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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 24, 2014 at 12:00 AM

PREPPING FOR THE DERBY — 2014
Volume V…Number 11
Monday, March 24, 2014
A MONDAY LOOK IN
Derby TOP 10 Update Top Point Earners and a Few Notes

California Chrome Continues to Hold Top Spot on Hurley’s Derby Top 10

As we said last week when posting the first of the year, it is almost obligatory that sooner or later any serious analyst compile his or her TOP 10 KENTUCKY DERBY CONTENDER LIST. That the prospects of the horses included on this list are subject to the vagaries of horse racing’s every changing dynamics is irrelevant. Speculating well in advance is part of the process.

With that in mind here is the next and slightly amended edition of the TOP 10 of 2014. And now that we have reached the serious preps and a number of runners have stepped up their game I can no longer draw as definitive a line between Top Prospects and Sleepers so below is the overall TOP 10 with some brief commentary on sleepers below that.

CALIFORNIA CHROME — Despite what were nothing short of dominant back-to-back victories in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park on December 22 and the Cal Cup Derby on January 25 the pundits still held out. After all they said, he has only beaten restricted California breds, let’s see what he does when he faces solid open company foes in the San Felipe Stakes. Well, the pundits might have held out but the public didn’t and they sent the son of Lucky Pulpit off as the 7-5 favorite and the colt toyed with the field as he took command early and under a show of the whip, slight tap on the shoulder and long hold late was hand ridden to a 7 ¼ length victory in 1:40 2/5 for the mile and a sixteenth…after running 6 furlongs in 1:09 2/5! Trainer Art Sherman has said he might run the colt in the Santa Anita Derby next but his charge is still in light training and doing well and despite Hopportuniuty’s jump up and Tapiture’s grittiness in the Recent Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn there is no reason to move this guy off the top spot. In addition, as well as We Miss Artie showed in winning the Spiral Stakes at Turfway on Saturday and Chitu the Sunland Derby, neither of those was as impressive as this guy’s San Felipe win. Of course the pundits might now hold out that he isn’t bred to travel long, but two years ago there was the same conversation about a colt by the name of Bodemeister until that one won the Arkansas Derby and fell a length short of winning the Kentucky Derby in which had he done so following his blistering pace setting performance would have gone down as the greatest Derby performance since Secretariat. California Chrome is one serious race horse.

INTENSE HOLIDAY — He might not be the most glamorous of the Todd Pletcher runners, but his Risen Star victory was not only impressive but showcased a running style that is most conducive to what you look for in a Derby horse. The son of Harlan’s Holiday got the first quarter of the mile and a sixteenth test in :25 2/5, the second quarter in :24 4/5, the third quarter in :24 and the final 5/16ths in :30 4/5. That is the kind of tactical speed cruising style that any trainer hopes for in a Derby contender, especially when they are bred for the distance. We’ll know a lot more after his next start, which at this point appears to be the Louisiana Derby. The colt continues to work well as his half mile in :47 3/5 a few days ago indicates.

CAIRO PRINCE — Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Yes trainer Kieran McLaughlin plans to send the son of Pioneerof The Nile to the Derby lightly raced and there are still old time numbers of prep race and foundational adherents who suggest this might backfire. The colt, however, was the easiest of winners in his 2014 debut when he used the same cruising speed discussed above regarding Intense Holiday to dominate the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on January 25. Next he’ll run in the Florida Derby and then work for the 5 weeks leading up to the Derby. In recent years this pattern has been as successful as not with last year’s triumph by Orb a perfect example. He has proven to be an adaptable and aggressive runner who can respond to any pace setup and though Pioneerof The Nile might not scream 10 furlong breeding Cairo Prince hasn’t done anything yet to suggest he won’t get a distance of ground. Interestingly, his light schedule and having earned just 14 qualifying points to date means that an awful lot rides on his performance in the Florida Derby. Yes, that race this Saturday does provide 100 qualifying points to the winner and 40 to the second place finisher, but with many of the potential contenders still set for another high-point prep, as good as he has looked he probably needs to get first or second place money in the Florida Derby to have a comfortable margin.

