Orb and Revolutionary were the big winners last weekend, taking the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby, respectively, but neither was overly impressive: Orb completed the 1 1/8-mile distance two seconds slower than the filly Dreaming of Julia earlier on the program and Revolutionary got away tardily and didn't have his mind on business the entire way.
Despite earning only a 97 BRIS Speed rating, compared to a 105 for Revolutionary, Orb is the better Kentucky Derby prospect in my estimation. He rated behind a glacial pace while wide in the Florida Derby and the developing colt proved himself from a speed-figure perspective when registering a 102 in a fast-paced Fountain of Youth two back. Orb will adapt to any scenario up front and I expect him to continue to show more at Churchill Downs.
Revolutionary is good enough to be a major factor if he puts it all together next time, but that's difficult to envision. He ran in spots Saturday, shutting it down quickly upon reaching the finish line and continued to display an unwillingness to break that is most disturbing, especially considering the fact that Revolutionary raced close to the pace a couple of times last year. His unprofessional behavior does not bode well for a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby.
The "Road to the Kentucky" scoring system continues with a pair of major prep races this Saturday, the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, both offering 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers, and we'll find out how this year's "buzz" horse, unbeaten Verrazano, handles his first trip at 1 1/8 miles. He will be a strong Kentucky Derby favorite if he rolls at Aqueduct.
I didn't understand why Shanghai Bobby took back from the rail post on a track that favors inside speed. The opening fractions -- :24.74, :48.56, 1:12.89 and 1:37.79 -- were ridiculously soft, with the half-mile and three-quarters splits being accomplished about two seconds slower than both the Gulfstream Oaks and the 1 3/16-mile Skip Away on the same program, and it was an ideal set-up for a speedy colt with perceived distance limitations on the stretch-out.
Instead, Shanghai Bobby dropped back to race close to Orb, who was done no favors as well by the walking pace, and Itsmyluckyday was in the best spot among the three main contenders, up close tracking the action as they crawled down the backstretch.
Itsmyluckyday got first run as expected, surging to a one-length lead in upper stretch, and it was a carbon copy of the move he offered in the Holy Bull, overhauling the pacesetting Shanghai Bobby en route to a two-length decision. But this time he had Orb coming after him.
Orb raced in fifth during the early stages and was caught four wide on the far turn before accelerating to win going away by 2 3/4 lengths, generating a 103 BRIS Late Pace rating. This isn't the same colt who received an 89 Speed rating when opening his sophomore season with a sluggish victory over optional claiming rivals in late January.
Shug McGaughey is the antithesis of a Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher or D. Wayne Lukas; he would love to win a Triple Crown race but could care less about competing in the Kentucky Derby. His stable isn't geared toward those events and the Hall of Fame trainer was in no rush to push along Orb, who was only a maiden winner entering this year.
Bred to relish the 1 1/4-mile distance, the son of Malibu Moon has evolved into a top three-year-old over his last three starts, demonstrating an excellent turn of foot that is built for longer distances. He is on my short list of win contenders -- it simply will be a matter of whether he's good enough on Derby Day.
Itsmyluckyday came up short after not racing in more than two months but gained fitness for his next start in the Kentucky Derby. He earned a lower Speed rating Saturday due to the slow pace, but I wouldn't give up on him based upon the setback. My biggest concern is his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles.
Revolutionary notched his third straight win, but the last two have been anything but pretty. The Louisiana Derby set up well for a late runner, with wicked opening splits in :22.84 and :46.34 (no one could've envisioned a much faster pace at Fair Grounds than in the Florida Derby), and after starting last and racing at the back of the 14-horse field, Revolutionary circled rivals five wide on the far turn. It looked like he might win for fun entering the stretch, but the dark bay colt began idling when he struck the front.
Jockey Javier Castellano got his mount's attention when Mylute rallied alongside in deep stretch, as Revolutionary surged again to win by a neck, but it shouldn't have been that close. After behaving poorly in his previous start, a narrow win over suspect rivals in the February 2 Withers, Revolutionary continued to lack focus on Saturday. The big difference was that Castellano utilized the overland route instead of trying to keep him inside, which the Pletcher-trained colt greatly resented last time.
There will be no saving ground in the Kentucky Derby; Revolutionary will travel as wide as necessary while attempting to go last to first.
Even though he has performed like a plodder this year, Revolutionary possesses an ideal mix of speed and stamina in his bloodlines. He is by the ill-fated sire War Pass, who was ultra-quick and passed plenty of early zip to his only two crops of runners, and Revolutionary's classy female family is geared toward longer distances.
His maturity level does not come close to matching his raw ability at this stage in his career, so races like the Belmont Stakes and Travers may prove to be a better fit down the road, but Revolutionary is too talented to completely dismiss in the Kentucky Derby.
Take nothing away from Mylute -- he turned in an extremely encouraging effort for second and will bring improving form and legitimate BRIS numbers into the Kentucky Derby for Tom Amoss. His pedigree offers little encouragement for 10 furlongs (out of a Valid Expectations mare), but Mylute figures to be overlooked in the wagering and offers some appeal for the bottom of the exotics.
Revolutionary, Mylute and fourth-placer Golden Soul were 12th, 11th and 14th, respectively after the opening half-mile and all made at least a minor impact from far back. Departing was stalking the pace in fifth at that point and was the only horse up close that was around at the finish. I thought it was a sneaky-good third from the improving Al Stall runner, but Departing probably won't have the points (20) to make the Derby field.
The U.A.E. Derby was worth the same amount of points as the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby but deserves little discussion. Lines of Battle, one of only two Triple Crown nominees in the 1 3/16-mile event on Tapeta, overcame a slow pace to capture his first start of the year. After winning on Polytrack last fall, the Aidan O'Brien trainee reaffirmed his affinity for synthetic ovals but will likely return to turf racing after the Kentucky Derby.
Coolmore bought into Verrazano and Shanghai Bobby, so they clearly fashion the prospect of owning a classic winner stateside, but it won't come via the Lines of Battle route -- he's been readied in the same fashion as 2012 last-place finisher Daddy Long Legs, who was totally unprepared for the Derby experience.
Verrazano drew well in post 8 and I don't see much appeal trying to beat him -- he looks more than capable of carrying his form forward going 1 1/8 miles in the Wood.
After opening his career with dazzling wins over maiden and allowance rivals, Verrazano recorded a comfortable score in the Tampa Bay Derby that served a perfect building block. The Wood is the next step in the process and I expect another measured victory before the ultimate litmus test at 1 1/4 miles.
Vyjack is a worthy adversary and Normandy Invasion will be cranked for his best, but Elnaawi is the most intriguing upset contender. A smart maiden winner two back, the son of Street Sense could've easily spit the bit following a dreadful trip during the early stages of the Gotham, but he recovered to post a fine third and should be set for an improved showing in his second attempt against winners.
The Santa Anita Derby features a trio of contenders from the Baffert stable -- Flashback, Power Broker and Super Ninety Nine -- along with San Felipe hero Hear the Ghost.
Flashback got caught in a speed duel in the San Felipe before gamely holding for second and receives a positive rider switch to Garrett Gomez on Saturday. Expect him to be much more relaxed during the early stages, waiting to pounce from just off the pace as both stablemate Super Ninety Nine and Goldencents seize the early initiative.
Flashback is the pick and I will use late runners Hear the Ghost and Tiz a Minister underneath him.