The Risen Star (G2) was a major prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1) last weekend, but the biggest storyline came from the San Vicente (G2), which featured up-and-coming sensation THE FACTOR (War Front).
"Freakishly fast" is a common description for the Bob Baffert trainee, and his next probable start, the Sunland Derby (G3) on March 27, represents a litmus test for the exciting colt. The Factor is slated to make his two-turn debut in the 1 1/8-mile event, and if he wins impressively, the gray colt will greatly enhance his status for the Kentucky Derby. But that's a big if.
We'll recap the San Vicente, Risen Star and Southwest S. (G3), and preview this Saturday's Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
The Derby is 10 weeks from Saturday.
The Factor carried his speed seven furlongs on Sunday, running the second quarter-mile of the San Vicente in a blistering :21 1/5 before holding off the fast-closing SWAY AWAY (Afleet Alex) by three-quarters of a length. The runner-up, who ran well off a six-month layoff, was getting to the winner in deep stretch, but it wasn't surprising to see The Factor get a little tired late in his stakes debut.
Let's take a look at his history. The Factor made his career bow as the odds-on favorite at Hollywood Park on November 28, but didn't make the early lead and finished fourth. In his second outing, on the December 26 opening-day program at Santa Anita, The Factor shot right to the front at the start and spectacularly ran off from the competition, extending a three-length advantage at the top of the stretch to 8 1/4 on the wire. He went in :21 3/5, :44, :55 2/5 and 1:06 4/5, breaking the six-furlong dirt track record at Santa Anita.
The Factor worked five furlongs in :58 on January 9, but exited the drill with a foot issue. He needed 30 days before posting another move and entered the San Vicente with only two recent workouts to his credit.
"I knew he was going to be short," Baffert said of the abbreviated work schedule. "You can only get away with this with a horse of this caliber."
That's a common theme with The Factor -- he's a horse blessed with so much raw ability.
"It's hard to get a horse like this," Baffert explained, "They don't come around very often."
The Factor, who has earned BRIS Speed ratings of 104 and 106 in his two wins, will likely benefit off the San Vicente experience, but brilliant sprinters don't often win the Kentucky Derby. Two turns is the next challenge, and his pedigree won't preclude him from being successful.
He's from the first crop of the Danzig stallion War Front, who is throwing good runners on dirt, turf and synthetic, and War Front is represented by a Kentucky Derby prospect in Soldat, who will enter Saturday's Fountain of Youth off a 10 3/4-length allowance victory at 1 1/8 miles. The Factor is out the Miswaki mare Greyciousness, who won at distances up to 1 1/16 miles, and Miswaki (Mr. Prospector) rates as an outstanding broodmare sire: he's been represented in the same capacity by world-class routers like Sea the Stars, Galileo (Ire), Daylami (Ire) and Hernando (Fr).
The Factor has stamina influences in his pedigree; it comes down to whether he can harness his speed or is strictly built for shorter distances. It's easy to doubt his chances going long -- he is a speed machine -- but we won't know for sure until he tries it. And The Factor has the right trainer in three-time Derby winner Baffert, who is hoping The Factor can emulate Smarty Jones, another very speedy colt whose talent carried him to victory in the 2004 Derby and Preakness (G1).
The Factor will need to show that he can rate on the lead in the Sunland Derby.
Sway Away was making his first start since a close second to J P's Gusto (Successful Appeal) in the August 8 Best Pal S. (G2) at Del Mar and was outrun early in the six-horse San Vicente. After being fanned wide into the stretch, he rallied furiously in the final furlongs to reduce a sizeable deficit. The bay colt has recorded BRIS Late Pace figures of 107 (San Vicente), 106 and 102 in three sprint starts, and trainer Jeff Bonde is excited about the prospect of stretching out in distance; the late runner is by Belmont S. (G1) and Preakness hero Afleet Alex and is out of a Seattle Slew mare. Sway Away is a candidate to move forward off the San Vicente, and he may train straight up to the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 9.
