The first round of major prep races is in the books, with Constitution proving to be a gutsy winner in the Florida Derby and Vicar's in Trouble leading wire to wire in the Louisiana Derby.
Constitution extended his perfect mark to three while defeating a well-regarded group of rivals in his stakes debut, out-dueling Fountain of Youth and Hutcheson winner Wildcat Red for a neck decision at Gulfstream Park. By the superb sire Tapit, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt established himself as a top contender for the Run for the Roses.
Vicar's in Trouble showed speed from the break and rolled to a surprisingly easy victory at Fair Grounds. His pedigree isn't favorable -- the Louisiana-bred sold for a mere $8,000 as a yearling -- but the improving colt merits respect after netting a 104 BRIS Speed rating, the top stakes number for a Derby contender this year. Bet down to 3-1 Saturday, the Mike Maker charge could continue to receive support with the popular Rosie Napravnik, who contributed to Pants on Fire being the 8-1 second favorite in the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
This weekend promises to be even bigger, with the strong possibility that the eventual Kentucky Derby favorite will be in action (maybe the top two betting choices). At Aqueduct, Social Inclusion will make his much-anticipated stakes bow against a deep field in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial. And West Coast sensation California Chrome, who tops many Kentucky Derby lists presently, will receive his final tune-up in the Santa Anita Derby.
I will review last weekend's races and provide some early thoughts on the upcoming events.
Constitution rushed to the front after missing the break in his career debut and led wire to wire in his second start, but the speedy sophomore settled behind pacesetter Wildcat Red in the Florida Derby, racing two lengths back in fourth after an opening half-mile in a moderate 48 seconds.
He wasn't doing it willingly -- the inexperienced colt was tossing his head in a rank manner rounding the first turn -- but perhaps was confused by mixed signals from Javier Castellano, who appeared to ask for speed at the break before quickly taking a hold of his mount entering the bend. Regardless, Constitution was in a good spot, displaying the stalking tactics he'll need to be effective in the Kentucky Derby.
Constitution caught a break when Wildcat Red and Johnny Velazquez drifted off the rail leaving the far turn, allowing Castellano room to accelerate into contention. It was a small space and Constitution displayed plenty of courage in tight quarters, but he was fortunate that Castellano didn't have to tap on the brakes and lose valuable ground trying to guide him around both Wildcat Red and General a Rod in upper stretch.
Leaving the rail open was the difference between winning and losing for Wildcat Red, who proved game all the way to the wire. Constitution gained the upper hand late over his stubborn foe.
"I'm very, very proud of him," Pletcher said of the winner. "It's a testament to the quality of horse he is -- to go from a maiden to an allowance to a Grade 1 and to show a different running style and get some dirt in his face and put in an effort like that against much more seasoned horses. It was a huge effort."
Being unraced at two isn't a major concern -- that trend won't last in this era of lightly-raced horses -- but Constitution has only two starts since his career debut on January 11, a period of 112 days. Given his extreme lack of foundation, that seems like a lot to overcome.
Pletcher arranged four preps for Verrazano last year and Bodemeister, who was also unraced at two, ran four times for Bob Baffert prior to his runner-up finish in 2012. Rebel winner Hoppertunity, the morning line third choice in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, made his career bow on January 4 and will have the benefit of five starts before the Kentucky Derby.
Constitution may get enough out of three preps, but bettors generally want to avoid such lightly-raced horses in the Kentucky Derby. Since 1915, Big Brown is the lone winner with only three career starts to his credit. And Big Brown registered a 110 BRIS Speed rating for his commanding victory in the Florida Derby.
Unlike Big Brown, Constitution will bring an underwhelming set of Speed ratings into the Derby. I expected a significant jump forward following his first two starts (88-96 Speed) but the bay colt received only a 97 in the Florida Derby. Those numbers are typically seen from longshots in the Kentucky Derby -- Mine That Bird, a 50-1 upsetter in 2008, is the only Derby winner to earn lower figures on dirt.