SAMRAAT — By now you know that I consider New York to have taken its place in the upper echelon of Thoroughbred breeding states, falling only behind Kentucky and slightly behind Florida on the production scale. So can this New York bred turn out to be the next Funny Cide? Absolutely. What convinced me that this guy was the good was when he once again fought of Uncle Sigh and won the Gotham Stakes after beating that same tough opponent in the Withers in their prior. Given the conditioning angle, Uncle Sigh figured to move forward in the Gotham as he was much less conditioned when nosed by Samraat in the Withers. But the way in which Samraat dug in to prevail by a neck was impressive beyond the victory. He was challenged throughout, ran even :24 plus fractions and most dynamic of all was that jockey Jose Ortiz “never” went to the whip. He never even moved his hands aggressively. He let the colt do it all on his own, which is exactly what he has done in his undefeated 5 race career. With 60 qualifying points already in the bank he need only get foundational use out of his next out reunion battle with Uncle Sigh in the upcoming Wood Memorial and with Honor Code (who was going to return for the Wood now of the Derby Trail…see below) his final prep work in the Wood will likely be a lot less stressful and allow trainer Richard Violette to use the race as he best sees fit. Another Funny Cide? Why not?

HOPPORTUNITY — When I wrote up my preview for the Rebel Stakes a few weeks back I mentioned that this Bob Baffert trained son of Any Given Saturday could probably be forgiven his 4th place finish in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on 2/22. It was just his third career race straight off a MSW tally at Santa Anita and despite the clear win at a mile he had still raced greenly along the rail. And in the Risen Star he showed both his promise and his liabilities. In the mile and a sixteenth race he was once again a handful as he pulled hard while 3 wide on the first turn, moved out 4 wide on that turn, was eventually wrangled in and kept off the pace by jockey Martin Garcia until they hit the half mile pole at which time he asked Hopportunity for run only to go 5 wide on the far turn and 6 wide into the stretch and then drifted in as he continued to improve position without threatening. After the race I made note of what a handful he was yet how aggressive he seemed and if Baffert and Garcia could control that aggression he could move forward. Well, they didn’t completely control the aggression in the Rebel…but move forward he did. And that aggression served him well because despite being roughed up when Tapiture tried to muscle his way out in deep stretch Hopportunity held his position, took a number of bumps in the roughly run race and prevailed against some pretty well conditioned and experienced opponents in only his fourth career start. He’ll still need to move forward a little in his final Derby prep, wherever the suddenly loaded with prospects Bob Baffert sends him and will of course, not having run as a two-year old still have to overcome the dangling “Apollo Obstruction” but he deserves to be among the top ones at this point.

RING WEEKEND — He is still under the radar for a number of logical reasons. First and foremost is the fact that he needed five tries before he broke his maiden. Well break his maiden he did and step forward he did following that initial win by professionally dispatching a decent enough field in last Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. The Graham Motion trained son of the well-represented Tapit has definitely come to hand as a 3-year old and in fact got much better after being gelded last fall. Purists will find it troublesome that he still races greenly (had trouble switching leads in the Tampa Bay Derby win) but that he was so dominant last week despite that indicates the talent is there and the belief here is that Motion will continue to move him in the right direction.

UNCLE SIGH — It would seem something is amiss if I could like Samraat as much as I do and not find a place for this Withers and Gotham runner-up. In fact, seeing how he battled with In Trouble early on in the Gotham with Samraat sitting in the garden spot just to his outside the fact that he was once again beaten just a smidgeon by his two time conqueror he might have been best in that battle. It couldn’t help that Corey Nakatani was caught inside of Samraat and didn’t have the room to let loose or aggressively o to the whip. So if he is on par with Samraat, hasn’t yet run his best and being a son of Indian Charlie might have even better bloodlines to put him ahead the farther they travel, perhaps I’m underselling him by having him down here. Wouldn’t a Samraat/Uncle Sigh — Uncle Sigh/Samraat all New York bred Derby one-two finish be a story.

TAPITURE — You might think I’m giving away my selection for the Rebel takes by putting this ultra consistent son of Tapit on the list at the same time I am previewing the Oaklawn Derby Prep. But this colt is progressing so well in hand for trainer Steve Asmussen that for my purposes he doesn’t have to win the Rebel to remain on the list. In fact, it might even be helpful if the colt uses the mile and a sixteenth race as a means of learning to rate a step or two further off the pace or not get too caught up in a contentiously drawn out pace battle that takes something out of him. All that being said his tactical speed is a huge plus, he’s never run a bad race whether in synthetic or traditional dirt and besides Tapit on the male side has solid distance bloodlines in his female family. At this point he should be considered a viable candidate right until the first Saturday in may.

