For some owners and trainers with their eyes on the Kentucky Derby, the prep races that lie ahead will determine whether or not their horses make it into the Churchill Downs starting gate on that first Saturday in May. A number of hopefuls are low on earnings in graded stakes, and connections are picking their spots carefully to try and earn their way to the big dance.
One year ago, Animal Kingdom, who had yet to be tried against stakes competition, was sent to Turfway Park to run in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, a Grade 2 event with a $500,000 purse. The $285,000 the Leroidesanimaux colt earned winning that race for his Team Valor International partners ensured Animal Kingdom a spot in the Derby field.
This year's Spiral field has several candidates in a similar predicament, including one from the same Graham Motion barn that scored the Spiral-Kentucky Derby double with Animal Kingdom. That would be Went the Day Well, a Proud Citizen colt who began his career in England but has no graded earnings since his only win came in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park on March 3.
Todd Pletcher is in a similar situation with the unbeaten Heavy Breathing, a son of Giant's Causeway who won a maiden and allowance race at Gulfstream Park in his only two career starts for Starlight Racing, the partnership tht lost G3 Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms to injury on the morning of the G2 Fountain of Youth. A second Pletcher horse, Holiday Promise, a Harlan's Holiday colt owned by WinStar Farm, also enters the Spiral without any winnings in graded stakes company. He is coming off a second-place finish in allowance company at Laurel Park.
Trainer Mark Casse is pointing Stealcase to the Spiral Stakes in hopes of improving his chances to make the Derby field. The son of Lawyer Ron races for John Oxley, who also has G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective on the road to the Kentucky Derby). Stealcase has only a maiden win and a sixth-place showing in the G3 Gotham on his record.
One race last week that yielded no graded stakes earnings but solidified the reputation of a Derby candidate was a Friday afternoon Gulfstream Park allowance contest won by Gemologist. Now 4-for-4, the Tiznow colt, owned by WinStar Farm and trained by Pletcher, annihilated a small field that included G1 Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes winner Currency Swap. Gemologist was racing for the first time since taking the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November. That win earned him just over $100,000 in graded stakes money, not enough to get him to the Derby.
Pletcher has said he is leaning toward the $1-million (G1) Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7.
Saturday's G2 Rebel Stakes winner, Secret Circle, solidified his position as a legitimate Derby hopeful in trainer Bob Baffert's barn, even though his off-the-pace victory may not have been a thing of beauty, as he drifted in and out down the stretch under Rafael Bejarano. But Baffert believes the Eddington colt is continuing to improve his chances of getting the Derby distance, and his current plan is to send Secret Circle back to Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Arkansas Derby, a G1 event on April 14. The colt has come a long way since he won the six-furlong Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint with an early burst of speed that made him appear at the time to be a one-dimensional runner.
Baffert has a deep group of 3-year-olds this year, and he'll be using such races as this weekend's $800,000 (G3) Sunland Park Derby, where he is pointing Castaway, the Street Sense colt who is coming off a victory in a division of the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in February. Secret Circle won the other division of the Southwest.
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