I picked Constitution to win the Florida Derby and remain a fan of his, but I don't know if he can do any better than Curlin, an unraced two-year-old who sustained his first setback when third in his fourth career start in the 2007 Derby. That colt went on to enjoy tremendous success and Constitution is very promising as well.
Cairo Prince faltered as the 6-5 favorite in his first start since the January 25 Holy Bull. The Pioneerof the Nile colt enjoyed a nice trip, similar to the one that produced a smashing 5 3/4-length victory last time, but lacked the same finishing kick after being in a perfect spot to pounce turning for home.
"We're obviously disappointed," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He flattened out late. He looked like he got there and in the clear, which is what he likes and he just flattened out…Maybe the nine weeks (off) was telling on him, maybe the inside was better, it's hard to say, but we'll regroup and move on to May 3."
The result puts Cairo Prince in a tedious spot with only 24 points, but attrition always plays a part in the build-up to the Kentucky Derby and the 20th horse last year needed only 10 points.
Cairo Prince wouldn't be the first Derby winner to rebound from an unplaced effort -- Thunder Gulch, Sea Hero, Giacomo and Mine That Bird all finished fourth in the final prep -- and I like his run style given the probability of a hot and contested pace. His great-grandsire (Unbridled) captured the 1990 Derby and his grandsire (Empire Maker) and Pioneerof the Nile both finished second.
His immediate female family, which is loaded with speed, rates as a greater concern following Saturday's performance, but keep in mind that the McLaughlin-trained Closing Argument, a son of sprinter Successful Appeal that practically no one gave a chance to at 1 1/4 miles, nearly pulled off a 70-1 upset in the 2005 Derby, finishing second by a half-length. That colt recorded a well-beaten third when making his final prep in the Blue Grass.
Wildcat Red handled the 1 1/8 miles Saturday, but I think the 10-furlong distance will prove too demanding for the son of D'wildcat. He does bring a lot of early gas to the Derby pace scenario.
General a Rod changed tactics, tracking the pacesetter in second after dueling for the lead in his first two starts this year, but came up empty in the stretch drive, finishing 1 1/2 lengths back in third. He could attempt to revert back to his front-running ways next time and his pedigree is suitable on paper -- the Roman Ruler colt is out of a Dynaformer mare. But I can't envision him performing well at the 1 1/4-mile trip on Derby day.
There appeared to be plenty of speed to the outside in Rise Up and Albano, but Vicar's in Trouble seized the initiative from post 6 at the break, establishing reasonable splits of :23 2/5 and :47 4/5 on a short lead. He started to widen his advantage leaving the far turn, drawing off smartly into the stretch drive en route to a convincing 3 1/2-length decision.
A 13-length maiden winner at six furlongs in his second career start, the son of Into Mischief jumped immediately to stakes company with a 6 3/4-length romp in the January 18 Lecomte. Vicar's in Trouble drew post 13 in the Risen Star and recorded a solid third-place effort after traveling wide on both turns.
After registering Speed ratings of 88 and 92 for the stakes efforts, Vicar's in Trouble broke through with a massive number (104) that puts him at the head of the class (at least in stakes races). He'll face different circumstances at Churchill Downs, and is bred to be more of a sprinter/miler type, but it's easy to appreciate what he accomplished on Saturday.
"You know he is a tiny horse but he's got a great big heart," Napravnik said.
Ken Ramsey now has two horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby, with We Miss Artie winning the Spiral Stakes a week earlier, and the colorful owner could add another via Bobby's Kitten, who will be one of the favorites in the April 12 Blue Grass.
Intense Holiday easily proved second best after a rough trip. Winner of the Risen Star in his previous outing, the Pletcher-trained colt got very tired in the latter stages, nearly hitting the rail as he drifted in through the stretch, but it was a solid performance to build upon.
Intense Holiday netted his first triple-digit Speed rating (100) and I like his breeding for 1 1/4 miles. The grinder still has some quality concerns, but he's come a long way since the fall and could turn out to be an intriguing price play from off the pace. I'm looking forward to seeing him train at Churchill Downs -- the late-blooming colt recorded a half-mile bullet workout at Palm Meadows in preparation for the Louisiana Derby.
