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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 19, 2018 at 4:56 PM

Saturday was supposed to be another sign that the West Coast 3-year olds were about to once again dominate the Kentucky Derby in 2018.

After Bolt d’Oro and/or McKinzie dominated the San Felipe a week prior, Solomini was supposed to head to Oaklawn Park and not only validate his own status in the Grade II Rebel Stakes, but to flatter both Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie who he had run on a par with when they all interacted in previous stakes encounters.

And although Solomini did finish second in the Rebel and his supporters could argue he was held up in traffic for a bit, he did struggle and the eye test revealed considerably less than the even-money coronation that was expected.

Of course comparing one developing 3-year old to another based on how they perform in different races at different locations is, as they say, a matter of comparing apples and oranges. However, the way Magnum Moon, a last out entry level allowance winner at Tampa Bay in his prior race dominated the field in his Rebel Stakes coming out party, those hailing from locations other than Southern California should feel even more optimistic right now.

Even Combatant, who dug in and finished a head behind Solomini after a deep rally from the outside post and getting bumped in the lane, measured up just fine against the favored Solomini.

While it is too early to tell if Solomini will move forward off the effort, that “eye test” I spoke of is worthy a short mention.

As a son of Curlin, out of the Storm Cat mare Surf Song, there is no question that the blood-line foundation is there for classic distance. However, after his best of 61 bullet work at Santa Anita before trainer Bob Baffert shipped him to Hot Springs, it was thought that Solomini might be on the pace from the break, especially since he drew such an advantageous (gate 3) post position.

Instead, he settled into a stalking position in the three path, made a bid at the quarter pole and was then steadied slightly before getting out again and rallying some. What I saw was a colt that is still a bit green, and when he was taken off the pace in the Los Alamitos Futurity in his juvenile finale, he rallied well enough, but that only resulted in a third place finish against an overall softer field.

Yes, it was Solomini’s first start of 2018, but measuring that performance as a barometer of what to expect from what is supposed to be the top of the Southern California contingent, at this point I’ll withhold judgment.

As to the commanding win by Magnum Moon, if you believe in such things, the “Curse of Apollo” and not any opponents he might meet moving forward is his biggest obstacle.

Given that Magnum Moon did not make his career debut until January 13 at Gulfstream Park, he will be held to account to become the first horse who did not race as a 2-year-old to win the first leg of the Triple Crown since Apollo in 1882.

Since this will be brought up ad nausea between now and the Derby should Magnum Moon make it to Louisville on the first Saturday in May, let me get this out of the way now. It has nothing to do with handicapping the best horse.

Should he get there and be one of twenty horses running in the Kentucky derby it will be a matter of how he does in a crowded field vs 1 other runners, not how no one since Apollo in 1882 has done.

I’ll add one more take on all these sort of “arbitrary standards” that only exist as long until they are disproven.

Until Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby in 2007 with only 2 races as a sophomore, the need for at least A TRIO OF 3-YEAR OLD PREPS WAS A DEIFICATION.

However, since that 2007 breakthrough by Street Sense, no fewer than Nyquist in 2016, American Pharoah in 2015, I’ll Have Another in 2012, Animal Kingdom in 2011, Super Saver in 2010, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Big Brown in 2008 have won the Kentucky Derby with only a pair of 3-year old Prep Races.

Oh how the game has changed. Maybe we should eliminate Kentucky Derby prospects with MORE than two starts.

Being by Malibu Moon, it is quite likely that Magnum Moon is actually ahead in his development compared to his sire, who is not an overwhelming developer of precosity, so perhaps the late start will be irrelevant.

Sons and daughters of Malibu Moon have often shown a propensity to develop with racing and get better with experience, not often winning their first starts or first stakes tests. That Magnum Moon broke his maiden on the front end by 4 ½ lengths in his debut, professionally rallied from off the pace to win the February allowance at Tampa bay and change yet again to a measured stalking trip and daylight win in the Rebel is a very positive sign.

Trainer Todd Pletcher says that it is likely the colt’s final prep will be right back over the Oaklawn surface in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 14.

Third place finisher Combatant continued to hold form as he rallied off the turn to move into second before being headed late for that spot by Solomini. The Steve Asmussen trained colt unleashed his closing kick a bit sooner than he did when he placed in the Southwest Stakes in his prior and like Solomini had a bit of traffic issues when bumped early on and made to bid from the inside at the 3/8ths marker. He remains on the radar.

Title Ready, another Asmussen runner, made the pace but gave way in the lane and Sporting Chance and Zing Zang, who finished 3rd and 5th behind Combatant in the Southwest finished 5th and 6th respectively and were not factors. The former stalked the early pace and gave way while the latter took his usual position at the rear and made no impact.

The Rebel was the final local prep for the quintessential Arkansas Derby, to be run April 14.

And it is worth noting that in recent years the Arkansas Derby has had significant impact on the Kentucky Derby, so you know I’ll be paying close attention to what happens in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The following runners exited the Arkansas Derby and either won or place in Louisville.

2017 – Lookin At Lee – (3rd Ark. Derby) - 2nd In Kentucky Derby
2015 – American Pharoah – (Won Ark. Derby) - Won Kentucky Derby
2014 – Danza – (Won Ark. Derby) – 3rd In Kentucky Derby
2012 – Bodemeister – (Won Ark. Derby) – 2nd In Kentucky Derby
2011 – Nehro – (2nd Ark. Derby) – 2nd In Kentucky Derby
2010 – Super Saver - (2nd Ark. Derby) – Won Kentucky Derby

I plan on remaining zoned in on all the remaining preps, just as I was in BOTH Derby Preps this past weekend when I cashed the Rebel Stakes Winner, Exacta and Trifecta and the Jeff Ruby Stakes Exacta at Turfway Park.

Rebel Stakes – Magnum Moon – WIN $8.80…Solomini – 2nd Exacta $22.00…Combatant – 3rd Trifecta 105.00
Jeff Ruby Stakes – Pony Up – 2nd Exacta $121.50…Blended Citizen – WIN $14.40

Next up are the final 8 Prep Races:

3/24 – Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds)
3/25 – Sunland Derby (Sunland Park)
3/31 – Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park)
4/7 – Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland)
4/7 - Wood Memorial (Aqueduct)
4/7 – Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park)
4/14 – Arkansas Derby – (Oaklawn Park)
4/14 – Lexington Stakes – (Keeneland)

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