From three stakes races last weekend, four horses -- PANTS ON FIRE (Jump Start), TWICE THE APPEAL (Successful Appeal), ANIMAL KINGDOM (Leroidesanimaux [Brz]) and DECISIVE MOMENT (With Distinction) -- vaulted into the top 10 on the graded earnings list, but none appear likely to make a serious impact in the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1).
We will have a race of significance this Sunday in the $1 million Florida Derby (G1), with at least four major contenders receiving their final tune-up. The Kentucky Derby is five weeks from Saturday.
Pants on Fire tracked 111-1 longshot Liondrive (Lion Tamer) in second through the opening six furlongs of Saturday's Louisiana Derby, seized the lead on the far turn, and gamely withstood the efforts of NEHRO (Mineshaft) and MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) to post a neck victory. It was a huge upset.
The Kelly Breen-trained colt brought only a maiden victory into the Louisiana Derby and was exiting a sixth-place clunker at 19-1 in the Risen Star S. (G2). He might have been 50-1 if not coupled on Saturday, but bettors were playing his entrymate, eighth-placer NACHO BUSINESS (Rahy), and fortuitously cashed on the 6-1 winner. Joe Bravo probably had his choice between the stablemates and selected Nacho Business, providing leading rider Anna Napravnik the mount on Pants on Fire.
The opening fractions -- :47 2/5 for the half-mile and 1:12 for six furlongs -- weren't fast at Fair Grounds and Pants on Fire benefited from a favorable trip. He'll face completely different circumstances in the Kentucky Derby, where he'll either be forced further off the pace or expend too much energy chasing the speed. After receiving BRIS Speed ratings of 89-92-91 in his three previous starts, he earned a 97 on Saturday. Look for a regression next time.
A late bloomer on the Derby trail emerged in the form of Nehro. A 4 1/2-length maiden winner in his previous start at Oaklawn Park, the Steve Asmussen colt showed more tactical speed in the Louisiana Derby, racing close to the early pace in third and after being cramped in tight quarters at the top of the stretch, rallied well in deep stretch to just miss at 36-1. Nehro will attempt to build upon this encouraging effort in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 16.
Mucho Macho Man disappointed his supporters as the 3-2 favorite in the Louisiana Derby, but the bay performed admirably considering that he tore out a chunk of flesh in his foot when losing a shoe at the start. He was in position to win entering the stretch and kept fighting all the way to wire, finishing third by less than a length.
Critics will knock his chances based on class and distance concerns, but Mucho Macho Man isn't the type of horse who should be easily dismissed. The hard-trying colt has posted a 2-1-1 mark in four starts around two turns and the Kathy Ritvo pupil has plenty of bottom to him (last five starts in graded stakes). His BRIS numbers remain a little light when compared to the top contenders, but they're respectable. He may not be able to win the Derby, but a gutsy performer like Mucho Macho Man can garner a minor award with his best.
Animal Kingdom made an excellent impression on the Polytrack at Turfway Park, offering an eye-catching move into contention on the far turn before powering his way to a 2 3/4-length victory, and the chestnut broke his maiden by a 3 1/4-length margin on Keeneland's Poly two starts prior to the Spiral. He opened his sophomore season with a close second in a turf allowance/optional claiming event at Gulfstream Park on March 3.
The promising colt may continue to excel on turf and all-weather tracks, but Graham Motion has never shown any indication of trying him on a conventional surface, working Animal Kingdom exclusively on turf eight times this year at Palm Meadows. He's a top contender for lucrative grass events this summer like the Secretariat S. (G1) and Virginia Derby (G2), but the Derby could turn out to be a one-time dirt experiment for the improving three-year-old.
Spiral runner-up Decisive Moment was trying an all-weather surface for the first time following a fifth in the Risen Star. After earning $200,000 for his second in the $1 million Delta Jackpot (G3) last November, he boosted his graded earnings total to a hefty $301,000 on Saturday. Decisive Moment's only stakes win came in the one-mile Jean Lafitte at Delta Downs on January 14, and the front-running colt will likely have his sights set on sprint/middle distances in the future. It's difficult to imagine him finishing in the top 10 at Churchill Downs.
