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Kentucky Derby Report (3/22): Cupid dazzles in stakes debut

By James Scully

A Bob Baffert-trained Kentucky Derby contender in the Oaklawn Park winner’s circle came as no surprise – the Hall of Famer has now won six of the last seven runnings of the Rebel (G2) – but Cupid certainly turned a few heads Saturday with a smashing performance in his stakes debut.

A year after handling the first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades, Baffert remains in the spotlight as he tries to win a fifth Kentucky Derby. He’s currently tied with D. Wayne Lukas and Henry Thompson for second all-time, two back of six-time victor Ben Jones, and the 63-year-old conditioner is readying a dangerous one-two punch with Cupid and Mor Spirit.

Rebel

By leading sire Tapit, Cupid wasn’t ready for the Rebel break, with the assistant starter appearing to be maneuvering his head into a better position when the gates opened, and the gray colt broke slowly behind the rest of the field, with Ralis breaking outward into his path from the inside.  When jockey Martin Garcia hustled his mount to make up for the tardy beginning, Cupid accelerated forward to take a surprising lead into the far turn of the 1 1/16-mile race.

As anybody who had watched him beforehand could attest, Cupid wasn’t a front-running type, preferring to race behind rivals in his first three starts. He rallied from fourth to break his maiden in the previous outing, a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita on February 16, registering a whopping 111 BRIS Late Pace rating for the 5 ¼-length decision, and I was convinced Cupid would be stalking the early action as well in the Rebel.

The poor start likely compromised those plans and Cupid wound up committed to the front, settling into a nice rhythm after completing the opening quarter-mile in 22.96 seconds. He led by about a length as the field made its way down the backstretch, slowing the pace down with the next two quarter-mile splits in a comfortable :23.86 and :25.29.

Cupid widened his advantage on the far turn and surged into the stretch with a clear lead when he suddenly lost focus, ducking in towards the rail as Garcia tried desperately to keep him straight. After a brief tense moment, Cupid regained his momentum and went about his business, but Whitmore suddenly arrived on the scene with a bold late rally, threatening to mow down the pacesetter with about a sixteenth of a mile remaining.

Displaying immense grit and determination, the inexperienced colt responded when challenged in deep stretch, gamely re-breaking when he appeared to be toast. Cupid would not let the oncoming Whitmore draw even, drawing away late as he finished full of run, and the winner continued to gallop out strongly past the wire.

Perhaps I’m overselling the 1 ¼-length decision, but Cupid performed at an extremely high level in his first start outside of maiden company, overcoming a terrible start, rank behavior and a formidable late assault from a more seasoned rival. I came away highly impressed and his versatility is a real asset (he can race on the lead or rally from off the pace). And it’s natural to assume Cupid will continue to show more following the valuable learning experience.

His immediate female family features plenty of speed – he counts sprint stakes winners Ashley’s Kitten, Heart Ashley and Indianapolis as half-siblings – but Cupid appears to be drawing more from his second (by Vice Regent) and third maternal dams (by Secretariat) when it comes to stamina; the long-striding sophomore didn’t appear to be anywhere near the bottom at the conclusion of the Rebel. Indeed, Cupid dropped both one-turn starts but has performed like an excellent candidate for longer distances in a pair of route attempts.

He registered a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating in the Rebel and Cupid shows a favorable pattern with increasing Speed numbers in every start. I’m looking forward to seeing him return to the Hot Springs, Arkansas track for the Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 16.

The Ron Moquett-trained Whitmore remains promising despite the setback, finishing second in both the Southwest (G3) and Rebel at Oaklawn. And his BRIS Speed ratings continued to rise in the latter, easily surpassing his previous career-best with a 97. The gelding packs a solid late kick.

Creator came charging late to be a clear third, 1 ¾ lengths back of Whitmore, and the Tapit colt appears to have really turned the corner since needing six starts to break his maiden. He was exiting a 7 ¼-length decision over maiden special weight foes and performed admirably in his stakes bow.

Cherry Wine was too far back for most of the race but the dedicated closer offered a decent rally for fourth. Off since a smart six-length allowance tally at Gulfstream in early January, the Dale Romans-trained colt probably needed the race off a 70-day freshening and we’ll see whether Cherry Wine can continue to move forward next time.

