Danzing Candy sped forward at the start and made all the pace in Saturday’s San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, establishing himself as a prominent Kentucky Derby contender. Mor Spirit rallied too late to catch the winner but displayed the late kick that could serve him well down the road.
Two weeks after saddling Zulu to a Florida Derby (G1) runner-up finish in his stakes debut, Todd Pletcher continued to improve his Kentucky Derby hand in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), sending out the top two finishers. Destin made it two straight stakes wins at the Tampa track, overhauling stablemate Outwork to assure himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, and Outwork performed admirably in his first two-turn attempt and stakes bow.
Danzing Candy lived up to the promise displayed in convincing maiden and allowance victories earlier in the meet, scoring by a comfortable two-length margin in his first stakes start. And he defeated a nice field in the process. Trainer Cliff Sise Jr. has no experience on the Kentucky Derby scene, but the front-running colt has the right jockey in Mike Smith.
From the first crop of Twirling Candy, Danzing Candy’s speed must be considered dangerous. At least on paper, making a facile lead in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe appeared to be a difficult task – I Will Score, Uncle Lino and Smokey Image brought plenty of early gas to the equation — but Danzing Candy had cleared rivals by the midway point of the clubhouse turn and was running easy on a speed-favoring track, posting solid early fractions in :22.96 and :46.11.
Smith made some interesting comments afterward:
“He’s a big horse. He’s still carrying a lot of flesh on him. There’s room to trim him down as we get closer to the Derby and we’re doing it little by little. He’s handling everything. He’s a big, beautiful horse and he’ll start tucking up as we get closer.
“We don’t do much with him,” the Hall of Fame and Kentucky Derby-winning rider added. “There’s room to tighten those screws, tighten him up.”
As the rider of Kentucky Oaks-bound Songbird, who has captured all of her starts in wire-to-wire fashion, Smith won’t have to worry about negotiating through traffic in either the Derby or Oaks. The San Felipe winner doesn’t have the same profile of his filly counterpart, the overwhelming Oaks favorite presently, but Danzing Candy will receive plenty of support at Churchill Downs if he continues to impress in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Danzing Candy registered a 104 BRIS Speed rating in the San Felipe, the top number earned by a 2016 Kentucky Derby contender, and he hails from a dam who counts Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner Better Talk Now as a half-brother; there’s little reason to doubt his chances at longer distances.
Exaggerator made a run at the pacesetter nearing the conclusion of the far turn but lost steam after turning for home, with Danzing Candy remaining clear as he drove to the wire unthreatened. The San Felipe exposed potential distance limitations for Exaggerator: he’s by Curlin but appears influenced by his dam, a confirmed sprinter who also produced Embur’s Song, a Canadian champion who was effective up to distances of 1 1/16 miles.
Mor Spirit waited until the stretch to offer his best stride but finished full of run, rolling past Exaggerator as he belatedly reduced the winning margin. And I thought it was the perfect prep for the Bob Baffert-trained ridgling.
It’s easy to understand how the last three years have influenced observers – Orb, California Chrome and American Pharoah won all their 3-year-old starts before capturing the first leg of the Triple Crown – but winning every prep is a false expectation and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert understands it better than most.
Baffert has directed the prep campaigns of three Kentucky Derby winners (he also saddled 2002 winner War Emblem but didn’t get him until mid-April) and American Pharoah proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime horse, the first Triple Crown hero in 37 years. But the Baffert-trained Silver Charm and Real Quiet lost their final two preps before the first Saturday in May, with those setbacks benefitting them greatly.
The last thing Baffert wants to see is Mor Spirit peak in a 1 1/16-mile race in mid-March; the son of Eskendereya is bred to relish longer distances and it’s a process getting him to the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby. Real Quiet displayed the same grinding run style as Mor Spirit in his races leading up to the first Saturday in May, winning only two of 12 starts before delivering a career-best at Churchill Downs, defeating Victory Gallop by a half-length.
The late-running Mor Spirit has shown more talent, finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) before reeling off wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and Robert Lewis (G3), and his BRIS Speed ratings have increased in every start since his maiden win, posting an excellent 102 in the San Felipe as well as his third consecutive triple-digit Late Pace number.
He’s progressing nicely and I’m not concerned about the way Mor Spirit carries his head low when racing – A.P. Indy was the best 3-year-old of 2002 with the same action.
Tampa Bay Derby
Jockeys have played musical chairs, with Destin receiving his third straight rider switch in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, but the well-bred gray colt is starting to command serious respect following Saturday’s one-length victory.
It’s prudent not to go overboard – the competition will get tougher and let’s see Destin continue to prove himself outside the friendly confines of Tampa Bay Downs – but one can admire the progress he’s made in recent months.
