Saturday’s $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) is the focal point of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby scoring races.
The UAE Derby (G2) is worth the same, monetarily and points-wise with a 100-40-20-10 structure, but it probably won’t have as big an impact on the trail. Sunday’s $500,000 Sunland Park Derby (G3), offering points on the 50-20-10-5 format, shapes up as the right rebound spot for a certain notable contender.
Here are my points to ponder:
1. Will Epicenter get his trip from the Risen Star – or the Lecomte?
Epicenter has run roughshod over two of the Fair Grounds preps, the Dec. 26 Gun Runner S. and Feb. 19 Risen Star (G2), making him the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the Louisiana Derby. The Steve Asmussen pupil will justify those cramped odds if he gets into his comfort zone on the early pace. But if he’s forced to go a bit quicker, it can tell on him late, as in the intervening race – the Jan. 22 Lecomte (G3), when Call Me Midnight mugged him on the line.
There are a couple of ways to interpret his chances of dictating terms as he pleases Saturday, exemplified by my colleague James Scully’s and my diverging views in the TwinSpires.com Roundtable. From a Brisnet Speed figure perspective, Epicenter is capable of getting loose on the lead. On the other hand, the draw can influence race dynamics. Two horses inside of Epicenter could show speed to secure position, especially Zozos (post 2 with Florent Geroux) and to a lesser extent Kupuna (post 5). And toward the outside, Galt (post 8) has early foot if he wants to use it.
It wouldn’t take an actual speed duel to make Epicenter hit the accelerator a fraction more; indeed, he’d cleared in the Lecomte by the half in :47.01. The key to the Risen Star was his half in :47.97. The opening quarter (:23.40 versus :23.79) and six-furlong fractions (1:12.16 versus 1:12.25) were similar. Over the longer 1 3/16-mile trip of the Louisiana Derby, even slight differentials can be magnified for a free-wheeling colt.
2. How much has Rattle N Roll improved from the Fountain of Youth?
Trainer Ken McPeek was open about the fact that the Fountain of Youth (G2) was simply a starting point for Rattle N Roll, who would need the run to bring him on fitness-wise. And for a confirmed closer, 1 1/16 miles around Gulfstream Park wouldn’t have played to his strengths anyway, ring-rusty or not. Rattle N Roll ran pretty much as you’d expect in the circumstances, passing a couple of rivals to check in a non-threatening sixth.
Now comes a truer test of Rattle N Roll’s Kentucky Derby ambitions. The grandson of Curlin and Johannesburg hinted of Derby quality with his bold move in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Granted, a fast pace gave him the ideal set-up, but he took ruthless advantage. He’d obviously want Epicenter to be pressed early, or made to work to scamper ahead. But even if Epicenter gets away with ease, Rattle N Roll can advance his Derby candidacy by rallying for a strong placing, much as stablemate Smile Happy did in the Risen Star.
3. Will Sunland or Dubai have Derby ramifications?
The winner at Sunland and on Dubai World Cup Day at Meydan will each have plenty of points, so both preps can affect the composition of the Kentucky Derby field. Meaningful ramifications for the Derby picture, though, will vary.
Sunland favorite Slow Down Andy should have the measure of his opponents, and the addition of blinkers figures to help him express it on the racetrack. It’s clever of his connections – trainer Doug O’Neill and Reddam Racing – to pick a softer spot to bank the points, after his disappointment in the Risen Star. The homebred son of Nyquist is clearly better than that, as his upset of Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) indicates. Not that he could beat Messier again right now, but Slow Down Andy has the ability to reassert himself on the trail.
The UAE Derby has not been a productive Kentucky Derby prep historically, and Saturday’s field probably doesn’t have any game-changers. Yet it would be instructive if Gilded Age, the Withers (G3) third, jumps up. The Bill Mott trainee would give Withers winner Early Voting yet another form boost, in a similar two-turn event. Gilded Age has upside himself, as a Medaglia d’Oro blueblood who broke his maiden stylishly at Churchill Downs, but he’d still have something to prove back home.
Early UAE Derby favorite Pinehurst was runner-up to Forbidden Kingdom in his last stateside start in the San Vicente (G2), at seven furlongs. Pinehurst paid him a compliment when coming back to land the Saudi Derby (G3) around a one-turn mile. But the about 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby is a different type of contest, and if Pinehurst fails to deliver (as I suspect), it wouldn’t reflect on Forbidden Kingdom.