Derby Trail Update – 2/8/22 – By Eric Solomon

 

There’s a lot to unpack from the busiest weekend yet on the road to the Kentucky Derby. There were five total stakes races across the country for three year olds, three of which were races that handed out important points that go toward a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. There’s one more week of the 10 point races and then the 50 point prep races get underway, which essentially have become “Win and You’re In” races for the Derby.

 

 

The Standout Race

The most interesting race moving toward the Derby this weekend was in Hallandale Beach, Florida. The Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes had the deepest field of the three Derby Points races going in and the race absolutely delivered as a legitimate Kentucky Derby Prep. White Abarrio broke well from his wide draw, and was able to sit closely off the pace set by Galt. He drew even with his rival and powered away in the stretch to win by 4 and ½ lengths on the wire, earning a career best Beyer Speed Figure of 97. I think you can make a solid case for the top four finishers moving forward here.

Prior to the race on Saturday, White Abarrio last raced in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill on November 27th. That race is quickly becoming a key race, as it has now produced a pair of next out stakes winners in Derby Prep races (Call Me Midnight in the Grade 3 Lecomte last month being the other), and the top two finishers from that race (Smile Happy and Classic Causeway) have yet to race as three year olds. There is no doubt that White Abarrio benefitted from a great trip and a great ride from Tyler Gaffalione, however, that was a big time effort on Saturday from this son of Race Day that cost his connections $40K at the OBS Sales in March of 2021. He’s a perfect 3-3 now at Gulfstream, and he figures to be a major player in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby.

Simplification and Mo Donegal finished second and third, respectively, in a close photo. I thought both ran respectable races and both would be worth considering next time out. Going into the race, I thought that Simplification was going to get the same kind of trip that White Abarrio ending up getting. However, he was tossing his head a bit in the gate before the doors opened and he ended up breaking last of nine in a race which basically starts into the first turn. This is never a good thing for a speed horse, but at this distance at Gulfstream, it’s typically a disaster. He ran up on heels, while trying to secure position and ended being wide most of the way around the track, being forced to come from the back of the field for the first time in his career. Despite being much further off the pace than usual, he continued to run on, passing most of the field and holding off Mo Donegal for second. I thought that was a very good effort, and the fact that he didn’t back out of the picture when he wasn’t going to be running the race he likes speaks volumes about this young horse. I do appreciate that kind of mental toughness in a horse and I certainly could play him back in the Fountain of Youth next month. 

The Remsen winner, Mo Donegal was sent off as the favorite. Going into the race, I was concerned about his gate troubles and I was concerned about the kind of set he was going to get in this race. He was away a bit slow again, breaking just in front of Simplification. He secured a spot along the inside, covered up while sitting 5th down the backstretch. I’d have to look at the head on, but going into the turn, he backed up a bit before tipping out wide. On the pan replay, it looked like he was shying away a bit while in between horses. Once he was in the clear, he was flying home late, just missing finishing second by a few strides. He looks like a horse that will be very tough in the Florida Derby, but I’d have my same trepidations about him in the Fountain of Youth at the same 1 Mile and 1/16 distance next month. He also feels like a bit of a quirky horse that has a ton of potential, but hasn’t figured it all out yet. I think it’s fair to say that he might have the highest ceiling in this field, but his little quirks are going to make him a little vulnerable if he is bet down to short odds next time out. 

The 4th place finisher, Galt is also worth mentioning here. He broke from the rail and was hustled to the front end by Junior Alvarado. He was passed by White Abarrio on the turn, but he dug in and continued fighting to finish 4th, beaten 5 and ½ lengths. He has improved considerably in each of his four starts, and he has a tremendous pedigree, being a full brother to two-time champion, Songbird. If he continues to progress, he could be a tough customer in the Fountain of Youth next month as well. 

As is normally the case with these Derby prep races, there are also usually horses that are disappointing. Both horses that last placed in the Breeders’ Cup, Tiz the Bomb (Juvenile Turf) and Giant Game (Juvenile), ran very poor races to start their season. Tiz the Bomb was always near the back of the field and finished 7th, beaten 20+ lengths. Giant Game was pressing the early pace, and faded badly to be 8th, beaten 24 lengths. Trainer Ken McPeek suggested that Tiz the Bomb might resurface in a race like the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Tapeta at Turfway on April 2nd. 

