Racing Roundtable: Kentucky Derby and Oaks leaderboard roundup and other notable performances

March 12th, 2024

With a break in the action along the Road to the Kentucky Derby this upcoming weekend, the Racing Roundtable gives their top Kentucky Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1) picks at the moment and discusses some stakes action that caught their eye over the weekend.

Who is your top Kentucky Derby contender as of now?

James Scully: Sierra Leone is my top-ranked contender following an impressive season-opening victory in the Risen Star (G2), but I thought 6-1 odds in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) were too low given he’s yet to prove himself on a fast track or registered a triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating. Sierra Leone may achieve both in the final prep, but I won’t take single-digit odds in Pool 5 of the KDFW this weekend.

From a betting perspective, I like Deterministic and Just a Touch, the one-two finishers from the Gotham (G3). They are light on experience but appear very talented.

Vance Hanson: I have Sierra Leone listed at the head of my Top 10 on, but it's a lukewarm endorsement at this point as he's a general consensus favorite now and hasn't really run much faster, if at all, compared to the other leading contenders. I agree that Deterministic is a horse to watch coming out of the Gotham, and I'd also give Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Honor Marie another chance to reproduce his better stuff in next week's Louisiana Derby (G2). He had several things working against him in his comeback in last month's Risen Star and he seems capable of better.

Another late developer to potentially watch for is the Todd Pletcher-trained Tuscan Sky. He hasn't beaten a field of any size in his first two outings, but appears to be coming on fast and is produced some strong figures in advance of his stakes debut.

Ashley Anderson: Sierra Leone. The $2.3 million yearling purchase is proving his worth, with a 2-for-3 record thus far in his career, with his lone loss a nose second to Dornoch in the Grade 2 Remsen. The addition of blinkers enhanced the focus of the Chad Brown trainee in his half-length Risen Star victory, and his next start in the Blue Grass (G1) will give us one final clue about his Derby potential. Brown has never won the Derby, but he's been close, with a second in 2018 with Good Magic and a third most recently in 2022 with Zandon. The four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer has the horse to get the job done on the first Saturday in May, and if rain is in the forecast even better. So far, Sierra Leone has performed on off tracks along the Derby trail, but he broke his maiden on a fast track with a 1 1/4-length tally.

Recent maiden winner Tuscan Sky is one to watch, as well, should the Todd Pletcher pupil get a start in a Derby prep. On Risen Star Day, the Vino Rosso colt earned a second straight win from as many starts in an allowance optional claimer on the Risen Star undercard and posted a 97 Brisnet Speed figure in his two-length win. That Speed figure was one of the best on the day at the Fair Grounds and registered four points higher than Sierra Leone's 93 in the Risen Star.

Which filly do you think is most likely to win the Kentucky Oaks?

JS: The Rachel Alexandra (G2) was the best prep so far and I have the top two finishers, Tarifa and Intricate, as my top two Kentucky Oaks contenders. I loved Tarifa’s turn of foot in the Rachel Alexandra, powering her way to a clear lead after being caught behind rivals in upper stretch, altering course without ever losing momentum, and the versatile filly looks poised to keep showing more for Brad Cox following her stakes debut.

VH: I felt Golden Rod (G2) winner Intricate was arguably the most appealing Oaks candidates heading into the winter, and I'm sticking by hear ahead of her rematch against Tarifa in next week's Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). I feel she's going to come on from her performance in the Rachel Alexandra, especially if she gets a fast track, and the connections obviously know how to succeed in the Oaks, having done so last year with eventual champion Pretty Mischievous.

Her candidacy is also helped by the fact that few, if any, fast contenders have emerged this winter from either Florida and Southern California. The Oaks has been dominated in recent years by Fair Grounds and Oaklawn-based fillies, and from what I've seen so far this year I'd give that group the edge for now.

AA: For now, it's Brad Cox runner Tarifa, who earned 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks with her Rachel Alexandra win. The Godolphin homebred is now 3-for-4, and her only loss was in her second start, when she failed as the favorite in a one-mile allowance optional claimer at Churchill Downs. She'll need to improve upon her career-best 90 Brisnet Speed figure to earn the garland of lilies, but the Bernardini daughter should continue to step forward.

From a Brisnet Speed perspective, another filly I'm intrigued by is Candied, who has yet to make a start for Pletcher since her three-quarter-length third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) last November. Prior to that setback, the Candy Ride daughter had won her first two starts, including a one-length win in the Alcibiades (G1) at Keeneland. Candied's Speed figures have improved with each start, as she posted an 88 BRIS figure on debut, then clocked a 95 in the Alcibiades. Most recently, she recorded a 99 at the Breeders' Cup, and she's looked sharp in recent works at Palm Beach Downs.

What else caught your eye over the weekend?

JS: A game Tampa Bay Derby (G2) win from Domestic Product, who keeps steadily progressing for Chad Brown. But considering how slow the race was, with the winner registering only an 84 Speed rating, the true gauge will come in Domestic Product’s final prep. The early pace proved ridiculously slow and Domestic Product was under heavy restraint rating in midpack before closing determinedly to edge No More Time, who enjoyed a more favorable trip with his speed. Domestic Product registered an eye-catching 125 Brisnet Late Pace number for his fast finish, completing the final five-sixteenths in less than 29 seconds.

I’ll also mention Nysos, who isn’t eligible for the Kentucky Derby but was bet down as the overwhelming favorite in the recent Preakness Future Wager. The unbeaten colt hasn’t worked for more than two weeks now, scratching from San Felipe (G2) during the interim, and supporters are anxiously waiting for his return to the work tab.

VH: Storm the Court lost his 21st consecutive start when enduring a caboose trip in Saturday's Silks Run S. at Gulfstream Park going five furlongs on the turf. That's right, the horse that was voted champion two-year-old male in 2019 and has since devolved into an allowance-class grass sprinter has lost 21 straight and has gone unplaced in 12 of his last 15.

Storm the Court garnered nearly 62% of the Eclipse vote (hardly a ringing endorsement as most Eclipse votes go) on the basis of winning a modest renewal of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at odds of almost 46-1. That was the only substantial thing he did that season, after losing his jockey in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and the American Pharoah (G1) by more than eight lengths. He's Exhibit A on why voters should think twice before blindly defaulting to Breeders' Cup winners as their two-year-old champion choices.

For the record, I backed Maxfield for that award as he passed my personal eye test when stylishly winning the Breeders' Futurity (G1), while Storm the Court did not. For what it's worth, Maxfield went on to win six of his final nine stars including five more graded stakes.

AA: Sweet Azteca inserted herself as a contender in the older dirt female division with an upset over Adare Manor in the Beholder Mile (G1) on Saturday. The Michael McCarthy trainee went off as the 3-1 second choice and achieved a gate-to-wire victory over five-time graded stakes winner Adare Manor, an 11-10 favorite in the Grade 1 event. Sweet Azteca was making her second graded stakes start and first at two turns. She had previously won a six-furlong maiden special weight on debut in May of 2023, then hit the bench before returning in January in the six-furlong Las Flores (G3), where she came home third.

Two back, Sweet Azteca romped to a 12-length win in an allowance optional claimer at Santa Anita with a 99 BRIS figure. She continued to step forward on Saturday with a 101 Speed rating in her three-quarter-length triumph and defeated a couple of other promising dirt females, including five-year-old Green Up, a multiple stakes winner, and multiple graded stakes winner Interstatedaydream, both out of Pletcher's barn. The third-place finisher from the 2022 Kentucky Oaks, Desert Dawn, was also among the field.