ROAD TO THE TRIPLE CROWN
by James Scully
The New Year renews enthusiasm for the Kentucky Derby (G1) as hopefuls ready
for their first start as three-year-olds, and there are always plenty of
surprises in the first couple of months of the new season as some juveniles
don’t go on at three and other sophomores come out of nowhere to establish
themselves as Derby contenders.
This column will take a final look back on 10 runners from last year with
serious Kentucky Derby aspirations for 2005.
Undefeated DECLAN’S MOON (Malibu Moon) wrapped up his juvenile campaign with
a strong victory in the Hollywood Futurity (G1) and is likely to be voted
champion two-year-old. There’s no doubting his ability and the Ron Ellis-trained
gelding really eats up ground with his beautiful, long-reaching stride, but he’s
also sure to place pedigree analysts in a pickle.
The last three Kentucky Derby winners, War Emblem, Funny Cide (Distorted
Humor) and Smarty Jones, dampened the spirits of pedigree aficionados because
all three appeared more likely to be top-class milers than classic winners, and
Declan’s Moon is cut from the same cloth. There are some stamina influences when
one digs deep in his pedigree, but sire Malibu Moon has thrown mostly sprinters
and middle-distance runners so far and his dam sire, Norquestor, who was a solid
Maryland stallion for years, was always a good source for speed. Declan’s Moon
was the best juvenile performer in 2004 and hasn’t shown any distance
limitations yet, so here we go again with a very talented horse who owns a
questionable pedigree for the first Saturday in May.
ROCKPORT HARBOR (Unbridled’s Song) is another unbeaten youngster with a lot
going for him as 2005 begins. He won his first three starts, including the
Nashua S. (G3), by daylight and then turned in a superb performance to capture
the Remsen S. (G2) in his final juvenile outing, overcoming a deep gash to a
rear foot to gamely prevail over a talented rival. The gray colt has the same
trainer/jockey combination (John Servis/Stewart Elliott) as Smarty Jones and
like last year’s dual classic winner, Rockport Harbor is able to run his
opponents into the ground with his early speed. His dam was a confirmed sprinter
by a good sprint sire (Copelan), but Rockport Harbor has already proved himself
at nine furlongs and appears suited for classic distances. We could be in for
another exciting ride with a Philadelphia Park-based three-year-old.
ROMAN RULER (Fusaichi Pegasus) is one of several promising Kentucky Derby
candidates from the initial crop of his sire and captured three of his first
four attempts, the only setback being a neck runner-up finish to Declan’s Moon
in the Del Mar Futurity (G2), before finishing off the board in the Breeders’
Cup. The impressive looking dark bay had some problems at the end of the year,
including surgery on a non-descended testicle, and could return at a much higher
level for trainer Bob Baffert if he can put those issues behind him. Roman Ruler
shows three nice works since mid-December and appears likely to regain his lost
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner WILKO (Awesome Again) didn’t show a lot
racing on the grass in Europe, but he’s proven to be a much better performer on
the main track. He earned terrific BRIS Speed and Late Pace figures when closing
from just off the pace at Lone Star and ran a big race to be third, beaten only
a length, in the Hollywood Futurity despite developing a quarter crack in the
days before. The Craig Dollase-trained colt owns good tactical speed and plenty
of room for improvement this season.
AFLEET ALEX (Northern Afleet) turned in a huge effort to be second by three
parts of a length in the Breeders’ Cup after traveling wide on both turns, and
the Tim Ritchey charge showed his class when winning the Hopeful S. (G1) and
finishing a close second in the Champagne S. (G1). His Speed ratings are very
strong and he’ll likely be a major factor in the upcoming prep races, but the
10-furlong Kentucky Derby distance represents a major obstacle with his
pedigree. Given the results from the last three years, though, it shouldn’t be a
shock to see a son of Northern Afleet wear the Roses.
SUN KING (Charismatic) finished a good third in both the Champagne and
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile following his maiden score and looks like a major player
for the Triple Crown scene. There was plenty of Kentucky Derby buzz about him last fall and trainer Nick Zito brought his charge along slowly with,
as always, an eye on the main prize. Sun King delivered some excellent
performances at two and looks like an up-and-coming colt with a bright future.
CONSOLIDATOR (Storm Cat) moved forward when trying a route for the first time
in the Breeders’ Futurity (G2), recording a two-length triumph, and then carried
that form forward in the Breeders’ Cup with a commendable fourth-place showing.
He’s a colt who may continue to thrive at longer distances. The chestnut’s
improvement late in the season was very encouraging, and Consolidator is one to
follow from the D. Wayne Lukas shedrow.
FUSAICHI SAMURAI (Fusaichi Pegasus) and ANDROMEDA’S HERO (Fusaichi Pegasus)
were each smashing maiden winners in December who bear watching at three. The
former, a $4.5 million two-year-old in training purchase, has the same
owner/trainer connections (Fusao Sekiguchi/Neil Drysdale) of his sire and
received rave reviews for his debut, an easy two-length, front-running victory
on December 11. A very sharp-looking individual, Fusaichi Samurai could be any
Andromeda’s Hero, who like Fusaichi Samurai owns a regal pedigree for classic
distances, rolled to a brilliant seven-length maiden score the day after
Christmas at Calder. Typical of most Zito runners, he was given his first start,
a third against maiden special rivals at Churchill Downs, before turning it up
several notches in his second career outing. He looks like an individual who can
move forward substantially over the next few months, and his powerful maiden
victory makes Andromeda’s Hero an exciting prospect to watch in
HARLINGTON (Unbridled) won his lone career appearance at Aqueduct in late
November, rallying gamely from off the pace to get up for a neck decision, and
appears to own a bright future for Todd Pletcher. Out of champion and $3.2
million earner Serena’s Song, Harlington has the bloodlines to be a serious
Kentucky Derby contender and owns a very encouraging performance to build upon.