Crunch time is upon us for the May 6 Kentucky Derby with top contenders competing in six major prep races over the next three weekends. Three berths in the expected 20-horse field were awarded last weekend, with Hence and Fast and Accurate each receiving 50 points for respective wins in the Spiral (G3) and Sunland Derby (G3) and Thunder Snow picking up 100 points for a UAE Derby (G2) victory.
All three can be classified as longshots.
Hence took advantage of a fast early pace closing last-to-first in the Sunland Derby but it was impossible to envision such a dominant performance regardless of set-up. After showing little in his first five career starts, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt displayed new life rolling home much the best, scoring by 3 ¾ lengths as the 10-1 seventh choice in an 11-horse field. He registered a 103 BRIS Speed rating that easily eclipses his previous best (86).
The son of Street Boss stretched out to 1 1/8 miles for Sunland Derby and added distance looks like no problem given the stamina influences in his classy female family. It’s just a matter of whether Hence is good enough because there’s certainly no guarantee he will be able to carry his form forward against better competition.
Hence still has legitimate class concerns going forward.
The last two winners of the Sunland Derby trained up to the Kentucky Derby but Asmussen indicated he may give the Calumet homebred another start in the six-week interim. Extra experience can’t hurt the up-and-coming colt and another race will provide us with a better indication where he fits.
It’s easy to be dismissive based upon Hence’s past form but we’ve witnessed numerous 3-year-olds come out of nowhere at this time of year, with Kentucky Derby winners Charismatic and War Emblem serving as notable examples. Charismatic was 44-1 in his next-to-last stakes appearance before arriving at Churchill Downs and War Emblem was 38-1. Both surged forward at the right time and wound up being named champion 3-year-old after sweeping the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Hence must prove the Sunland Derby wasn’t a fluke but it would be foolish to completely dismiss his chances off the surprising performance.
Runner-up Conquest Mo Money is also under consideration for another prep race in the coming weeks. The multiple stakes winner had earned more than $130,000 entering the Sunland Derby but connections opted not to pay $6,000 to make him Triple Crown eligible by the March 20 deadline. Now, they’re considering paying a $200,000 supplemental fee if he runs well in another prep. The speedy colt probably wants no part of deeper company and longer distances, and I’m guessing he winds up being redirected to other lucrative 3-year-old stakes outside the Triple Crown.
Hedge Fund had every right to quit after dueling on fast fractions but the inexperienced colt dug in determinedly after being passed to finish third. A maiden winner in his previous outing at Gulfstream Park, the Super Saver colt remains a nice prospect for Todd Pletcher.
Thunder Snow ran down unbeaten Japanese rival Epicharis in the final strides of a thrilling UAE Derby, recording his third straight win and providing owner Godolphin with a record eighth triumph in the about 1 3/16-mile race.
Bred on both sides for turf, the son of Helmet rolled to a grassy Group 1 tally in his juvenile finale but showed his versatility in a pair of efforts on Meydan’s dirt track this year, capturing the Two Thousand Guineas (G3) by 5 ¾ lengths before an outstanding performance last Saturday.
Thunder Snow appears up against as an overseas shipper, with previous UAE Derby contestants performing terribly in the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Saeed bin Suroor is familiar with the landscape having started seven horses in the Run for the Roses. And given the topsy-turvy landscape this year, a talented colt like Thunder Snow has a chance to make at least a minor impact.
Held over Turfway’s Polytrack, the 1 1/8-mile Spiral appeared wide open on paper and played out that way on the track, with the 24-1 second-longest shot edging out the 35-1 longest shot.
Fast and Accurate closely tracked the action before surging to the lead off the fart turn and withstood the charge of runner-up Blueridge Traveler and a host of other challengers, with second-through-sixth separated by about two lengths on the wire.
He’s now won three straight, breaking his maiden for a $30,000 tag at Turfway in December and capturing a turf starter stakes at Gulfstream on February 20, and Fast and Accurate is poised to provide trainer Mike Maker with a Kentucky Derby starter for the sixth time in eight years. But his 86 BRIS Speed rating won’t get it done and the gray son of Hansen has never won on dirt.
A pair of $1 million races, the Florida Derby (G1) and Louisiana Derby (G2), highlight the Road to the Kentucky Derby series this weekend.
Gunnevera, a 5 ¾-length winner of the Fountain of Youth (G2), tops an expected 10-horse Florida Derby field (Battalion Runner will scratch) at Gulfstream Park. Tampa Bay Derby (G2) runner-up State of Honor and Fountain of Youth third Three Rules are also entered, and Always Dreaming merits serious respect in his stakes debut for Pletcher following a pair of convincing maiden and allowance tallies.
Risen Star (G2) winner Girvin is the one to beat in a nine-horse Louisiana Derby field. Local Hero and Guest Suite are also back and Pletcher has a pair of shippers including Patch, who registered a field-best 101 BRIS Speed rating posting an easy maiden score last out.
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- MCCRAKEN: Unbeaten in four starts, Churchill Downs specialist will be a solid favorite on Derby Day if he wins Blue Grass
- GUNNEVERA: Fountain of Youth winner brings a big late kick but must overcome wide draw in Florida Derby
- TAPWRIT: Displayed outstanding turn of foot in Tampa Bay Derby win; Blue Grass and Wood Memorial options for Pletcher trainee
- J BOYS ECHO: Perfect-trip Gotham wiiner can confirm his legitimacy in Blue Grass
- GIRVIN: Risen Star victor will try to enhance his profile in Louisiana Derby
- BATTALION RUNNER: Pletcher has been considering all the major preps for well-regarded Gulfstream maiden and allowance winner
- PRACTICAL JOKE: Multiple Grade 1-winning juvenile returned with decent second in Fountain of Youth, looks to show more in Blue Grass
- ONE LINER: Pletcher trainee impressed winning Southwest, eager to see how he handles stretch out to 1 1/8 miles in final prep
- ILIAD: Eligible to move forward in Santa Anita Derby off non-threatening second in San Felipe
- CLASSIC EMPIRE: 2-year-old champ still has a chance, recording back-to-back works including 5-furlong drill Tuesday in preparation for Arkansas Derby
- HENCE: Improved significantly for Asmussen in Sunland Derby romp but let’s see him back it up in final prep race
- REACH THE WORLD: Promising two-turn type for Baffert will try to qualify in Santa Anita Derby
- MALAGACY: Too good for Rebel foes but not excited about his chances at longer distances
- BATTLE OF MIDWAY: Edged Reach the World in recent allowance, headed to Santa Anta Derby for Hollendorfer
- IRISH WAR CRY: Headstrong ways a concern but Fountain of Youth probably too bad to be true; let’s see if he settles in Wood
- MO TOWN: Grade 2-winning juvenile took step back opening year in Risen Star, hopes to turn things around in Wood
- THUNDER SNOW: Dubai shippers have never been a factor but supporters hope this will be the year
- CLOUD COMPUTING: Speedy type a fine prospect for Brown but Preakness may be a better target for unraced juvenile
- ALWAYS DREAMING: Authoritative maiden and allowance winner to make stakes bow in Florida Derby for Pletcher
- EL AREEB: Gotham clunker raised red flags, looks to rebound in Wood Memorial