Racing Roundtable: Derby and Oaks prep review

March 7th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson look back on the events of last weekend, including a significant Saturday of preps for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1).

Which Kentucky Derby prep was stronger โ€” the Fountain of Youth (G2) or San Felipe (G2)?

James Scully: The Fountain of Youth featured the top performer, but the San Felipe appeared to be the deeper race. Forte made quite the impression with a 4 1/2-length win in his Fountain of Youth comeback, confirming himself as a leading Kentucky Derby contender, and Holy Bull (G3) winner Rocket Can delivered a respectable effort for second. In the San Felipe, Practical Move backed up a fast upset win in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), netting a second consecutive triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating (102) for the 2 1/2-length score, and the stalker has developed into a serious player for Tim Yakteen. And last-out maiden winners Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner, the respective favorite and second-choice among more experienced rivals, may have more to offer following encouraging runner-up and third-place finishes. Three Bob Baffert transfers, including the well-regarded Hejazi (fourth), finished out of the money in the San Felipe.

Kellie Reilly: I'll give the edge to Forte's performance in the Fountain of Youth. Taking the overland route in his comeback, he absolutely dominated Holy Bull winner Rocket Can and a few others exiting that course-and-distance prep. Forte looked like the type to move forward from two to three, and the champion signaled as much here. Yet Practical Move packed a serious punch in the San Felipe, powering through on the inside in a fast finish. We would have learned more, though, if National Treasure hadn't scratched; as a solid yardstick, he could have given a better read on the form. Runner-up Geaux Rocket Ride was making his stakes and two-turn debut, so he's possibly capable of better. Third-placer Skinner was too far back in last early and had to motor out wide, unlike rail-riding Practical Move, or else he could have been closer. It wouldn't be a surprise if they ultimately turn out better than the place-getters in the Fountain of Youth. But to compare the respective winners on Saturday, Forte still gets the nod.

Vance Hanson: Both were really good performances by their respective winners, but I felt Forte's, though at the expense of a relatively softer crew in the Fountain of the Youth, was more meaningful. A standout on paper, Forte showed he got through his winter in great shape and won in a manner befitting a 1-2 favorite. There's certainly more left in the tank, and the Florida Derby (G1), and arguably the Kentucky Derby, still goes through him. Practical Move enjoyed a great trip in taking the San Felipe, a performance that proved his upset in the Los Alamitos Futurity was no fluke. Neither victory occurred over any horse I would consider a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat, but I'd give the edge to Forte as the reigning champion and division head.

Did any serious Kentucky Oaks prospects emerge from the weekend?

JS: Four Kentucky Oaks qualifiers were offered. Shidabhuti delivered an eye-catching rally to overhaul odds-on favorite Asset Purchase in the one-mile Busher S., remaining unbeaten in her stakes debut for Chad Brown, and the up-and-coming filly's female family is geared toward two-turn distances. The Busher did not come back fast over the Aqueduct muddy track, and Shidabhuti doesn't rate as a serious Kentucky Oaks contender yet (Occult is the top Kentucky Oaks contender in Brown's barn), but she's intriguing.

Botanical is another one to watch following her 6 1/2-length victory in the Cincinnati Trophy, her third straight convincing win over Turfway's Tapeta. By Medaglia d'Oro, the Brad Cox-trained filly is out of the Blame mare Daisy, a Grade 3 winner on dirt.

Unbeaten Santa Ysabel (G3) winner Faiza won't be targeting the Kentucky Oaks, and Davona Dale (G2) upsetter Dorth Vader has recorded all four wins at one turn.

KR: Of the four Road to the Kentucky Oaks scoring races over the weekend, the Cincinnati Trophy delivered the most exciting winner in Botanical. Granted, she'll have to answer the dirt question after outclassing her opponents in three straight over the Turfway Park Tapeta. But the Brad Cox filly has shown a touch of brilliance, and her pedigree suggests that she should run on anything. By Medaglia d'Oro and out of 2017 Tempted (G3) winner Daisy, by Blame, Botanical is bred along the same lines as Forte. I'd also mention another Cox trainee, Punchbowl, who posted a sharp allowance win at Oaklawn on Sunday. A Gary and Mary West homebred, the Uncle Mo filly has gone 2-for-2 with totally contrasting running styles โ€” potentially the sign of a good one. Note that Punchbowl is listed as an individual interest in the lone Kentucky Oaks Future Wager.

VH: I found the main track Oaks prep fare rather insubstantial, given two were held over a one-turn mile and the other at Santa Anita was won by a filly currently ineligible to compete. Meanwhile, Botanical's impressive win in the Cincinnati Trophy further emphasized how much she loves the Tapeta surface at Turfway Park. The Kentucky Oaks picture remains somewhat murky, but hopefully some clarity will begin to emerge after the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) later this month.

Will the Santa Anita H. (G1) have an impact in the older male division?

JS: I give it a legitimate chance. The older male division lacks clarity, and the Breeders' Cup will take place at Santa Anita this fall. Stilleto Boy was overlooked at nearly 14-1 in the Big 'Cap, winning only once from his previous 13 outings, but his form was headed in the right direction, finishing second to Country Grammer in December's San Antonio (G2) and third to Art Collector in the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup (G1). When Defunded coughed up a clear lead in the stretch (1 1/4 miles isn't his optimal distance, but the Bob Baffert-trained gelding remains a top-class performer), Stilleto Boy courageously outfinished Grade 1 victor Proxy by a neck. Hopper, a Grade 3 winner making only his fifth start, still has promise following a fourth-place effort, and this year's Big 'Cap came up stronger than recent editions.

KR: The Big 'Cap was the reward for Stilleto Boy's honesty and consistency, and the astute decision-making by Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux. The result has the feel of a perfect storm, however, that's unlikely to be replicated. Proxy is the one to take from the race; had he not dropped out of it early, the Godolphin runner arguably would have won. At the same time, Proxy hasn't been the most reliable of characters, and chances are he'll be hit or miss throughout the season. Defunded might have just lasted if he hadn't had to battle stablemate Hopper, but 1 1/4 miles is probably stretching his stamina anyway. Newgrange basically sulked when he wasn't close enough early, and he has a right to rebound in the Southern California division. But this wasn't a meaningful pointer to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) back at Santa Anita in November.

VH: Given how close the finish was among the top three, all of whom are pretty well exposed at this point in their careers, I doubt the Big 'Cap will have any meaningful long-term impact on the division. That despite Santa Anita being the host track for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic. I suppose the lightly-raced Hopper, who finished fourth after a troubled trip, remains with upside, but his running style suggests he might not be ideally suited for classic distances.