The Arkansas Derby (G1) and Blue Grass (G1) continued the upset trend on this year's Kentucky Derby Trail with a pair of longshot winners, ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) and BRILLIANT SPEED (Dynaformer), respectively. But the outcomes left us with a decidedly different feel upon each race's impact on the Kentucky Derby (G1).
Archarcharch and runner-up NEHRO (Mineshaft) moved into serious win consideration. Put these two colts in your Derby top 5 with confidence.
Archarcharch is improving for well-respected veteran trainer Jinks Fires, recording a win in the Southwest S. (G3) and a third in the Rebel (G2) prior to a career-best in the Arkansas Derby. He's familiar with the track at Churchill Downs, making his career debut last November, and could have more to offer in the Derby.
Nehro is another three-year-old moving forward at the right time of the year, breaking his maiden three starts back before coming up a neck short in the Louisiana Derby (G2). He closed like a locomotive to miss by the same margin in the Arkansas Derby, running out of ground before galloping past his rival after the wire, and his powerful late move appears well suited to more distance and the lengthy stretch at Churchill. Conditioner Steve Asmussen has won a lot of big races but never the Derby.
The Blue Grass was captured by a turf/synthetic specialist with little chance on dirt three weeks later.
The Derby is two weeks from Saturday.
Archarcharch owns respectable tactical speed, racing within striking range of the leaders in previous starts, but jockey Jon Court wisely gathered him up behind a fast pace in the Arkansas Derby, residing in 10th after an opening quarter-mile in :22 2/5. He settled in midpack for the run down the backstretch and began to advance on the far turn, circling rivals on the far outside.
Archarcharch reached upper stretch in third and overhauled Sway Away (Afleet Alex) and Dance City (City Zip) with a sixteenth of a mile remaining, quickly opening up by a couple of lengths. It looked at that point like he was going to win easily, but Nehro came flying late to make it close.
Dismissed at 25-1, Archarcharch received a 99 BRIS Speed and 103 Late Pace rating, both career bests. Those numbers rate favorably in this year's Derby field.
Archarcharch has cornered well in both stakes wins at Oaklawn Park, rapidly moving into contention with a strong turn of foot, and those tactics could serve him well next time. He'll look to make his move on the far turn at Churchill Downs, getting the jump on late runners like Nehro and Dialed In (Mineshaft), and that's often a winning formula in the Derby, with horses striking the front by midstretch and carrying their momentum to the finish line.
Nehro found his best stride too late but was impressive. His BRIS numbers are increasing, with 99 Speed and 109 Late Pace figures in the Arkansas Derby, and the promising colt could have a very high ceiling. The late runner is a serious threat to mow down the leaders in the Derby stretch with further improvement.
Overlooked in his last three starts, Nehro broke his maiden at 15-1, closing from well off the pace to win going away by 4 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, and just missed at 36-1 in the Louisiana Derby. Off at 9-1 in the Arkansas Derby, his odds will probably be even lower in the Kentucky Derby.
THE FACTOR (War Front) found himself in uncomfortable territory after the break, stalking the pace in third instead of leading the way, and faltered upon reaching the stretch, weakening to seventh as the 4-5 favorite. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt flipped his palate, but The Factor remains under consideration for the Derby, jogging a mile at Churchill Downs on Wednesday.
Considering his immense potential at shorter distances, The Factor could easily wind up skipping the Derby -- it's difficult to envision him sustaining his speed at 1 1/4 miles under a 126-pound impost -- and the connections of the other speed horses are probably hoping he doesn't run. The Factor will affect the pace scenario if he starts because jockey Martin Garcia can't afford for another rival to have the early lead. The front runner's only chance is wire to wire.
The Blue Grass is always an inscrutable race for the Derby due to the Polytrack. Turf horses tend to favor the all-weather surface and dirt horses can suddenly lose their form.
Even Street Sense, the eventual Derby winner who raced on the artificial surface in 2007, wound up second to the unheralded Dominican, who recorded an 11th in the Derby and never won another stakes race in 14 starts. The last three Blue Grass winners were also non-factors, finishing 20th, 10th and eighth in the Run for the Roses.
Brilliant Speed had raced exclusively on turf since opening his career with a couple of unplaced dirt attempts in New York, breaking his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs on December 26. He went on to record a pair of seconds in the Dania Beach and Hallandale Beach at Gulfstream, but had not been seen under silks in 69 days. Owner Charlotte Weber thought so much of his Blue Grass chances that she didn't make the trip to Keeneland.
The maiden winner raced far back under Joel Rosario, waiting until the conclusion of the far turn to launch his rally, and apparently surprised even trainer Tom Albertrani with his last-to-first rally at 19-1.
"I saw him far back and I thought maybe he doesn't handle the track," the trainer said afterward.
Give Albertrani credit -- he got Brilliant Speed ready for a big effort off seven works at Palm Meadows -- but the trainer will be plotting a turf campaign following the Derby.
Runner-up TWINSPIRED (Harlan's Holiday) suffered a tough beat, surging clear in midstretch before getting caught on the wire. In his two previous starts, he was third in the Spiral S. (G3) and fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial S., both on the Polytrack at Turfway Park. The Mike Maker pupil remains in the Derby mix, needing a few defections to move into the top 20 on the graded earnings list, but he was a well-beaten eighth in his lone dirt start at Remington Park.
Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner SANTIVA (Giant's Causeway) opened 2011 with a fine second in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, but trainer Eddie Kenneally probably wishes he had selected another spot for the colt's final prep following a dull ninth-place effort. Santiva probably didn't get much out of the race.
Saturday's Lexington S. (G3) at Keeneland has Derby implications for only one starter in the six-horse field, SILVER MEDALLION (Badge of Silver), who currently sits 24th on the graded earnings list at $184,334. He's guaranteed a spot with the $120,000 winner's share and could still make it by finishing second, which would place him squarely on the graded-earnings bubble.
Silver Medallion didn't run well over Keeneland's Polytrack last October when seventh in the Breeders' Futurity (G1). He was transferred to Asmussen over the winter and proceeded to capture the grassy Eddie Logan S. in late December. The bay colt opened 2011 with a score in the El Camino Real Derby (G3) over the Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields and then made his dirt debut in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby (G1). After tracking the pace in second, he came up empty in the final furlongs, weakening to fourth as the favorite.
PRIME CUT (Bernstein) and CASPER'S TOUCH (Touch Gold) are viable contenders who will be using the 1 1/16-mile Lexington as a possible prep for the Preakness (G1).
Prime Cut performed admirably last time, knocking off the well-regarded Bind (Pulpit) in a Fair Grounds allowance/optional claiming event, and will make his stakes debut for Neil Howard, who has been high on the colt for a long time. Prime Cut should be forwardly placed from the start beneath Edgar Prado.
Casper's Touch finished second to eventual Florida Derby (G1) runner-up Shackleford (Forestry) earlier this year in a Gulfstream allowance but stopped badly when making his graded debut in the Fountain of Youth (G2), finishing 35 1/2 lengths behind in seventh. He rebounded with a sharp performance over the Keeneland Polytrack, winning a seven-furlong allowance by three lengths earlier in the meet, and notched a career-best 95 BRIS Speed rating. The additional ground is little concern and Casper's Touch looks dangerous for Kenny McPeek.
Prime Cut is my top selection and I'll box him in the exacta with Casper's Touch.
Enjoy the racing.