Many stakes-winning juveniles have waited until March to open their three-year-old campaigns and a growing sense of anticipation surrounds the next two weekends as major Kentucky Derby prospects will return in the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream and San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita.
Saturday’s Fountain of Youth is up first and features the reappearance of Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Signalman and unbeaten Grade 3 victor Vekoma. On March 9, Bob Baffert will bring back top-ranked contenders Game Winner and Improbable in a star-studded San Felipe that is also expected to have Instagrand.
Baffert likes to ship and typically splits up his top Kentucky Derby contenders at this time of year. And that’s why it was so surprising to learn he planned to run the Grade 1-winning stablemates against each other in the San Felipe. I assumed Baffert would send one (most likely Improbable) to Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Rebel (G2) on March 16, the same race two-year-old champions and eventual classic winners American Pharoah and Lookin at Lucky launched their stellar three-year-old campaigns, and the recent decision made me wonder whether Baffert lacks confidence in either individual.
This barn loves the Oaklawn route, with the five-time Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner winning six of the 23 qualifying races since the inception of the points system in 2013 and a record six editions of the Rebel, but Baffert’s been conspicuously absent from the first two Arkansas qualifiers this year (Smarty Jones and Southwest). Robert B. Lewis (G3) winner Mucho Gusto has been the only trainee to make an impact in a 2019 points race and remains under consideration for the Rebel, but he’s certainly not held in the same esteem as a Game Winner or Improbable presently.
Baffert had options with Dessman and Roadster and elected to enter them in an entry-level allowance at Santa Anita Friday. The one-mile event has also attracted Nolo Contesto, a smart maiden winner who was scratched from the February 2 Lewis due to sloppy conditions, and it arguably came up tougher than most of the Kentucky Derby qualifiers so far this year.
But with only seven weekends of prep races remaining in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, Friday’s allowance participants will have little margin for error as they attempt to qualify.
Signalman brings the best credentials into the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. A rallying third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the Kenny McPeek-trained colt exits a neck victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. He showed good tactical speed overcoming a tricky rail post in a 14-horse field last time and Brian Hernandez will be up on the hard-trying son of General Quarters.
The 2017 edition of the Kentucky Jockey Club produced six stakes winners the following winter/spring (Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Reride, Quip, Bravazo and Diamond King), but the 13 rivals Signalman defeated have combined to produce an ignominious 0-for-16 record since the late November race.
Vekoma posted a pair of convincing wins last fall, including the one-mile Nashua (G3) at Aqueduct, and the Candy Ride colt shows a five-furlong bullet work in preparation for George Weaver. Other runners with stakes experience include Everfast, runner-up at 128-1 odds in the February 2 Holy Bull (G2); and Bourbon War, who will return to stakes company off a strong allowance win on January 18.
Global Campaign, a son of Curlin and half-brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro, will make his stakes debut following a pair of comfortable maiden and allowance wins at Gulfstream. And Hidden Scroll will compete for favoritism following a superb 14-length debut maiden win on the Pegasus World Cup undercard.
Hidden Scroll will have doubters – the Hard Spun colt led wire to wire over a sloppy track at a one-turn mile – but I came away impressed by how the well-bred colt toyed with the competition, traveling wide most of the way after showing speed from the innermost post. I remember how Big Brown came out of nowhere in March 2008, winning an off-the-turf allowance by 12 3/4 lengths at a one-turn mile in his first start since taking a turf maiden race at Saratoga, and registered a 102 BRIS Speed rating.
Hidden Scroll also netted a 102 Speed figure, a number that stands out among Kentucky Derby hopefuls this year, and I’m tabbing the Bill Mott trainee on Saturday.
