December 2, 2020

Tough choices for WinStar Fantasy Derby Challenge

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Thanks to WinStar Farm – home to such top stallions as American Pharoah’s sire Pioneerof the Nile and Hall of Famer Tiznow – fans can compete for prizes in a fantasy game during the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail.

WinStar’s Fantasy Derby Challenge runs from February 4 through April 15, the date of the final round of Derby preps. Entries close at noon on Saturday, so be sure to sign up ahead of the deadline.

The process is simple: build your 12-horse fantasy stable by selecting three horses from each of four designated groups. You will get an opportunity to add three more horses (from a brand new group, not one you’ve already passed over) during a special window of March 21-25.

The contest revolves around how much your horses earn. The more purse money they rake in, the higher your stable is in the standings. Only North American races count, however, so it won’t help you to draft a U.A.E. Derby (G2) runner.

While the game is straightforward, the decision-making is a lot tougher. Each of the four groups includes a balanced portfolio of established runners and promising types yet to face their first test of class. That calls for some awfully tough choices, in both categories, and I’ve regretfully had to leave a few very interesting types out.

Most of my selections will probably overlap with a good percentage of other stables – champion Classic Empire and stretch-running Gunnevera, both in action already in Saturday’s Holy Bull (G2); Jerome (G3) romper El Areeb, who likewise promises to offer a quick payday in Saturday’s Withers (G3); unbeaten Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) star McCraken; Bob Baffert’s pair of undefeated Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner Mastery and Sham (G3) near-misser American Anthem; Todd Pletcher’s talented Battalion Runner, who should benefit from a tougher-than-expected Friday allowance tussle; Smarty Jones scorer Uncontested; and Remsen (G2) hero Mo Town.

My colleague Ed DeRosa, who unveiled his WinStar fantasy stable here, shares seven of those, with Mastery and Mo Town the notable exceptions. Mo Town’s omission was no surprise, since Ed always has it in for the Remsen!

My remaining trio are the less obvious choices who could be the make-or-break plays for the Reilly stable.

Theory was a devastating debut winner at Saratoga last summer, and I’m still tempted to imagine that he would have won the Hopeful (G1). Unfortunately, the Pletcher pupil developed a foot bruise and didn’t resurface until the October 15 Futurity (G3). Judging by the way he overpowered them in the stretch and added a monster gallop-out for good measure, the son of Gemologist was ready to stretch out. It prompted more thoughts of what might have been. If it weren’t for his ill-timed setback, he might well have already been routing by that point.

The six-furlong Futurity smacked of a last-chance-saloon to make it to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Theory made it to Santa Anita, but uncharacteristically packed it in before they’d left the backstretch and wound up 10th. I was willing to toss that non-effort, given the less than ideal preparation, but he had a viable excuse: Theory exited the Juvenile with a fever that was significant enough to make him stay behind in California for an extra couple of weeks. Now healthy and working at Palm Beach Downs, Theory may have the chance to showcase the talent we first saw at the Spa.

I love Theory’s pedigree pattern too, as his paternal grandsire Tiznow and broodmare sire Officer are bred on a similar cross, giving him inbreeding to both Relaunch and Seattle Slew. His second dam is by one of my all-time favorites in Java Gold, and this is the deep family of 1986 Kentucky Derby star and 1987 Horse of the Year Ferdinand, tracing through champion racemare Vagrancy to the great matron Frizette. Wouldn’t it be fitting if a horse co-owned by WinStar, sired by a WinStar stallion, and a grandson of Tiznow, helps me in a WinStar fantasy game?

No Dozing made the cut partly for pedigree reasons. From the first crop of Union Rags, he’s out of a mare by Pulpit, and his second dam is by Unbridled. Thus his dam, Staying Awake, is bred on the same cross as Tapit. Moreover, Staying Awake boasts the Rasmussen Factor of being inbred to a superior female: she duplicates the three-quarter sisters Lassie Dear and Toll Booth.

But I really wanted to include No Dozing because he’s turned in some sneakily-good efforts in graded stakes while still looking green. The Lael Stables homebred was convincing in his first two starts at Delaware and Laurel, and trainer Arnaud Delacour threw him right into the deep end in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Despite a troubled start, No Dozing smoothly moved into contention and tried to go after Classic Empire, only to tire late in his two-turn debut and end up fourth (just missing third). Gunnevera was only fifth.

No Dozing next tried the Remsen, where he was a case study of “running in snatches.” Rank behind a slow pace, he advanced out wide, drifted in a bit and appeared to stall, before hitting stride again and finishing with interest in second. He was beaten 2 1/2 lengths by the perfect-trip, and more professional, Mo Town. That’s not an insuperable gap for a colt who’s visibly learning on the job. Currently wintering at Tampa, he’ll get another test from McCraken in the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3). Interestingly, Vance Hanson also has No Dozing in his WinStar dozen.

Finally, Battle of Midway is playing catch-up after only just getting his career started at Santa Anita on January 21. But the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee was in arguably the thinnest group in the contest, and since the focus is all upon earnings through April 15 – not the Derby itself – I couldn’t resist. By Smart Strike and out of Grade 1 winner Rigoletta, Battle of Midway showed virtually effortless speed to argue the pace and the look of a natural router when galloping relentlessly clear. The one caveat was the wet-fast track, which puts his quick time into perspective. Nevertheless, the Fox Hill Farms colorbearer strikes me as a real talent, and I’m looking forward to his stakes debut in the February 12 San Vicente (G2).

To scout out the WinStar fantasy options, and many more, see the FREE past performances for all 2017 Triple Crown nominees, compliments of Brisnet.