July 23, 2024

Kentucky Derby Report – Stars come out at Santa Anita

Bolt d'Oro (left) came up a head short after battling through the stretch with McKinzie but was declared the winner of the San Felipe (G2) via disqualification ©Benoit Photo

A pair of races at Santa Anita last weekend excited fans and invigorated the 2018 Kentucky Derby picture.

The San Felipe (G2) led the way Saturday with spectacular theater as Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie engaged in a head-and-head battle through the stretch. A controversial disqualification could not overshadow the exhilaration generated by a showdown between top-ranked contenders.

Power and grace were on display a day later as Justify remained unbeaten with a two-turn allowance win, delivering a scintillating performance that catapulted him to 6-1 favoritism among individual interests in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

Elsewhere, the Gotham (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) were offered without the same fanfare and respective winners Enticed and Quip virtually guaranteed themselves a Kentucky Derby berth picking up 50-point prizes in the qualifiers.

San Felipe

After a couple of months with little buzz in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, the San Felipe produced the race we were waiting for as Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie hooked up leaving the far turn and went at it all the way to the finish line. McKinzie prevailed by a head but after drifting out into his rival in the latter stages, he was disqualified by stewards and Bolt d’Oro was placed first.

Contested over 1 1/16 miles, it was a roughly run affair with multiple incidents and I wouldn’t have made a change afterward. Bolt d’Oro arrived at the five-sixteenths pole three wide and while straightening into the stretch, he angled into the two-path and exchanged a couple of hard bumps with McKinzie. Stewards ruled it inconclusive but I thought Bolt d’Oro instigated the roughhousing by putting McKinzie in tight quarters along the rail. He continued to lean on his rival through the stretch and McKinzie drifted out late under left-handed urging.

Would McKinzie had veered out without the early contact? That was inconclusive in my book and the better horse (on this day) finished first on the wire. Stewards took their sweet time before reaching a decision to reverse.

McKinzie raced up close from the start and fought back determinedly after Bolt d’Oro stuck a head in front in upper stretch. He failed to maintain a straight course but Bolt d’Oro never appeared to be getting by in deep stretch. McKinzie brought a recency edge into the San Felipe, winning a pair of graded stakes wins over the winter for Bob Baffert, and Bolt d’Oro performed admirably making his first appearance in more than four months for Mick Ruis.

A smashing winner of the FrontRunner (G1) last fall, Bolt d’Oro bungled the start recording a third as the 3-5 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and broke slowly in three of four attempts last year. He added the services of Javier Castellano for the San Felipe and left gate smoothly from his innermost post, settling into a comfortable stalking trip behind horses before advancing into contention on the far turn.

A triple-digit BRIS Speed rating was the only thing missing as the top two received a 98 BRIS Speed rating. The track was still rated “fast” despite plenty of rainfall and it’s fair to question how much the changing surface affected Speed ratings.

There may be some apprehension surrounding aftereffects, but I see no reason Bolt d’Oro can’t keep moving forward off the hard race. Ruis didn’t have his charge fully cranked and we’ve witnessed multiple horses win the Kentucky Derby who ran their hearts out but came up a little short making a demanding penultimate prep in the San Felipe (Silver Charm and Real Quiet). The well-built son of Medalia d’Oro will use the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 7 as his final tune-up and I think Bolt d’Oro fits the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance better than McKinzie.

McKinzie, who had registered BRIS Speed ratings of 100-100-104 in his first three starts, turned in another top-class performance but will probably need a jockey change for his final prep race since Mike Smith also rides Justify.

Justify

Justify has the goods but faces an uphill task after making his first start at Santa Anita on February 18. It’s been 135 years since the last unraced juvenile, Apollo, captured the Kentucky Derby and Justify has yet to be tested while registering excellent 100 and 104 BRIS Speed numbers in a pair of convincing wins.

The chestnut colt will get one opportunity to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and it will be interesting to see whether he comes back for the Santa Anita Derby or leaves the friendly home confines for a target like the Wood Memorial (G2) or Arkansas Derby (G1). Justify figures to go favored either way, but I can’t find a Kentucky Derby winner in modern times who raced exclusively at a single venue before arriving at Churchill Downs.

Following a 9 ½-length maiden romp at 7-furlongs, Baffert removed blinkers and stretched his pupil to a two-turn mile distance. The entry-level allowance was contested over a muddy track and for the second straight race, the son of Scat Daddy broke a step slow. It hasn’t hurt him in a pair of short fields, with Justify meeting only four overmatched rivals in both outings, but will be something to watch for against stakes foes.