Suddenbreakingnews was stuck on the far outside in a 14-horse field and the late runner didn’t settle readily similar to Southwest, with Luis Quinonez forced to wrestle his mount toward the tail of the field. Along the inside entering the far turn, the gelding was forced to check several times in traffic before finally launching a belated move in the stretch, just missing fourth by a head. He was able to overcome a large deficit in the Southwest but I want to see Suddenbreakingnews show more on the far turn of his final prep – he’s turned for home at the back of field in the last two starts.

Sunland stakes

After a disappointing fourth as the Southwest favorite, Collected rebounded in Sunday’s $415,000 Sunland Festival of Racing, a substitute race for the cancelled Sunland Park Derby (G3). Garcia sent the City Zip colt straight to the lead and despite a brief bid by runner-up Gettysburg, who traveled in second throughout, Collected always appeared to be traveling best, widening his advantage into the stretch as he coasted to a two-length decision in the 1 1/8-mile event.

There are plenty of lucrative 3-year-old stakes on the calendar to raid, and the talented front-runner posted a commendable 102 BRIS Speed rating, but Collected probably doesn’t want any part of better competition at longer distances this spring.

Gettysburg improved upon a dull fifth as the favorite in the February 16 Sam F. Davis (G3) and the Todd Pletcher-trained colt remains eligible to develop into a prominent performer later this year. But the Kentucky Derby doesn’t appear to be a realistic goal for the Gulfstream maiden winner.

Upcoming

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series has arrived at the final round of major prep races, with point values increasing to 100-40-20-10 for the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) and U.A.E. Derby (G2) on Saturday. I don’t anticipate the latter being a serious factor, with a couple of fillies being major contenders at Meydan, and will focus upon the Fair Grounds’ centerpiece event.

A field of 11 has been assembled and the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby features a trio of contenders – Greenpointcrusader, Gun Runner and Mo Tom – with serious Kentucky Derby aspirations. I’m giving the edge to Gun Runner, who returned this year with a fine win in the February 20 Risen Star (G2).

A Churchill Downs maiden winner and fourth when trying stakes rivals in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in late November, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt was making only his fourth career start in the Risen Star and I liked the athleticism displayed by Gun Runner on both the first and far turns, with jockey Florent Geroux utilizing push-button control to overcome tight positioning before putting away the competition. The son of Candy Ride appears to be improving nicely and I’m expecting a big performance.

Top 10

1) Mohaymen – Unbeaten Tapit colt can establish himself as an overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite with a victory over Nyquist in the 4/2 Florida Derby

2) Danzing Candy – San Felipe winner will bring plenty of speed to Kentucky Derby field; 4/9 Santa Anita Derby up next

3) Mor Spirit – San Felipe runner-up effort served as a solid building-block for talented late runner

4) Cupid – Recorded an impressive stakes debut in Rebel and ceiling could run very high for late bloomer; 4/16 Arkansas Derby is next

5) Gun Runner – Expecting further improvement for Risen Star winner; he’s the one to beat in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby

6) Destin – Is starting to garner serious respect, posting his second consecutive stakes win in Tampa Bay Derby; Pletcher is deciding upon a final prep for him and stablemates Outwork and Zulu

7) Shagaf – Remained perfect and overcame bias grinding out Gotham (G3) win; excited to see whether he continues to show more in 4/9 Wood Memorial (G1)

8) Nyquist – Juvenile champ has done everything right so far and with his speed, he figures to have a tactical advantage over Mohaymen in Florida Derby; don’t like only a single two-turn prep for a precocious colt who will be a big question mark at 1 ¼ miles

9) Whitmore – Late runner making solid progress, finishing second in Southwest and Rebel; eligible to keep moving forward in Arkansas Derby

10) Suddenbreakingnews – Willing to give him a pass after late rally was severely compromised in Rebel and Arkansas Derby will determine whether he deserves to be ranked among the upper echelon

Archive

Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:

March 16: Danzing Candy impresses with speed, Destin makes it two straight

March 9: Shagaf grinds out Gotham

March 2: Mohaymen posts another easy win ahead of showdown

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 13: Sham winner doesn’t run fast but plenty of time remains

January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation