The final round of major preps, a three-week window consisting of seven races worth a total of 170 points apiece (100-40-20-10 scale), begins this Saturday and it's important to note that winning isn't everything -- six of the last 13 Kentucky Derby victors dropped their last start.
But I'm hoping for something to get excited about.
The 2014 Kentucky Derby picture lacks sizzle, with the term "wide open" being the most common theme so far. The key players presently are easy to identify: Cairo Prince romped in the Holy Bull Stakes, establishing himself as a likely solid favorite in Saturday's Florida Derby, and California Chrome heads a two-horse West Coast contingent along with Candy Boy. The latter will meet in the April 5 Santa Anita Derby.
But these horses, for the most part, haven't run very fast yet. From 1998-2008, every Derby winner except 50-1 upsetter Giacomo earned at least a 104 BRIS Speed rating in a recent prep race, many receiving numbers in the 110 range. Only one horse this year, Sunland Derby winner Chitu, is even close with a 103.
Take nothing away from Chitu -- he was impressive charging up the rail to score by 1 3/4 lengths last Sunday -- but he's a son of Henny Hughes, a successful sprinter out of a mare by speed sire Meadowlake. Henny Hughes gets runners -- he's the sire of dual champion Beholder -- but don't expect him to produce any Kentucky Derby winners.
Perhaps the next three weeks will bring more clarity.
The Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park was also offered last weekend. I'll take a look at both races and provide some early thoughts about the action this Saturday.
Chitu receives some stamina from his dam side -- he's out of a mare by A.P. Indy -- but similar to Govenor Charlie, who established a new track record capturing the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby last year, it's impossible to envision him as a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
As Verrazano showed in 2013 (perfect in two Grade 1s at 1 1/8 miles; up the track in the Derby and Travers), there can be an enormous difference between nine and 10 furlongs for some horses.
Chitu was one of two starters in Sunday's race for Bob Baffert along with Midnight Hawk, who suddenly ran out of steam after taking a short lead at the top of the stretch. Midnight Hawk still wound up 4 3/4 lengths clear of third-placer Commissioner, who was never a serious factor after stumbling at the start.
Baffert figures to have at least three horses in the Kentucky Derby, with Chitu and Midnight Hawk accumulating enough points already along with Rebel winner Hoppertutnity. But Hoppertunity is the one I'm giving a realistic chance.
Ken Ramsey is coming off a banner year, dominating every meet at Churchill Downs and Keeneland as well as capturing owner titles at Gulfstream and Saratoga, but the colorful owner is still seeking his first Kentucky Derby victory. He hopes to see Bobby's Kitten qualify in the April 11 Blue Grass, but Ramsey can pin his hopes upon We Miss Artie for the time being.
The colt ensured himself a berth in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile Spiral, getting up by a nose in a blanket finish.
We Miss Artie had distinguished himself on Polytrack before, winning the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last October, and he handles turf, recording a nose second in the Kitten's Joy at Gulfstream earlier this year. But his dirt form leaves something to be desired, posting non-threatening efforts in the Holy Bull and Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
The Spiral turned out to be a slow race. Harry's Holiday, a 15-1 outsider following a well-beaten third in the John Battaglia Memorial, nearly proved best as the field crawled to the finish line in the stretch drive, losing in the final stride. Third-placer Coastline, who wound up a head back in the three-horse photo, was exiting a well-beaten fourth in the Southwest at Oaklawn.
The winner earned only a 93 Speed rating. I like We Miss Artie's run style -- the Derby could set up well for a closer with a hot and contested pace -- but can't get excited about his chances.
Despite the speed-favoring nature of Gulfstream's main track, Saturday's Florida Derby doesn't figure to be stolen on the front end. There's just too much speed present in the eight-horse field.
On paper, the race sets up perfectly for a stalk-and-pounce trip from Cairo Prince, who will make his second attempt at 1 1/8 miles. The Pioneerof the Nile colt sustained his lone setback in the nine-furlong Remsen last November, surrendering the lead when Honor Code re-rallied up the rail to nail him on the wire, and one of the questions surrounding Cairo Prince is his affinity for longer distances.
Constitution, a promising Distorted Humor colt who will make his stakes debut for Todd Pletcher, intrigues me. After being all speed in his first two outings, the unbeaten sophomore needs to prove more versatile and it's logical to assume that Pletcher's been working on getting him to relax in the mornings. I hope to see him settle behind front-runners Wildcat Red and General a Rod during the early stages.
I'm leaning toward Constitution and will include Cairo Prince in any multi-race wagers.
Risen Star winner Intense Holiday is the horse to beat in Saturday's Louisiana Derby and the presence of three speed horses on the outside -- Rise Up, In Trouble and Albano -- should ensure a solid pace for the late-running colt. Mike Smith, who picked up the mount for Pletcher last time, will be back for the mount.
I will make a small case for Commanding Curve in his second start this year. A smart maiden winner at Churchill Downs in late November, the Dallas Stewart trainee returned to the races in the Risen Star and received support at the windows, leaving the starting gate at 12-1 despite his inexperience in the 14-horse field.
The Master Command ridgling dropped far back during the early stages but offered a nice middle move on the far turn, passing about six horses by the top of the stretch, and I wasn't surprised to see him flatten out in the final furlong. Commanding Curve needed the race and should benefit greatly from the comebacker.
Commanding Curve rates a slight edge at a price and I'll include Intense Holiday and Rise Up in any multi-race bets.
The U.A.E. Derby will be held overseas Saturday and offers the same points as the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby. Trainer Aidan O'Brien, who will be seeking his third straight victory in the 1 3/16-mile event on Tapeta, has an extremely live contender in Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Giovanni Boldini.
He figures to make the trip stateside with a good showing and I wouldn't completely dismiss the Kentucky Derby chances of Giovanni Boldini -- the War Front colt possesses a nice pedigree for 1 1/4 miles on dirt.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- Cairo Prince -- Holy Bull romper is the one to beat in the Florida Derby.
- California Chrome -- Rolled to an easy front-running victory in San Felipe.
- Hoppertunity -- He's coming on for three-time Derby winner Baffert; looking forward to his final prep.
- Candy Boy -- Captured Bob Lewis with complete authority; Santa Anita Derby next.
- Intense Holiday -- Fast-closing colt will be seeking Risen Star-Louisiana Derby double.
- Samraat -- New York-bred colt continued to impress in Gotham; headed to the Wood Memorial for Violette.
- Strong Mandate -- Disappointed in Rebel, will look to rebound in Arkansas Derby.
- Conquest Titan -- Late runner experienced a tough trip when fourth in Tampa Bay Derby; remains a sleeper for Casse.
- Tonalist -- Could be more of a Belmont prospect for Clement but eligible to run well in the Wood Memorial.
- Tapiture -- Churchill stakes winner exits a rough trip in Rebel, could show more in Arkansas Derby.