New York, Florida and California each offered one shot Saturday for Kentucky Derby hopefuls to pick up all-important graded stakes earnings. In New York, a horse that was already on many Paulick Derby Index lists significantly improved his chances of making it to the Derby starting gate, but in California and Florida, new faces emerged.
At Aqueduct, odds-on favorite Alpha did what he was expected to do – follow in his sire's footsteps and win the Withers Stakes. The son of 2006 Withers champ Bernardini swept to the lead at the top of the stretch after racing in mid-pack and scooted clear by an easy three lengths in 1:44.23 for 1 1/16 miles. Alpha may have only beaten a group of five unheralded rivals, but trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he saw improvement from the colt's January victory in the Count Fleet, and of course, the win captured $120,000 in graded stakes money, pushing Alpha to $180,000 overall. If he stays healthy and continues improving, Alpha would seem a lock to make the Derby field at this point.
“There are some good 3-year-olds around the country, and it's hard to tell what he actually beat,” McLaughlin said. “Union Rags is out there, Todd Pletcher has what looks like a shedrow full of them, Out of Bounds in California for Darley … whatever direction he goes, there's some nice 3-year-olds out there. We hope we fit in there well with them all.”
McLaughlin indicated Alpha may stay in New York and target the Gotham and/or the Wood. While McLaughlin has said Alpha could be Godolphin's best Derby contender to date, he still has some proving to do outside of New York and against tougher competition.
At Tampa Bay Downs Saturday, Battle Hardened not only got his first graded stakes victory, he got his first win period – in his fourth career start. While the son of Giant's Causeway was the only maiden in the field of 11, he certainly wasn't a secret, as he went off at 9-2. Battle Hardened emerged in mid-stretch from a tightly-packed bunch to score by a length in 1:44.98 for 1 1/16 miles.
“This was a really good bunch of quality horses, but no stars, and that was one reason we decided to take a shot today,” said trainer Eddie Kenneally. “We had also entered him in a (maiden race) at Gulfstream … but he's been training brilliantly and we were happy with how he was coming into the race, so we decided to come here and get some of the big money.”
Kenneally said the Tampa Bay Derby would be the likely next move for Battle Hardened. He might see Davis runner-up Prospective again, as trainer Mark Casse indicated Prospective would probably come back for that race. Prospective is worth keeping an eye on as well. The son of Malibu Moon ran a strange race Saturday. Track announcer Richard Grunder (and Casse) thought the colt was done heading into the stretch, but Prospective got a second wind and came with a late rush to take second after racing wide throughout. Improvement at a longer distance will not come as a surprise.
It's hard to know what to make of Saturday's Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. I'll Have Another scored a visually impressive upset win at 43-1, rating well behind pacesetter Isn't He Clever and drawing off in convincing fashion. I'll Have Another, by Flower Alley, was making his first start since Sept. 5 at Saratoga when he ran sixth in the Hopeful Stakes, won by Currency Swap. Considering the long layoff, and the ease with which I'll Have Another moved in the lane, Saturday's performance could have stamped him as a legitimate Derby contender.
“Oh my God that was nice,” trainer Doug O'Neill said in the winner's circle. “He's always trained fantastic, but we never saw this coming.”
Owner Paul Reddam, who has had four previous Derby runners, was non-committal about I'll Have Another's future path, except to say that he would give the colt “a lot of time” before his next start.
Race favorite Liaison, who came into the Lewis on a three-race winning streak, dumped jockey Rafael Bejarano in mid-stretch after getting squeezed by Groovin' Solo. Groovin' Solo was disqualified from third and placed last, but it didn't look like Liaison was getting to the winner in any event. Trainer Bob Baffet said Liaison, by Indian Charlie, was a bit “fresh.” Liaison's stablemate, Sky Kingdom, by 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker, also failed to take a step forward Saturday as he never threatened and finished sixth. Baffert said he was disappointed in Sky Kingdom's performance but that he would be better at 1 1/8 miles.
Another son of Empire Maker could bear watching after the Robert B. Lewis. Second-place finisher Empire Way rallied from the back of the pack to finish nicely on the rail, although a track bias could have influenced the outcome. Empire Way's owner-trainer tandem is Heinz Steinmann and Mike Harrington, who also have a good-looking Derby prospect in Creative Cause. Empire Way is a full brother to 2011 3-year-old filly champion Royal Delta.
