The Kentucky Derby chase is underway, with last Saturday's Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita offering the first opportunity for points in the New Year, and Sham victor Goldencents hails from the barn of 2012 Kentucky Derby winner Doug O'Neill.
Winning consecutive runnings of the Kentucky Derby is no easy feat, with Hall of Famer Bob Baffert the last to go back-to-back with Silver Charm and Real Quiet (1997-98), and O'Neill was relatively inexperienced training classic contenders before I'll Have Another came along. The chestnut colt captured all four starts last year, including a 15-1 upset in the 138th Kentucky Derby, before being scratched the day before his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont due to a tendon injury.
Kentucky Derby success thrust O'Neill in the national spotlight and his affable personality resonated positively for horse racing. He embraced the Triple Crown pursuit, giving time and energy to notable causes as well, but the impending cloud of a drug suspension also cast him in an unfavorable light. The trainer served the suspension last summer and his stable enters 2013 with a renewed focus; they expect to be a prominent fixture in the Kentucky Derby picture for years to come.
O'Neill appears well-stocked, at least at this early date, to make another assault upon the Run for the Roses. In addition to Goldencents, he also trains He's Had Enough, who finished a head second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his lone dirt start.
I'll Have Another emerged from obscurity when making his three-year-old debut last year, posting a 43-1 upset in February's Robert B. Lewis, his first outing since a well-beaten sixth in early September, but Goldencents was bet down to 2-5 favoritism in the Sham due to his earlier exploits. His 1 1/2-length win catapulted him to the top of the inaugural "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings with 24 points.
The Sham was the 11th of 19 races in the "Kentucky Derby Prep Season" portion that awards 10-4-2-1 points to the first four respective finishers. Fans are still getting used to new points system, but it promises to be an upgrade from the archaic system of graded earnings that rewarded horses for performances in sprints that had no bearing upon the Kentucky Derby. It's easier to understand (other sports implement a points system) and the first-year system is subject to review, with the possibility of races being added or subtracted, once the Triple Crown season is over.
The February 18 Southwest Stakes is the last race in the "Prep Season." The first leg of the "Championship Series," which features eight stakes offering 50-20-10-5 points, begins February 23 with both the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Risen Star Stakes, and the second leg of the "Championship Series" kicks off March 30, with the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and U.A.E. Derby all carded that afternoon. The seven stakes in the second leg offer 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers. The series culminates with two "Wild Card" races, the April 20 Lexington and April 27 Derby Trial that provide a late opportunity to garner points (20-8-4-2).
Goldencents entered the Sham with two wins and a second from three starts. He opened his career with a scintillating 7 1/4-length romp in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight on Del Mar's Polytrack and then shipped to Belmont Park for the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. The inexperienced bay colt recorded a commendable second to presumptive two-year-old champ Shanghai Bobby in the one-mile event and concluded 2012 with an impressive performance in the lucrative Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot, scoring comfortably by a near two-length margin in his two-turn bow.
After showing high speed in his first three starts, Goldencents displayed a new dimension in the Sham when rival Manando sprinted to the fore at the break. That left him rating for the first time, about a length behind Manando through the opening half-mile. Goldencents began to edge forward on the far turn and was asked for run by jockey Kevin Krigger upon entering the stretch drive.
Goldencents did not easily overhaul the pacesetter -- the odds-on favorite had to work a little harder than many expected at that point -- but finally seized command in the final sixteenth of a mile and was inching away under the wire. While far from overwhelming, Goldencents confirmed that he is one of the more talented three-year-olds in the country at this early stage and O'Neill came away extremely pleased with the effort.
"Having a (Kentucky) Derby contender is such an exciting thing," O'Neill stated. "This horse is such a brilliant athlete and so amazing mentally. He's just getting better every day. We were very confident about this race but you just never know till it's over. Now that it's over, we'll put our heads together and look at upcoming races and if he stays injury-free, we'll get there...we're all pumped up."
Goldencents is eligible to keep improving and could prove as tough as nails in his upcoming prep races, but there are still valid concerns. For starters, he registered only a 93 BRIS Speed rating in the Sham and will bring a declining scale of numbers (101-97-94-93) into his next start. By comparison, I'll Have Another posted a 102 Speed rating when opening his three-year-old campaign in the Lewis.
