The first four scoring races of 2014 are in the books and the Kentucky Derby Report will review the action and take a look at some of the early contenders for the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports."
The criteria for making the Kentucky Derby underwent a massive shift last year with the implementation of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Series, a tiered points system that places a greater emphasis upon later prep races, and nobody knew what to expect during the inaugural run.
Estimates calling for a necessary point total in the 30-to-40 range fell significantly short as the 20th horse in the official field qualified with only 10 points. The connections of Palace Malice couldn't anticipate such a low number, running him back two weeks later in the Blue Grass after a seventh-place finish in his final scheduled prep, the Louisiana Derby.
As it turned out, Palace Malice would have made the Kentucky Derby field with the 10 points he garnered for a third in February's Risen Star. The decision to run him with first-time blinkers in the Kentucky Derby is another matter.
The minimum point total was lower than expected last year, but we can't count on such a low threshold in the future.
When graded earnings were used, the amount needed could fluctuate wildly, with Nowhere to Hide making the field with only $55,000 in 2009 and Sunriver missing the 2006 edition with an insufficient $100,000 after a third in the Florida Derby.
Expect similar variations year to year with the points system.
The "Prep Season" portion of the scoring season, awarding points on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the first four finishers, began last September with the Iroquois Stakes and continues through the Southwest Stakes on February 17.
One scoring race is on tap this weekend, Saturday's Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.
With a dawdling pace and only a four-horse field, the January 11 Sham left something to be desired, but I thought MIDNIGHT HAWK made a good impression in his stakes debut. I'm not sure about his effectiveness at longer distances -- the Sham was only a one-mile race -- but the son of Midnight Lute is a serious prospect at this early stage for three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert.
Midnght Hawk raced on or close to the pace before dismissing front-running rival KRISTO in upper stretch. He drifted in late in his two-turn debut, but Midnight Hawk was making only his second start and is still a little green. The well-built gray colt netted a respectable 97 BRIS Speed rating for the 1 3/4-length decision.
He made an eye-catching debut -- recording a 6 1/4-length victory going 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood December 13 -- and Midnight Hawk admirably passed his first test against winners in the Sham. But we'll continue to learn more about him as he stretches out in distance against larger fields.
Kristo, a son of Distorted Humor trained by John Sadler, also ran well in his first stakes experience. He dropped his first two starts in sprints but broke his maiden by a widening 6 3/4 lengths when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in his juvenile finale. Kristo tried hard all the way in the Sham and figures to benefit from the encouraging effort.
NOBLE MOON posted a front-running, two-length decision in the January 4 Jerome, winning the mile and 70-yard test over the inner oval at Aqueduct, and anything less than a victory would've been a major disappointment given his 4-5 odds and questionable competition.
A front-running debut winner at Belmont Park in mid-September, Noble Moon missed the break when making his stakes debut in the November 3 Nashua and trailed early in the 12-horse field before swinging extremely wide off the far turn. He closed stoutly for third that afternoon and registered a career-best 95 Speed rating in the Jerome.
By Malibu Moon, who sired last year's Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Noble Moon is trained by Leah Gyarmati, who has never had a Kentucky Derby starter. But experience was a non-factor for Chip Wooley (Mine That Bird), Richard Dutrow (Big Brown), Michael Matz (Barbaro) and John Servis (Smarty Jones), who all proved successful with their first Kentucky Derby starter in the last decade.
Noble Moon dug in when confronted in upper stretch and was striding away nicely in the latter stages. But he is reportedly dealing with a foot issue since the Jerome and was scratched from the Remsen in late November due to a reported case of hives. It's still early enough, but his health is at least a minor concern.
Let's hope Noble Moon can make the March 1 Gotham, which should provide a better indication of his quality.
VICAR'S IN TROUBLE tracked the pace to the top of the stretch and drew off smartly in the final furlong of the January 18 Lecomte, registering a 6 3/4-length victory in the one-mile and 70-yard race at Fair Grounds.
