Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, March 14, 2014 at 12:00 AM
PREPPING FOR THE DERBY - 2014
Volume V...Number 10
Friday, March 14, 2014
IF THE DERBY WERE RUN TODAY...HURLEY’S FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY TOP TEN
Plus Rebel Stakes Preview...And Can’t Miss All Stakes And Turf Longshot Offer FREE!
I believe we have now seen enough to at least begin speculating on the developing list of contenders for the 2014 Kentucky Derby so with that in mind I will in this issue present my first TOP 10 DERBY LIST of the year.
As I do annually I will break this Top 10 into two groups of 5 horses. The first group consists of horses that have earned the right to be considered the top contenders and are visible enough to be on just about every analyst’s list in any given order. The second group of 5 three-year olds are what I consider to perhaps be under-the-radar horses that are probably still outside the box of most bettors and analysts.
In addition, I’ll also preview Saturday’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The race is the third of three local preps (Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes were run [previously) that lead up to the Grade I Arkansas Derby on Saturday, April 12.
CALIFORNIA CHROME HEADS HURLEY’S FIRST DERBY TOP 10 OF 2014
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 I offer my first TOP 10 of 2014. And keep in mind that this list is separated into 5 visible top prospects and 5 under-the-radar hopefuls.
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 pundit 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 Â¼ length victory in 1:40 2/5 for the mile and a sixteenth...after running 6 furlongs in 1:09 2/5! They 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.
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. Another Funny Cide? Why not?
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.
UNDER THE RADAR FIVE
RING WEEKEND - He is 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.
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.
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. In addition, although he has shown an ability to close a distance of ground in the past as he showed by dogging speedball Wildcat Red right to the wire in the Fountain Of Youth last time he has become more successful as a tactical speed horse since the addition of blinkers. Maker is a solid horseman and if anyone can stretch out a youngster’s questionable distance bloodlines he can.
VINCEREMOS- He perhaps isn’t as fast as some of the other early pace runners I’ve included on the list and might have been well behind Ring Weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby in his most recent, but this son of Pioneerof The Nile has now two wins and two second in four career races and we might not have yet seen his best. The thing to like about him is twofold. First off is his willingness to compete, he wants to be in the thick of it...let’s call it heart. The second is that he is conditioned by Todd Pletcher and the conditioner has moved up more than one of these kinds of runners as he moves further along as a three-year old. In fact, the way he was eased up on in the latter stages when it was obvious he wasn’t going to catch Ring Weekend might prove advantageous down the road as it leaves an obviously aggressive runner still wanting more.
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BUT CALIFORNIA SHIPPERS AND CHANCE OF RAIN MAKE THE REBEL MORE THAN A TWO HORSE STORY
While it is logical that the lead dynamic for any preview of Saturday’s Derby Prep Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park would key in on the rematch between Tapiture and Strong Mandate, the two colts that finished in that order in last month’s Southwest Stakes there appear to be many more subplots worth paying attention to in the mile and a sixteenth challenge.
Although the Rebel came up a bit short in number of entrants this year with only 8 compared to 11 each of the last two years and 9 in 2011, this compact field is arguably as contentious as any of those previous three have been. Last year the race was won by the enigmatic Will Take Charge, who rallied from off the pace to beat Oxbow by a head and return $58.00 to his quite pleased "handful" of backers.
By now you know the story of how Will Take Charge trained up to the Kentucky Derby following the Rebel and was a no show performer in each leg of the Triple Crown before suddenly becoming a resurrected wonder horse in late Summer and the fall and continuing to do wonders under the guidance of "rediscovered" conditioner Wayne Lukas. Even runner-up Oxbow made a name for himself as he was a so-so fifth in the Arkansas Derby following his Rebel placing and then a troubled trip 6th in the Kentucky Derby before bouncing back to upset the Preakness Stakes.
Last year’s third place finisher in the Rebel was the Bob Baffert trained Den’s Legacy, a hard trying California based shipped who earned a lot of minor award paychecks vs the upper echelon of the 3-year old colony a year ago. But Den’s Legacy’s failure in the Rebel hardly tarnished the "legacy" of Bob Baffert in this race as he sent out the 2012 winner Secret Circle, the 2011 winner The Factor and the 2010 winner Lookin’ At Lucky, each of whom was the post time favorite.
As you might expect, Baffert is in attendance this year as well with the highly regarded Hopportunity, who is quite unlikely to be anywhere near post time favoritism, but Is in no means a toss out...more on that in a moment.
Obviously unable to separate the top two finishers from the Southwest Stakes, the Oaklawn line-maker has posted winner Tapiture as the 9-5 ML favorite and runner-up Strong Mandate as the 2-1 second choice. Posted as the third choice at 7-2 is another Santa Anita shipper, Kobe’s Back, the John Sadler trained colt who was sensational in winning the Grade II San Vicente in his 2014 debut on February 16 and has been absolutely tearing up the SA surface in the morning every since.
While those three will likely draw most of the attention the depth doesn’t stop there. Third place Southwest finisher Ride On Curlin returns to see if he can move forward from his rally behind Tapiture and Strong Mandate and local Street Sense colt Street Strategy, a dominant last out MSW winner might just be this good. In addition, Baffert will also ship in Hopportunity who was last seen suffering a horrendous trip in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds on February 22 and has worked forwardly for his attempted rebound.
The field will be completed by longshot Jet Cat and Sheltowee’s Boy, who is showing signs of further improvement after running better speed figures in a second and win in his last two allowance tries over the surface.
To repeat, the race might have come up a bit shorter in number of runners but it figures to be highly competitive and if the deep contention weren’t enough, there is the looming 60% chance of rain which could add in a few more slippery obstacles to the analysis of and prospects for the contenders.
Let’s take a brief look from the rail out.
Jet Cat - 30-1 - If you could bet the one certainty of the race you’d make money. Unfortunately you can’t bet on who the post time favorite could be...which will definitely be this Tactical cat colt. He broke his maiden on the Turfway Park synthetic but has failed to come close in three main track races. His trainer is oh for 2014 and jockey John McKee has won just 2 of 69 here heading into Thursday and the colt’s top BRIS speed number is anywhere from 7 to 112 lengths slower than any of the other seven runners against him ran in their last race.
Ride On Curlin (12-1) - The William Gowan trainee appears to be a colt that wants to go early, digs in to grab a piece but doesn’t have enough oomph through the lane. That might turn out to be the case but he did have to break from the outside in the Southwest, did go head to head with Tapiture until he faded in mid-stretch and did hang on for the minor award after being passed by Strong Mandate. Interestingly, if he can relax early he has shown a penchant to come from off the pace when he ran a close-up third behind the well-regarded duo of Havana and Honor Code in the seminal Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont last fall. If new jockey Kent Desormeaux can get the colt to relax he could easily claim another piece.
Tapiture (9-5) - The son of Tapit has done nothing wrong in his 5 race career. He broke right with the pace in the Southwest and drew away from Strong Mandate in the stretch for a comfortable victory. He has had plenty of time to recover from what was his first race of 2014 and with not much genuine speed signed on besides the possibility of Strong Mandate getting involved a bit earlier than he did in the Southwest, trainer Steve Asmussen might be watching go-to rider Ricardo Santana dictating the pace once again with plenty left in the lane. It is also worth noting that Tapiture is not only a two-time winner at the distance but also the only horse in the race to have won at all at the distance.
