By J.J. Hysell
With the promising field in Saturday’s Grade 2 Holy Bull and several intriguing allowance races across the country, the Kentucky Derby picture should be more in focus by Monday.
The key word here is “should,” as occasionally surprises in these January races can throw Derby watch lists into disarray.
On Friday, all eyes will be on the fifth race at Fair Grounds as Unknown Road, a son of Bernardini trained by Al Stall, returns for his third start. He drew attention with his 11-length romp over the surface to break his maiden in December. Prior to that, he was second to Coup de Grace, who is entered in Saturday’s Holy Bull. His performance could shed some light on what to expect from Coup de Grace Saturday. Also, Unknown Road is stretching out from six furlongs to 1 mile and 70 yards. The half-brother of outstanding filly Banshee Breeze won on the front end last time out, but also rated well behind Coup de Grace. It will be interesting to see what running style Shaun Bridgmohan implements in the field of six.
Stall also entered stablemate Purple Sky, who has yet to run back to that impressive run in his second start at Churchill Downs. Note that Rosie Napravnik is aboard for the first time. Robby Albarado, aboard Purple Sky in his previous races, gets on Interchange, a stakes-placed Delaware Park shipper coming off a long layoff.
At Santa Anita Friday, Dance With Fate, eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, makes his 3-year-old debut in an allowance race on turf (race 2). Also interesting to note is I’ll Wrap it Up, fourth in the Sham, makes short turnaround and returns to turf for Doug O’Neill. Not a race with Derby implications, but should be a fun one to watch.
The best Derby prep field assembled so far this season is featured in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull at Gulfstream.
Coup de Grace is a colt loaded with story lines. The son of Tapit, trained by Chad Brown and campaigned by Fox Hill Farm, will try two turns for the first time and will make his run from the rail. Jockey John Velazquez will be aboard, set to ride Saturday for the first time since he was injured in a spill at the Breeders’ Cup. In both of his wins he’s been on the front end, so tactics will be key here. If he’s pushed back and forced to rate, how he performs would be even more telling. His pedigree suggests his top is 1 1/16-1 1/8 and his dosage index is 2.47. How Unknown Road performs in Friday’s allowance at Fair Grounds could also serve as an early indicator.
Financial Mogul ran his best race when forced to come from very far off the pace in the Nashua. He made up substantial ground to finish second to Cairo Prince, who is also entered here. “He’s not ready for the best race of his life, but hopefully this will move him forward and show that he belongs, and keep dancing the bigger dances,” trainer Rick Violette said. Violette also noted his last breeze was “fabulous.” The long layoff for the son of Street Boss is the concern. His lone win was in the slop, but he ran a strong race on a fast track in the Nashua. Interesting pedigree is sprint/turf heavy on sire side but features Snow Chief as dam sire. Snow Chief won the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Preakness Stakes en route to being named champion 3-year-old in 1986. Financial Mogul’s dosage is 1.86.
Best Plan Yet is a Florida-bred son of Hear No Evil who is a stakes winner and is 2 for 2 at this distance. He was quite consistent until his ninth-place finish in his first try over the surface, the Gulfstream Park Derby. He could play a role in this race, but his pedigree is all sprint, his dosage is 4.60 and moving forward he’s not a Kentucky Derby contender.
Almost Famous, scratched the day of the Kentucky Jockey Club with a stone bruise, has healed and he’s won at this distance. He’s intriguing as his debut was jaw-dropping to see live and he’s been able to carry his speed in two of three starts so far. The layoff could be a concern here, and his pedigree is middle distance, but he shouldn’t be discounted as a Derby contender. The son of Unbridled’s Song has a dosage of 3.40. He’s one of two Derby hopefuls for Calvin Borel, who also rides Ride on Curlin.
Our Caravan is by In the Money Sire to Watch Daaher, who won the Jerome and Cigar Mile. This Michael Dilger trainee is jumping up to a tough task after a debut win at this distance. The pedigree boasts stamina on the sire side and is mostly sprint on the dam side; dosage of 3.00.
