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Kentucky Derby bubble horses await Thunder Snow, Conquest Mo Money decisions

By Kellie Reilly

The 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) leaderboard is finalized following Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1), but as ever, the top 20 today won’t necessarily enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 6. Thus the “bubble” horses – those currently on the outside looking in – are playing the waiting game to see who might drop out of Derby consideration and open up a spot.

Churchill Downs released the final points list in its entirety Saturday night. Here’s the excerpt with the top 20:

Other than the unforeseeable attrition through injury or illness, there are three horses on the above list who may be candidates to pass the Derby in favor of other spots: Thunder Snow, Conquest Mo Money, and Malagacy.

Godolphin’s Thunder Snow, who scored his 100 points in the UAE Derby (G2), was a late nominee to the US Triple Crown. That decision, and especially subsequent reports about firming up travel plans, suggested that he’d take the opportunity at Churchill Downs.

But as the winner of last fall’s Criterium International (G1) on turf, Thunder Snow remains a serious prospect for the European classics. As late as this past Friday, trainer Saeed bin Suroor was still discussing the possibility of venturing to Newmarket for the 2000 Guineas (G1), on Derby Day May 6, or the French equivalent at Deauville May 14. Thunder Snow has also been added to the field for the June 3 Derby (G1) at Epsom, so part of the equation might be deciding the best path toward the Blue Riband – if that’s a goal. Sheikh Mohammed may prefer Thunder Snow to focus on Europe, rather than trying to become the first Dubai shipper to land a blow in the Kentucky Derby.

Conquest Mo Money, a hard-trying second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby and previously runner-up to Hence in the Sunland Derby (G3), would be a worthy contender at Churchill. But his connections didn’t nominate him to the Triple Crown. Considering that Tom and Sandy McKenna’s Judge Lanier Racing paid only $8,500 for him at Keeneland last November, it’s easy to see why they were in no hurry to make him eligible. The well-bred son of Uncle Mo has earned the $200,000 fee to supplement him to the Triple Crown. Initial reports indicated that they’d put up the money for Conquest Mo Money, but trainer Miguel Hernandez told Blood-Horse’s Jeremy Balan that the decision wouldn’t come until Tuesday. While he may still be leaning that way, the bargain buy can’t be considered definite yet.

Malagacy’s candidacy took a step backward with his laboring fifth in the Arkansas Derby, where the speedy colt didn’t want nine furlongs, let alone the Kentucky Derby’s 10 furlongs. He’s entitled to take his chance as the Rebel (G2) winner, brandishing 50 points, but connections might want to spare him the experience and place him in a spot that suits his talents better. That’s up to owner Oussama Aboughazale, who doesn’t strike me as one subject to Derby fever. After his consultation with trainer Todd Pletcher, I’d hazard a guess that they could possibly roll the dice in the Preakness (G1) – won by sire Shackleford in 2011 – but ultimately shorten him to one turn. Malagacy can have a lot of fun in the sprint/mile game. Why risk that for an unlikely bid in the Derby?

Now to the bubble horses affected by the foregoing decisions:

Chad Brown’s Cloud Computing is technically number 20 now, but if Conquest Mo Money comes in, he’s bumped to 21. Unraced until February and a respectable, but handily beaten, second in the Gotham (G3) and third in the Wood Memorial (G2), Cloud Computing looks like one for the second half of the season. He might be a back-up plan for stablemate Practical Joke, who’s also owned Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence, and safely in the field at number 9 on the points list. Connections could theoretically withdraw Practical Joke to make way for Cloud Computing, but given the vast experience differential between them, that move appears very doubtful to me. If Practical Joke may have distance limitations, he still deserves to be there as the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) winner who was second in the Blue Grass (G2). Cloud Computing, for all of his talent, doesn’t have that resume.

Untrapped is next on the list with 34 points, followed closely by fellow Steve Asmussen trainee Lookin at Lee with 32. Lookin at Lee turned in a far better performance in the Arkansas Derby, where he was a rattling third compared to Untrapped’s sixth, and his placings in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Breeders’ Futurity (G1) also elevate his profile as a classic hopeful. If the two had common ownership, you could hypothesize about removing Untrapped to inch Lookin at Lee closer to a spot. But they don’t. And in Untrapped’s defense, he did make an early move, out wide, into the teeth of the Arkansas Derby pace before tiring – while experimenting with first-time blinkers. He’d been a progressive type before then, and is likely better than he showed.

You can also play a parlor game with a couple of Calumet’s Derby candidates. Sunland Derby winner Hence is their A-lister, particularly after his victims Conquest Mo Money and Irap came back to boost the form in the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass, respectively. But Calumet also has Patch, in the field thanks to his second in the Louisiana Derby worth 40 points, and the highly-tried maiden Sonneteer, who needs help with 30 points. Since Patch has much less experience, you could make a case that maybe Sonneteer, with his deeper foundation, has a chance of performing better in the Derby. Patch has turned in higher BRIS Speed figures, but Sonneteer has a sharper closing kick, having popped a 109 Late Pace with his flying fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Depending upon how things unfold over the next couple of weeks, if Sonneteer manages to creep into the on-deck circle, so to speak, would the Calumet brain trust consider benching Patch?

Royal Mo also has 30 points, but the John Shirreffs pupil is $23,000 behind Sonneteer in non-restricted stakes earnings, and finds himself further back on the bubble. Had he not drawn post 13 in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), perhaps he would have finished closer than a gutsy third. But Battle of Midway drew more favorably, held second, and made the cut with 40 points.

Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, who made a rather strained comparison of Royal Mo to Silver Charm, was back aboard the 17-hand colt in an easy move on Easter Sunday morning. Royal Mo toured three furlongs in a shade over :41, not enough to make the worktab.

“He didn’t go too fast, but it’s no big deal,” Shirreffs told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden. “Gary wanted to work him to become more familiar with him. Normally, I’d put my exercise rider on him, but this is something Gary likes to do.”

Shirreffs summed up the perspective of horsemen with contenders on the bubble:

“The points are out of our control, but we’ll keep training him with the Kentucky Derby in mind and try to stay on course.”

Thunder Snow photo courtesy Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins