A couple of horses staked their claim last weekend, with Black Onyx upsetting the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and Govenor Charlie posting an easy win as the Sunland Derby favorite. Black Onyx's connections made him a late Triple Crown nominee after the Spiral and Govenor Charlie continued to enhance his reputation in a deep Bob Baffert stable.
Both earned 50 points in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system, which virtually guarantees them a spot in the projected 20-horse field on May 4, and the points chase is now entering the stretch run. The final round of major preps starts Saturday with the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and U.A.E. Derby.
The next three weekends, consisting of seven scoring races, offer points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers. I will preview the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby below.
Governor Charlie won with complete authority at Sunland Park, completing the 1 1/8-mile distance in a record 1:47.54. He raced close from the start, tracking in third as Abraham and Saint Prado contested the early pace, and made his move to the lead on the far turn, striding away nicely through the stretch to a five-length decision.
From the first crop of Midnight Lute, who was also represented by impressive Sunland Oaks winner and top Kentucky Oaks contender Midnight Lucky on Sunday, Govenor Charlie is out of a daughter of two-time champion Silverbulletday. His sire was a champion sprinter, but Midnight Lute is by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet and stamina isn't the biggest concern for his promising colt.
Govenor Charlie faces an uphill task due to his inexperience. He was unraced at two, winning at second asking on February 17, and will train up to the Kentucky Derby after defeating a suspect group of opponents Sunday. Big Brown is the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby with only three previous starts, but he earned a 110 BRIS Speed rating winning the Florida Derby and was much faster than his rivals. Govenor Charlie won't overwhelm opponents with a career-best 99 Speed rating in the Sunland Derby.
The lightly-raced colt still rates as a major prospect for this summer's Haskell Invitational, a race that Baffert seemingly wins every year, and there is a lot to like about Govenor Charlie. But the Kentucky Derby probably will be asking too much.
Black Onyx took to the Polytrack at Turfway Park in his stakes debut. A turf allowance winner in his previous outing, the Rock Hard Ten colt raced within striking range in midpack before advancing to challenge near the conclusion of the far turn and seized the lead in upper stretch, comfortably holding runner-up Uncaptured safe to the wire. The final margin was 1 1/4 lengths.
Kelly Breen tried to run Black Onyx on turf in his first two starts last year in New York, but both races were switched to the main track. Following a dismal dirt showing at Gulfstream in early January, Black Onyx thrived on turf and the move to an all-weather surface paid dividends as well. Black Onyx will be easy to dismiss in the Kentucky Derby because his best races don't figure to come on dirt.
Uncaptured can't be ruled out consideration after finishing second in his first start back this year. The son of Lion Heart missed considerable training time earlier this year due to foot injury and figures to gain valuable fitness from the 1 1/8-mile Spiral. Uncaptured captured both the Kentucky Jockey Club and Iroquois at Churchill Downs last fall.
Trainer Mark Casse will use the April 13 Blue Grass on Keeneland's Polytrack for his final prep and Uncaptured needs to step it up from a speed-figure perspective, recording only a 94 and 93 in his last two outings.
The Florida Derby features highly-ranked prospects Itsmyluckyday, Orb and Shanghai Bobby.
Itsmyluckyday is the horse to beat following a pair of splendid performances at Gulfstream Park, registering BRIS Speed ratings of 111 and 106 for convincing wins in the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull. Those are the best numbers by any Kentucky Derby hopeful this year and the Eddie Plesa-trained colt will attempt to sustain his momentum at a longer distance on Saturday.
Orb stamped himself as a Derby contender when capturing the February 23 Fountain of Youth, posting a 102 BRIS Speed rating while narrowly defeating a classy foe in his stakes bow. The late runner benefited from fast fractions and doesn't need to win Saturday after earning 50 points last time, but Orb should appreciate the additional half-furlong in the Florida Derby with his breeding and could still have more to offer.