Twice the Appeal, who was available for a $30,000 tag in a December 29 maiden-claiming race at Santa Anita, posted a 1 1/2-length victory at 25-1 odds in the Sunland Derby. He was exiting a second-place finish (disqualified to fourth) in the Turf Paradise Derby behind BEER MEISTER (Pleasant Tap), who closed from far back for sixth on Sunday.
Twice the Appeal is on the improve for trainer Jeff Bonde, but the dark bay colt will be up against it at the Grade 1 level.
ASTROLOGY (A.P. Indy) rallied to a short lead in midstretch but was no match for the winner late, settling for second in his first start since a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) last fall. He had every right to be a little rusty for Asmussen, but the outcome didn't flatter his Derby chances. He's never run very fast and his 93 BRIS Speed rating Sunday was on par with his best numbers last year.
Astrology wasn't in serious training until February and his durability remains a question. We'll see if Asmussen can get him ready for the Arkansas Derby three weeks later.
Sunday's Florida Derby is the centerpiece of the Gulfstream Park meet and a terrific field of eight is entered for the 1 1/8-mile affair.
After winning the Fountain of Youth (G2) and a nine-furlong allowance race in wire-to-wire fashion this meet, SOLDAT (War Front) will revert to rating tactics Sunday due to the presence of speedster FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy). That rival figures to cross over from his far outside post, but Soldat will probably be hustling a little to avoid being shuffled back from the rail. He'll be among a pack of horses trying to sit second or third entering the backstretch and could easily have a major say upon the final conclusion. We don't know whether 1 1/4 miles will suit him in the Derby, but 1 1/8 miles is definitely within his wheelhouse, with BRIS Speed ratings of 108 and 104 at the distance this year.
TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini) is drawn to the immediate outside of Soldat and won't be far back during the early stages either. The Bill Mott-trained colt dominated the competition last fall with his speed, compiling runaway victories in the Remsen (G2) and Nashua (G2), but faltered badly when adopting rating tactics in the Fountain of Youth. He probably was a little short last time, returning at the 1 1/8-mile distance off a freshening, and Mott is expecting a big jump forward for the highly-rated Derby prospect. The Florida Derby will give us a much better indication where he fits and Garrett Gomez will pick up the mount.
Holy Bull (G3) winner DIALED IN (Mineshaft) languished behind a tedious pace when finishing second to an older stablemate in a recent 1 1/8-mile allowance, his first attempt at two turns, and his connections had to be thrilled with the late addition of Flashpoint, who figures to come out winging it for the lead. Dialed In, who is still lightly raced with only three career starts to his credit, has plenty of speed on the female side of his pedigree and his ability to handle longer distances is a point of concern. But the late runner remains a serious threat to run down his rivals in the stretch.
STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini) is my top selection. He displayed class at two with a nice second in the Hopeful S. (G1), and his fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) is excusable due to the two-month hiatus. Stay Thirsty returned this year for Todd Pletcher in the 1 1/16-mile Gotham S. (G3) and after stalking a slow pace, he didn't find his best stride until midstretch, scoring by a widening 3 1/4-length margin. The dark bay galloped out very strongly past the finish line and is eligible to show much more on Sunday.
Pletcher will add blinkers, but Stay Thirsty won't need any early speed in the Florida Derby. The Repole Stable colorbearer can set up shop in midpack and begin grinding his way toward the front on the far turn. He looks like a natural to me for the Derby distance and I expect to see a big showing in his final prep.
The remaining contestants are unproven, but I give BOWMAN'S CAUSEWAY (Giant's Causeway) a chance to run well in his second stakes attempt. The Patrick Biancone colt recorded a commendable 101 BRIS Speed rating in a 1 1/8-mile maiden win three starts back but experienced a rough trip when stepping up to face winners in the Fountain of Youth next out. And his third versus allowance rivals last time, at a one-turn mile distance, is better than it appears at first glance. Bowman's Causeway has a much better foundation this time around and I'll use him for the exotics at long odds.
Enjoy the racing.