The winner of the Robert B. Lewis (before 2007 known as the Santa Catalina Stakes) hasn't worn the Derby roses since Ferdinand's victory in 1986. A handful of Robert B. Lewis winners have cracked the Derby top ten since then, with Pioneerof the Nile scoring the highest finish (2nd) in 2009.
No horse has completed the Sam F. Davis-Derby double, although Bluegrass Cat came close with his second place finish behind Barbaro in 2006.
Next weekend's Derby focus will shift back to Gulfstream Park and the Grade 2 Hutcheson, run at the unusual distance of seven and a half furlongs. Ever So Lucky, by Indian Charlie, is expected to make his much-anticipated 2012 debut for trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
My top ten:
1. Gemologist – Come May 5, there won't be many runners, if any, that can boast two wins over the Churchill Downs surface heading into the Derby. And the fact that we haven't seen this undefeated son of Tiznow in 2012 only adds to his appeal as the last five Derby winners made their first start of the year on Feb. 28 or later. Gemologist shares the same connections in Todd Pletcher and WinStar that Super Saver boasted in 2010. Super Saver won the Derby off two preps – the first coming in mid-March – and he also won the Kentucky Jockey Club, which Gemologist captured last November. In that race, Gemologist beat Derby prospect Ever So Lucky, who's been getting some buzz. Even the 11th-place finisher, Mr. Prankster, has come back to win two stakes at Turfway Park, so it wasn't a shabby race.
2. Union Rags – By all appearances, the son of Dixie Union looks like he will be a handful on the Derby trail and perhaps the first Saturday in May. Union Rags hit the track as a 2-year-old like he was born to win the Derby, and maybe, with former Barbaro trainer Michael Matz in his corner, he was. He looks the part, and we are all eagerly awaiting his 3-year-old debut.
3. Out of Bounds – Suspicion about the 3-year-old crop coming from California is justified, based on recent history and the finicky nature of Santa Anita's track. But if anyone from the West Coast looks the part of a Derby winner, it just might be this guy. Eoin Harty and Darley have high hopes for the son of Discreet Cat, and off his maiden score and the Sham win, he looks a long-striding danger. Want to see more.
4. El Padrino – His allowance win at Gulfstream a couple weeks ago was very visually impressive. The sloppy track conditions that day are a reason to temper enthusiasm for this one, but the way he blew by Take Charge Indy did not look like a fluke. On paper, the son of Pulpit should run all day, and if Gemologist doesn't make his mark on the Derby trail, this might be Pletcher's best shot.
5. Creative Cause – Here's another who has yet to appear in 2012, but his third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and his breeding suggest he is a major player. The son of Giant's Causeway looks like a gamer, and if he has improved from his 2-year-old campaign, he will be a serious threat come May.
6. Algorithms – He ran impressive fractions in his Holy Bull score and has the stride of a Derby contender. The undefeated son of Bernardini has enough stamina in his breeding to compliment the speed influences, and he has shown improvement each and every race, looking professional. Two turns is still a question mark, but if he handles the stretch out as well as he's tackled his class progression so far, he's solidly in the mix.
7. Hansen – I have serious reservations about his ability to stay a mile and a quarter at Derby speed, but his Holy Bull performance could be a toss-out. Hopefully, his next start will give us a better indication of whether he has any flexibility in his running style. Curse or no curse, his BC Juvenile race was most impressive.
8. I'll Have Another – I knew nothing about this runner until he blasted home in the Robert B. Lewis, but boy, he looked nice doing so. It's hard to say whether the track conditions or the other runners falling short played a role, but I won't count him out, based on that performance.
9. Secret Circle – I'm not ready to box this Circle as a sprinter, just because he won the first running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint. The son of Eddington should appreciate longer distances, and his second to Out of Bounds in the Sham might prove to be a solid performance. With Liaison and Sky Kingdom faltering in the Robert B. Lewis, could this turn out to be Bob Baffert's best hope?
10. Prospective – I loved him at huge odds going into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and he didn't run a lick, finishing dead last. If he hated the Churchill track, well, this will turn out to be a dud selection. But if he was just green or had a bad day, this guy might be a maturing runner who's figuring it out, nearly overcoming the outside post and re-rallying to be a fast-closing second in the Sam F. Davis.
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