Kentucky Derby Maiden Watch: I Don't Get It, Major Blue prevail for Derby-winning trainers

March 13th, 2023

You might assume any horse competing against maiden special weight company in March is too far behind to qualify to the Kentucky Derby (G1) field. But that isn’t always the case.

Consider Trojan Nation, who finished third in a one-mile maiden special weight on March 6, 2016, which marked his fifth career start. One month later he ran second as a huge longshot in the Wood Memorial (G1), and a month after that he competed in the Kentucky Derby.

All this is a roundabout way of saying don’t dismiss recent maiden winners like I Don’t Get It and Major Blue from Kentucky Derby consideration. These Triple Crown nominees are progressing in the right direction and may well have Derby aspirations for trainers Doug O’Neill (a two-time Derby winner) and D. Wayne Lukas (a four-time Derby winner).

I Don’t Get It, a son of Preakness (G1) winner Cloud Computing, finished fourth in his first two starts at Santa Anita this winter before graduating in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight over the same track last Saturday. I Don’t Get It rated about 2 1/2 lengths behind fractions of :23.45, :47.51, and 1:11.60 before rallying down the homestretch to score by three-quarters of a length in 1:43.76.

O’Neill trains I Don’t Get It on behalf of Reddam Racing, and jockey Mario Gutierrez was in the saddle, reuniting the team that campaigned Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another (2012) and Nyquist (2016).

As for Major Blue, he finished sixth and fourth in his first two tries (dating back to last September) before breaking through in a one-mile maiden special weight on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. Running for the second time off a layoff, Major Blue dashed to the front through fractions of :22.68, :47.02, and 1:13.16 before staying on gamely to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:39.15. Could we see the son of Flatter turn up in a race like the Arkansas Derby (G1)?

By virtue of their Triple Crown nominations, I Don’t Get It and Major Blue seem like the most likely of last week’s maiden winners to pursue Kentucky Derby glory. But they aren’t the only maiden sophomore winners worth following.

Indeed, one of the most exciting horses to break through last week was Empirestrikesfast, a gelded son of Belmont (G1) winner Empire Maker out of a mare by Indian Charlie. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott isn’t a frequent winner with first-time starters, but Empirestrikesfast relished debuting in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, tracking splits of :24.09 and :48.15 before edging away from 1-5 favorite Dreamlike to prevail by three-quarters of a length.

Empirestrikesfast ran his final sixteenth of a mile in a strong :06.20 to complete the race in 1:44.01, and Dreamlike finished 8 1/4 lengths clear of the rest, so it’s clear Empirestrikesfast has talent. It will be interesting to see where he turns up next.

Another notable debut winner was Steve Asmussen’s Blue Light, who trounced a six-furlong maiden special weight on Saturday at Fair Grounds. The speedy son of City of Light carved out fractions of :22.59 and :46.36 before dashing away through a fast final quarter-mile in :24.14 to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:10.50.

At Tampa Bay Downs, Perform employed opposite tactics to win a one-mile and 40-yard maiden special weight on Saturday. Beaten in his first five starts while facing horses like future Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race winners Raise Cain and Rocket Can, Perform found the competition at Tampa more suitable, rallying from behind splits of :23.71, :47.80, and 1:12.54 to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:40.27. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey conditions the son of champion juvenile Good Magic.

Interlock Empire likewise experienced early career frustrations, losing his first three starts at Oaklawn Park before obliterating a one-mile maiden special weight over the same track on Saturday. A slow start left Interlock Empire as many as 13 1/4 lengths behind quick early fractions of :22.96 and :47.00, but he gained nine lengths while rallying wide around the second turn and sustained his momentum down the homestretch to dominate by five lengths in 1:38.52. This Kenny McPeek-trained son of Classic Empire has improved with every start and may have more upside.

A six-month layoff didn’t stop Warman Road from snatching a six-furlong maiden special weight on Saturday at Aqueduct. Racing for only the second time, the son of Unified led all the way through fractions of :22.96 and :47.10 to post an easy three-length victory for trainer Rob Atras.

Lastly, Smooth Flyin Mike made a nice impression when debuting in a six-furlong maiden special weight on Saturday at Tampa. The son of Honor Code is bred to run long for trainer Jane Cibelli, but showed enough speed to track and press splits of :22.21 and :46.14 before taking command to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:11.22. Smooth Flyin Mike is eligible to improve if he stretches out in distance down the road.