After a one-length debut maiden win at Belmont Park in October, Destin received some betting action when the Las Vegas Wynn released their Future Book odds last fall. But any affection was short-lived as the youngster came back to finish a non-threatening second at 1-5 odds in any entry-level Gulfstream allowance in mid-December. He followed that clunker with a well-beaten fourth in the January 16 Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds.
You couldn’t sell any future wagers at that point, but previous jockey Julien Leparoux proved on the mark about Destin after the Lecomte: “He’s still learning a little bit and green, but he came running at the end and finished strong.”
By Giant’s Causeway and a full brother to Grade 1-winning millionaire Creative Cause, Destin was an immature colt in need of seasoning during the winter, but the light bulb appeared to come on when recording a 2 ¼-length victory in the February 13 Sam F. Davis (G3). And he followed it with another fine showing in the Tampa Bay Derby.
The scratch of Morning Fire from the rail left Awesome Banner as the only confirmed need-the-lead type in a nine-horse field but when his rider took a strong hold leaving the starting gate and elected to stalk the pace five wide into the first turn, it allowed Outwork to seize the initiative from his inside post.
Destin settled into an ideal stalking trip, within a couple of lengths of his stablemate as the field made its way down the backstretch, and moved forward with Javier Castellano to engage Outwork rounding the far turn.
Destin appeared to stick a head in front at the top of the lane, but Outwork fought back gamely. Destin gained the upper hand in deep stretch, edging away under the wire.
The pace was fairly moderate and Destin received a decent 97 BRIS Speed rating.
After riding Destin to victory in the Sam Davis, John Velazquez jumped ship for Outwork in the Tampa Bay Derby. The bay colt won his first two starts sprinting, breaking his maiden at Keeneland in last April before coming back to easily capture a 6-furlong allowance at Tampa Bay Downs on February 13, and I thought his runner-up effort was highly commendable given the inexperience.
Like unbeaten 2-year-old champion Nyquist, Outwork is by record-setting freshman sire Uncle Mo. But the pedigree similarities stop there as Outwork is out of a mare by Empire Maker, a tremendous source of stamina. By 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, Empire Maker is responsible for 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, the sire of American Pharoah.
Outwork registered a career-best 96 BRIS Speed and could show much more in the coming months for Pletcher.
Brody’s Cause turned in a clunker in his first start since a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), winding up a dull seventh, and will try to turn things around in the April 9 Blue Grass (G1). But his Kentucky Derby stock dropped considerably and turf will always be an option given his green-shaded bloodlines.
Economic Model entered the Tampa Bay Derby as a promising prospect, rallying well for second in the January 30 Swale (G2) at Gulfstream, but something went amiss as he faded to last at Tampa.
After drawing full-sized and contentious fields for the Smarty Jones and Southwest (G3), Oaklawn Park is back at again with Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel (G2). The 1 1/16-mile race serves as the penultimate prep race offering points on a 50-20-10-5 scale in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, with point values increasing to 100-40-20-10 in the coming weeks, and horseplayers can look forward to many options in the 14-horse field.
I liked Cupid’s maiden win last out and the Baffert trainee drew well in post 3 – he’ll be rolling late with Martin Garcia.
1) Mohaymen – Superior form and long-striding colt will make final prep in 4/2 Florida Derby
2) Danzing Candy – Looks like he’ll be the one to catch; 4/9 Santa Anita Derby next
3) Mor Spirit – Eligible to make a significant late impact for Baffert; final prep comes in Santa Anita Derby
4) Gun Runner – Extremely promising for Asmussen; looking for a strong performance in 3/26 TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby
5) Destin – Tampa Bay Derby winner is gaining respect; Pletcher considering options for final prep
6) Zulu – Liked Fountain of Youth runner-up effort but worried by his absence from worktab since; let’s hope he remains healthy
7) Nyquist – Florida Derby showdown looms with Mohaymen & could have a tactical advantage with his speed, but don’t like only a single two-turn prep for a horse with distance concerns at 1 ¼ miles
8) Shagaf – Remained perfect and overcame bias in Gotham (G3); don’t be surprised if he continues to show more in 4/9 Wood Memorial
9) Outwork – Eligible to keep moving forward off good second in Tampa Bay Derby; Pletcher hasn’t decided upon final prep
10) Cupid – Impressive maiden winner gets the opportunity to prove he belongs in Rebel
Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:
March 9: Shagaf grinds out Gotham
February 24: Bullish on Gun Runner
February 17: Nyquist returns a stylish winner
February 10: Baffert remains in the spotlight with Mor Spirit
February 3: Mohaymen justifies star billing
January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable
January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation