The three major prep races last Saturday didn’t clarify the Kentucky Derby picture, but it’s safe to say a sloppy track would favor Exaggerator.
Redemption was the storyline for Exaggerator and Brody’s Cause, who rebounded from well-beaten setbacks to post convincing wins in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Blue Grass (G1). And the lightly-raced Outwork confirmed his promise with an initial stakes victory in the Wood Memorial (G1)
But what role did the sloppy surface play for Exaggerator, who ran his best races last year on wet tracks and continued to thrive in an impressive 6 ¼-length win?
Kudos to Brody’s Cause, who we know loves Keeneland, offering a nice rally to record his second Grade 1 tally, but are you dissuaded by a marginal 94 BRIS Speed rating?
Outwork displayed admirable perseverance on a sloppy oval, withstanding a serious challenge in the stretch, but how do you measure his all-out effort against runner-up Trojan Nation, an 81-1 maiden who couldn’t finish better than third in five previous starts?
Nyquist has overcome a brief health scare and figures to be a solid favorite, but the second choice in the Kentucky Derby wagering still appears up for grabs with only Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1) and Lexington (G2) remaining as prep races.
Santa Anita Derby
Exaggerator raced on or within striking range of the lead in three route starts last year and chased Nyquist through fast splits when opening 2016 with a runner-up in the 7-furlong San Vicente (G2). But in his last two outings, the Curlin colt has become a one-run closer.
After dropping about 10 lengths off the pace in the San Felipe (G2) on March 12, Exaggerator launched an early move that carried him to the throatlatch of Danzing Candy by the conclusion of the far turn. He could not sustain his momentum, weakening to third in the stretch drive, but utilized similar tactics to perfection while stretching out to nine furlongs in the Santa Anita Derby.
Indeed, his scintillating turn of foot was reminiscent of Texas Red, who trailed by a sizable margin in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before remarkably inhaling the competition on the far turn and into the stretch, romping by 6 ½ lengths. Texas Red was forced to miss last year’s Triple Crown due to injury but has the same trainer/jockey brother combination as Exaggerator: Keith and Kent Desormeaux.
Kent Desormeaux kept Exaggerator in the clear after dropping toward the tail of an eight-horse Santa Anita Derby field, 16 ½ lengths behind after a wicked opening half-mile in :45.24. Danzing Candy figured to face more early pressure after leading all the way in the San Felipe but after being urged from the starting gate, the pacesetter appeared impossible to control as he ran off in the early stages, acting like it was a 6-furlong sprint as he opened up by three lengths rounding the clubhouse turn.
Exaggerator bided his time down the backstretch and began to roll entering the far turn, accelerating toward the front in eye-catching fashion, and the dark bay blew past Danzing Candy like he was standing still in upper stretch, opening up by an insurmountable margin in the blink of an eye.
He may have led by 10+ lengths between stretch calls but Kent Desormeaux stood up on Exaggerator well before the wire, easing him home as runner-up Mor Spirit belatedly whittled the advantage to 6 ¼ lengths.
His best two-turn efforts so far have come in off conditions. Exaggerator was probably a little short following a 48-day freshening in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) last fall but relished the muddy Keeneland track in a runner-up effort. He did not carry his form forward in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), recording a one-paced fourth over a fast track, but rebounded nicely on a rain-soaked oval in the Delta Jackpot, posting a career-best 103 BRIS Speed rating for the neck decision.
The Kentucky Derby forecast is always heavily scrutinized in the weeks leading up to the race and a wet track would help Exaggerator. But I’m not viewing him as strictly a wet track specialist – he’ll bring a strong late kick to Churchill Downs regardless of footing.
Exaggerator captured a couple of sprints over fast tracks last year, including the Saratoga Special (G2) and while the San Felipe result proved disappointing, it served as a learning ground for his new one-run closing style. The Kentucky-bred improved significantly afterward, performing at much higher level in the Santa Anita Derby.
