Java's War got up to win by a neck and Overanalyze rolled to a convincing 4 1/4-length victory as the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby wrapped up the final round of major preps. A total of six probable Kentucky Derby contestants were in action last Saturday.
Kenny McPeek entered the weekend without a confirmed Derby runner, but he locked up a pair of spots with Java's War and Arkansas Derby runner-up Frac Daddy. Todd Pletcher, who already had Verrazano and Revolutionary in the field, added to his Derby arsenal with Overanalyze, Blue Grass runner-up Palace Malice and Blue Grass third Charming Kitten all moving inside the top 20 on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Leaderboard.
Arkansas Derby fifth-placer Oxbow also will be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Only two "wildcard" races remain, this Saturday's Lexington Stakes and the April 27 Derby Trial, offering points on a 20-8-4-2 scale to the top four finishers. Both races appear unlikely to produce a Derby starter.
The new scoring system generated plenty of debate over the necessary point total for the 20th horse in the Derby field, with estimates generally in the 30-to-40 point range as recently as two weeks ago, but the number of hopefuls has dwindled significantly. Only 21 horses were considered likely to enter as of Wednesday, with the present cut-off at 20 points, and Golden Soul only needs one defection to qualify with 14 points.
Java's War broke slowly and rated at the back of the 14-horse field for the opening six furlongs, commencing a wide rally as he entered the stretch drive. He closed furiously in the final furlong, erasing a 5 1/2-length deficit to nail Palace Malice on the wire.
The bay son of War Pass offers some appeal for the Derby with his strong late punch.
Java's War is a versatile type -- he's run well on turf, Polytrack and dirt. He lacks a win over the latter, but his Blue Grass effort was basically the same performance from his 2013 opener, a second in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby. There was no catching the winning Verrazano that afternoon, but Java's War kicked for home in tremendous fashion, finishing 4 1/4 length clear of third, and received similar BRIS Speed and Late Pace numbers in both races.
The inability to break is the biggest concern -- I thought Revolutionary (another son of the late sire War Pass) was destined to be last early due to his slow-starting nature but that is no longer the case. War Pass, the two-year-old champion of 2007, was all speed, but his most accomplished offspring are both one-dimensional closers.
Java's War has proven effective regardless of pace, running well behind fast and slow early fractions, and he'll retain the services of Julien Leparoux in the Derby.
Palace Malice momentarily appeared home free, with a clear lead in deep stretch, but could not withstand his hard-charging rival. I liked his effort and consider him to be an interesting Derby longshot given his tactical speed and an ideal pedigree, but it must be noted that he ran 52 feet shorter than Java's War, according to Trakus stats, and will bring only a maiden win into his next outing.
The son of Curlin appears to possess plenty of upside for Pletcher, but Palace Malice experienced rough trips when dropping a pair of starts at Fair Grounds and found a way to lose the Blue Grass despite an ideal journey. The Derby will be an extreme test for a colt that lacks a winning attitude at this point in his career.
Charming Kitten finished up well despite the wide trip, traveling 12 feet farther than the winner, but it's easy to speculate why he's never raced on dirt in seven career outings. The Kitten's Joy colt figures to return to turf after the Derby.
Overanalyze rebounded from a disappointing effort in his first start this year, a well-beaten fifth as the 8-5 favorite in the March 2 Gotham, to capture the Arkansas Derby in commanding style. In retrospect, his performance makes perfect sense given the up-and-down nature of his entire career.
After easily winning his career debut, the son of Dixie Union readily gave way while recording an unplaced finish in the Hopeful. Overanalyze bounced back to crush his foes in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park but then faltered as the favorite in the Iroquois, finishing nearly 10 lengths back of the winner at Churchill Downs. His juvenile season ended on such a promising note, recording an ultra-game victory over Normandy Invasion in the Remsen that netted a 104 Speed rating, but the inconsistencies have continued at age three.
The possibility remains that he has turned a corner, and could finally string together a pair of optimal performances, but I wouldn't count on it in the Derby. The son of Dixie Union came home slowly, with a final three-eighths of a mile in nearly 39 seconds Saturday, and earned only a 96 BRIS Speed rating, a surprisingly low number considering that Overanalyze figured to be cranked for his best. Coupled with his dismal showing at Churchill Downs last fall, Overanalyze can beat me on Derby Day.
Frac Daddy turned things around following a pair of well-beaten efforts at Gulfstream Park, but his last four Speed numbers (92-77-86-93) offer little encouragement.
Carve, who finished third, isn't Triple Crown nominated and the connections of fourth-placer Falling Sky, who is probably better suited toward lesser distances, are on the fence for the Derby.
Oxbow got away slowly from his far outside post and didn't appear comfortable racing last of 10 after a half-mile, but he offered a decent middle move into contention on the far turn before flattening out. Considering that he was making his fifth start since December 15, with a couple of grueling defeats in the Rebel and Risen Star in his two previous outings, I wasn't surprised to see him go through the motions on Saturday.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas will tighten the screws next time and I expect to see jockey Gary Stevens send him from the start. The son of Awesome Again registered BRIS E1 Pace ratings as high as 103 in the past but received only an 84 in the Arkansas Derby, and he will be one of the few confirmed speed horses in the Derby field. I didn't like the way he coughed up the lead in the stretch run of the Risen Star and Rebel, but Oxbow remains a front-running threat.
I will take a more in-depth look next week at the field, weighing the pros and cons of all contenders, but want to briefly mention what I think is this year's leading prep race. Last year, I'll Have Another and Bodemeister took turns battling against Creative Cause on the West Coast, and the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe combined to produce three of the top five finishers in the Kentucky Derby.
In my eyes, the Wood Memorial featured the deepest field, with the top three finishers (Verrazano, Normandy Invasion and Vyjack) being separated by only a length at the finish. I have serious respect for all three runners in the Kentucky Derby.
The Florida Derby could also prove to be influential, but I am taking a mostly negative view toward the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby. However, that doesn't necessarily mean I will be leaving Java's War, Oxbow and Revolutionary off all tickets.