New York and California

 

In the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct on Saturday, February 5th, Early Voting was a visually impressive winner, going very fast early, and continuing to grind home in the stretch, winning the race by 4 and ½ lengths. Both Consitutionlawyer and Courvoisier, who pushed that fast temp, were nowhere near the winner at the wire. Going into the race, both of those horses were the only two horses in the field with wins at the 1 Mile and ⅛ distance, so getting the distance was not a question for them. However, this race came back abnormally slow, stopping the clock in 1:55:90, earning a 78 Beyer Speed Figure for Early Voting. That was only the second career start for Early Voting, so to me his performance was better than his speed figure. However, since he is so lightly raced, I’m not sure what the plan would be for him. The next Derby Points race at Aqueduct is the Gotham at one turn, going one mile. I’m not sure that cutback in distance does him many favors, if the goal is to get him to the Derby. If he waits to the Wood Memorial, that gives him only three career races to get ready for a race like the Kentucky Derby, which does worry me for this horse as a Triple Crown race prospect. 

 

On Sunday, we saw an absolutely brilliant performance from Messier in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Sir London, who felt like the lone speed, was away a bit slow, and John Velasquez took advantage by putting Messier on the lead. He was traveling comfortably on the front end while carving out legitimate fractions. Sir London backed up and longshot Cabo Spirit tried to make a run at him while three wide, however, Messier kicked it into high gear and pulled away powerfully, drawing off to win by a whopping 15 lengths. The final time of 1:42:89 is solid and he was assigned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure, which is the highest of the Derby Points races thus far. Normally a performance like this would be generating some huge Derby buzz, however, since he is trained by Bob Baffert, Messier did not earn any Derby points. It will be interesting to see what happens next with this horse and the other horses that are trained by Baffert. As of now, none of his main horses have been transferred to a different barn, but that will certainly be a storyline to keep watching over the upcoming weeks. As for now, Messier’s performance certainly makes him a leading contender for the Preakness and puts him up there with the top runners of this class.

 

The Sprints

 

The Grade 3 Swale Stakes was on the undercard for the Holy Bull Stakes, and Todd Pletcher sent out My Prankster to a hard fought win, earning a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. He broke near the back of the field, as quick fractions were being carved out by the Oaklawn shipper, In Dreams. Luis Saez got My Prankster off the rail, and was putting him under a ride from just outside of the ⅜ pole in this seven furlong contest. He responded, circling four wide on the turn and assuming command. Both Dean Delivers and Of A Revolution had better trips, and both were fighting gamely, but neither could match the class of the race winner. Since he was under such a prolonged drive, and was able to sustain his momentum, I do wonder if it’s possible that he could be better at two turns. I’m not sure he’s a ten furlong horse, but I think he’s earned a chance to try a two turn trip at this point in his career. Knowing that Pletcher’s barn is absolutely loaded at the moment, where that two turn race may be, remains to be seen.

 

On Sunday, a field of five went to post in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct at seven furlongs. Morello was making his first start since breaking his maiden in his debut at the Big A for Steve Asmussen back in November. He pressed the pace from his outside post before making his move on the turn. He pulled away as a much the best winner, scoring by five decisive lengths while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 84 for his effort. Seeing how the Withers came back very slow, and the Gotham is a one turn mile next month, that race seems like a very logical next step for this son of Classic Empire. 

 

Coming Up This Week

 

There’s a pair of Derby prep races coming up this weekend, with the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, both of which will be previewed here on the blog. Before that, there’s an interesting horse resurfacing for a new trainer at Oaklawn on Friday, February 11th. Barossa (#4, 5-2 ML, 300-1 Circa) makes his first start for Rodolphe Brisset in the 8th race there, which is an optional claiming/allowance race at one mile and 1/16. He was last seen finishing a distant third in the Los Alamitos Futurity, beaten by Slow Down Andy and then stablemate, Messier. He was moved out of the Baffert barn and transferred to Brisset, which has been a common practice for this ownership group. However, the horses that Brisset is getting aren’t typically the A string, seeing as how this group (SF Racing, Starlight Racing, and Madaket Stables) owns the likes of Messier and Newgrange to name a few. Nonetheless, he is one of five runners in this race that was nominated for the Triple Crown, and a strong performance here would likely earn him a chance in a Derby Points race in the near future. 

 

Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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