Many Kentucky Derby winners have shown up with their best in the final prep before continuing to shine at Churchill Downs and Exaggerator figures to benefit from the break-through performance, registering one of the highest BRIS Speed ratings (102) among all contenders this spring.
Mor Spirit turned in a similar performance to his San Felipe, with jockey Gary Stevens doing as little as possible as connections try to build toward a peak performance in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Fame jockey waited until the stretch to urge his mount and Mor Spirit has recorded back-to-back rallying seconds, passing horses in the lane each time.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt jumped straight from a maiden special weight victory at Santa Anita to finish a commendable second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in late November, so connections aren’t worried about shipping him to Churchill Downs. And when Mor Spirit followed with victories in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and Robert B. Lewis (G3), the focus shifted toward not having him peak before the first Saturday in May.
That’s arguably what happened to Dortmund last year, who was never the same after sweeping the Lewis-San Felipe-Santa Anita Derby in superb fashion, and Baffert has had a pair of Santa Anita Derby runner-ups – Silver Charm and Real Quiet – come back to capture the Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Fame conditioner got exactly what he wanted on Saturday and will look to tighten the screws over the next four weeks. And Mor Spirit can keep improving at the 1 ¼-mile trip.
I rate the Southern California prep races as the toughest in the country and give Exaggerator and Mor Spirit an excellent chance on Derby Day.
Danzing Candy remains under consideration for the Kentucky Derby but it’s difficult to envision the headstrong colt rebounding from a well-beaten fourth. Connections can take the half-full approach, expecting a more professional showing at Churchill Downs, but the colt has missed the break in previous starts (always a concern with a 20-horse load) and could continue to display immature behavior in a desire to have things his own way up front.
There’s nothing wrong with pointing toward the Belmont Stakes (G1), with the opportunity for a confidence-building prep in advance, or connections can regroup and target major events later in the season. I’ll look for more down the road from Danzing Candy.
Brody’s Cause was the lone stakes winner in a 14-horse Blue Grass field (most were eligible for a non-winners of two “other than” allowance) and dropped back at the start in customary fashion, about 10 lengths behind during the opening half-mile. The well-bred son of Giant’s Causeway began passing horses early on the far turn and kicked into overdrive during the latter part of the bend, advancing to within striking range by the head of the stretch.
Laoban established solid fractions on a surprisingly easy lead, clear by at least a length through the opening three-quarters of a mile, and was still clinging to a short advantage in upper stretch. Brody’s Cause quickly reeled in the tiring pacesetter after straightening for home, striking the front a sixteenth of a mile from the finish as the bay colt drew off by several lengths.
He got first jump on fellow late runners My Man Sam and Cherry Wine, who rallied boldly to reduce the margin to 1 ¾ lengths while running out of room on the wire.
I thought Brody’s Cause was going to win about five lengths passing the sixteenth pole and his final time over the fast track (1:50.20) was disappointing. His 94 BRIS Speed rating, coupled with a 94 Late Pace figure, left a lot to be desired.
Brody’s Cause has never run fast in six starts, with a career-best 95 in the Breeders’ Futurity last October, and the competition will get much steeper in the Kentucky Derby. The Dale Romans-trained colt broke his maiden at Churchill Downs last September and I won’t count him out of exotics consideration – he’ll be finishing in the third start off the layoff – but Brody’s Cause will need to improve significantly from a Speed rating perspective to offer a serious win challenge.
My Man Sam left himself too much to do from the back of the field but offered a fine run to overhaul Cherry Wine in the final strides for second. A maiden winner two starts previously on Aqueduct’s inner track, the Trappe Shot colt was making only his fourth career outing and stakes bow.
He’ll proceed on the Kentucky Derby with 40 points to his credit and My Man Sam rates as a candidate for further improvement. He’ll still have quality concerns and I wouldn’t want to see him receive an inside post, but the Chad Brown trainee will merit a look underneath for a minor award.
