Audible and Mendelssohn fueled anticipation with powerful victories in the Florida Derby (G1) and U.A.E. Derby (G2). And with four major prep races remaining, a compelling Kentucky Derby is taking shape.
Audible distinguished himself by registering a 107 BRIS Speed rating, the top number among this year’s contenders, and became the third Todd Pletcher runner in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field along with Magnum Moon and Noble Indy. Handicappers must always account for Pletcher, who recorded his second win (Always Dreaming) and tied D. Wayne Lukas for the most all-time starters (48) last year.
Mendelssohn rolled to an 18 ½-length decision and shattered the track record making his first dirt start on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Owned by Coolmore and trained by Aidan O’Brien, who broke Bobby Frankel’s single-season record when posting 28 Grade/Group 1 wins last year, Irish-based Mendelssohn will be the most formidable international raider since Arazi, who finished eighth as the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1992.
A trio of major preps will be offered this weekend, including a celebrated match-up between Bolt d’Oro and Justify in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Keeneland’s Blue Grass (G2) holds a level of importance as 2-year-old champion Good Magic seeks to reinvigorate his prospects.
Audible was based at Belmont Park and being pointed toward New York-bred stakes in late December, but he emerged when shipping south to easily capture the February 3 Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park. The son of Into Mischief earned a 105 BRIS Speed rating for the 5 ½-length decision and backed it up with another superb win in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby.
John Velazquez replaced Javier Castellano, who opted to ride Dubai World Cup (G1) runner-up West Coast, and Audible dropped more than 10 lengths off the pace as a ridiculous pace duel developed up front between inside speed Strike Power and impossible-to-control Promises Fulfilled. The front-runners ran each other into ground establishing faster splits (:21.95 and :46.37) than the lone 6-furlong sprint on the undercard.
Audible was a wide fifth rounding the first turn and traveled well off the rail the rest of the way. He retreated a couple of spots to eighth of nine runners along the backstretch and advanced four-wide into the far turn. The bay colt had reached a threatening position by midway on the bend and overhauled Mississippi, who took to a short lead between calls, while straightening into the stretch.
Hofburg loomed the only threat with a quarter-mile remaining, rallying boldly to be only a length back in upper stretch, but Audible shook off the challenger in the final furlong and won going away by three lengths.
Audible has now won four straight and netted another excellent BRIS Late Pace rating (104) finishing full of run, his fourth triple-digit number from five starts.
It was odd to see him shut it down so quickly after the wire, turning his head sideways and angling toward the grandstand rail without galloping out into the first turn, but that seems to be Audible.
His workouts were panned in advance of the Holy Bull as unaccomplished stablemates outworked the talented colt, but Audible fooled observers who thought morning exercises would translate to the races. He’s displayed an uncanny temperament to perform only when it matters and looks primed for another strong showing in the Run for Roses.
Runner-up Hofburg ran big in his stakes debut, finishing nearly eight lengths clear of third, and likely guaranteed himself a berth with the 40-point prize. The Tapit colt was making only his third career start for Bill Mott, recording an unplaced finish at Saratoga last September and breaking his maiden at Gulfstream on March 3.
There’s plenty to like about his potential but inexperience rates as a legitimate concern in the first leg of the Triple Crown. From the last 100 years, Big Brown (2008) is the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby with three previous starts and Animal Kingdom (2011) represents the lone winner with four starts beneath him.
Third-placer Mississippi doesn’t have the points and could be pointed toward the Preakness (G1) by Mark Casse. Catholic Boy will receive a freshening and probably will be redirected to turf after bleeding in a well-beaten fourth.
Promises Fulfilled stamped his ticket with a wire-to-wire Fountain of Youth (G2) upset four weeks earlier and trainer Dale Romans said they plan to regroup and proceed to the Kentucky Derby after a last-place finish. And given his one-dimensional skills (never been headed at the first or second call in five career starts), Promises Fulfilled will be all-in from the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
The 1 3/16-mile U.A.E. Derby has never made an impact upon the Kentucky Derby but this year could be different. Despite meeting questionable competition and leading all the way over a speed-friendly Meydan track, Mendelssohn enhanced his profile delivering a scintillating performance.
He’s tractable with a high cruising speed and the ability to accelerate when called upon.