CANDY BOY — I did not have him on my initial list but given the recent performances by the California based 3-year olds (Hopportunity’s Rebel win and the one-two finishes by Chitu and Midnight Hawk in this past Sunday’s Sunland Derby) this guy must now be flattered and upgraded by association. He will attempt to solidify his standing when he goes up against California Chrome in the Grade 1 (100 Derby Qualifying Points to the Winner) Santa Anita Derby on April 5. As a recent drill indicates… 5 furlongs in :59 2/5 the second fastest of 40 works at the distance...he could not be sharper.  We’ll know a lot more about him after that next prep but his workmanlike victory over the aforementioned Chitu and Midnight Hawk in the Robert B. Lewis on February 8 was accomplished in a manner that exhibited solid cruising speed, mature finishing attitude and an on-track late kick that indicates he will cover more ground so there is no reason yet to be dissuaded by the inconclusiveness of what to expect from Candy Ride and In Excess bloodlines that usually produce better mile sprinters. As I said, we’ll no more following the Santa Anita Derby, although the tricky part of that race is the expected short field and his need for more qualifying points…currently only 10 from the Lewis Win. In a perfect world trainer John Sadler might want to strategize in the Santa Anita Derby as he preps for the Kentucky Derby but with the necessity of capturing at least the 40 points garnered by a second place performance in his final prep the first goal is to be there no matter what it takes. 

WILDCAT RED — I’m sure the same individuals that questioned whether the sprinter could handle two turns will now question whether he can get even further distances after his most impressive win in the Grade II Fountain Of Youth. They’ll likely also question the lack of visibility of the very able trainer Jose Garoffalo. All I know is that he answered the stretch out challenge by battling through a 1:10 flat 6 furlongs vs the more seasoned at a distance General A Rod, held that one at bay to prevail by a hard fought neck and left well regarded rivals such as Top Billing and Commissioner well behind. He might get short circuited going longer but all he does is win so he might not.

Also Worth a Look...

SOCIAL INCLUSION — After his dominating win in his debut and then equally overwhelming triumph when he demolished previously top tier contender Honor Code when he set the track record for a mile and a sixteenth in a one of those allowance races they’ve carded at Gulfstream the last few years for late developing Derby Nominated 3-year olds I could have easily put him in the TOP 10. Of course the son of Pioneerof The Nile now needs to get additional foundation and is reportedly up for sale so plans can’t even be evaluated. But…WOW!

GENERAL A ROD — He has proven to be versatile, tactical speed driven and has plenty of heart so there is no reason to suspect that the Mike Maker trained son of Roman Ruler won’t continue to move forward. Yes he will have to outrun breeding that says he is a mile speed horse but he does have the kind of stamina in his female line that actually has proven advantageous to recent-time Derby success. He has gotten it done at a number of different distances and on at least four different surfaces so adaptability is obviously a strong point.

VINCEREMOS — He might have finished well behind Ring Weekend in second in the Tampa Bay Derby in his most recent but the son of Pioneerof The Nile has two wins and two seconds in four career starts and might not yet have run his best. There are two things to like about him…he has a willingness to compete and is trained by Todd Pletcher who has a knack of getting them ready for their best at the right time.

CHITU — There will still be questions as to his distance capacity but the Sunland Derby was the first key prep to be run as far as a mile and an eighth and the son of mile speed sire Henny Hughes sure looked a lot more like his dam sire A. P. Indy as he dug in through the stretch and opened up through a final 3 furlongs in a credible :38 1/5 after battling for the lead through the first 6 furlongs in 1:09 3/5 and finished the race in 1:47 4/5 which was just 2/5ths off the track record for the distance.

RIDE ON CURLIN — I have to admit to be a bit perplexed by how this guy is coming along. There is no question that he was ultra-resilient in the Rebel as he did all the early dirty work in his pace battle with the well-regarded Strong Mandate and still hung around to finish third in the roughly run race. But that front running effort parlayed with a similar front effort in the Southwest begs the question of whether or not this hard trying colt might not be better running to his sire’s (Curlin) late kick…the style Ride On Curlin showed in rallying from well off the pace to get third in last year’s seminal Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont.

MIDNIGHT HAWK — I suppose that being he is trained by Bob Baffert and hasn’t been completely embarrassed by his conquerors in recent tries (he actually ran on longer than I thought he would when second behind Chitu in the Sunland Derby) he should be kept in the rear-view mirror, but the Sunland performance came just two weeks after he ran second in the San Felipe and four weeks after his third in the Robert B. Lewis. He’s gathering points but also tearing tread off the tires.

IN TROUBLE — His game third behind Samraat and Uncle Sigh in the Gotham have earned him another try at those two in the Wood Memorial and if he isn’t finished improving, who knows.

NOBLE MOON — Remember him. He was well regarded at the beginning of the season following his Jerome Stakes win but hasn’t been seen since, which sends up warning signals, and those he triumphed over in that race have done nothing but drop off the Derby Trail since so his next try, in the Wood Memorial, means he is essentially starting over again.

