With an emphatic 6 1/4-length win in the Rebel S. (G2), THE FACTOR (War Front) became a dangerous contender for the Kentucky Derby (G1). The rest of the field will have to catch him.
Distance remains a potential stumbling block for The Factor -- it's difficult to imagine a colt running six furlongs in 1:06.98 winning the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles four months later -- but give him credit for a terrific performance in his two-turn debut.
Three graded races, including the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2), will be offered this weekend. The Derby is six weeks from Saturday.
The Factor ran a half-mile in :43 2/5 before winning by a diminishing three-quarters of a length in the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2) on February 20, his first start since his aforementioned maiden special weight victory in late December. He was given the opportunity to ration his quickness in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel and received the perfect set-up, running loose on the lead on a speed-favoring track at Oaklawn Park.
He went right to the front as expected and was clear by 2 1/2 lengths upon completing the opening quarter-mile in :23 1/5. His next splits, :46 3/5 and 1:10 4/5, were very manageable on the ultra-quick surface, and The Factor settled nicely for jockey Martin Garcia as he cruised along the backstretch unopposed. He found another gear after turning into the stretch, widening his advantage in the final furlongs, and his final time of 1:42.19 was nearly identical to Havre de Grace (Saint Liam), a Grade 1-winning mare with loads more seasoning who impressively captured the Azeri S. (G3) one race earlier.
It was an encouraging two-turn debut to say the least, but The Factor didn't prove he could last 1 1/4 miles on Derby Day. He just opened the door to the possibility.
His pedigree is respectable for a Derby contender. From the first crop of the Danzig stallion War Front, who is also responsible for Derby contender Soldat, The Factor is out of a mare by Miswaki, sire of Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Black Tie Affair. Miswaki is by Mr. Prospector.
The Factor wasn't predetermined to be a sprinter, but his brilliance at shorter distances indicated a preference. That kind of speed doesn't win the Kentucky Derby typically, but there are exceptions. Trainer Bob Baffert has mentioned 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones as one to emulate and the Hall of Fame conditioner has first-hand experience, preparing the speedy War Emblem for a wire-to-wire Derby coup in 2002.
The Factor received a 106 BRIS Speed rating in the Rebel, the best two-turn number of any Derby contender this year. He's now headed to the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 16, and his bandwagon will continue to grow with another front-running victory
CALEB'S POSSE (Posse) didn't flatter the opposition with his runner-up performance. Overlooked at 24-1 following a well-beaten sixth in the Southwest S. (G3), the Donnie Von Hemel trainee was the only late runner to make any impact on the final outcome, launching a five-wide rally on the far turn into contention. He could be a major factor in a race like the Derby Trial (G3) on Churchill's opening-day program.
ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) didn't run back to his winning Southwest form, checking in third after being out-finished in the stretch. He was third early and basically held his positioning in a one-paced effort. SARATOGA RED (Eddington), a debut maiden winner in the slop on February 24, showed a little speed early and managed to save fourth.
SWAY AWAY (Afleet Alex) never got untracked from off the pace and finished a disappointing sixth in his two-turn debut. Trainer Jeff Bonde will give the San Vicente runner-up another opportunity to earn his way into the Derby field.
ALTERNATION (Distorted Humor) never got the opportunity to make his stakes bow. A two-time allowance winner at Oaklawn Park, the promising colt washed out in the post parade and wound up being scratched after acting up terribly in the starting gate.
MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) posted a 1 1/2-length score in the February 19 Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds and will be the one to beat in Saturday's Louisiana Derby. The Kathy Ritvo pupil already has experience at the nine-furlong distance, recording a second in the Remsen S. (G2) last November, and will be forwardly placed from the start with jockey Rajiv Maragh.
There isn't a preponderance of speed in the 13-horse field, but that doesn't eliminate the possibility of a legitimate set-up if two or three runners come out gunning it for the early lead. MACHEN (Distorted Humor) and ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex) will both drop back to the rear of the field and look to make their presence felt in the stretch drive.
