The final scoring race on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, Thursday’s Cardinal Conditions race at Chelmsford City, will determine who gets the invitation to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The one-mile contest on Polytrack offers points on a scale of 30-12-6-3 to the respective top four, ensuring a shake-up of the leaderboard.
Only two in the Cardinal are Triple Crown-nominated, Aidan O’Brien’s U S S Michigan and the Paul Cole-trained Shir Khan.
U S S Michigan, a beautifully bred son of War Front, just broke his maiden convincingly at Dundalk March 1. A late foal with a May 22 birthday, the gray is playing catch-up. If inexperience could be a factor in his first start outside Ireland, U S S Michigan has loads of potential. Ryan Moore has the call on the 2-1 morning-line favorite, his odds reflecting his reputation more than his bare form.
O’Brien entered another, more experienced War Front colt in Antilles, who scored in his fourth try as a juvenile. This marks his first outing since November, and on a synthetic surface.
Shir Khan, also making his sophomore debut here, handled the Tapeta well in his five-length victory at Wolverhampton in his second start. But like the O’Brien pair, he’s stepping up in class.
“It is going to take a fair horse to win on Thursday as it looks a hot race,” said the trainer’s son and assistant, Oliver Cole.
“Shir Khan has been working well. We have not done any testing work, but what we have seen, we have been pleased with.
“We don't quite know how good he is and whether he is in the deep end or not, we don't know. I expect we will find out on Thursday.
“He took a long time to come to hand physically last year, but we have always liked the horse.
“The winner of this race gets in the Kentucky Derby provided they are nominated and Shir Khan is. He has a bit of a dirt pedigree being by Leroidesanimaux, the sire of Animal Kingdom, and his dam is by Street Cry.
“It is a shot in the dark but after his win we thought we would enter him.”
Beyond the untapped talent of U S S Michigan, the Cardinal is a “hot race” due to the presence of stakes-tested sophomores, chief among them Dark Vision. The Mark Johnston trainee created a massive impression in the Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood, prompting Godolphin to swoop in and purchase him privately. Dark Vision then threw in a clunker behind superstar Too Darn Hot in the Champagne (G2) at Doncaster, but is entitled to bounce back off the layoff here. The 7-2 chance clearly tops the field on official ratings.
Fanaar comes off his first career stakes victory in the March 2 Spring Cup over Lingfield’s Polytrack. The Shadwell colorbearer showed the benefits of being gelded since his prior start, a fourth in the Horris Hill (G3) for trainer William Haggas.
Others with Group form at two are Bye Bye Hong Kong, runner-up in the Tattersalls (G3) at Newmarket, and Railway (G2) third Certain Lad, who later scored a minor stakes win in France.
Barys had won two straight, including a stakes on the Polytrack at France’s Cagnes-sur-Mer, before his subpar seventh in the Patton. But he had a health excuse that day (reportedly coughing afterward). Battle of Waterloo, a winner over this track last out, rounds out the nine-horse field.
None of the Cardinal entrants has any points on the European leaderboard. Indeed, the preceding points races in Europe have not produced a clear 2019 Kentucky Derby candidate.
Partly that’s because the four events held last fall were all on turf, and accordingly featured promising youngsters looking toward the European classics. Godolphin’s Royal Marine, previously the leader during the winter “halftime,” could have made an impact, until an upset loss in his dirt test in Dubai.
This year, the European Road shifted to all-weather tracks, but again without substantive results for the Derby trail. Playa del Puente became the notional points leader after capturing the March 6 Patton S. at Dundalk, but if a Derby is in his future, it’s the Hong Kong version. Trainer Mick Halford has said that his owner is eager to transfer him to his home base of Hong Kong. Not Triple Crown-nominated, Playa del Puente will likely be en route there around the beginning of May.
Jahbath, winner of Kempton’s Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions race March 6 (and stablemate of Cardinal entrant Fanaar), is not a Triple Crown nominee either. At least Haggas kept the door ajar enough to give him a chance on dirt in the UAE Derby (G2) on Dubai World Cup night – a door that presumably closed when Jahbath wound up 11th of 14.
Hence with none of them in the Cardinal, Thursday’s winner will vault to the top of the leaderboard with 30 points. Whether the Cardinal winner is Kentucky Derby-bound is another matter. As we just saw with the Japan Road, the invitation went to the fourth on the Japanese leaderboard, Master Fencer, because he was Triple Crown nominated and the top three declined.
Post time for the Cardinal, Thursday’s 4TH race at Chelmsford, is 10:35 a.m. (EDT), and you can watch and wager on TwinSpires.com.