Trained by Mike Maker, the Louisiana-bred son of Into Mischief was exiting a 13-length maiden score over restricted rivals at six furlongs that netted him a 103 Speed rating. He generated a much lower figure in the Lecomte (88) due to the slow early fractions (six furlongs in 1:13), but it was easy to come away impressed with the finishing kick in his two-turn debut.
The competition will get steeper and we'll find out whether Vicar's In Trouble can carry his dazzling form forward in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star on February 22. But looking further down the road, it's easy to envision his ceiling being less than 10 furlongs given a speed-oriented family -- his dam made 26 sprint starts and is a half-sibling to graded stakes-winning sprinter True Direction.
ALBANO, winner of the six-furlong Sugar Bowl and bred for speed on both sides, took second, a half-length better than favored GOLD HAWK.
A good-looking debut winner at Churchill Downs, Gold Hawk possesses a mouth-watering pedigree for classic distances (by Empire Maker out of champion Caressing) and concluded 2012 with a 3 1/2-length score over optional claiming rivals going two turns at Fair Grounds. But he's never earned a Speed rating better than 87 in three starts and disappointed mightily in the Lecomte.
The one-mile Smarty Jones produced last year's champion three-year-old male, Will Take Charge. This year's edition featured a nice performance from the winning TANZANITE CAT.
Tanzanite Cat flashed to the front at the break and after surrendering the advantage to WALT on the backstretch, came back to defeat that rival in the stretch drive, edging away late to a 1 1/4-length decision. Third when making his debut in a sprint at Del Mar, the Cody Autrey-trained colt broke his maiden second-time out in an off-the-turf, 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight event at Fair Grounds, generating a 92 Speed rating for the four-length decision.
The son of Graeme Hall duplicated the 92 Speed rating in the Smarty Jones, displaying plenty of grit in the hard-fought win, and could continue to be a useful type at middle distances. And turf is definitely an option as well with his breeding. But Graeme Hall offers little encouragement for the Kentucky Derby and Tanzanite Cat is out of a mare by Mt. Livermore, sire of champion sprinters Housebuster and Orientate.
Walt appears destined for a career in sprints and middle distances with his breeding. COASTLINE, who stumbled at the start and finished up the track as the favorite in the Delta Downs Jackpot previously, continued to disappoint his backers at short odds with a non-threatening third at 6-5 in the Smarty Jones.
FIRE STARTER still has much to prove from both a maturity and talent standpoint, but I thought he finished up well for fifth, beaten less four lengths after a troubled trip in which he was steadied on the first turn and rank during the early stages. The Tapit colt was exiting a 10 3/4-length maiden score at Laurel on New Year's Day and remains an intriguing prospect if able to put it together from a mental standpoint for trainer Steve Hobby.
Bob Baffert failed to yield a Kentucky Derby starter in 2013 and is winless since 2002. Todd Pletcher, who went zero-for-five in 2013, is only one-for-36 overall, his lone victory coming via an upset in the slop nearly four years ago. Those numbers provide fuel for their critics, but it's short-sighted to ignore their impact upon the Kentucky Derby scene.
The Kentucky Derby is the mission statement for both trainers and Baffert and Pletcher operate deep stables loaded with prospects. I'll devote a section toward analyzing their Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Baffert sustained a major loss when New Year's Day, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, was retired recently due to an injury. But it's a "next horse up" mentality for the Hall of Fame conditioner.
No maidens, fillies or horses without main track experience are listed below. And a few confirmed sprint types have been omitted as well, but I'm likely missing a contender or two from both conditioners.
Baffert's Kentucky Derby hopefuls include:
Midnight Hawk -- Should be a major factor in upcoming preps; biggest question at this point is longer distances.
