With last week’s passing of the 100-day mark until the 137th runnings of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Kentucky Oaks came a flurry of activity that confirmed that the time for serious work has arrived on the journey to Churchill Downs and its historic races on the first weekend in May.
Over 48 hours last weekend the top two contenders on my list of major players for Derby 137 – Remsen winner To Honor and Serve and unbeaten and untouched 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo – turned in workouts at Florida training centers. Then a 3-year-old who dazzled fans in his lone career start last fall at Churchill Downs validated that debut with a brilliant win at Gulfstream Park, and an unbeaten colt with a strong Louisville connection wowed racing fans in New Orleans with a sparkler in his second career start.
Yup, we’ve quickly found ourselves entering the fast lane on the road to Kentucky Derby 137.
The works by To Honor and Serve, a four-furlong move over an always deep training track at Florida’s Payson Park, and Uncle Mo, whose first work of the year was an easy three-eighths of a mile at Florida’s Palm Meadows, were not special by measure. They were early steps in a 3-year-old journey that their respective trainers, Bill Mott and 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher (how much does Todd love to hear that?), hope will end with the scent of roses on Derby Day.
Little was expected in those training moves, but they came right on schedule and that was all that is important at this point. It was the third work of the year for To Honor and Serve, who should be getting plenty fit over that deep surface at Payson, and the first of 2011 for Uncle Mo. The former could run at the end of this month in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, while Uncle Mo is not expected run until the Tampa Bay Derby in mid-March.
While the Derby’s Big Two focused on early steps, two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito’s Derby dreams took a giant leap forward when Robert LaPenta’s Dialed In won Sunday’s one-mile Holy Bull at Gulfstream.
The son of Horse of the Year Mineshaft did everything wrong in his November debut at Churchill Downs, but still found a way to win. Dialed In made his return to racing nine days earlier in a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream, but a sloppy track prompted Zito to scratch the colt and look for another spot. When no other allowance races materialized, Zito paid a supplemental entry fee to run Dialed In in the $400,000 Holy Bull, a prep that has produced three Derby winners in its relatively brief history.
Dialed In broke to the outside and dropped 15 lengths off the lead over a speed-favoring Gulfstream surface, but jockey Julien Leparoux rallied his colt along the inside, then swung wide for the run down the lane on the way to a 1 1/2-length win that felt much more emphatic than that margin. The time was a stakes record 1:35.19 – just long enough to attract a crowd to Dialed In’s bandwagon. His trainer led the way.
“He’s very special,” said Zito. “I’ve never had a horse do this, go from a maiden special race to jump up and win a race like the Holy Bull.”
A couple of hours earlier at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs-based trainer Neil Howard saddled Courtlandt Farm’s Machen roll to an impressive victory in a mile and 70 yard allowance race that crowned the colt as the hottest Derby prospect in the Crescent City. Machen broke slowly behind a crawling pace against four rivals and was in traffic trouble most of the way – proof, as if it was needed, that you can get into just as much trouble in a five-horse field as in the 20-horse Derby.
But a narrow opening finally showed up in the upper stretch and the son of Distorted Humor shot through under jockey Jamie Theriot and simply ran away from his rivals. Machen’s next step will be tougher and probably in a stakes race, but Howard – who also trains a promising Derby hope in Lecomte winner Wilkinson – appears to a have a budding star in Machen.
So, while Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve took their gradual steps over the weekend, the impressive races in Florida and Louisiana provided more than enough “Wob” factor to hold our attending until the big horses get serious.
In one other notable performance, Kentucky Oaks contender Dancinginherdreams suffered her first setback in Sunday’s Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream. But her journey under Leparoux was nearly as eventful as Dialed In’s Holy Bull run. She was flying late, but fell just short of catching sprinter Pomeroys Pistol at seven furlongs over that speed-happy Florida course.
If Leparoux had been a tad more patient on the turn, he would have found plenty of room just behind the winner and Dancinginherdreams would likely have won comfortably. But her strong run made the loss just as good as a win, and trainer John Ward’s objective is the Oaks on May 6, not the Forward Gal on Jan. 30. She’s still my favorite to win America’s top race for 3-year-old fillies.
Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby (www.KentuckyDerby.com) and Kentucky Oaks (www.KentuckyOaks.com) official event Web sites are now up for the countdown for the first weekend in May. You can check my top 10 contenders for both races on those respective sites, along with those of Jill Byrne and other analysts, all along the road to the Derby and Oaks 137.