The final three hundred point Derby Points races were run over the weekend, and as a fan of thoroughbred racing, I think the word that best described the racing this weekend was “satisfying”. We saw quality performances and exciting races in New York, Kentucky, and California that should set the stage for an excellent 148th renewal of the Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher Vs. Brown in NY
Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown seem to have gone head to head in countless graded stakes races in New York over the last several years and the Wood Memorial on Saturday was no different. Pletcher sent out three runners, the most notable of which being the Remsen winner, Mo Donegal. He was last seen finishing third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. Chad Brown sent our Early Voting, who was the gate to wire winner of the Withers back in February. They both had to deal with Morello, who was sent off as the favorite after winning the Gotham Stakes last month.
The complexion of the race changed at the start when Morello, who is normally a front runner, hesitated at the break and found himself in last place going into the first turn. Early Voting found himself on an uncontested lead. He sat fractions of 23:4, 47:3, and 1:11:2, while having everything his own way. Mo Donegal and Morello were at the back of the pack. Mo Donegal started to advance along the rail, working out a ground saving trip around both turns. He moved past Morello who offered nothing after the tough start. When they hit the top of the stretch, Early Voting pulled away, and Mo Donegal tipped off the rail. On the wire Mo Donegal got up just in time to win a second graded stakes on this oval. The final time was 1:47:96 for the 1 mile and ⅛ and Mo Donegal earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure in victory.
Both horses ran very good races, but I’m not sure how excited I am about either horse in the Derby. Mo Donegal had a very good ride where Joel Rosario was able to use his rail draw to save every inch of ground. He closed to beat a loose leader who was able to set moderate fractions. However, I’m not sure that running style bodes well for the Derby. He struggled to run his best race when he found trouble in the Holy Bull, and I’m not sure he’s going to love being behind a wall of horses in a twenty horse race.
Early Voting is lightly raced, making only his third career start in the Wood. He had everything his own way, especially when Morello blew the start. Even at this point in his career, I struggle to think that he could hang on against better horses in the Derby next month. We’ll see how the preparations go leading up to the Derby, but at this point, I see both of these horses struggling on the first Saturday in May.
Heavy Hitters in the Blue Grass
Smile Happy and Zandon, the second and third place finishers in the Grade 2 Risen Star back in February, hooked up again, this time at Keeneland while facing a field of nine other three year olds. There wasn’t much pace signed on, so Emmanuel for Todd Pletcher, who had such a wide journey in the Fountain of Youth last month, was able to make the lead, sitting the perfect trip, while setting moderate fractions. Smile Happy made it over to about the four path going into the first turn, sitting closer to the pace than he did in the Risen Star. Zandon settled toward the back of the field, about five lengths off the pace. The field was compact down the backstretch with no more than six lengths separating front to back.
Smile Happy made his move on the turn to go after Emmanuel, while Zandon rallied along the inside, before tipping out and making his run. Smile Happy made the lead, but Zandon was stronger in the stretch, passing Smile Happy en route to a 2 and ½ length victory in a final time of 1:50:35. He earned a career high 98 Beyer Speed Figure for his effort.
This was a serious pep race where the end of the season two year old form certainly held up. Zandon navigated his way through a large field with ease and showed a powerful turn of foot that we really hadn’t seen from him before. Smile Happy feels a little bit like a forgotten horse after his runner up finish, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his effort. He was wide and as a result, forced to move a bit prematurely while going after Emmanuel. He passed the loose leader with ease, but couldn’t hold off Zandon, who was better that day. Smile Happy will return to the site of his best career race, and could so at a longer price than what he’s been available in the Future Books for quite some time. Both Zandon and Smile Happy will be moving on to the Derby, however Emmnauel will not. Todd Pletcher will be pointing him toward the Pennine Ridge on the grass at the beginning of June.
The Phenom Spoils the Showdown
On paper, the Santa Anita Derby looked like a showdown between San Felipe winner, Forbidden Kingdom and Robert B. Lewis winner, Messier. When they broke from the gate, Forbidden Kingdom went out for the lead with Messier tracking just to his outside. They pretty much stayed this way down the length of the backstretch. When they got to the turn. Messier turned up the pressure on Forbidden Kingdom, who then dropped out of the race. Meanwhile, Taiba, who was also wide on the first turn, came with a three wide bid to overtake Messier in the final 1/16 of a mile.
Taiba, making only his second career start, covered the six furlongs in 1:48:46, and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102. He’s earned a chance to run in the Derby in start number three, where he’ll have to navigate a much larger field. With such little experience he’s a huge question mark, but he definitely has the look of a colt that could be special.
Meanwhile, Messier still looks like a runner that could be live on Derby Day. He was the one doing all of the dirty work when pressing Forbidden Kingdom, where I think a lot of people thought that job might be reserved for Armagnac or Taiba. He fought gamely, but didn’t have quite enough left in the tank to hold off his stablemate. I think he’ll be more fit come Derby Day.
Forbidden Kingdom on the other hand will not be going to the Derby, despite having enough points. His connections think that an entrapped epiglottis could offer an excuse for his last place performance. Knowing there’s a race like the Allen Jerkens out there this summer, which is a Grade 1 race at seven furlongs for three year olds, I think that would be the logical spit for the connections to point him toward, assuming he’s able to recovery quickly.
One Last Time at Keeneland
One final Derby Points race remains in the series, with the Lexington Stakes being run this Satrurday at Keeneland. Both In Due Time and Tawny Port are looking to solidify their credentials by racing here. In Due Time opted for the extra week of training after finishing a controversial second the Fountain of Youth, while also ducking some of the heavy hitters. Tawny Port ran two weeks ago and finished second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Tapeta surface. The winner will get 20 more points toward entry to the Kentucky Derby. That field will be drawn on Wednesday.
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.