Indianapolis -- Medaglia d'Oro colt remained unbeaten with an impressive runaway win in six-furlong San Pedro on January 20; Baffert labeled him a "superstar" and bandwagon will explode if he carries his forward at two turns.
Tap It Rich -- Appears to possess a world of talent but maturity issues (called a head case by Baffert) are a drawback.
Bayern -- Didn't run at two but made a strong career debut on January 4, winning off by 3 1/4 lengths; Offlee Wild colt scored at tricky seven-furlong distance and is out of a mare by Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch.
Roger Rocket -- Pulpit colt closed fast to win debut sprinting on January 18; he figures to stretch out and makes stakes bow next time.
Chitu -- Unbeaten in two starts, Henny Hughes colt is a nice colt who could make an impact in preps but classic distances look like a stretch.
Pletcher's vast collection of Kentucky Derby prospects include:
Commissioner -- Broke his maiden going nine furlongs at Saratoga and returned from lengthy layoff with excellent allowance win at same distance at Gulfstream; from final crop of A.P. Indy, long-winded colt could be any kind.
Constitution -- Posted a terrific maiden win after missing the break in career bow at seven furlongs; Tapit colt was unraced at two but looms as a very exciting prospect.
Hartford -- Drew off impressively when making debut on January 16; playing catch-up from experience standpoint but Tapit colt looks extremely promising.
Harpoon -- Tapit colt exits a 5 1/2-length maiden romp going a one-turn mile at Gulfstream; he kept excellent company in first three career starts (recording three straight seconds) and is one to watch going forward.
Surfing USA -- Liked the ease of his maiden win going seven furlongs on Remsen undercard; Roman Ruler colt is well-regarded.
Danza -- Opened racing career with a pair of encouraging efforts at Saratoga and Street Boss colt has posted three works in advance of sophomore debut.
Matterhorn -- An impressive one-mile debut winner at Aqueduct in mid-November, Tapit colt didn't work again until January 19.
Havana -- Fast and talented, but coughed up a clear lead in stretch of Breeders' Cup Juvenile and probably best suited for distances up to a mile.
Monopolize -- Well-bred Bernardini colt easily broke maiden when making two-turn debut on Aqueduct inner track in December; working in South Florida for next appearance.
King Cyrus -- Posted an 11-length maiden winner at the Spa and owns pedigree for two turns; last seen finishing third in a Keeneland allowance and working toward 2013 debut.
Vinceremos -- Didn't run very fast but proved game posting a recent maiden win; Pioneerof the Nile colt figures to stretch out in distance next time.
Intense Holiday -- Concluded juvenile season with a pair of fourths against graded rivals; late runner will attempt to make an impact in Holy Bull.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- Shared Belief -- Unbeaten colt exits a sensational victory in CashCall Futurity but has raced strictly on synthetics; deflating to learn he developed foot issues after starting to train on the dirt at Santa Anita; must return to worktab soon or miss planned start in the 2/8 Lewis.
- Honor Code -- Back-to-back Derby winners for Shug McGaughey? A.P. Indy colt possesses a late kick that could prove lethal this spring.
- Midnight Hawk -- Massive colt with a tremendous stride.
- Cairo Prince -- Impressive Nashua winner finished a tough-luck second in paceless Remsen; the one to beat in Holy Bull.
- Commissioner -- Returned from lengthy layoff to defeat salty allowance field and could have much more to offer.
- Top Billing -- Curlin colt just missed to Commissioner following a rough trip; he's another serious candidate for McGaughey.
- Constitution -- Willing to drink the Kool-Aid following remarkable maiden victory; could he be the first unraced two-year-old to win Derby since 1882?
- Indianapolis -- Exciting colt will stretch out to two turns in next start.
- Strong Mandate -- Hopeful winner could develop into a top prospect for D. Wayne Lukas.
- Wicked Strong -- Hard Spun colt defeated a nice one in maiden tally two starts back and closed well for third behind tedious Remsen pace; Holy Bull will tell more.