July 23, 2024

Kentucky Derby Report – Derby season begins with a flurry of preps

We’re only 2 1/2 weeks into the New Year and there’s already plenty of ground to cover as four Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifiers and the Mucho Macho Man have been held since our last edition. Let’s work backwards.

Smarty Jones, January 15, Oaklawn Park

Only five horses went to the Smarty Jones starting gate and the scratch of Todd Pletcher’s Navistar left Mourinho in the catbird seat as the lone speed. After sprinting clear into the first turn, the 3-5 favorite sailed uncontested the rest of the way.

In fact, Mourinho resembled 2016 winner Uncontested, who also dominated the one-mile event on the front end. Supporters hope the similarities stop there because Uncontested finished up the track as the 6-5 favorite when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles against more early pressure in the Southwest (G3), and his only win since has come at 6-furlongs.

Mourinho does face the same distance questions after receiving a cushy set-up in his two-turn debut. Oaklawn employs the first finish line for the Smarty Jones distance, but the bay colt will be asked to negotiate an extra sixteenth of a mile in the stretch if he returns to Hot Springs for any of the remaining qualifiers: February 19 Southwest, March 17 Rebel (G2) and April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1).

Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Mourinho led wire-to-wire when making his debut at 6-furlongs in late September and followed with a pair of runner-up efforts in sprint stakes. Baffert removed blinkers for his previous start, the November 11 Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar, and Mourinho basically held his positioning in second throughout.

The headgear went back on for the Smarty Jones and when Drayden Van Dyke asked his mount rounding the far turn, Mourinho widened a clear lead into a commanding advantage. He scored by 3 ¼ lengths in the end and registered a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating.

A son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Mourinho is out a mare by More Than Ready. I’m not keen on his chances at longer distances this spring but have been wrong before.

And it would be foolish to completely dismiss his chances in upcoming preps at Oaklawn. By virtue of his first Smarty Jones victory, four-time Kentucky Derby winner Baffert has now compiled a total of 13 wins in Oaklawn’s four-race series for 3-year-olds. Two of those came with an eventual sprint champion (Secret Circle) and one with future multiple Grade 1-winning sprinter The Factor.

Runner-up Combatant is the one to take away from the Smarty Jones in my estimation. Steve Asmussen summed it up perfectly afterwards, “Mourinho’s a better miler than we are, but we’ll be fine as the distances get longer.”

Bred for turf on his dam side, Combatant switched to dirt after dropping his debut on grass and recorded a convincing maiden win at Churchill Downs. He was never a threat to Greyvitos in his stakes bow, the December 17 Springboard Mile at Remington Park, but offered a solid rally to be 5 ¼ lengths clear of third. And I liked the way he continued to move forward against adverse circumstances in the Smarty Jones, reducing the margin in the final furlong as he appeared to be hitting his best stride under the wire. The bay sophomore registered career-best 98 BRIS Late Pace rating and his Speed numbers have increased in every start (79-90-91-95).

By Scat Daddy, Combatant features a nice mix in his pedigree with speed on top and stamina on the bottom and I look forward to seeing what the up-and-coming colt has to offer next time.

Lecomte (G3), January 13, Fair Grounds

Instilled Regard dropped his first two starts in sprints and wasn’t given much respect after posting a pedestrian 85 BRIS Speed rating breaking his maiden at two turns in late October. But similar to 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who earned only an 89 Speed when opening his 3-year-old campaign with an entry-level allowance tally, Instilled Regard has improved significantly in following starts.

And he’s eligible to keep gaining momentum off a commendable 3 ¾-length victory in the Lecomte.

The Jerry Hollendorfer pupil began making headway in his initial stakes appearance, the December 9 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). Overlooked at 17-1, Instilled Regard launched a menacing move into contention on the far turn and battled gamely through the stretch against a pair of well-respected rivals while being bumped repeatedly, just missing second by a head on the wire to 1-2 favorite McKinzie. He was placed second when the stewards disqualified Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up Solomini and placed him third.

Instilled Regard received a 100 BRIS Speed rating for the top-class performance at Los Alamitos and the Lecomte proved to be a walk in the park compared to his juvenile finale.

