Bob Baffert's stable flexed its muscles over the Presidents Day weekend, taking down Sunday's Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita and both divisions of Monday's Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
Mercifully, the Hall of Fame trainer skipped Saturday's Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.
Now, it's Todd Pletcher's turn. The East Coast's leading conditioner will be represented by "The Godfather," aka El Padrino, in this Saturday's Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds before sending out the well-respected duo of Algorithms and Discreet Dancer in Sunday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
Baffert and Pletcher enjoy the luxury of strength by numbers on this year's Kentucky Derby trail.
Baffert's quest for a fourth Kentucky Derby trophy is picking up steam, with Castaway and Secret Circle grabbing the spotlight Monday in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They are part of a deep roster of three-year-olds that includes Fed Biz, Liaison, Bodemeister and Sky Kingdom.
Both colts picked up $150,000 in graded earnings, a valuable commodity considering that Liaison is Baffert's only guaranteed Derby qualifier with a $375,000 graded bankroll, and that's the biggest challenge facing Baffert over the next 2 1/2 months: he has to pick the right spots for his horses. After saddling three starters twice before (1999 and 2006), the white-haired wonder will be pursuing a new personal mark at Churchill Downs in 2012.
Castaway and Secret Circle succeeded in different fashion, with the former cruising to an easy win while the latter was all out in victory. Castaway is much more of a raw talent, with a potentially bigger upside at longer distances, but the battle-tested Secret Circle is further along presently, with a final one-mile time of 1:37 that was a full second faster than his stablemate's one race earlier.
Castaway opened his racing career with five straight defeats, the first four in sprints, before breaking through with a 2 1/4-length triumph over the well-regarded Holy Candy in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita January 21. He netted a 102 BRIS Speed rating that afternoon and jumped straight to stakes competition in the Southwest.
By Street Sense, Castaway hails from a classy female family with plenty of stamina influences, but his front-running maiden win came over a wet-fast track and the betting public took a suspicious view of the speedy colt from his extreme outside post, allowing him to leave the Southwest starting gate as the 6.70-1 fifth choice among 11 rivals.
Castaway broke running under Rafael Bejarano, clearing all but one rival as he entered the first turn, and closely tracked the action through splits of :23 2/5, :48 and 1:12 3/5. The pacesetter threw in the towel approaching the conclusion of the far turn and Castaway turned for home all alone, increasing his advantage as he rolled to the finish line. He completed his final eighth of a mile in a respectable 12.56 seconds while scoring by a commanding 3 3/4-length margin.
The developing bay colt garnered a 97 BRIS Speed rating and is a threat to keep improving off this encouraging performance.
The second division was arguably much deeper and Secret Circle prompted a quicker pace, racing about a length behind in second as Scatman showed the way in :23 1/5 and :46 4/5. The pair hooked up on the second turn and Secret Circle eventually wore down his rival, edging away in the final yards to a half-length decision. The winner came home in 12.85 seconds, registering his fifth consecutive triple-digit Speed rating with a 103.
Secret Circle won all three starts last year, capping his season with a one-length victory in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, and made his two-turn debut in Grade 3 Sham on January 7. He surged to the lead leaving the far turn of that one-mile test but could not withstand the late flourish of Out of Bounds, who stamped himself as a serious Derby contender with his half-length victory.
Secret Circle ran big in defeat, earning a career-best 105 Speed rating for his Sham runner-up, and continued to establish himself as viable Derby prospect in the Southwest.
He possesses an ideal pedigree for the Derby -- sire Eddington captured the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special and placed in the Preakness and Travers and Secret Circle is out of Dixieland Band mare -- but it was easy to label the bay colt as a one-turn specialist based upon his exploits last season.
Secret Circle will need to keep proving himself at longer distances, but he is making a good impression so far this year.
Drill turned things around in the seven-furlong San Vicente, snapping a string of four straight unplaced finishes with a hard-fought nose victory, but the Lawyer Ron colt is not considered a serious Derby prospect by Baffert. He could get the opportunity to stretch back out in distance next time, but will focus upon distances shorter than 1 1/4 miles this spring.
American Act, who entered the San Vicente off a front-running maiden score over Bodemeister, proved ultra-game in his first start against stakes rivals, battling back gamely after being passed in upper stretch, and nearly caught Drill in the final strides. The Quiet American colt will bring plenty of speed to his next start, presumably his first around two turns.
Creative Cause, winner of the Grade 1 Norfolk and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his final two appearances last year, wound up a disappointing third as the 1-2 favorite. Perhaps the Mike Harrington-trained colt needed the race and will show up much stronger next time, but questions are circulating around the highly-rated Derby prospect.
His preparations for the San Vicente were knocked by several observers, including Andy Harrington of the National Turf Clocker Reports who used terms such as "workmanlike," "trying hard all the way" and "coaxed" to describe his two previous workouts. Other commentators were much more critical.
Creative Cause advanced into a threatening position on the far outside turning for home in the San Vicente, but was going nowhere in the final furlongs and wound up a length behind the winner on the wire.
Daddy noses Chappy
The El Camino Real Derby turned out to be a thrilling affair, with Daddy Nose Best edging Lucky Chappy by a nose on the finish line, and shippers dominated the 1 1/16-mile affair at Golden Gate as the front-running Handsome Mike held for third.
Typical of the all-weather tracks, turf horses were able to make a seamless transition to the Tapeta. The Steve Asmussen-trained winner won an allowance two starts previously on the turf at Churchill Downs and was exiting a fifth in the grassy Eddie Logan.
The runner-up had exclusively raced on the sod beforehand, finishing second in the Kitten's Joy at Gulfstream Park in his most recent appearance. And the third-placer's best previous effort was a second in the Grade 3 Generous on turf.
Daddy Nose Best registered a pedestrian 92 Speed rating for the win.
Sunday's Fountain of Youth promises to be a dynamite race, with the returning Union Rags topping an expected short field. The winter book Derby favorite will face a stiff test.
Trained by Michael Matz, Union Rags posted a spectacular victory in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes and was probably the best horse in Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing a head second following a wide trip on both turns. Much is expected from the bay colt this season, but Union Rags could wind up the second choice in the Fountain of Youth wagering behind Algorithms, who netted a field-best 105 BRIS Speed rating for his impressive five-length score in the Grade 3 Holy Bull on January 29.
Discreet Dancer loves the South Florida oval, posting superb wins over maiden special weight and entry-level allowance foes at Gulfstream, and will offer significantly more value than his highly-respected rivals. And that makes the talented colt an intriguing option.
Distance is a question mark surrounding Discreet Dancer -- the Discreet Cat colt is viewed with skepticism when it comes to the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance -- but Sunday's 1 1/16-mile trip could easily be within his scope. And none of the top three contenders in the Fountain of Youth owns a win at two turns.
In Saturday's 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, El Padrino is clearly the horse to beat. His 111 BRIS Speed rating from his last start -- an impressive victory at the distance over entry-level allowance foes at Gulfstream -- is far superior to any earned by his 10 rivals Saturday at Fair Grounds.
The chestnut colt captured his last start over rain-soaked track rated "good" and broke his maiden in the slop at Belmont Park last fall. His connections would love to see what El Padrino can do on a fast track, but plenty of moisture is expected in New Orleans over the next couple of days and El Padrino could catch another wet track that favors him.