After rushing forward to lead wire to wire in his unveiling, Justify showed versatility rating behind the speed on Sunday. He blew into the lead with a few dynamic strides on the far turn and it was fun to watch his long and smooth action through the stretch as he effortlessly extended the winning margin to 6 ½ lengths.

Justify has proven to be beautiful mover with freakish ability, but a lack of foundation isn’t easily overcome by a 3-year-old on the first Saturday in May. He’s opened his career in similar fashion to Curlin, who blistered maidens going 7-furlongs in an early February debut and captured the Rebel Stakes by 5 ¼ easy lengths in his second start. The eventual Hall of Famer and two-time Horse of the Year looked more than capable when rolling to a 10 ½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, but Curlin wasn’t a serious factor and sustained his first defeat with a third behind Street Sense and Hard Spun in the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

Some observers feel the “Apollo Curse” won’t last with horses being more lightly-raced nowadays, but I’m not sure about the correlation. It’s asking a lot for Justify to squeeze three starts into a seven-week window (if he runs in Santa Anita Derby) before an extreme 1 ¼-mile test against 19 challengers four weeks later. A number of sophomore rivals, including Bolt d’Oro and Enticed, will be making at least their sixth stakes start in the Kentucky Derby, the same level of experience Street Sense and Hard Spun had when beating Curlin on the first Saturday in May.

It’s more about the competition. Curlin and Bodemeister (second in 2012) were forced to settle for placings behind top-class opponents, but circumstances may have been ripe for a breakthrough if they had come along in 2005 when Afleet Alex failed to fire and pair of slow longshots (Giacomo and Closing Argument) duked it out through a glacial final furlong. I like to think they could’ve beaten the fields Big Brown (2008) and California Chrome (2014) faced.

Perhaps Justify’s rivals won’t keep moving forward and he can finally snap one of the most imposing trends in all of sports. I remain dubious but will keep an open mind heading into the final round of prep races.

Gotham

Enticed revived his Kentucky Derby hopes posting a 2 ¾-length decision in the Gotham, rallying to overhaul front-running Old Time Revival in deep stretch of the one-turn mile event at Aqueduct. He looked sharp in the final furlong and registered an excellent 104 BRIS Speed rating, but Enticed received a plum outside trip he seems to desire and wasn’t hurt by ground loss at the one-turn mile distance.

Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, the Godolphin homebred son of Medaglia d’Oro resented being inside in his first two starts, behaving rankly in traffic recording a maiden win and a third in the Champagne (G1), and jockey Junior Alvarado kept Enticed off the rail and in a forward position en route to his narrow victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs in late November.

The Gotham was held about 10 minutes after the Tampa Bay Derby and Enticed became the fourth runner from the Kentucky Jockey Club to win a Kentucky Derby qualifier, joining third-placer Promises Fulfilled (Fountain of Youth), seventh-placer Quip (Tampa Bay Derby) and 10th-placer Bravazo (Risen Star).

The victory had to be sweet for Alvarado, who was replaced by Joel Rosario in the February 3 Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, but Enticed drew the rail and was compromised by an inside trip rather than pilot error posting a well-beaten fourth as the 9-5 favorite in his seasonal debut. The dark bay colt received a career-best 95 BRIS Late Pace number winning the Gotham under wraps, with Alvarado gearing down his mount as soon as he struck the front, but Enticed was kept widest of all the entire way without a straw in his path.

With his running style, traffic issues are a staple of the 20-horse Kentucky Derby and Enticed must be able to handle being stuck inside of horses to prosper. I don’t want to see another outside trip where he has clear sailing in the final prep.

Laurel shipper Old Time Revival outperformed 35-1 odds, finishing four lengths clear of third as he recorded a second consecutive runner-up stakes effort, but the need-the-lead type appears to favor one-turn distances.

Free Drop Billy and Firenze Fire didn’t appear ready for prime time finishing up the track in third and fourth, respectively, and any enthusiasm surrounding their Kentucky Derby chances has dimmed.

Tampa Bay Derby

Quip tracked moderate splits and wore down pacesetter World of Trouble in the stretch of the Tampa Bay Derby, earning his first stakes victory with a one-length tally. Overlooked at 19-1 in his first start since a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Jockey Club, the front-running son of Distorted Humor has now won three of four career starts for trainer Rudolphe Brisset and regular rider Florent Geroux was up.

He will add more speed to the Kentucky Derby line-up. Front-running types Promises Fulfilled (52 points) and Bravazo (54) are also well-positioned, and Snapper Sinclair (22) and Strike Power (20) will be looking to cement a berth in the final prep.