With Javier Castellano picking up the assignment, Instilled Regard left the Lecomte starting gate as the 2-1 second choice among 13 rivals. He was kept well off the rail from post 9, stalking a couple of lengths back in fourth down the backstretch, and advanced into contention rounding the far turn. The dark bay colt accelerated to the lead after straightening for home and quickly drew clear, winning under a hand ride while continuing to widen his margin in deep stretch.

He netted a 96 BRIS Speed rating, a solid figure to keep building upon, and I think Instilled Regard will have more to offer going forward. A $1.05 million 2-year-old in training purchase, the well-bred son of Arch counts the Phipps-owned champion and eight-time Grade 1 winner Heavenly Prize as his second maternal dam.

Instilled Regard could return to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star (G2) on February 17.

Principe Guilherme proved no match for the winner but gamely overhauled forwardly-placed Snapper Sinclair after an extremely wide trip. A convincing front-running winner of his first two starts, the Tapit colt was forced to switch to rating tactics after breaking from an outside post and gained valuable seasoning in his stakes debut. And it will be no surprise to see the Asmussen trainee show more speed next time.

Jerome, January 13, Aqueduct

Firenze Fire can bring it at one-turn distances and following a gutsy victory in the Jerome, the 7-furlong Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at Saratoga on Travers Day has been mentioned prominently as a future target for the quality colt.

Contested at a one-turn mile due to the elimination of the inner track, the Jerome appears unlikely to have much relevance as a Kentucky Derby prep but it was neat to see Firenze Fire courageously get up in the final strides after looking beat in midstretch.

From the first crop of Grade 1-winning sprinter Poseidon’s Warrior, Firenze Fire turned in a huge performance to run down subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victor Good Magic in the October 7 Champagne (G1) at the same one-turn mile distance. In his lone two-turn attempt, the John Servis runner finished 20 lengths up the track in seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

It’s not impossible to envision him placing in a two-turn prep race, but the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance doesn’t appear to be a realistic goal.

The removal of Aqueduct’s inner track this winter leaves a loophole that figures to be addressed next year, with the March 10 Gotham (G3) also being held at a one-turn mile. The Jerome and Gotham used to be two-turn races – a mile and 70 yards and 1 1/16 miles, respectively — but those distances are no longer an option given the configuration of the main track.

The February 3 Withers (G3) and April 7 Wood Memorial (G1) will be contested at 1 1/8 miles.

Firenze Fire already has 20 points toward a berth in the first leg of the Triple Crown and with the Gotham being worth 50 points to the winner, he could earn enough points to guarantee himself a spot in a 20-horse field by mid-March and train up to the Kentucky Derby without having to race at two turns as a 3-year-old. And that goes against the spirit of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.

Sham (G3), January 6, Santa Anita

The competition wasn’t there but McKinzie met expectations with a dazzling performance in the Sham, striding away to a seemingly effortless 3 ½-length decision and registering a whopping 104 BRIS Speed rating. Bolt d’Oro (105 for FrontRunner [G1] win) and Good Magic (105 in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) are the only horses to run faster in a Road to the Kentucky Derby series race so far.

After recording a sensational first-out maiden win at 7-furlongs, McKinzie was bet down to 1-2 favoritism in the 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Futurity but got a little weary in the latter stages and wound up finishing about a length behind stablemate Solomini on the wire. He was elevated to first after the stewards disqualified Solomini for interfering with Instilled Regard.

I would have lost any bet at the time suggesting McKinzie would return four weeks later for the Sham at a two-turn mile and admit to being a little dubious as to why Baffert would run any Grade 1-winning juvenile in this spot if he thought the horse had a serious chance to capture the Kentucky Derby. The Sham has been more of a spot for unproven Baffert trainees who wind up being distance-challenged by early May.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it and I won’t put any race up to 1 1/8 miles past McKinzie. He’s clearly an elite sophomore at this stage, garnering triple-digit BRIS Speed numbers in all three starts, and settled nicely without blinkers in the Sham, rating a couple of lengths off the pace in fourth down the backstretch. The bay colt netted a whopping 108 BRIS Late Pace figure rolling home under a hand ride from Mike Smith.

