Secret Circle is easy to admire because of his tenacity, with Saturday's Grade 2 Rebel Stakes serving as the latest example. It was not the prettiest performance for the once-beaten bay colt, but Secret Circle battled determinedly to post his second straight stakes victory at Oaklawn Park, this time stretching out to 1 1/16 miles.
His effectiveness at longer distances remains a valid concern, but Secret Circle is as game as any three-year-old in training. And there is no bigger fan of his than trainer Bob Baffert.
"He reminds me of Silver Charm," the Hall of Fame conditioner told Daily Racing Form, comparing Secret Circle to the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. "He'll win, but he's not going to show himself. I was really impressed with him."
Secret Circle will return to Hot Springs for the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 14.
Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner Gemologist opened his three-year-old season in smart fashion last Friday, winning a one-turn allowance by seven lengths at Gulfstream Park. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt will use the Grade 1 Wood Memorial April 7 as his lone stakes and two-turn prep this year.
Secret Circle needed a dramatic late push to capture the second division of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on February 20, getting up late after ducking out in the stretch run, and delivered more theatrics in the Rebel.
After closely stalking the early leaders, Secret Circle started to go backwards and appeared to be empty leaving the backstretch, with Rafael Bejarano going to a vigorous ride as they entered the far turn. Bejarano got the needed response, with Secret Circle putting himself in position to catch Scatman at the top of the stretch, but the rally suddenly began to stall as the colt started to drift again toward the stands.
Secret Circle finally corrected course, surging to a clear lead as he reached deep stretch, but a late threat emerged in the form of a rallying Optimizer. Secret Circle held gamely in the final yards to score by three-quarters of a length.
The top two finishers did not maintain a straight path, weaving in deep stretch as they tired late, and neither one exited the Rebel looking like a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
Secret Circle possesses a pedigree for classic distances -- he is by the Unbridled sire Eddington and out of a Dixieland Band mare -- but his BRIS Speed ratings tumbled while stretching out in trip Saturday.
After recording fantastic numbers (103-105-102-103-103) in his first five starts at a mile or less, Secret Circle registered only a 97 Speed rating in the Rebel. He also posted a disappointing 84 Late Pace figure while finishing slowly.
One can't count out a competitor as tough as Secret Circle -- he will lay his body down if in position -- but the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance will be an imposing hurdle.
Optimizer turned in a surprising performance given how poorly he performed in his previous dirt starts. His Derby stock improved Saturday, but the English Channel colt is probably a better prospect on turf for D. Wayne Lukas.
The pace wasn't extreme (:23 2/5, :47 and 1:11 2/5) and Scatman received a perfect trip on the front end, turning for home on a short lead before coming up empty in the final furlong. The Scat Daddy colt probably needs less ground.
Sabercat, who punched his Kentucky Derby ticket with a victory in the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot last November, showed little while making his 2012 opener, checking in eighth. The Steve Asmussen pupil remains eligible to improve upon the tightener, but his low Speed numbers are disconcerting.
Gemologist was visually impressive Friday, widening his margin as he appeared to effortlessly stride away from his foes in the stretch, and his 98 BRIS Speed was a career-best.
But Gemologist defeated very little while taking the path of least resistance against only four rivals. Scheduled to run in the Rebel, he stayed in South Florida due to a shipping issue, according to Pletcher.
The Tiznow colt likes the track at Churchill Downs, comfortably winning the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club by a 1 3/4-length margin in late November, and is well-bred for the Derby distance. But the lightly-raced Gemologist has compiled only $103,855 in graded earnings, leaving little margin for error in the Wood Memorial. Anything outside of the top two could cost him a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
The Grade 3 Spiral Stakes produced 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who made his stakes debut in 1 1/8-mile event on Turfway Park's Polytrack, and the same connections will be back this Saturday looking to earn a Kentucky Derby berth with Went the Day Well. The Graham Motion trainee exits a maiden special weight tally at Gulfstream Park.
Heavy Breathing, unbeaten in two career starts, is also scheduled to make his stakes bow at the Northern Kentucky oval. The Pletcher runner has posted easy wins over maiden special weight and allowance rivals at Gulfstream.
California shipper Handsome Mike will attract support following a third in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby over Tapeta. The Doug O'Neill charge also recorded a second in the Grade 3 Generous Stakes on turf last fall.
Sunday's Grade 3 Sunland Derby offers an $800,000 pot for Derby hopefuls and a nice field of eight has been entered for the 1 1/8-mile prep in New Mexico.
Castaway looms as the probable favorite. From the first crop of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, the bay colt showed little in his first five starts last year, but has blossomed at three for Baffert, recording convincing victories in two appearances. Castaway exits a 3 3/4-length decision in the first division of the Southwest.
Baffert will also be represented by Stirred Up, a well-regarded recent maiden winner at Santa Anita. The Virginia-bred colt is by Lemon Drop Kid and is out of a Quiet American mare, so he should appreciate longer distances, and Stirred Up looks like an intriguing play at a decent price Sunday.
Daddy Nose Best will switch back to dirt for Asmussen following his narrow win in the El Camino Real Derby, and Pletcher will be represented by Ender Knievel, a Distorted Humor colt who romped by 7 3/4 lengths over maiden special weight foes at Gulfstream last out.
Isn't He Clever will show speed. Trained by Henry Dominguez, the Smarty Jones gelding posted a front-running win in the local prep, the 1 1/16-mile Borderland Derby February 25, and is unbeaten in two starts at Sunland.