Kentucky Derby Maiden Watch: How talented is El Capi?

December 4th, 2023

How talented is El Capi? It’s hard to say for certain. He was spectacular when debuting in a seven-furlong maiden special weight last Saturday at Aqueduct, but his performance was not without a caveat.

The main track at Aqueduct was muddy, and the conditions played strongly in favor of speed horses. Case in point? Pacesetters won seven of the day’s 10 races, and the three “off the pace” winners closed from no farther back than third place by 1 1/2 lengths.

El Capi was one of the gate-to-wire winners, so he surely benefited from the track conditions. But wow, did El Capi capitalize on his advantage. The two-year-old son of Maclean’s Music led by a minimum of 4 1/2 lengths at every call, widening his lead through strong fractions of :22.03, :44.73, and 1:08.77 on his way to victory by 9 1/2 lengths in 1:21.99.

El Capi was easing up at the finish, and any way you slice it he ran fast on the clock. How fast, you ask? Check out the splits recorded by four-year-old Hoist the Gold when wiring the Cigar Mile H. (G2) on the same afternoon. Hoist the Gold won the six-furlong Phoenix (G2) earlier this fall and had placed multiple times in Grade 1 sprints, but he actually ran slower than El Capi during the early stages of the Cigar Mile, clocking fractions of :22.41, :44.88, and 1:09.04 before speeding up through seven furlongs in 1:21.31 and one mile in 1:34.28.

The takeaway? El Capi enjoyed favorable conditions, but he responded with an impressively fast performance. The question is, can he repeat it over a fair track? There’s no way to know just yet, but El Capi showed enough talent that a foray on the Road to the Kentucky Derby could be in the cards. Don’t forget, El Capi is trained by Rick Dutrow, who won the 2008 Kentucky Derby (G1) with Big Brown.

El Capi wasn’t the only notable maiden winner last Saturday. Across the country at Del Mar, Better Than Gold was better than half a dozen rivals in a one-mile maiden special weight. Coming off an eighth-place debut sprinting six furlongs against future Bob Hope (G3) winner Nysos, Better Than Gold improved sharply while stretching out in distance, rallying from as many as 8 1/2 lengths behind fractions of :22.02, :46.13, and 1:10.93 to prevail by a neck in 1:37.17.

A decelerating pace helped Better Than Gold catch up, but he closed 3 1/2 lengths through the final furlong alone and clocked that split in approximately :12.77, a respectable time. As a son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist out of a mare by 2005 Preakness (G1) and Belmont (G1) hero Afleet Alex, Better Than Gold is bred to shine running long and looks like a potential Road to the Kentucky Derby type for trainer Gary Mandella.