PREMIER PEGASUS (Fusaichi Pegasus) sustained his first career defeat when third in the San Vicente, but he didn't run poorly in his first appearance since winning the Hollywood Prevue (G3) on November 20. After dominating three starts on the front end last year, the Myung Kwon Cho colt found himself nearly a couple of lengths off the early pace Sunday and battled gamely throughout the stretch run. Premier Pegasus is bred to appreciate further distances and may continue to show more in his two-turn debut next time.
MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) opened his three-year-old season with a subpar fourth in the January 30 Holy Bull (G3), but he rebounded with a comfortable 1 1/2-length decision in Saturday's Risen Star at Fair Grounds, netting his first stakes victory and $180,000 in graded earnings. The bay colt stalked in second behind slow opening fractions of :24 3/5 and :49 1/5, and stuck his head in front while between horses approaching the conclusion of the far turn.
SANTIVA (Giant's Causeway) loomed a serious win threat on the far outside turning for home, battling briefly with Mucho Macho Man, but began to weaken slightly in midstretch. He held second by 1 1/4 lengths over 2-1 favorite ROGUE ROMANCE (Smarty Jones), who closed late for third.
The top three finishers displayed commendable form at two and are well situated for the Kentucky Derby from a graded-earnings perspective. Fourth-placer MACHEN (Distorted Humor) was one-paced late in his stakes debut Saturday. The lightly-raced colt (career debut on January 2) gained valuable seasoning and remains a nice prospect down the road, but the Risen Star rates as a disappointment.
Mucho Macho Man concluded his juvenile campaign with a pair of non-threatening seconds behind To Honor and Serve (Bernardini) in the Remsen (G2) and Nashua (G2), and he flattered his well-regarded rival on Saturday. Trained by Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man was bumped early in the one-mile Holy Bull and wound up contesting the early pace before tiring late. He was under a snug hold entering the backstretch of the Risen Star due to the slow splits, but he did settle much better this time beneath Rajiv Maragh. His connections are probably looking forward to seeing him rate a little further back, with the expectation of more legitimate fractions, in his upcoming starts.
Mucho Macho Man received only a 97 BRIS Speed rating Saturday, but the pace was slow and he finished strongly, garnering a 107 Late Pace rating. And he registered a 101 Speed rating in the nine-furlong Remsen. Mucho Macho Man greatly improved his Derby stock in the Risen Star, and he'll rate as a top contender with another strong showing in his final Derby prep, which will come in either the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2) or the Florida Derby (G1) eight days later.
Santiva was making his first start since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) at Churchill Downs. The smallish colt didn't run fast last year (career-best 92 BRIS Speed rating at two) and still has much to prove for Eddie Kenneally, but he gave a fine account of himself Saturday.
Rogue Romance ran in spots during his 2011 opener, making an early move on the far turn before dropping back in the field at the top of the stretch, but it was encouraging to see him finish up well late. The one-run closer owns a big kick -- his 2 1/2-length victory in the grassy Bourbon S. (G3) last fall was visually impressive and he overcame a rough trip to rally for third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) -- and trainer Kenny McPeek could care less about winning these preps; he wants to keep moving forward before firing the cannon on Derby Day. Rogue Romance benefited from the tightener, and he's the type who will always have at least a puncher's chance due to his run style.
ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) got the jump on J P's Gusto in Monday's Southwest at Oaklawn Park, carrying his momentum off the far turn to a clear lead at the top of the short stretch run, and held on to win by a diminishing length over the 6-5 favorite.
The Southwest was a major improvement from his well-beaten fourth in the January 17 Smarty Jones S., and Archarcharch reportedly exited that race with a hock issue that quickly cleared up for trainer Jinks Fires. The dark bay colt had just broken his maiden two starts previously in the Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds, so there is room for further improvement, but Archarcharch registered only a 93 BRIS Speed rating. He'll need to run much faster against stiffer competition in the March 19 Rebel S. (G2).