Strong Mandate (2-1) - After his rough trip in the Southwest left Strong Mandate with too much to do late, trainer Wayne Lukas has to be confident that a good trip puts the son of Tiznow right in the thick of things and back on the Derby trail. Jockey Joel Rosario was disappointed that the big colt never got to relax as he was bumped around repeatedly during the race. It is likely that Lukas will also be looking skyward as the colt’s best career race was in the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga when he won off by 9 Â¾ lengths following a 4 Â½ length bashing of Tapiture when those two met in a MSW race two weeks prior. Lukas will also look to Strong Mandate’s solid third in the BC Juvenile, his last race before returning in the Southwest for confidence that his charge can reverse fortunes vs Tapiture. It is also worth noting that jockey Joel Rosario, who was in the irons for Kobe’s Back’s impressive performance in the San Vicente has chosen to remain here. He is a strong contender and if he can prove he is good enough to win around two turns (which he has not yet done) he could find his way to the winner’s circle.
Hopportunity (10-1) - As was mentioned above, any time Bob Baffert sends a 3-year old to an Oaklawn Derby Prep it is worth paying attention. This lightly raced son of Any Given Saturday did not race as a juvenile and was off slowly in his career debut at Santa Anita on January 4. He bounced back in a mile MSW 4 weeks later and Baffert shipped him to Fair Grounds for the Grade II Risen Star. The trip turned out to be a disaster as the colt was caught 5 wide on the far turn, fanned out 6 wide into the lane and ran on evenly for 4th in the crowded 14 horse field. Since the February 22 test the colt has returned to SA and turned in two solid drills so appears to be no worse for the failed FG effort. As mentioned above, Baffert has won this race 3 of the last 4 years and it is no small note that Mike Smith makes the trip to ride the colt for the first time.
Sheltowee’s Boy (12-1) - Trainer Brad Cox has had a terrific Oaklawn Meet. Entering Thursday’s racing he had posted a 42-9-6-7 mark and apparently has high hopes for this late running son of Nobiz Like Shobiz. And those high hopes might not be misplaced. The colt enters following a pair of solid allowance efforts over the surface. Two back he made his 2014 debut vs entry level foes and rallied form well back in the one mile event to get place money. In his most recent he finished the job when he once again came from well back to complete the final quarter of the one mile test with a 45 wide rally to run down his rivals. It is also a plus that the race two back was over a sloppy oval and the last over a fast track so however the track comes up Saturday should not be an issue for regular rider Joshua Navarro. The one drawback is his need for a contentious pace and the early pace in this race could more likely be run at tactical rather than blistering speed. Nonetheless, he is another that could claim a minor award.
Street Strategy (8-1) - earlier we mentioned that Kent Desormeaux was aboard Ride On Curlin for the first time. The man he is replacing is Calvin Borel, who in addition to obviously choosing to land here has also won 5 of 12 at the meet when paired up with trainer Randy Morse. And for those who love the incidentals, there is karma involved as well given that Borel’s greatest race of his career was when he piloted this colt’s sire Street Sense to his Kentucky Derby victory. All that being considered, this lightly raced colt easily won his MSW test in hand in his most recent as he was never pushed when drawing out to a 6 length win in career start number two here and his first around two turns. The colt has worked forwardly since his January 30 tally, including a bullet 6 furlong drill over the surface in 1:13 4/5 on March 2 and if it comes up sloppy is bred to handle that surface. He’ll definitely be tested for class but has the lineage to get it right.
Kobe’s Back (7-2) - For those handicappers who rely considerably on what is known as the "eyeball test" (how a horse actually looked running his race) this don of Flatter gave them plenty of reason to jump on board with his tremendous 2014 debut in winning the Grade II San Vicente last out. Glass half-full analysts will point out that his one bad race was the only time he went two turns but he was finding his bets stride at the half mile marker in that race, the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park when he clipped heels and lost all chance. What was most impressive about his dramatically strong off-the pace rally to a 5 Â¼ lengths victory in the 7 furlong San Vicente was that it came on a day when the track played absolutely to speed. Since that race the colt has turned in two solid drills including a bullet 6 furlongs in 1:11 flat on March 7 before preparing for his trip here. The equally capable Jose Lezcano replaces Joel Rosario who chose to remain with Strong Mandate.
There will be no odds-on favorite in this race and the exotic combos will be well spread out so make certain you take advantage of the returns that it will offer.