Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at 3:54 PM
Right around this time a year ago the Derby Preps and conversation regarding the prospects for the 2017 Kentucky derby and Triple Crown was under way.
For most serious barns the nominations had been filed early, the serious contenders had raced as juveniles and the scuttlebutt was sounded regarding those promising newly turned three-year olds who were about to begin their foundations.
Now it is mid-January in 2018 and with the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct and the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds having been run this past Saturday, along with the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn set for Martin Luther King Monday, the "Road To The Kentucky Derby" is open. Let the speculation begin.
At this time a year ago there were a number of prospective 3-year old division leaders who had built their resumes.
CLASSIC EMPIRE was at the top of most early Derby lists virtue of his Breeders' Futurity win followed by his dominant win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Others at the front of the line were PRACTICAL JOKE, who it was expected would continue to develop for trainer Chad Brown after his third in the BC Juvenile.
For early evaluators the Breeders' Futurity proved to be what handicappers like to refer to as a Key Race. No Dozing was a 4 lengths beaten fourth in the Breeders' Futurity before a strong second behind Mo Town in the Remsen Stakes. A colt by the name of Wild Shot in the Breeders' Futurity, also beaten four lengths, followed up with a second to McCraken in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. These are the sort of things that played into the evaluation of the more developed 3-year olds.
The aforementioned MCCRAKEN had by mid-January solidified his position at the top of the list by finishing off a 3-for-3 race win streak (all at CD) with his Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes triumph. He was one of those young colts followers loved. He had shown speed, he had shown closing ability and on more than one occasion had overcome serious traffic problems to win.
On the New York circuit the relatively late to the party MO TOWN, the Tony Dutrow trained Bernardini colt had impressed a number of handicappers with his dominant maiden score followed by his equally strong win in the Remsen Stakes.
Of Course Bob Baffert was in gear with another Southern California good thing, MASTERY, who won his debut in 1:09 3/5, followed by an easy victory in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity and then the Bob Hope Stakes.
Others on the January leader boards were colts such as NO DOZING, EL AREEB, GORMLEY, UNCONTESTED, GUNNEVERA and AMERICAN ANTHEM.
A number of these colts continued their development as they moved through the spring. Others not so much. Updating their status became a full time endeavor.
It is worth beginning with this reminder of who and what was considered important early on because when it came to the first Saturday in May and the Kentucky Derby, here is how those runners mentioned above fared.
CLASSIC EMPIRE - 4th in the Kentucky Derby.
PRACTICAL JOKE - 5TH in the Kentucky Derby.
MCCRAKEN - 8th in the Kentucky Derby.
MO TOWN - Did not make it to the Kentucky Derby.
MASTERY - Was injured and eventually retired.
NO DOZING - Did not make it to the Kentucky Derby.
EL AREEB - Did not make it to the Kentucky Derby.
GORMLEY - 9th in the Kentucky Derby.
UNCONTESTED - Did not make it to the Kentucky Derby.
GUNNEVERA - 7th in the Kentucky Derby.
AMERICAN ANTHEM - Did not make it to the Kentucky Derby.
And it is worth noting that as of mid-January last year, the first three Kentucky Derby finishers weren't even on the also eligible lists of most handicappers.
In fact only the winner, ALWAYS DREAMING, had won his final prep with an announcing victory in the Grade I Florida Derby. Longshot runner up LOOKIN AT LEE had finished third in the Grade I Arkansas Derby in his last prep and longshot third place finisher BATTLE OF MIDWAY had run second behind GORMLEY in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
So what sort of overview does that give us as we begin looking forward to the development of the 2018 Kentucky derby and Triple Crown hopefuls? It lets us understand that each of these preps is just that, PREPARATION, and should be treated as BOTH indicators of what is to come, but for wagering purposes in the here and now should be standalone races in which a handicapper and bettor makes certain not to allow projections of where these horses will be on the first Saturday in May and deal with their prospects on the day of each prep race.
On Saturday in the short six colt field Jerome Stake, the first of a quartet of New York based Derby preps, FIRENZE FIRE regrouped in his first start since a disappointing 7th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Sent off at 1-2 the Jason Service trained colt was life and death to catch the pace-setting SEVEN TRIUMPHS, who was making his first start since winning an allowance race at Churchill Downs in late November.
These colts will move forward with hope, but still have much to prove.
At Fair Grounds, the Grade III Lecomte Stakes was an entirely different matter as Jerry Hollendorfer's INSTILLED REGARD showed a high level of athleticism and maturity as he easily beat a field of 12 rivals as the second favorite. The son of Arch won off by 3 ½ lengths from runner up and post time favorite PRINCIPE GUILHERME who had a bit of a hindered run from post 10.
Either or both are likely to return for the second leg of the Louisiana Derby prep cycle, the Grade II Risen Star which is itself followed by the Grade II Louisiana Derby.
Later today the four race Oaklawn prep cycle will begin with the Smarty Jones Stake, followed in turn by the Southwest Stakes (2/19), the Rebel Stakes (3/17) and the Arkansas Derby (4/14.)
The field for the Smarty Jones is short (6 are likely to go) and though there have been a number of runners that have come out of the Oaklawn circuit in recent years it remains to be seen if the usual commanders of this and other Oaklawn races, commanders such as Bob Baffert, who has ML favorite MOURHINO (ships' in from Southern California) and Steve Asmussen, who is loaded this year after finishing second, third and fourth in Saturday's Lecomte and has COMBATANT and TAP DADDY in the Smarty Jones.
Also represented is Todd Pletcher, who is already starting to move his promising three-year olds around so as not to face each other early on. The conditioner will be represented by the Union Rags colt, NAVISTAR, a last out MSW winner at Gulfstream Park.
The first Saturday in May might seem a ways off and certainly there is much to be gleaned as these early season TOP WHATEVER NUMBER LISTS are formed. But that doesn't mean that in following these preps one can't handicap and wager on these races accordingly.
Following the Smarty Jones today, here are the Prep Races which are run next, beginning the first weekend in February.