The “Prep Season” portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series is underway, awarding points on a 10-4-2-1 sliding scale to the top four finishers, and a couple of important races on Oct. 3 – the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and Champagne (G1) at Belmont Park – will yield early hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2016.
The Breeders’ Futurity and Champagne also serve as key preps for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on October 31.
Big Chief Racing’s Exaggerator, who rallied from just off the pace to capture the Saratoga Special (G2) on August 16, heads a contentious field of 12 in the Breeders’ Futurity. A son of the surging sire Curlin, Exaggerator is 2-for-3 overall, breaking his maiden at Del Mar in his second career outing, and hails from the barn of Keith Desormeaux. The dark bay colt will break from post 7 with Kent Desormeaux, the trainer’s younger brother, and Exaggerator is listed as the 7-2 favorite on the morning line.
Radar Racing LLC’s Rated R Superstar earned 4 points finishing second in the September 12 Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs and can add to his total in the Breeders’ Futurity. Conditioned by Kenny McPeek, the Rated R Superstar will break from the rail post with three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel. Starlight Racing’s Uncle Vinny rates as a serious contender for Kentucky Derby winner and leading trainer Todd Pletcher if he can overcome the outermost post in the 1 1/16-mile race. From the first crop of well-regarded stallion Uncle Mo, Uncle Vinny captured the Sanford (G3) two starts back via disqualification and finished third most recently in the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga. Luis Saez rides.
Sheikh of Sheikhs recorded a flashy debut performance for owner Abdullah Saeed Almaddah, easily taking a maiden special weight at Saratoga on August 22, and the promising youngster merits respect in his first stakes attempt. Edgar Prado picks up the mount for Wesley Ward. Albaugh Family Stable’s Brody’s Cause is another good-looking recent graduate, rallying to break his maiden going away at Churchill Downs on September 11, and will seek to make a late impact for trainer Dale Romans and jockey Corey Lanerie.
The Breeders’ Futurity marks the U.S. bow for Godolphin Racing’s Hawkbill, a son of top U.S. sire Kitten’s Joy who brings a three-race winning streak from England. Mike Smith takes over the reins as the Charles Appleby trainee makes his first dirt start. Mark D. Breen’s Pinnacle Peak owns a stakes victory, capturing the Prairie Meadows Mile two starts ago, but the chestnut colt will need to improve upon a well-beaten third in the September 6 Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park to challenge. The Michael Stidham representative receives a positive jockey switch to Victor Espinoza, who has ridden the last two Kentucky Derby winners and three overall.
John C. Oxley’s Gametown is still a maiden but has performed respectably in both starts, recording a close second at Churchill Downs last time as the favorite. Curtis C. Green’s Wild Man fits the same description, just missing by a neck last time at short odds versus a nice field at Belmont Park. Maiden winners Sticksstatelydude, Threefiveindia and Uncle Jerry are expected longshots.
Reddam Racing’s Ralis is the one to beat in the Champagne, a one-mile test that will feature nine 2-year-olds. Trained by 2012 Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill and ridden by Javier Castellano, the California-bred son of Square Eddie has been installed as the 3-1 choice on the morning line following a sparkling 5 ¾-length victory in the September 7 Hopeful Stakes. Ralis breaks from post 5.
Dubb, Imperio, Alexander and Bethlehem Stable’s Magna Light will be the one to catch with his speed. An easy debut winner at Belmont Park, Magna Light led wire to wire when making his second start in the Sanford but was disqualified and placed third after altering course in deep stretch. The Rudy Rodriguez-trained colt exits a second to Ralis as the Hopeful favorite and could find the added ground of the Champagne to his advantage given his route-oriented pedigree. Jose Ortiz retains the mount.
Ralis and Magna Light are the only top contenders with stakes experience. Charles E. Fipke’s Tale of S’avall and Let’s Go Stable’s Ready Dancer will attract support following excellent maiden wins on the August 28 Travers Stakes undercard at Saratoga. The former hails from the barn of Kentucky Derby winner Barclay Tagg and keeps Cornelio Velasquez up, while the latter is a Pletcher charge with John Velazquez returning to the saddle.
Rafting, a chestnut son of leading sire Tapit owned by Wertheimer and Frere, left a good impression when rolling to a 2 ¼-length tally in his second career start at Saratoga on September 5. Irad Ortiz Jr. will be back aboard for trainer Graham Motion, who adds first-time Lasix. St. Elias Stable, MeB Racing Stables & Brooklyn Boyz Stables’ Greenpointcrusader and Phipps Stable’s Sail Ahoy also merit respect off nice maiden victories. Joe Bravo and Joel Rosario have the call.
The Monmouth Park-based Sunny Ridge and winless Portfolio Manager complete the Champagne line-up.