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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 at 5:08 PM

Handicappers and horse racing fans are stuck in a holding pattern with just a little more than two months to go until the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Derby watchers are playing a waiting game on two fronts – we are still waiting for last year’s top juveniles to make their 3-year-old debuts, and/or waiting for new major contenders to emerge from the pack with big efforts in key races that might propel them to spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5 and the current favorites in the race are still the same as they were months ago when GOOD MAGIC won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the multiple stakes-winning 2-year-old leader up until that point, BOLT D’ORO, finished third after a troubled break. The wait for both of these horses to make their sophomore debuts is finally almost over. Bolt d’Oro are trainer Mick Ruis are targeting the G2 1 1/16-mile San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 10 for the colt’s return, while trainer Chad Brown will have Good Magic ready to go a week earlier at Gulfstream Park in the G2 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth.

While we’ve been waiting for the de facto 3-year-old leaders to re-emerge for their seasonal debuts, very little has happened in terms of the emergence of other major challengers in the three months since the Breeders’ Cup.  The one notable exception, however, has been the Bob Baffert-trained MCKINZIE, who has reeled off Graded wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in the last couple months, beating good horses such as SOLOMINI and INSTILLED REGARD, who returned to win the G3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, in the process. If he stays in SoCal, McKinzie will be on an early-season collision course with Bolt d’Oro in the Fan Felipe. Otherwise, McKinzie is likely to ship to Baffert’s home-away-from-home Derby prep central – Oaklawn Park – for the G2 Rebel Stakes on March 17.

Speaking of Oaklawn Park, the Southwest Stakes on President’s Day featured several up-and-coming Derby hopefuls, including the 1-2 finishers of the Smarty Jones Stakes, MOURINHO and COMBATANT. Neither took a step forward, however, with Mourinho not handing the wet track and Combatant solid and workmanlike as ever but unspectacular. The race did serve as a useful return prep race for G1 Hopeful winner SPORTING CHANCE, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who finished third.  All were beaten by the Keith Desormeaux trained and Kent Desormeaux ridden MY BOY JACK, who previously had finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and then third behind McKinzie in the Sham Stakes.

The Sham is beginning to look like a key race, but the ultimate key race up to this point has been, surprisingly enough, the BC Juvenile Turf.  From the Juvenile Turf, in addition to My Boy Jack, fourth-place finisher CATHOLIC BOY returned to win the G2 Remsen in his next start and then returned to run second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa behind BC Juvenile Turf eighth-place finisher FLAMEAWAY.  Catholic Boy likely used the race as a prep, narrowly lost, and should quickly make amends next time, probably in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Even Juvenile Turf 12th-place finisher SNAPPER SINCLAIR got into the act when coming back to finish second by a nose at 41-1 in the G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, beating a long list of hopefuls including Lecomte runner-up PRINCIPE GUILHERME, highly-regarded Todd Pletcher Gulfstream allowance winner NOBLE INDY, and the aforementioned Instilled Regard.

By the way if you were wondering, the winner of the BC Juvenile Turf was MENDELSSOHN, trained by Aiden O’Brien. Mendelssohn is back in Ireland and has never run on dirt, but O’Brien has indicated he believes the horse will be equally as good on dirt and has expressed interest in pointing him to the Kentucky Derby.  Based on the results of the other horses exiting the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, you would certainly have to stamp the horse as a legit contender if he does in fact point for the race.

Back to the Risen Star results, the winner of the race was BRAVAZO, who previously had finished second in last fall’s G1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Along with Sporting Chance, Bravazo gives Lukas two strong Kentucky Derby candidates heading into the next round of prep races in March.  That is also when we’ll get to see the much-anticipated returns of the top Kentucky Derby contenders, Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic, giving horseplayers much to look forward to in the coming month leading up to the Run for the Roses.

By Noel Michaels

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