The Derby Trail Continues With the Florida Derby and UAE Derby This Weekend
Click Here For More Information

Moving Towards The Starting Gate — Top 25 Derby Qualifying Point Earners

Beginning this Saturday there are only 8 races left in which Derby Hopefuls can earn qualifying points for one of the 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

Saturday — 3/29 — Florida Derby — Gulfstream Park
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 3/29 — UAE Derby — Meydan Race Course
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 3/29 — Louisiana Derby — Fair Grounds
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 4/5 — Santa Anita Derby — Santa Anita
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 4/5 — Wood Memorial - Aqueduct Race Track
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 4/12 — Arkansas Derby — Oaklawn Park
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 4/12 — Blue Grass Stakes — Keeneland
First (100)…Second (40)…Third (20)…Fourth (10)
Saturday — 4/19 — Lexington Stakes — Keeneland
First (10)…Second (4)…Third (2)…Fourth (1)

Top 25 Point Earners As Of 3/24

We Miss Artie (60) — Todd Pletcher
Samraat (60) — Richard Violette
Hopportunity (55) — Bob Baffert
Chitu (54) — Bob Baffert
Intense Holiday (53) — Todd Pletcher
Midnight Hawk (52) — Bob Baffert
Wildcat Red (50) — Jose Garofalo
Ring Weekend (50) — Graham Motion
California Chrome (50) — Art Sherman
Tapiture (42) — Steve Asmussen
Albano (24) — Larry Jones
Uncle Sigh (24) — Gary Contessa
Vinceremos (20) — Todd Pletcher
Vicar’s In Trouble (20) — Mike Maker
Harry’s Holiday (20) — Mike Maker
General A Rod (20) — Mie Maker
Ride On Curlin (15) — William Gowan
Havana (15) — Todd Pletcher
Cairo Prince (14) — Kiaran McLaughlin
Honor Code (14)* — Shug McGaughey
Kristo (14) — John Sadler
Coastline (13) — Mark Casse
Tamarando (12) — Jerry Hollendorfer
Strong Mandate (11) — Wayne Lukas
Bond Holder (11) — Doug O’Neill
(Next Ten are tied with 10 points each)
*Off Derby Trail due to recent injury — see News & Notes Below

News & Notes

Remsen Winner Honor Code Off The Derby Trail

Last year during the same week trainer Shug McGaughey was preparing ORB to win the Florida Derby before going on to saddle that one for a very popular Kentucky Derby victory. This year he was announcing that his 2014 Kentucky Derby contender HONOR CODE has sustained a slight tear in his right hind upper suspensory and was off the Derby Trail.

Following a half mile breeze in :48 flat on Saturday, March 22 the injury was detected the next morning and announced immediately.

Fortunately the injury does not require surgery and as the conditioner said in his statement, “It will heal…we’ll give it 60 days and then re-evaluate it.”

The son of A.P. Indy broke his maiden in his career debut when he rallied from dead last. In his next start he finished second to Havana in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont and the was a winner (beating Cairo Prince and Intense Holiday among others) in Aqueduct’s top fall juvenile stakes the Grade II Remsen.

In his 2104 debut he was a well beaten second by the freakish Social Inclusion and the way he was washed out following that effort might have been due to the just discovered problems.

In any case the injury was discovered before it could have created bigger problems so let’s hope we see him back in training soon.

More Intrigue “Spot”Ed For Florida Derby

Trainer Nick Zito has saddled three Grade I Florida Derby winners in the last decade…High Fly (2005), Ice Box (2010) and Dialed In (2011)…and is back in 2014 with hopes that he is “Spot” on.

Zito will be looking to pull the upset with the recently acquired Swale winner Spot.

Spot, a son of Pulpit was purchased privately by Joseph Moss and sent to Zito just prior to the Swale and paid instant dividends with a dominant 2 ½ length victory with Jose Lezcano in the irons. Zito will have to find a replacement for Lezcano, however, as the jockey has a commitment a few miles away where he will ride Twilight Eclipse in the Sheema Classic (on UAE Derby Day) at Meydan Race Course in Dubai. Zito is searching for a rider but said he is leaning to using Cory Lanerie.

After the colt followed up the Swale with sharp drills that included a best of 74 half mile drills in :47 3/5 on Saturday Moss and Zito decided to give the Florida Derby a go.

It is obvious that either Zito turned the colt around in a hurry or he is peaking at just the right time because prior to the private purchase he had won once from four starts as a juvenile and was up the track in his 2014 debut when 5th in the Hutcheson Stakes.  Of course the colt has only sprinted in his two sophomore starts and will need to prove he can get the 9 furlongs of the Florida Derby but he is bred to do so and it is something that Zito has a long history of accomplishing.

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