Cherry Wine is another fast-developing colt with a nice potential upside, but the confirmed closer resides on the Kentucky Derby bubble with 25 points (currently 25th on Kentucky Derby leaderboard) and will need some help to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Outwork hustled forward at the start to press Matt King Coal through testing fractions (:22.91 and :46.93). He dismissed the pacesetter turning for home, opening a clear lead a furlong from the wire, but the demanding pace duel softened him up for the latter stages. And the beneficiary turned out to be Trojan Nation, a seemingly overmatched maiden who lagged far behind his seven rivals during the early stages.
Trojan Nation was still out of the picture midway on the far turn but came rallying up the rail to loom a serious threat in upper stretch. Outwork appeared on fumes when confronted but give the lightly-raced colt credit; he fought back determinedly to outfinish his oncoming rival, winning the bob by a head while continuing to gain seasoning in only his fourth career start.
Outwork registered a decent 96 BRIS Speed rating, the same number he earned finishing second to stablemate Destin in his two-turn and stakes debut, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), and the Uncle Mo colt remains promising. He’s the type who will be a serious Belmont Stakes contender for Todd Pletcher if he doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby.
It’s fair to question whether the Wood will take anything out him four weeks later, and Outwork will need to keep moving forward against deeper competition, but his speed is intriguing. His best chance won’t be sitting just off the early leaders; jockey John Velazquez figures to send him from the start. Outwork is eligible to receive a heavy dose of stamina from his dam, a daughter of Empire Maker, and there isn’t an abundance of true speed horses lining up for the Kentucky Derby (the possible defection of a horse like Danzing Candy would benefit him).
I’m not keen on his win chances but would hate to see Outwork leading the way down the Kentucky Derby backstretch on a moderate pace and not have him on any saver tickets.
Trojan Nation took to the sloppy oval, but he won’t have a realistic chance in the Kentucky Derby. Third-placer Adventist and fifth-placer Shagaf will also proceed to Churchill Downs, but they don’t appear fast enough to factor.
The final two preps in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series will be offered Saturday, with the Arkansas Derby (G1) awarding points on a 100-40-20-10 scale and the Lexington (G3) worth 10-4-2-1. Why would the connections of any horse with serious Kentucky Derby aspirations opt for the Lexington over the Arkansas Derby?
Rebel (G2) winner Cupid drew well in post 10 for the Arkansas Derby and I’ll stick with the expected favorite.
Collected is horse to beat in the Lexington; he probably wants no part of longer distances but should find the 8 ½-furlong Lexington trip to his satisfaction. I’ll be playing against Swipe, who last seen finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and figures to be a little short off the long layoff. His connections were in no rush to make a last-ditch Kentucky Derby effort, using the Lexington as a prep for other targets.
1) Cupid – Rebel winner can take another step forward in Arkansas Derby
2 Gun Runner – Breezed 5f on Monday, his second work since a convincing win in 3/26 Louisiana Derby, and like the way he corners; Asmussen trainee could be in a prime spot turning for home on May 7
3) Mor Spirit – Expecting him to run well for Baffert from off the pace
4) Nyquist – Don’t know if a single two-turn prep race will have him ready for 10 furlongs but Derby favorite has been as tough as nails so far
5) Exaggerator – Figured him wrong after San Felipe but plenty of respect followed Santa Anita Derby romp; like how he’s changed run styles to be more effective at longer distances
6) Outwork – Wood winner is a threat to carry his speed a long way at Churchill
7) Brody’s Cause – Regained lost luster winning the Blue Grass but still have concerns against deeper competition
8) Whitmore – Rebel and Southwest runner-up will receive final tune-up in Arkansas Derby
9) Mo Tom – Has found trouble in his last two starts but still packs a serious late punch
10) Destin – Established himself as a prominent member of the 3-year-old division but can’t endorse decision to train up to the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week break
Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:
March 22: Cupid dazzles in stakes debut
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