Shanghai Bobby will attempt to regain lost luster following his first career setback in the Holy Bull. Winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the speedy colt still ran big in defeat, netting a career-best 103 Speed, and he figures to be forwardly-placed with Rosie Napravnik. His effectiveness at longer distances is the biggest question and the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby will determine whether the talented colt continues along the Triple Crown path or drops out to focus on shorter trips.
The presence of Merit Man, a sprinter with high speed, should ensure a legitimate pace in the Florida Derby and that hurts the chances of Shanghai Bobby. Itsmyluckyday can adapt to any pace scenario, but Orb is the pick. I think he will continue to move forward while Itsmyluckyday appears more likely to regress.
Orb is trained by a conservative Shug McGaughey, who bypassed the opportunity to send America's top long-distance turf horse, Point of Entry, to Dubai for a $5 million race this weekend where he would've been one of the favorites and skipped the Triple Crown entirely with Coronado's Quest after an easy win in the 1998 Wood Memorial. He recently said Orb needs to run well in the Florida Derby to prove he belongs in the Kentucky Derby field.
McGaughey's approach flies in the face of today's mentality, at least when it comes to U.S. horse racing, and it's easy to take note when the Hall of Fame trainer becomes bullish about one of his charges. He is saying the right things about Orb.
"The horse that won the Fountain of Youth is not the same horse that I'm even seeing today," McGaughey noted on Tuesday. "(Orb has) matured to the point where he is pretty much push button. It's all come together and he enjoys what he's doing."
McGaughey is tipping his hand with the improving colt and you can count me in.
The Louisiana Derby lacks the star power of the Florida Derby, with the top four contenders all making only their second career stakes start, but it shapes up to be a compelling affair with a number of intriguing Kentucky Derby prospects.
Revolutionary brings the biggest reputation into the race, overcoming a ton of trouble to dramatically capture the Withers last out. The Todd Pletcher pupil didn't beat much that afternoon and the final time was a bit on the slow side, but the regally-bred colt stamped himself as an exciting talent when netting a 103 BRIS Speed rating for an emphatic 8 1/2-length maiden tally two back.
Revolutionary could be any kind of three-year-old and I won't be surprised to see him win. The main concern is his immature behavior. The colt doesn't break well and acts badly in most of his starts, and he'll need to overcome his immature ways to realize his potential. I will take a wait-and-see approach.
Code West and Departing are both serious win contenders as well, but Palace Malice is the play.
Palace Malice returned from a lengthy layoff with a runner-up effort sprinting at Gulfstream before trying two turns in the February 23 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, missing by only a half-length in his initial stakes attempt. The Curlin colt is bred to improve with added distance and maturity and I like the progress he's making for Pletcher. Palace Malice can continue to show more in his second start at Fair Grounds.
Derby Top 10
- Verrazano -- Easily passed his first test at two turns in Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial is next; want to see him relax better next time
- Orb -- Fountain of Youth winner will be running late in the Florida Derby and another strong showing will set him up nicely for main event
- Revolutionary -- Looks very promising but immaturity could cost him; little margin for error as he probably needs a first or second in Louisiana Derby to qualify
- Itsmyluckyday -- He's been a Speed-rating standout in the 3yo division so far; can he maintain that level of performance against better competition at longer distances?
- Oxbow -- He possesses speed and has been toughened up in his last couple of races; could be a scary proposition if he peaks at right time for D. Wayne Lukas
- War Academy -- Loved his allowance win last time and expect him to be a serious factor when makes lone Kentucky Derby prep in Arkansas Derby
- Flashback -- Suffered first loss when coming up a little short in San Felipe but that figures to benefit lightly-race colt; consider him to be the horse to beat in Santa Anita Derby
- Code West -- Showed lots of grit when missing by nose in Risen Star in first stakes start; gut feeling is that he still has a lot more to offer for Baffert
- Hear the Ghost -- Improving gelding secured Derby berth in San Felipe and packs a punch in the final furlongs
- Govenor Charlie -- New addition following sharp win in the Sunland Derby; Kentucky Derby will be a tough task but he's in good hands with Baffert