The revelation of Mr. Speaker on dirt is one of the top storylines of the race. He’s been superb on turf in his last two races, is a Grade 3 winner and has the look of a serious route runner. The Shug McGaughey trainee can go to the lead or come from off the pace. The son of Pulpit, out of the mare Salute, who is out of champ Personal Ensign, has a pedigree suited for dirt and his works indicate he can handle it as well. Interesting he’s a May colt but already is well-developed. His dosage is 3.71; Orb’s was 3.21. Definite Derby contender if he can handle dirt in his face.
So how good is Honor Code? Some help with that question might be provided by the performance of his rival, Cairo Prince, who surrendered to him late in the Remsen. This Pioneerof the Nile colt hasn’t shown many flaws, including handling a wide post with aplomb in the Nahua. He had one “off” work at Palm Meadows, but rebounded with two bullets. Hard to find fault with him – even with the layoff, as trainer Kiaran McLaughlin can bring them back ready. New sire Pioneerof the Nile has emerged as a multi-surface sire and he boasts Holy Bull himself as a dam sire. What’s puzzling is the daunting 7.00 dosage figure.
Wicked Strong will also deliver a gauge on the quality of the Remsen. He was a solid closing third in that 1 1/8-mile test and he switches to jockey Javier Castellano, who must never be discounted at Gulfstream. Hard Spun progeny have excelled more at middle distances, but the Charismatic line on the dam side is appealing. His dosage is 2.27.
After a dramatic fade to last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Conquest Titan returned with one of the best performances of a 2-year-old in 2013 in an allowance at Churchill Downs. His last-to-first rally was truly a rare spectacle, considering his stumble at the start and how he had to maneuver through traffic. Interesting comments from trainer Mark Casse about this Birdstone colt’s running style: he is better coming from off the pace, so look for that tactic here from Shaun Bridgmohan. Birdstone progeny can be quirky, but a solid performance from this colt will vault him to the top spot in the Derby rankings. The question is if he can switch that turn of foot to this Gulfstream surface. His dosage is 2.43.
Woodbine-based Katerina Vassilieva brings longshot Big Bazinga, who faltered in his first start on dirt in the Delta jackpot. The son of Bluegrass Cat has yet to replicate his eye-catching debut in synthetic. He has superb turf breeding on the dam side. His dosage is 3.00.
The lone Todd Pletcher entry, Intense Holiday, drew the far outside post of the 12-horse field. He raced frequently to close out his juvenile season, competing in three graded stakes in a two month period. The son of Harlan’s Holiday’s lone win was leading start to finish, and because of post position, jockey Joel Rosario will likely need to hustle him up to the pace. On the post, Starlight’s Dan Lucarelli said: “Hopefully this will make him get more involved early and see from that standpoint what he can do.” Harlan’s Holiday progeny tend to do well as juveniles and up to 1 1/16 miles, but there’s a drop off when they stretch out beyond that. His dosage is 3.80.
Prior to the Holy Bull, Gulfstream offers three dirt races for 3-year-old colts and geldings, including an anticipated allowance route. The fourth race, at 1 1/16-miles, features one of Shug McGaughey’s top 3-year-olds, Top Billing, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Surfing U S A. Top Billing got a solid education in his last-out loss to Commissioner at 1 1/8 miles and needs to establish himself as a stakes horse here. Surfing U S A is a legitimate threat despite the fact the son of Roman Ruler is stretching out from seven furlongs. Pletcher also entered Mike Repole’s Monopolize, a $500,000 son of Bernardini who won a solid race at Aqueduct and shouldn’t be overlooked. Hesinfront is a War Front trying dirt for the first time as is Rockford, who has a keen turf pedigree but has trained very well on dirt for new conditioner Bill Mott.
In the sixth race, a mile maiden test, trainer Michael Matz unveils the brother of speedy Reneesgotzip in L.A. Freeway. Woodfield Springs is a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass and he’s trying dirt for the first time after a promising debut on turf.
In the third race, Todd Pletcher continues to unveil his tough Tapit 3-year-olds with Anchor Down, a half-brother of Sweet Lulu.
At Santa Anita Saturday, the California Cup Derby features Tamarando, the Del Mar Futurity and Real Quiet Stakes winner trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. He was listed at 40-1 in the most recent Wynn’s Las Vegas Derby Futures.