and fourth in the last five years, in the Southwest. His Arkansas dominance could continue in the March 16 Rebel Stakes, which he's captured the last three years, and the Hall of Fame trainer will be targeting back-to-back tallies in the April 13 Arkansas Derby. He could point multiple horses to both upcoming races.
A day earlier at Santa Anita, Shakin It Up provided Baffert with his eighth career triumph in the San Vicente. The San Vicente did not serve as a scoring race at seven furlongs, but it promises to send several horses, including runner-up Treasury Bill, to bigger events.
There were no stakes races of note on the East Coast last week, but Todd Pletcher continued to flex his muscles Saturday when saddling Capo Bastone to an allowance victory at Gulfstream. Transferred to Pletcher following a third-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the colt solidified his spot in the stakes rotation while making his 2013 bow, but the location of Capo Bastone's next start is anybody's guess. Pletcher is so deep in talent this year that he faces an impossible task in keeping his stars separated over the next two months.
The focus now shifts to higher-scoring events, with the first leg of the "Championship Series" offering a 50-20-10-5 scale to the top four finishers, and plenty of anticipation surrounds this weekend's races, the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and Risen Star at Fair Grounds.
Super Ninety Nine got away with reasonable fractions on a clear lead and sprinted away from his nearest challengers leaving the far turn, opening up in eye-catching fashion during the stretch run. Jockey Rafael Bejarano flew in from California for the ride and his mount relished the sloppy conditions in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I love the progress Super Ninety Nine has shown this year, but it's difficult to draw any solid conclusions from his Southwest victory.
Super Ninety Nine raced exclusively in sprints during a three-race juvenile campaign and looks much-improved as a three-year-old -- this isn't the same horse that finished a dull fourth in a six-furlong allowance on December 28. His form reversal coincided with him stretching out in distance, which fits given his breeding, and he could have a very high ceiling. Super Ninety Nine will continue to be flattered if stablemate Code West, who was no match when second in the aforementioned Santa Anita allowance on January 31, runs big in the Risen Star.
The concern is whether the Southwest was a true performance or simply a byproduct of the conditions. Baffert's last three Southwest winners -- Secret Circle, Castaway and Conveyance -- wound up being exposed before the Kentucky Derby and Super Ninety Nine received an ideal set-up on Monday. He's carried his speed effectively in each of his last two starts while facing little to no pressure, but circumstances figure to change from a pace standpoint as he steps up in class going forward.
We've witnessed similar performances this year from Oxbow in the Lecomte and Flashback in the Robert Lewis, runaway victories in which they had everything their own way on the front end, and Super Ninety Nine still has something to prove as well.
Super Ninety Nine raced off an 18-day rest in the Southwest and Baffert said afterward that the Rebel comes back a little too soon -- he's going to give his charge a little more time following a pair of highly-encouraging wins. But he added that a return trip to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby could be in the cards for Super Ninety Nine.
Runner-up Fear the Kitten finished up best of the rest in the Southwest, a performance that resembled his non-threatening third to Oxbow in the January 19 Lecomte. He's far from a formidable presence yet, but Fear the Kitten is developing into a useful type for Mike Maker.
Always in a Tiz (fifth), Will Take Charge (sixth) and Texas Bling (ninth) all showed little on the sloppy track.
El Camino Real Derby
The El Camino Real Derby was held over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields and it naturally went to a turf horse, Dice Flavor. This result reminded me of how Santa Anita did everyone a favor a couple of years ago by removing its synthetic Pro-Ride track so we can avoid this kind of confusion.
Dice Flavor raced exclusively on turf in his first four outings, breaking his maiden two starts previously at Hollywood Park before recording a third versus allowance rivals at Santa Anita on February 1, and the Paddy Gallagher-trained late runner dropped to the tail of the field during the early stages Saturday with regular rider Jose Valdivia Jr.
Southern California invader Manando, the 2-1 favorite for Baffert, rushed forward to set the pace and while he was appeared to be running easily on a clear advantage, he was traveling too fast over the all-weather surface, recording the opening half-mile in :47 1/5 and six furlongs in 1:11 3/5. That set the table for closers and practically the entire field bunched up behind the pacesetter turning for home.
Dice Flavor had to wait for room and alter course a few paths to the outside for clear sailing before exploding to win going away by 3 3/4 lengths. Overlooked at 9-1, he was followed under the wire by a pair of longshots in the 13-1 Nina's Dragon and 25-1 Counting Days.
None of the top three finishers were nominated to the Triple Crown, but the opportunity remains to do so by the March 23 late deadline. The March 23 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and the April 13 Blue Grass at Keeneland, which will both be held on the synthetic Polytrack, are attractive options for Dice Flavor.
A son of Scat Daddy, Dice Flavor will be given every opportunity to prove Derby-worthy, but his future probably lies with turf racing. His half-brother, Swift Warrior, is an up-and-coming performer in the turf ranks, recording his second consecutive graded victory last Saturday in the Tampa Bay Stakes, and Dice Flavor could be any kind on turf as well.