Other three-year-olds of interest
Here are some three-year-olds from last week who could be headed to a Kentucky Derby qualifier:
Maximum Security made short work of five starter allowance foes on February 20, showing speed from the break and drawing away sharply to an 18 ¼-length decision, and the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) on March 30 is next for the exciting sophomore. “It’s all Maximum Security in a powerhouse run” is how track announcer Pete Aiello described it and it’s been a rapid ascent for Maximum Security, who was available for a $16,000 maiden claiming tag about two months earlier. Owner/breeder Gary and Mary West and trainer Jason Servis were fortunate the bay colt wasn’t haltered from his December 20 debut performance, a 9 3/4-length win at Gulfstream, and Maximum Security followed with a 6 1/2-length triumph over starter allowance foes at six furlongs a month later. He improved to three-for-three while stretching out to seven panels in this spot and his BRIS Speed ratings have risen nicely (94-96-100). Two turns remains a question mark but he’s bred for added ground. From the first crop of champion two-year-old New Year’s Day, a son of Street Cry, Maximum Security hails from Lil Indy, a daughter of the A.P. Indy stallion Anasheed and a half-sister to two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner Flat Out. Maximum Security has posted a pair of wire-to-wire victories and the up-and-comer displayed good tractability winning his second start from just off the pace.
In the Loop determinedly graduated at first asking, turning back a challenge from 8-5 favorite Where Lays Paradise to prevail by a neck in a six-furlong maiden special weight on February 23. The chestnut colt was hustled from the gate by leading rider Irad Ortiz Jr. but didn’t make the front, tracking in second before offering a bid on the far turn. He emerged with a short lead in upper stretch but Where Paradise Lays loomed a serious threat as he advanced to even terms with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. In the Loop gamely proved best, with the next three finishers spread out behind the top two, and earned a solid 90 Speed rating. The Super Saver colt gained valuable experience and while his pedigree looks a little speedy, he’s from a classy female family. Jorge Duarte Jr. trains for Colts Neck Stables.
Spinoff returned from a 194-day layoff with an 11 3/4-length thrashing of entry-level allowance opponents on February 22. Last seen finishing third in the Saratoga Special (G2) in August, the Hard Spun colt stretched out to two turns for Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez was in to ride the Wertheimer and Frere homebred. Spinoff established a forward position before settling just off the speed in a four-horse field, wrested the advantage from the pacesetter nearing the conclusion of the far turn and came under a ride entering stretch as another rival momentarily threatened. The chestnut colt responded to challenge, spectacularly drawing off over the final furlong, and received a 93 BRIS Speed rating. He’s out of the Grade 1-winning Zaftig, a daughter of Gone West and half-sister to Grade 1 winner Zo Impressive. Both come from the Grade 1-winning Cozzene mare Zoftig. Pletcher has won a record five editions of the Florida Derby, including four of the last five, and the March 30 race rates as a logical option for Spinoff.
Steve Asmussen waited until February 24 to unveil Pyron and the Candy Ride colt did not disappoint in a six-furlong maiden special weight. Owned and bred by Winchell Thoroughbreds, Pyron was asked for run at the break by Ricardo Santana Jr. and advanced three-wide into contention on the far turn. The chestnut entered the stretch clinging to a short lead, and with a host of rivals on both sides, and had to repulse a stiff challenge from runner-up and 8-5 favorite Golden Notion to score by about a length. Pyron registered a 92 BRIS Speed rating and descends from the female family of Grade 1 winners Untapable, Paddy O’Prado, Tapizar, Olympio and Pyro.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
1. IMPROBABLE: Top billing heading into San Felipe
2. GAME WINNER: San Felipe won’t be easy spot for 2yo champ’s return
3. HIDDEN SCROLL: Impressive debut winner tests mettle in Fountain of Youth
4. COUNTRY HOUSE: Plenty of upside for Risen Star runner-up
5. WAR OF WILL: Flashy winner of Risen Star and Lecomte at Fair Grounds
6. VEKOMA: Unbeaten Nashua scorer tries two turns in Fountain of Youth
7. BOURBON WAR: Fountain of Youth next for sharp Gulfstream allowance winner
8. GUNMETAL GRAY: His late kick could prove effective at some point
9. SIGNALMAN: Kentucky Jockey Club hero back for Fountain in Youth
10. MAXIMUM SECURITY: Exciting colt faces class and distance check in Florida Derby