Commanding Curve got slammed at the start by the wayward Rise Up, forcing him to the back of the pack entering the first turn, and he passed a lot of horses in the final three-eighths of a mile to be third. The late runner was making only his second start since breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs last November and could continue to show more for Dallas Stewart, who finished second with 34-1 Golden Soul in last year's Derby.
"He's progressing every time," jockey Robby Albarado said. "I got eliminated at the start, but he ran on so easily. There's more there."
Commanding Curve may need help making the field with only 20 points to his credit and the Derby could be too much too soon for the improving three-year-old. We'll see whether his connections take a bullish approach and run him back on two weeks' rest in either the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass.
Toast of New York raced up close before drawing off to an upset victory in Saturday's U.A.E. Derby, netting 100 points for the 2 1/2-length decision, and the Jamie Osborne trainee is nominated to the Triple Crown.
Stamina won't be an issue for the Kentucky-bred colt. He is by Thewayyouare, a son of Kingmambo, who is perhaps best known for siring champion older male Lemon Drop Kid, winner of the Belmont Stakes and Travers in 1999. Toast of New York's dam is by the Danzig stallion Syncline.
Toast of New York has made his last four starts on synthetic tracks but there's no telling how he will handle the dirt at Churchill Downs if he makes the trip.
Based on Speed ratings, California Chrome and Social Inclusion are the horses to beat at Santa Anita and Aqueduct. They are the only two horses with a triple-digit number to their credit, with California Chrome netting a 102 in the San Felipe and Social Inclusion a 106 in his recent allowance win.
I give California Chrome the best chance, with a tactical advantage in the eight-horse Santa Anita Derby. He went straight to the front in the March 8 San Felipe, registering BRIS Early Pace ratings of 104 and 107 on a short lead, and drew off spectacularly entering the stretch, winning in hand by 7 1/4 lengths. With the prospect of little early pressure, it's easy to envision another wire-to-wire score.
Candy Boy and Hoppertunity will provide a class test that was missing in the San Felipe.
I thought Candy Boy's half-length margin of victory in the February 8 Bob Lewis was deceptive -- he looked like the winner when advancing into contention on the far turn -- and appeared to have much more to offer based upon a strong gallop out. Trainer John Sadler freshened him 56 days and I'm expecting another strong finish.
Hoppertunity posted a nice maiden win when making his second start January 30 but disappointed with a non-threatening fourth in his stakes debut, the February 22 Risen Star. He rebounded with an encouraging win in the March 15 Rebel at Oaklawn, out-finishing Tapiture after bumping repeatedly in the stretch drive, and the Bob Baffert prospect could be a major contender at Churchill Downs if he continues to show more Saturday.
The possibility exists that Social Inclusion crushes his rivals on the front end in the Wood -- he established a track record making his two-turn debut at Gulfstream last out and the Pioneerof the Nile colt has won both starts by a combined 17 ½ lengths -- but I'm taking a contrarian view. Jockey Luis Contreras has no choice but to send him from post 11 and may be forced to run too hard during the early stages, softening up the lightly-raced colt for the latter stages.
Samraat and Uncle Sigh, a pair of hard-hitting New York-breds who appear to possess plenty of quality, will be included in any multi-race wagers, but I'll take a stab at a price with the late-running Kid Cruz.
Listed at 20-1 on the morning line, the reformed claimer has really come on in two outings this year for Linda Rice. Kid Cruz posted a fast-closing second in a five-horse allowance field over the inner track on January 26, recording 99 Speed and 108 Late Pace ratings as he ran out of room on the wire, and displayed a sensational turn of foot to capture the March 9 Private Terms at Laurel after a slow start.
Last of 10 rivals after six furlongs, about 15 lengths back of the leader, Kid Cruz flew home to win going away by four lengths, generating a 121 Late Pace as well as 98 Speed rating. The son of Lemon Drop Kid faces a serious class check, but I'm expecting a hot pace that sets up well for him.
Kentucky Derby Top 10