His dam, the Petionville mare Runway Model, was a multiple graded winner at a route and McKinzie is a son of Street Sense. But despite winning the 2007 runnings of the Kentucky Derby and Travers (G1), Street Sense has established himself as more of a middle-distance sire, with offspring Wedding Toast, Sweet Reason, Aubby K and Callback all recording Grade 1 victories at one-turn. In fact, Street Sense’s only previous Grade 1 winner at two turns, Street Fancy, captured the Hollywood Starlet at age 2.

I’m not as excited about his Kentucky Derby prospects as others but have plenty of respect for McKinzie’s talents.

Mucho Macho Man, January 6, Gulfstream Park

The Mucho Macho Man didn’t offer any Kentucky Derby points, but the one-mile test represented the first stakes appearance for the well-regarded Mask. And the Chad Brown-trained colt did not disappoint, rolling to a smashing 6 ¼-length wire-to-wire victory.

Now two for two, Mask was exiting a facile three-length score over next-out maiden winner Navistar in an October 20 maiden special weight at Belmont Park. He garnered encouraging BRIS numbers while finishing powerfully in the Mucho Macho Man, notching a 102 Late Pace and 100 Speed, and Mask wasn’t beating up on a bunch of tomato cans.

Runner-up Bal Harbour was exiting back-to-back stakes victories for Pletcher and third-placer Dak Attack sustained his first defeat after opening his career with a pair of commendable wins over maiden and listed stakes rivals.

The winner’s female family offers little encouragement for longer distances with Mask’s stakes-winning dam, the Yonaguska mare Hidden Expression, being a confirmed sprinter and his second maternal dam a daughter of speed influence Lord Carson. But he is a son of leading sire Tapit, who has produced three of the last four winners of the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (G1), and I won’t dismiss Mask’s chances at this point.

Mask is expected to make his anticipated two-turn debut in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

Dak Attack wound up racing closer than expected following a 4 ½-month layoff and after trying to offer a challenge nearing the completion of the far turn, it wasn’t surprising to see him get a little tired in the stretch. The Ghostzapper colt should benefit from the tightener and I expect to see him settle better during the early stages next time.

Up next

We have a three-week gap between qualifiers, with the Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita and Withers all scheduled for February 3, and I’ll take a closer look next week at some maiden and allowance winners this year with potential Kentucky Derby aspirations.

Kentucky Derby Top 20

  1. SOLOMINI: BC Juvenile runner-up poised to keep moving forward for Baffert
  2. GOOD MAGIC: Broke maiden in sensational fashion stretching out to two turns in BC Juvenile
  3. BOLT D’ORO: Multiple G1 winner highly-skilled but will miss planned February start due to pulled muscle
  4. INSTILLED REGARD: Love progress Arch colt is making for Hollendorfer
  5. COPPER BULLET: Talented colt was starting to come on before being derailed by shin issues; back working for Asmussen
  6. CATHOLIC BOY: Versatile type possesses formidable late kick
  7. MCKINZIE: Brilliant winner of one-mile Sham for Baffert
  8. MASK: Will stretch out to two turn following smashing Mucho Macho Man win
  9. COMBATANT: Smarty Jones runner-up an intriguing prospect for Asmussen
  10. ENTICED: Ky Jockey Club winner figures to keep improving with experience
  11. FREE DROP BILLY: G1-winning juvenile eligible to blossom at 3
  12. SPORTING CHANCE: Hopeful winner readying for return
  13. PRINCIPE GUILHERME: Tapit colt seeks to rebound from Lecomte runner-up
  14. GREYVITOS: Exits an encouraging score in Springboard Mile
  15. TIZ MISCHIEF: One-run closer just missed in Ky Jockey Club
  16. DAK ATTACK: Displayed good turn of foot last year, needed Mucho Macho Man comebacker
  17. ZULFIKHAR: Runaway debut winner back working for Baffert
  18. UNTAMED DOMAIN: Classy juvenile turf performer expected to try dirt for Motion
  19. MENDELSSOHN: BC Juvenile Turf winner bred for dirt, Irish-based colt expected to target European Road to Kentucky Derby
  20. MONTAUK: Keeping impressive debut winner on list but no workouts since September makes me suspicious