I'm going with Machen for top honors. The three-year-old opened his racing career with a pair of easy wins at Fair Grounds this year but faced a whole different level of competition when making his stakes debut in the Risen Star. After offering a solid run to reach a striking position at the top of the stretch, the Neil Howard colt lacked the sufficient finishing kick, holding his position in a fourth-placed effort. That was a valuable learning experience for the improving chestnut. Machen loves the Fair Grounds oval and I'm anticipating a better-timed move on Saturday that carries him to the winner's circle.
Elite Alex scratched from the Rebel in favor of the Louisiana Derby and is in a similar situation to Machen. He came up a little short when making his first stakes attempt, and third lifetime start, in the Southwest last out, rallying into a threatening position on the final bend before being fanned six wide into the lane, and the Tim Ritchey trainee will try to improve off the experience. His BRIS numbers are commendable and Calvin Borel accompanies the dangerous late runner, but Elite Alex will have to overcome post 11.
Mucho Macho Man has to be in the mix betting-wise, but he hasn't shown much willingness to rate during the early stages of his races. He could find himself under a stranglehold or risks exerting too much energy if the pace is hot, but it's hard to knock his form. But I'll try to beat him for the win at very short odds.
LEFT (Arch) is an intriguing possibility for trainer Al Stall Jr. Unbeaten in two career starts, he finished up full of run when capturing a February 26 allowance/optional claiming event at Fair Grounds and will attempt to make an impact from just off the pace in his stakes debut. However, the lightly-raced prospect wasn't done any favors in post 10.
Saturday's $500,000 Spiral S. (G3) on Turfway Park's Polytrack will feature a well-matched field of 12 attempting to earn a spot in the Derby starting gate, and POSITIVE RESPONSE (Pomeroy) looks tough to beat. After finishing third in the El Camino Real Derby (G3), the Bill Morey-trained gelding shipped to Turfway for an easy seven-length score in the local prep, the March 5 John Battaglia Memorial S. He's never run a poor one around two turns, compiling a 5-4-0-1 mark, and Positive Response doesn't figure to face much pressure on the front end of the nine-furlong event.
ANIMAL KINGDOM (Leroidesanimaux [Brz]) lacks seasoning, but the Graham Motion runner showed an affinity for Polytrack when nicely breaking his maiden at Keeneland two starts back and received a useful tightener for his stakes debut, recording a head second in a deep Gulfstream Park turf allowance. The chestnut recovered after missing the break that afternoon and has the tactical speed to sit a favorable trip Saturday under Alan Garcia.
KING CONGIE (Badge of Silver) will bring highly respectable turf form into the Spiral and Turfway stakes winner TWINSPIRED (Harlan's Holiday) should appreciate the additional distance. Both colts merit consideration in the Spiral.
Sunday's $800,000 Sunland Derby won't feature the most talented field when 11 line up in the New Mexico desert, and Grade 3 winner ASTROLOGY (A.P. Indy) could be odds-on in his 2011 opener. The Steve Asmussen charge will make his first start since a close second in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) last fall and Julien Leparoux will be in for the mount, but I'll try to beat him at short odds. Astrology doesn't appear to be the most durable individual, returning to the worktab this year in February, and he'll have to overcome post 11 in his first start at nine furlongs. He's never earned a top BRIS Speed rating in five career starts and looks vulnerable Sunday.
I'm leaning toward SUPREME RULER (Don't Get Mad) in his stakes debut. The Jinks Fires colt broke his maiden at first asking on January 15, rallying from far back to win going away in a one-mile event at Oaklawn Park, and exits a head second in his first start against winners. Supreme Ruler's BRIS Speed and Late Pace numbers are as good as any in the field, he shows a six-furlong bullet work in preparation and the bay sophomore figures to receive a favorable pace scenario. Oaklawn shippers also have recent history in this event, with Endorsement posting an impressive victory last year following a maiden special weight score at the Hot Springs, Arkansas, track.
Maiden winners SINAI (Rockport Harbor) and NACHO SAINT (Yes It's True) also offer some appeal in the Sunland Derby.
Enjoy the racing.