J P's Gusto rated effectively in fifth and was the best horse Monday as he ran out of ground late, but he still has serious distance concerns going forward. He still rates as a legitimate win candidate for the Rebel at 1 1/16 miles.
Third-placer ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex) was heavily supported in his stakes debut and moved into a threatening position turning for home, but the maiden winner lacked the needed rally after going wide and will need to improve significantly in his upcoming starts to garner enough graded earnings for the Derby.
Saturday's Fountain of Youth drew a field of eight, with To Honor and Serve listed as the 8-5 favorite on the morning line. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has never been a prominent player on the Derby scene, and To Honor and Serve is his best prospect yet. The colt has registered century-topping BRIS Speed ratings in his last three starts, breaking his maiden by 8 3/4 lengths prior to easy wins in the Nashua and Remsen, and the latter two victories came in wire-to-wire style. To Honor and Serve could wind up on the early lead Saturday with John Velazquez, and we have to respect his chances.
Soldat recorded a 108 BRIS Speed rating for his aforementioned allowance victory at Gulfstream Park, but it came on a wet track. That's the only potential drawback with the former turf runner because Soldat clearly has plenty of talent. I won't be surprised to see him challenge for the win over an expected fast track Saturday, and the Kiaran McLaughlin charge will be forwardly placed during the early stages with Alan Garcia.
Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) winner GOURMET DINNER (Trippi) doesn't need to worry about graded earnings, but he faces a class and distance check in the Fountain of Youth. Third in the Holy Bull last out, he doesn't offer much betting appeal in this corner.
BOWMAN'S CAUSEWAY (Giant's Causeway) is a good-looking prospect from the Patrick Biancone stable, but he's facing a massive class hike from a maiden special weight victory on February 11.
SHACKLEFORD (Forestry) will make his stakes debut in good form for Dale Romans. A Churchill Downs maiden winner two back, he exits a 2 1/4-length allowance tally going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream on February 5. The chestnut owns plenty of tactical speed, but figures to closely stalk the front runners from post 8 with Jesus Castanon. He's one to use in the exotics.
CASPER'S TOUCH (Touch Gold) finished second to Shackleford following a troubled trip in his 2011 bow, and I'm going to support him for a minor upset Saturday. I loved his maiden win two starts back at Churchill Downs and thought the colt was severely compromised by a slow pace last time, as he was rank and hard to handle while being heavily restrained in the opening stages. It got even worse when he was knocked off stride by another rival in upper stretch, but Casper's Touch managed to re-rally in the final stages for second. He's capable of a much better trip on Saturday, with nearly every member of the field wanting to be on or within a couple of lengths of the early lead, and Casper's Touch will look to mow them down in the stretch under new rider Alex Solis.
Gulfstream will also offer a 1 1/8-mile allowance race of note on the Fountain of Youth undercard that could produce a starter or two for the Florida Derby. ARCH TRAVELER (Sky Mesa) will stretch out following a smart 2 1/2-length maiden score at seven furlongs on February 6 and the James Jerkens pupil is listed as the 2-1 favorite on the morning line. COOL BLUE RED HOT (Harlan's Holiday), an easy 3 1/4-length maiden winner at 1-9 odds two starts back at Calder for Angel Penna Jr., will make his second appearance over the track after finishing second to Soldat last time. NACHO BUSINESS (Rahy) is a promising debut winner from the Kelly Breen barn. The dark bay colt earned a solid Speed rating (96) when capturing a one-mile maiden special weight on January 30, defeating Fountain of Youth entrant Bowman's Causeway, and he's recorded three consecutive bullet works in advance of his first start against winners. Kenny McPeek will send out a pair of stakes-experienced sophomores in PRIVATE PRIZE (Pure Prize) and WASHINGTON'S RULES (Roman Ruler). HOTHERSAL (Smart Strike), who rolled to an easy maiden over the turf at Gulfstream, tries the main track for Seth Benzel.