Last weekend delivered a couple of Kentucky Derby berths as Went the Day Well and Daddy Nose Best earned Grade 3 wins in the Spiral Stakes and Sunland Derby. The winners are nice three-year-olds, with the potential to keep developing into top performers, but both races were rather ho-hum events lacking deep fields.
We finally have something to get excited about this weekend, with the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby kicking off the final round of major prep races.
Saturday's Grade 1 Florida Derby drew a field of nine that features Union Rags, the overwhelming early favorite for the 138h running of the Kentucky Derby May 5.
Trained by Michael Matz, Union Rags enhanced his already-formidable reputation when opening 2012 in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, rolling by four easy lengths with plenty in reserve, and the Dixie Union colt will look to keep his momentum rolling against a deeper cast of rivals Saturday that includes El Padrino and Take Charge Indy.
Sunday's Grade 2 Louisiana Derby did not attract the big names of its counterpart, but will offer a full field of 14 three-year-olds highlighted by a couple of promising three-year-olds in Mark Valeski and Cigar Street.
Mark Valeski, trained by Larry "Cowboy" Jones, recorded an excellent second in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds February 25, missing by a nose to a more seasoned El Padrino in his stakes and two-turn debut. Cigar Street, whose dam is a half-sister to the two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, exits a 13 3/4-length maiden romp for Stephen Margolis.
Animal Kingdom blueprint
Went the Day Well will attempt to follow the same improbable path of Animal Kingdom, who parlayed a winning stakes debut in the 2011 Spiral Stakes into a Kentucky Derby victory. The connections are the same -- owner Team Valor, trainer Graham Motion and jockey John Velazquez -- and Went the Day Well will be a longshot on Derby Day like Animal Kingdom, who paid $43.60 to win as the 20-1 11th choice among 19 rivals.
Went the Day Well ran a big race while making his first start on Turfway Park's Polytrack, netting a 103 BRIS Speed rating Saturday, and looks well-suited for the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance. Out of a Tiznow mare, the Proud Citizen colt opened his racing career in England, recording a pair of seconds on turf last year, and has now made three starts stateside, posting century-topping BRIS Late Pace ratings each time.
Animal Kingdom is a dynamic late runner, but Went the Day Well likes to race closer to the pace with his tactical speed. He was never far back Saturday, biding his time within a few lengths of the early leaders, and began to edge forward on the far turn. The bay colt gained a short lead in upper stretch and drew clear late to a 3 1/4-length decision.
Went the Day Well did not change leads cleanly in the stretch, drifting inward, but gained valuable experience while making his first start against winners. Unlike Animal Kingdom, Went the Day Well has experience on the dirt, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park in his previous start, and Motion can work to correct any issues during morning workouts as he trains him up to the Derby.
He will need to keep improving to challenge better competition, but Went the Day Well is certainly an interesting sort with room to develop. And there will be quite a buzz when he ships into Churchill to work over the track a week beforehand. A terrific six-furlong workout set Animal Kingdom up for the race of his life last year, and Went the Day Well's connections are hoping that magic will strike two years in a row.
Daddy Nose Best is making positive strides for trainer Steve Asmussen. Primarily a turf performer last season, placing in a Grade 3 event and finishing sixth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, the bay colt opened his sophomore season with a game victory in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, defeating Lucky Chappy by a nose in a head-bobbing finish. However, the bay colt registered only a pedestrian 92 BRIS Speed rating on the Golden Gate Fields' Tapeta track.
Unraced on dirt since July, Daddy Nose Best switched back to a conventional surface in Sunday's Sunland Derby and closed strongly to score by about a length, garnering a career-best 101 Speed number. The race set up well with fast pace, but the winner looked like a serious racehorse nonetheless.
Borderland Derby winner Isn't He Clever loves the track and ran the race of his life in defeat, making a strong move to the lead in upper stretch, and the runner-up widened his advantage through the final furlong while no match late for the winner, finishing 7 1/4 lengths clear of third. Isn't He Clever also received a 101 Speed rating, by far a career-best, and could try to earn his way into the Derby field with a strong showing in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
Daddy Nose Best is the top Derby prospect in the Asmussen barn, running much faster than stablemate Sabercat, and is rounding into his best form at the right time of the year. He could be the most experienced member in this year's Derby field, making eight starts at two, including his first two over the main track at Churchill Downs last summer, and the Scat Daddy colt figures to receive plenty of stamina from his female family.
One can't get too excited about his chances given the level of competition he's been facing, but Daddy Nose Best is a hard-hitting colt that is easy to admire.
The excitement level will be ratcheted up this weekend as Gulfstream and Fair Grounds offer dynamite racing programs. The focus will be on Union Rags, who holds the dreams of many racing fans desperately craving a Triple Crown winner. He will spur that conversation with another monster performance in the Florida Derby.
The Louisiana Derby will take place in the heart of the Blue Easy, er Big Easy, sandwiched between the Final Four college basketball games on Saturday and Monday. Tens of thousands of University of Kentucky fans will flock to New Orleans to celebrate their Wildcats and barring an upset in Saturday's semifinal match-up with the University of Louisville, there will be plenty of blue on hand Sunday at Fair Grounds.
Union Rags' Fountain of Youth was fun to watch, but did not necessarily prove much -- he appeared to be beating up on soft competition. The Grade 1 winner will be tested by a couple of notable rivals Saturday while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles.
El Padrino, who broke his maiden on a wet track before concluding his juvenile season with a close third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, is the main foe. The son of Pulpit has established himself as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender this year, posting a terrific two-length allowance score at Gulfstream prior to his gutsy victory in the Risen Star, and the improving colt is trained by Todd Pletcher.
Mark Valeski is the logical favorite in the Louisiana Derby and will be even a shorter price as a result of his coupling with Grade 3 Lecomte winner Mr. Bowling. And it's easy to envision the battle being for second as Mark Valeski continues to move forward off his impressive showing in the Risen Star.
The Kentucky Derby is five weeks from Saturday.