Given his main track pedigree (half to Beholder and Into Mischief), the Scat Daddy colt was under consideration to make his dirt debut in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last fall but O’Brien elected to keep him on turf. The decision worked out well as Mendelssohn rallied from just off the pace to score by a length and the bay colt came back this year with a narrow win in a one-mile Polytrack race at Dundalk (Ireland) on March 9.
He elevated his game on Saturday, stylishly stretching out past a mile for the first time on a new surface, and fitness won’t be a concern like it was for previous runners from the O’Brien yard. The world-renowned conditioner snubbed his nose at American training methods with past participants, electing to send Johannesburg (8th), Castle Gandolfo (12th), Master of Hounds (5th), Daddy Long Legs (DNF) and Lines of Battle (7th) to Churchill Downs off only a single prep, but won’t make the same mistake this year.
Mendelssohn has never dealt with kickback and must work out the proper trip on May 5, but he’s got a viable chance to become the first European-trained Kentucky Derby winner.
The Santa Anita Derby features an exciting match-up between Bolt d’Oro and Justify. The former ranks as the most distinguished member of the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard while the latter is a perceived up-and-coming superstar who needs points in his stakes debut.
With no confirmed front-runners in the seven-horse field, Justify has a tactical advantage with his natural speed and I’ll be surprised if he isn’t showing the way from the start. I don’t know whether a wire-to-wire victory benefits him in terms of the Kentucky Derby, but it’s the most likely outcome in my estimation.
I expect an improved showing from Instilled Regard, who faltered as the favorite in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, and the Arch colt will add more depth to the Kentucky Derby line-up if he runs well from just off the pace.
Good Magic easily heads the Blue Grass morning line at 2-1, with an exposed Free Drop Billy listed as the 5-1 second choice in a 14-horse field, and anything less than a win would be disappointing. I’ll make a case for 30-1 outsiders Gotta Go and Zing Zang underneath.
Gotta Go caught the eye recording a fast-closing second in the Swale (G3) two back and I didn’t like the trip in the Fountain of Youth (G2) last time as the juvenile stakes winner raced up close between horses before coming up empty; look for him to offer one sustained run on Saturday. Zing Zang experienced a less-than-ideal journey in all three stakes attempts this year and I’m still a little intrigued by the Tapit colt’s late kick; he moves to an inside post after being stuck outside in recent outings.
Enticed, who captured the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs last fall, will be the one to beat in the Wood Memorial following a sharp score in the one-mile Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct. He rebounded from an unplaced effort in the Holy Bull where he never looked comfortable experiencing an inside trip, registering a 104 BRIS Speed rating for the 2 ¾-length Gotham tally, but the Medaglia d’Oro colt was kept in the clear throughout from an outside post.
I want to see Enticed handle some adversity from post 5 on Saturday.
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- BOLT D’ORO: Santa Anita Derby showdown against Justify
- GOOD MAGIC: Blue Grass an important test for 2yo champ
- AUDIBLE: Heads to Kentucky off strong win in Florida Derby
- MENDELSSOHN: Dynamic winner of U.A.E. Derby in dirt debut
- SOLOMINI: Improved showing needed in Arkansas Derby
- JUSTIFY: Unbeaten sensation tries stakes company in Santa Anita Derby
- MAGNUM MOON: Rebel winner the one to beat in Arkansas Derby
- HOFBURG: Clear second making stakes debut in Florida Derby
- MY BOY JACK: Closer may need Arkansas Derby for points
- INSTILLED REGARD: Looks to rebound in Santa Anita Derby
- NOBLE INDY: Front-running winner of Louisiana Derby
- ENTICED: Gotham winner heads Wood Memorial
- COMBATANT: Must step up in Arkansas Derby
- FLAMEAWAY: Enters Blue Grass off troubled Tampa Bay Derby second
- QUIP: Blue Grass for Tampa Bay Derby upsetter
- RUNAWAY GHOST: New Mexico shipper in good form
- GRONKOWSKI: Unorthodox path to Derby starting gate
- LONE SAILOR: Late runner faces serious class test
- PROMISES FULFILLED: Speedball retreated to last in Florida Derby
- BRAVAZO: Louisiana Derby clunker inspires little confidence