His pedigree is also questionable -- the colt hails from the first crop of sprinter/miler Into Mischief, who passed plenty of speed to Grade 2 Jerome Stakes winner Vyjack as well as Goldencents. A son of Harlan's Holiday, Into Mischief is still in the early stages of his stud career, but he looks like the type who needs to be coupled with the right mare to throw classic types. And there are few stamina influences in Goldencents' immediate female family.
Goldencents is out of Golden Works, who raced primarily in sprints, and damsire Banker's Gold was also plenty fast. The three-year-old's second maternal dam is by stakes-winning sprinter Bold Ruckus, so there is little encouragement for the Kentucky Derby in these bloodlines.
Horses can outrun their pedigree and Goldencents is too good to give up on right now, but he needs to step up his game next time, especially from a Speed-rating perspective, to remain a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
Den's Legacy rallied up the rail for runner-up honors behind Goldencents. Winner of the Grade 3 Generous on turf three back, the late runner showed much more than he did in his previous dirt start, a well-beaten fifth in the Grade 1 FrontRunner in late September, and the Medaglia d'Oro colt possesses plenty of pedigree for the classics. Den's Legacy has never run very fast, clunking up for a minor award in the majority of his starts (four seconds and a third so far), but there's still plenty of time for development and I wouldn't give up completely on the Baffert charge.
Manando looked good turning for home in the Sham, but he folded to third in the latter stages of his stakes debut. The Bluegrass Cat colt is a candidate to keep moving forward off his first start against winners, but he doesn't appear to be in the upper echelon of the Baffert barn with only a career-best 91 BRIS Speed rating to his credit.
Derby Top 10:
1) Normandy Invasion -- Unleashed a brilliant move in the nine-furlong Remsen (114 BRIS Late Pace rating) before falling a nose short in stakes debut; well-bred Tapit colt is in good hands with Chad Brown and his 104 BRIS Speed rating (which he shares with Remsen winner Overanalyze) is the top two-year-old stakes figure.
2) Violence -- Has passed every test so far with flying colors, winning a seven-furlong maiden, the one-mile Nashua & 1 1/16-mile CashCall Futurity, and talented Medaglia d'Oro colt is built to relish longer distances; third dam is the legendary mare Sky Beauty and Violence leads the Todd Pletcher brigade based on future potential -- he could be a terror in 2013.
3) Overanalyze -- Well-beaten third in the Iroquois at Churchill two back is a bit disconcerting but Dixie Union colt rebounded with a superb win in the Remsen, battling between a pair of talented foes to get the money; Pletcher pupil owns plenty of pedigree as well as tactical speed.
4) Fury Kapcori -- Tiznow colt did all the dirty work on the front end of CashCall before finishing a clear second and is out of a mare by Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin; this is also the female family of Horse of the Year Favorite Trick, so Fury Kapcori possesses an ideal mix of speed and stamina in his bloodlines; very promising sort for Jerry Hollendorfer.
5) Power Broker -- Was off form like so many from the Baffert stable in the Breeders' Cup, but his convincing 6 1/2-length win in the 1 1/16-mile FrontRunner two back still stands out; Pulpit colt could show much more at three.
6) Shanghai Bobby -- Hard to knock the unbeaten two-year-old champ but his female family (out of mare by champion sprinter Orientate) gives pause when assessing his chances at longer distances; the speedy colt will open the year in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull on January 26.
7) He's Had Enough -- Tapit colt disappointed when fifth in CashCall, but turned in an excellent performance when rallying from far back to just miss over speed-favoring track in Breeders' Cup Juvenile; he is bred to run long and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do on dirt this year.
8) Goldencents -- Belongs in the top 10 based on his accomplishments so far and may be able to carry his speed nine furlongs this spring, but question whether 10 furlongs will be an optimal distance.
9) Uncaptured -- Know he likes Churchill based on his gutsy win in the Kentucky Jockey Club but exited the race with a reported foot bruise and has yet to return to training for Mark Casse in South Florida; his final time (slower than fillies in the Golden Rod & allowance winner Bradester earlier on the program) & Speed rating (93) were discouraging, but Lion Heart colt possesses a winning attitude.
10) Frac Daddy -- Just missed to Uncaptured in Kentucky Jockey Club, his first start against winners, and Scat Daddy colt appears to have plenty of upside for trainer Kenny McPeek with an excellent female family for longer distances -- second dam Power Play won Delaware Handicap at 1 1/4 miles.
With no stakes of importance for three-year-olds this coming weekend, we will take a closer look at the overall three-year-old picture next week.