Creative Cause staked his claim as the best out west, closing strongly to win Saturday's Grade 2 San Felipe, and the gray colt flattered the form of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for the third straight week.
First it was Union Rags, the Juvenile runner-up and early Kentucky Derby favorite, romping by four lengths in Grade 2 Fountain of Youth February 26. A week later, Juvenile winner Hansen, the two-year-old champion, rolled to an easy three-length decision in the Grade 3 Gotham.
Creative Cause, who missed by a length when third in the Juvenile, did not win under wraps like his notable rivals, but he bested a much deeper field while scoring by nearly a length at Santa Anita.
The Juvenile form has held up remarkably well this year -- Union Rags, Hansen and Creative Cause would be among the top betting choices if the Derby took place this weekend -- but seven weeks still remain until the first Saturday of May, with one final prep race left for the leading contenders.
Winner of the Grade 1 Norfolk and Grade 2 Best Pal, Creative Cause was the top California-based Derby prospect entering 2012, but opened his sophomore season with a third in the Grade 2 San Vicente at seven furlongs. He improved off that effort while stretching back out to two turns in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, displaying a closing kick that can win at Churchill Downs on May 5.
The colt's finishing ability jumps out at you in his past performances -- a 115 BRIS Late Pace rating in the San Vicente and a 112 in the San Felipe -- but Creative Cause is not a one-dimensional late runner. His tactical speed makes him even more dangerous.
He settled into a perfect stalking position Saturday, racing within striking range of a fast pace, before launching a serious move into contention while at least four wide on the far turn and appeared headed to a daylight victory. But Creative Cause did not maintain a straight path into the stretch, showing signs of greenness while angling toward the stands as jockey Joel Rosario urged him to switch leads.
Creative Cause has raced erratically in both starts this year, switching leads multiple times in the stretch of the San Vicente, but galloped out powerfully after the finish line each time. The son of Giant's Causeway looks like a three-year-old who will relish the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance and has been brought along slowly this season by trainer Mike Harrington, who did not need to worry about experience (four stakes starts) or graded earnings ($488,000) at the start of the year.
Creative Cause received his third consecutive 102 BRIS Speed rating on Saturday.
Bodemeister made a belated career bow January 16 for Bob Baffert and entered the San Felipe off a wire-to-wire maiden win February 11. He broke running as expected, but was outgunned to the front by American Act, who whipped through opening splits of :22 4/5 and :46 4/5. Bodemeister chased him all the way in second before seizing the lead midway through the final turn.
Bodemeister looked beaten at the top of the stretch, with Midnight Transfer making a run at him as well down on the inside, but the inexperienced colt suddenly surged back to a clear lead as Creative Cause cornered wide. He battled gamely when challenged again in midstretch, but the winner ultimately proved too much to handle.
Bodemeister is up against with only three career starts -- no unraced two-year-old has won the Derby since 1882 -- but performed terrifically in his stakes debut. The talented colt could be any type heading forward.
Midnight Transfer ran well in third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths by the runner-up in his first start at two turns. The Carla Gaines charge broke his maiden in late December and entered the San Felipe off a fast-closing win in the 6 1/2-furlong San Pedro Stakes. Midnight Transfer possesses the pedigree for longer distances and may continue to show more with this experience under his belt.
Tampa Bay Derby
Prospective locked up a berth in the Kentucky Derby field with his victory in Saturday's Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, rebounding from a runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in which he traveled extremely wide on both turns. He also captured the lucrative Grade 3 Grey Stakes on Woodbine's Polytrack last year.
Trainer Mark Casse added blinkers and Prospective rated kindly until reaching the far turn, storming to the front with a quick turn of foot. He entered the stretch with a clear lead but was far from safe as Golden Ticket rallied dramatically up the rail into contention. After that rival put a head in front between calls in midstretch, Prospective re-asserted himself beneath Luis Contreras and edged clear late to win by about a length.
By Malibu Moon, Prospective is a nice colt, with plenty of earning power, but received only a 95 BRIS Speed rating, a career-best. He will need to run much faster to make a classic impact this spring.
Golden Ticket, a son of leading sprinter Speightstown, was overlooked at 12-1 off a Gulfstream Park maiden win
Sunday's Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes featured a pair of Derby prospects, Howe Great and Dullahan, over the turf at Gulfstream Park. Howe Great, the 3-5 favorite, parlayed a front-running trip into a comfortable one-length decision in his graded stakes debut, winning for the fourth straight time for Graham Motion.
Three of those wins came on turf, but the Team Valor colorbearer broke his maiden over the dirt track at Parx Racing last October.
Dullahan was at a tactical disadvantage with little pace in the six-horse Palm Beach, but the late-running colt offered a fine showing in his 2012 opener, rallying past rivals to finish a clear second. Conditioned by Dale Romans, Dullahan is a threat on all surfaces, winning the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity over Polytrack and recording a respectable fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He made his dirt debut in the latter, closing a lot of ground in the stretch following a troubled start.
Howe Great and Dullahan will meet again in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14.
Fed Biz is off the Derby trail due to a hind-end issue and Spring Hill Farm exited the Tampa Bay Derby with a right knee fracture.
Saturday's Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park is the lone graded race this weekend and the 1 1/16-mile race marks the return of Sabercat, who was last seen posting a four-length win in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Sabercat will bring a three-race win skein race into the Rebel, capturing a maiden special weight and the Garden State Stakes at Monmouth Park prior to the Delta Jackpot, but has never earned a Speed rating better than 92. This might be a good spot to try and beat him off the shelf.
Baffert will be represented by a top contender in Secret Circle, winner of the second division of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes over the track. The son of Eddington has captured four of five career starts, the lone setback a commendable half-length second to the now-sidelined Out of Bounds in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, and his lowest Speed rating is a 102.
Locally-based contenders include Scatman and Adirondack Kid, the respective second- and third-place finishers in the second division of the Southwest; and Najjaar, who exits a sharp allowance score for Dan Peitz.