What could make the pandemic-delayed Kentucky Derby (G1) even more unusual? Bubble horses who not only have 0 points, but didn’t even attempt any scoring races, yet still have an air of intrigue should they get into the maximum 20-horse field.
That description applies to a pair of unbeaten late bloomers – Shirl’s Speight and Happy Saver, respectively ranked No. 24 and 25 on the list published by Churchill Downs after Saturday’s Pegasus Stakes, the final Derby points race.
Of the two, Shirl’s Speight is the one determined to try the Derby, and the Charles Fipke homebred is closer to cracking the Top 20 than his ranking implies. Two with sufficient points are doubtful to use them, at least one more is on the fence, and one of the bubble horses above him is reportedly out.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred Pneumatic (45 points), who vaulted into 11th by outclassing them in the Pegasus, is earmarked for the Oct. 3 Preakness (G1) according to Daily Racing Form. Although there was a sliver of a Derby possibility left, in case any of any bombshell defections, racing manager D.J. Fiske told DRF’s David Grening that Pneumatic would prefer longer spacing between races.
Peter J. Callahan’s Swiss Skydiver (40 points), 13th on the list thanks to her fine second in the Blue Grass (G2), is virtually certain to run in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) instead. She aced yet another Oaks scoring race in Saturday’s Alabama Stakes (G1), and trainer Ken McPeek has reiterated the game plan revolves around the first Friday in September.
Rushie also has 40 points, but a fraction of Swiss Skydiver’s non-restricted stakes earnings ($108,000 compared to the filly’s $901,820), and accordingly sits 14th on the leaderboard. Third in both the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Blue Grass, Rushie appears the type to benefit from a drop in trip if not in class. The Michael McCarthy trainee is not nominated to the Triple Crown either, and the Pat Day Mile (G3) is reportedly on the table as a possible alternative on Derby Day.
Another whose Derby participation was unclear, Storm the Court (No. 16 with 36 points), is now expected to line up in the Run for the Roses. Winless since surprising the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the Peter Eurton pupil took a detour to turf Aug. 9 and placed second in the La Jolla (G3) at Del Mar. With the proviso that he continues to do well in the interim, Storm the Court will try to pull another shocker on the big occasion.
At this writing, the last one in at No. 20 is Winning Impression, who saw his point total doubled to 20 thanks to the disqualification of Charlatan from the first Arkansas Derby (G1) division. The West Point Thoroughbreds colorbearer initially earned 10 points as the fourth across the wire, but received a windfall upon his elevation to third. His connections are always game to take a shot, and he’ll try to become another Dallas Stewart longshot special.
The first pair on the bubble list – No. 21 Jesus’ Team (18 points) and No. 22 Necker Island (14 points) – would make the cut as Pneumatic and Swiss Skydiver make their decisions official.
Note that Jesus’ Team, a former claimer, is not Triple Crown-nominated, and Grupo 7C Racing Stable would have to pay to supplement. While Jesus’ Team has come a long way to finish fourth in the Haskell (G1) and a gallant second to Pneumatic in the Pegasus, it remains to be seen if his connections opt for an easier spot.
Necker Island, third in both the Indiana and Ellis Park Derby, is eager to go in the Derby, but the same isn’t true for No. 23 Kiss Today Goodbye. His 10 points came via a third at 34-1 in the four-runner Shared Belief at Del Mar, and according to the Courier-Journal, trainer Eric Kruljac has said that the non-nominated colt won’t be headed to Louisville.
Unlike those immediately above him on the list, Shirl’s Speight brings a compelling resume suggesting that he’d stack up talent-wise as a Derby contender. The rub, needless to say, is the lack of experience, along with the fact that this isn’t Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield’s idea.
But in the crazy year of COVID, the emergence of Shirl’s Speight is just another surprise package on the elongated trail. The son of two Breeders’ Cup winners – 2004 Sprint (G1) champion Speightstown and 2011 Filly & Mare Turf (G1) upsetter Perfect Shirl – has won both of his starts at Woodbine in style. The May 9 foal didn’t debut until July 4, when crushing a 7-furlong turf maiden, and he promptly added the 1 1/16-mile Marine (G3) on the Tapeta. Shirl’s Speight has yet to race on dirt, but he’s fired back-to-back bullets on the Woodbine training track’s dirt surface.
Wertheimer et Frere’s homebred Happy Saver would bring a similar profile of untapped talent, if he had the Derby on his radar. Trainer Todd Pletcher told Daily Racing Form, however, that he has another target on the first Saturday in September – the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga. Happy Saver exits an impressive course-and-distance allowance score, following an eye-catching premiere on Belmont Day, and he’ll be a fascinating divisional player in the fall. His patient connections never did nominate to the Triple Crown.
Pletcher also has the final horse on Churchill’s list, No. 26 Money Moves, whose Derby ambitions are unlikely but not definitively ruled out. The winner of his first two starts at Gulfstream Park, the Robert V. LaPenta and Bortolazzo Stable runner didn’t resurface until Saratoga, and just missed in an allowance versus older foes.
While the discussion of bubble horses is an annual rite, Derby 146 is bringing an additional, less familiar question – whether there will be 20 horses in the starting gate. Judging by the intent of most of the horses already in the top 20, and the hopes of at least a couple on the bubble, the pandemic might not take a toll on the Derby field size. But given the tendency for last-minute setbacks to occur, perhaps a less-than-capacity field would be a fitting conclusion to this rollercoaster ride.