The Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial were both thrilling races, with big-time contenders battling all the way to the wire, and the Kentucky Derby picture remains extremely wide open as we head into the final of three weekends of major preps.
The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes this Saturday may continue to muddle the equation.
Gemologist made a serious case for Derby favoritism in the Wood Memorial, posting an impressive neck score after repelling the late challenge of Alpha, and the Todd Pletcher colt improved his career mark to five-for-five. Two of those wins came at Churchill Downs, including the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in late November.
It's the same connections as 2010 Derby winner Super Saver, who was also owned by WinStar Farm and captured the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes before making a pair of starts in advance of the Derby. But Super Saver dropped both attempts against stakes rivals, placing in the Tampa Bay Derby and Arkansas Derby, while Gemologist rolled to a seven-length romp in a one-turn allowance event at Gulfstream Park before facing his first legitimate class test in the Wood.
Gemologist rated in third during the early stages, within a couple of lengths of a solid early pace, and advanced smoothly toward the front while rounding the far turn. Jockey Javier Castellano entered the stretch full of horse and Gemologist pounced when given his cue, quickly surging clear by about two lengths with a furlong remaining in the 1 1/8-mile event.
Alpha, who was sawed off as jockey Ramon Dominguez tried to gather him up heading into the first turn, overcame early trouble to sit a good trip in fourth down the backstretch and began to make headway while three wide leaving the far turn. He found his best stride after straightening into the stretch, rallying to even terms late while appearing to have momentum on his side, but could not get past the resurgent winner and settled for second, well clear of third-placer Teeth of the Dog.
Kudos to Gemologist and Alpha -- they ran huge while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time -- and both possess an ideal pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile distance. There is a lot to like about their chances.
Gemologist, who registered a previous career-best 98 BRIS Speed rating when opening 2012 in a March 16 allowance, continued to progress with a 102 Speed figure in the Wood and his tactical speed is always a potential asset in a bulky 20-horse Derby field. Pletcher has raced him lightly this season with the intention of peaking on Derby day and it will be little surprise to see Gemologist keep moving forward. The Tiznow colt should be in the thick of things turning for home.
Alpha, who stepped up to face deeper competition Saturday after opening this year with easy wins in the Count Fleet Stakes and Grade 3 Withers Stakes over the inner track at Aqueduct, posted his third consecutive triple-digit Speed rating despite coming up a little short, and the maturing Bernardini colt could be sitting on a big race next time for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
He struggled with the starting gate in three consecutive races and spit the bit early when finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, but Alpha has gotten his act together and behaved like a true professional following a rough early trip Saturday. With the potential for a hot pace up front, the Derby may set up nicely for the late runner.
One more, bartender
I'll Have Another continued his meteoric rise with a nose win over the West Coast's leading sophomore, Creative Cause, and the Doug O'Neill-trained winner should be among the top betting choices at Churchill Downs.
A debut maiden winner last July, I'll Have Another recorded a non-threatening second in the Best Pal Stakes before concluding his juvenile campaign with a well-beaten sixth in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. A relative unknown entering this year, he was overlooked at 43-1 when returning from a five-month hiatus in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis and proceeded to crush the competition in front-running style, generating an excellent 102 BRIS Speed rating for the 2 3/4-length decision.
Parked on the sidelines for another nine weeks in advance of the Santa Anita Derby, I'll Have Another displayed the willingness to rate while relaxing a couple of lengths off the early pace and offered a perfectly-timed move beneath journeyman Mario Gutierrez, one of leading riders at Hastings Park in Vancouver the past five years.
Creative Cause ran well in his first start without blinkers and is as consistent as they come. The Grade 1-winning colt does not always get there, but he's never been beaten by more than a length and possesses strong BRIS numbers, earning a 102 Speed rating in three straight starts prior to the Santa Anita Derby.
I'll Have Another (98) and Creative Cause (97) did not register the highest Speed rating due to the slow pace Saturday, but received huge Late Pace numbers of 109 and 112.
Blueskiesnrainbows nearly delivered a massive shocker as the lone speed and the former claimer held well to finish a clear third, a half-length back of Creative Cause. He will need to wait for the Preakness to possibly join the Triple Crown trail due to insufficient graded earnings.
Out of an Arch mare, I'll Have Another is by Travers winner Flower Alley and looks well-suited for the Derby distance, finishing full of run in both starts this year. The lightly-raced colt owns room for further improvement if the Santa Anita Derby doesn't take too much out of him.
Creative Cause is by top sire Giant's Causeway and has already proven himself at Churchill Downs, recording a fine third behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His focus is a legitimate concern, however. The gray colt was all over the place in the stretch run of the San Felipe, weaving in and out before kicking on late, and arguably waited on the fast-closing I'll Have Another after passing his rival in midstretch.
Since the equipment change did not result in a win, a switch back to blinkers seems logical, especially with the potential distractions of more than 150,000 people at Churchill Downs, but Mike Harrington said he will try again without blinkers in the Derby. The 71-year-old trainer will be subjected to a massive amount of second-guessing if Creative Cause does not perform up to standards because the gray colt clearly has the talent to be a major factor.
No wordy description
Done Talking was no factor opening when opening 2012 with a10th in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, but the Maryland-based colt found the right spot to take advantage of his one-run closing style Saturday, finishing fast to win the Grade 3 Illinois Derby by nearly a length.
Give trainer Hamilton Smith credit for the massive turnaround in form, but Done Talking registered a pedestrian 92 BRIS Speed rating while rallying to defeat recent Aqueduct maiden winner Morgan's Guerrilla. The $300,000 payday should ensure his participation in the Derby field, but the Broken Vow colt could easily find himself overmatched against much deeper competition.
Keeneland and Oaklawn Park will share the spotlight this weekend with the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.
The Blue Grass turned into an afterthought in recent years, producing more Grade 1 turf winners than serious Triple Crown race prospects, but the Polytrack test has attracted a stellar field of 13 Saturday, including two-year-old champion Hansen. The Mike Maker-trained colt opened his racing career with a pair of eye-catching performances on Polytrack, winning both by double-digit margins, and the front runner displayed a new dimension last time in the Gotham, racing just off the speed before pouncing for a three-length score.
Hansen could move into the favorite's role with another impressive win Saturday.
Dullahan captured the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall and exits a fast-finishing second in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes on turf. He's the likely second choice for Dale Romans. Palm Beach winner Howe Great is can't be overlooked for Graham Motion, reeling off four consecutive wins in advance of the Blue Grass, and improving Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby victor Prospective is proven on Woodbine's Polytrack.
Other notables include Heavy Breathing, who finished third as the favorite in the Grade 3 Spiral for Pletcher; Grade 2 Louisiana Derby upsetter Hero of Order; the speedy Scatman, runner-up in the Grade 3 Southwest and third in the Grade 2 Rebel; and a couple of unproven but potentially dangerous late-running longshots in Gung Ho and Holy Candy.
Bob Baffert will send out the top two choices in the Arkansas Derby in Bodemeister and Secret Circle.
Bodemeister is a late-starting but highly promising colt who finished second to Creative Cause when making his stakes debut in the San Felipe. The front runner picks up the services of Mike Smith and will be hustling from post 11 when the gates open.
Secret Circle will look for a rare sweep of Oaklawn Park's graded stakes for three-year-olds following narrow wins in the Southwest and Rebel. Rafael Bejarano, who has also been the regular rider for Bodemeister, will stick with the ultra-game son of Eddington in his first start at 1 1/8 miles.
Rebel runner-up Optimizer; Grade 3 Sunland Derby runner-up Isn't He Clever; Grade 3 Delta Jackpot hero Sabercat; and a pair of second-stringers from the Pletcher stable, Stat and Raconteur, will also line up for the closing-day feature.