After concluding 2017 with a declining set of BRIS Speed ratings (88-86-84), Quip turned things around with a 98 Speed. But the overall quality of the Tampa Bay Derby field is in doubt and Flameaway arguably outperformed the winner, closing fast for second after a terrible start.

World of Trouble held third in his first two-turn start but his future appears to be in sprints. Vino Rosso came up empty adding blinkers for Todd Pletcher, winding up about five lengths back of third. I still like the Curlin colt’s long-term potential but Vino Rosso took a step back in the clunker.

Europeans

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Mendelssohn, a half-brother to Grade 1 main track scorers Beholder and Into Mischief, switched from turf to Polytrack for the March 9 Patton Stakes at Dundalk, Ireland and rallied up the inside to win going away by about a length. The one-mile event should provide valuable fitness for the Aidan O’Brien trainee and the U.A.E. Derby (G2) on March 31 will provide a better gauge upon his Kentucky Derby prospects.

Mendelssohn is by Scat Daddy, who is also represented by Justify and Combatant this year.

Kempton Park, England hosted a European Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier on March 7 and Gronkowski offered a sustained late run to prove best. By turf sire Lonhro, Gronkowski has some dirt influences in his female family, with his dam being a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Flashy Bull, and trainer Jeremy Noseda plans to prep the English-based colt in either the Blue Grass (G2) or Wood Memorial (G2).

As Bold Arrangement proved back in the mid-1980s, parlaying a third in the Blue Grass at Keeneland into a runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby (he’s wearing the roses if Shoemaker doesn’t get through making a daring inside move aboard Ferdinand in upper stretch), the best chance for a European-based horse to win the Kentucky Derby is to ship over for a prep race.

I don’t know whether Gronkowski will prove good enough, but kudos to Noseda for utilizing the proper strategy.

Up Next

Solomini will be the last big name from 2017 to open his 3-year-old campaign when he returns in Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park. The 1 1/16-mile test offers a total of 85 points to the top four finishers (50-20-10-5 scale) and Solomini was last seen outfinishing McKinzie by about a length in the December 9 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). He’s trained by Baffert, who has won six of the last eight runnings of the Rebel.

Solomini was disqualified and placed third for interfering with another rival in his juvenile finale but I liked how the evolving Curlin colt displayed push-button acceleration for the first time, dropping back to last on the backstretch after racing forwardly when second in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and FrontRunner. The chestnut colt was still growing into his massive frame last year and I’m buying Solomini’s stock heading into the Rebel.

His main rivals include Combatant and Sporting Chance, second and third in the February 19 Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn; and Curlin’s Honor and Magnum Moon, a pair of unbeaten colts making their first stakes appearance for Mark Casse and Pletcher, respectively.

Turfway Park’s centerpiece event, the $200,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) (formerly the Spiral), drew a contentious field of 12 for 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack and offers a total of 24 points (20-8-4-2). Pletcher ship in the pair of Hazit and Pony Up, and the top three from the local John Battaglia Memorial – Magicalmeister, Sky Promise and Arawak – are all back.

Kentucky Derby Top 20

  1. SOLOMINI: Returns in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes
  2. BOLT D’ORO: Broke well in impressive San Felipe comebacker
  3. GOOD MAGIC: 2yo champ built upon losses last fall
  4. MCKINZIE: Tough as nails outfinishing Bolt in San Felipe
  5. JUSTIFY: Inexperienced but supremely talented
  6. AUDIBLE: Holy Bull romper headed to Florida Derby
  7. CATHOLIC BOY: Expecting an improved finishing kick in final prep
  8. ENTICED: Rebounded nicely in Gotham
  9. COMBATANT: Three consecutive seconds in qualifiers
  10. TITLE READY: Allowance romper tries stakes company in Rebel
  11. INSTILLED REGARD: Looks to rebound after flat Risen Star
  12. SPORTING CHANCE: Eligible to show more in Rebel for Lukas
  13. PROMISES FULFILLED: Fountain of Youth upsetter adds speed
  14. MY BOY JACK: Southwest scorer moves up on a wet track
  15. MENDELSSOHN: U.A.E. Derby next for recent Polytrack stakes winner
  16. MAGNUM MOON: Unraced juvenile makes stakes debut in Rebel
  17. STRIKE POWER: Handled two turns finishing second in Fountain of Youth
  18. CURLIN’S HONOR: Brings 2-for-2 mark into Rebel
  19. BRAVAZO: Risen Star upsetter will be back for Louisiana Derby
  20. QUIP: Secured a berth in Tampa Bay Derby upset