With just over five weeks to go until the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, now is the time to get serious.
Beginning with three prep races last weekend, the races that will be run between now and the big race on the first Saturday in May are as important as any performances that have been turned in to this point. That is because those races will, in most cases, be the final preps for serious contenders hoping to navigate successfully the 1 1/4 miles on Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
Last week’s Derby prep results provided a lesson, as if we needed one, in just how fluid the Derby 137 scene remains as we head into those crucial final weeks as none of the winners was considered serious contenders for the big race on Saturday, May 7. But those victories punched tickets to the Derby for each of those winners.
Pants on fire
The biggest of last week’s races, the $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, tossed two new names into the Derby scene in Pants On Fire and Nehro, its 1-2 finishers. The former earned a spot in the Derby starting gate with his first place earnings, and if jockey Anna Napravnik retains the mount she will be the first woman to ride in the Derby since 2003.
Nehro, trained by Steve Asmussen, will probably have to run again to achieve the needed earnings in graded stakes races to qualify for the race, and he appears most likely to compete in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16.
The Louisiana Derby favorite, Mucho Macho Man, finished third, but had an excuse and will continue on the road to Louisville. The massive colt lost a shoe just after the start of that race and a bit of the inside of his hoof was torn away when that shoe went flying. He could not have been comfortable during the race and if all goes well in the next few days he should still be regarded as a serious Derby 127 contender for rookie Derby trainer Kathy Ritvo.
The Vinery Racing Spiral, run over the synthetic Polytrack surface at northern Kentucky’s Turfway Park, also provided a pair of likely Derby starters in 1-2 finishers Animal Kingdom and Decisive Moment. The former is a lightly raced, but very promising, 3-year-old who has yet to run on traditional dirt. He’ll have to run over 10 furlongs of that surface on Derby Day.
Decisive Moment appears to have enough earnings to make the Derby field and became the first hopeful to arrive at Churchill Downs when he traveled from Turfway Park early Monday.
Even the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai yielded a possible Derby starter in runner-up Master of Hounds, who was beaten a nose by the 3-year-old filly Khawlah on the synthetic surface at Meydan Race Course. Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien, who has crossed the Atlantic before in an effort to win America’s greatest race, mentioned a stop at Churchill Downs as a serious consideration for that well-bred colt.
The last of the weekend’s major preps tossed another new name into the Derby picture on Sunday when 25-1 shot Twice the Appeal ran past favored Astrology for a surprise win.
So three prep races last weekend produced at least five new names to consider for this year’s Run for the Roses. In light of that, what should we expect during the next three weekends in a series of Kentucky Derby preps that includes four races with $1 million purses?
The first of those, the $1 million Florida Derby, is scheduled this weekend and features a quartet of names that would be at home in most any list of top 10 candidates for Derby 137. That 1 1/8 mile race at Gulfstream Park will match Fountain of Youth winner Soldat, Holy Bull winner Dialed In, Remsen winner To Honor and Serve and Gotham winner Stay Thirsty. The latter is the stablemate of early Derby favorite Uncle Mo and a big effort by Stay Thirsty could give owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher a powerful 1-2 punch at Churchill Downs.
A pair of $1 million races – the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby, will be run on April 9. The former is the stage for the final prep for the unbeaten 2-year-old champion and strong Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo. The latter will feature rising star Premier Pegasus, who burst on to the scene in a dominant win in the San Felipe last time out.
Saturday, April 16 will feature the $1 million Arkansas Derby, the expected final Kentucky Derby prep for trainer Bob Baffert’s very fast The Factor, and Keeneland’s $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass over the Polytrack course in Lexington. The Blue Grass attracts large fields most notable for success on synthetic tracks and grass races that are looking to put themselves in the Derby mix.
But that’s not all. Other preps that could insert new names in the Derby 137 picture are the $250,000 Illinois Derby, Keeneland’s $200,000 Coolmore Lexington, the $150,000 Jerome at Aqueduct and Churchill Downs $200,000 The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial, which will be run under the lights for the first time as the “Opening Night” feature on Sunday, April 30.
The third and final pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens at noon (Eastern) on Friday, April 1 and Uncle Mo is sure to emerge as a strong favorite when the three-day pool closes at 6 p.m. on Sunday. But there are 22 other individual horses in the field – including five that would not have been wagering interests before last week’s preps. That fact alone is a testament to the ever-changing nature of the Derby picture
And you can expect more new names to emerge over the next three weekends. Which means that the Future Bet’s mutual field, or “all others” could still be worth a look this weekend.
Uncle Mo tops
The Derby 137 landscape at this point has Uncle Mo atop the heap, with a handful of accomplished rivals (Soldat, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve, The Factor, Premier Pegasus) just beneath and, after that group, everybody else. It’s possible that all the major players could run well in their final preps and the Kentucky Derby picture could be very orderly as we head into the final days leading up to the big race.
But given last week’s results – and the experience of a string of recent Kentucky Derbies that has included wins by two 50-1 shots since 2005 – I’m not sure I’d bet on it.