An intense speed duel and a dramatic stretch drive were the key storylines in Sunday’s thrilling renewal of the $500,000 Sunland Park Derby (G3) at Sunland Park, a Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier awarding 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers.
Eight horses faced the starter, with Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Slow Down Andy favored at 6-5 to defeat local Mine That Bird Derby hero and 8-5 second choice Straight Up G. From the moment the gates opened, these two talented horses locked horns, blazing along on the lead through fractions of :22.30, :45.35, and 1:09.54 while opening a daylight lead over their rivals.
One of the two had to crack, and the one to give way was Straight Up G, who began to fade in the final three furlongs. This left Slow Down Andy with a slim advantage, but the favorite was quickly confronted by the rallying Bye Bye Bobby, fresh off a runner-up effort in the Mine That Bird Derby and threatening to capitalize on the early speed duel.
Bye Bye Bobby appeared to have the winning momentum, but drifted very wide off the final turn and even wider in early stretch, providing Slow Down Andy with an opportunity to battle back. This Slow Down Andy did, despite drifting inward sharply under right-handed urging from jockey Mario Gutierrez. The two colts came closer together through the stretch drive, but Slow Down Andy never wavered and turned back the challenge of Bye Bye Bobby to win by half a length.
The pace understandably decelerated sharply through the final three furlongs, which elapsed in :40.62 seconds to produce a final time of 1:50.16 for 1 1/8 miles. But no one could keep pace with the top two finishers down the homestretch, and Bye Bye Bobby pulled 8 1/2 lengths clear of third-place finisher Pepper Spray. Fowler Blue, Chrome King, Costa Terra, and Straight Up G trailed the field. Classic Moment was pulled up in the stretch and vanned off.
Bred and owned by Reddam Racing, Slow Down Andy is trained by Doug O’Neill, who has twice teamed up with Reddam Racing and Gutierrez to win the Kentucky Derby. Coincidentally, one of those wins came courtesy of Nyquist, the sire of Slow Down Andy.
O’Neill, Gutierrez, and Reddam Racing will likely seek a third Kentucky Derby success with Slow Down Andy. The chestnut colt has accumulated 60 Kentucky Derby qualification points, virtually assuring him a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
The other feature race on Sunday at Sunland was the 1 1/16-mile Sunland Park Oaks, which—in stark contrast to the Sunland Derby—produced a massive upset. First, 9-5 second choice Queen of Thorns stumbled at the start and lost her rider. Then 7-5 favorite Optionality got caught up chasing destructive fractions of :21.35 and :46.28 set by runaway leader Manorelli.
The blazing tempo led to a pace meltdown in the homestretch. Manorelli, to her credit, led by three lengths passing the eighth pole and nearly maintained her advantage to the finish line. But an out-of-the-cloud rally from 79-1 longshot Cleopatras Charge proved sufficient to win the day.
Cleopatras Charge was in no hurry early under jockey Jorge Carreno; with just five-sixteenths of a mile remaining, she was racing in last place by 15 lengths. But Cleopatras Charge boldly gained seven lengths in the final furlong alone to win by three-quarters of a length over 35-1 shot and fellow deep closer Ali Alley, who edged Manorelli by a head for the runner-up spot.
Tyler’s Dream, who started at 45-1, finished half a length back in fourth place and completed a superfecta worth $12,604.50 for $1. Optionality settled for fifth place, followed by Cali, Miss Hard Knocks, Landslid, and Pumpkin Bread. Queen of Thorns did not finish.
The Sunland Park Oaks awards Kentucky Oaks qualification points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 basis, but since Cleopatras Charge, Ali Alley, and Tyler’s Dream aren’t currently nominated to the Kentucky Oaks, they’re ineligible to rank on the leaderboard. Thus, only Manorelli (10 points) officially joined the Road to the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, exiting the weekend in 22nd place.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Cleopatras Charge could be made a late Kentucky Oaks nominee prior to the April 16 deadline. The former claimer is on the rise for trainer Gary Cross and owner Samuel F. Henderson, and 50 qualification points would almost certainly place Cleopatras Charge in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate.