03/25/2013 8:19AM

Spiral, Sunland Derby Thoughts


The urge to dismiss Saturday’s Spiral Stakes as any sort of meaningful prep for the Kentucky Derby this year is strong. After all, upset winner Black Onyx’s previous biggest claim to fame was an entry level allowance win on the turf at Gulfstream in his prior start. Hey, unlike 369 of his contemporaries, Black Onyx wasn’t even a Triple Crown nominee before the Spiral, and his final time was slow enough to result in an uninspiring winning Beyer Figure of only 90.

I suppose the second place finish by Uncaptured would be the Spiral bright spot most would point to as he was beaten only 1 1-2 lengths in his first start in four months. Okay. Then again, Uncaptured never looked like a winner, he is a noted Polytrack lover even if he did win both big 2-year-old stakes at Churchill last fall, and he remains something of a question at two turns. It could be that Uncaptured was around at the end of the Spiral only because the race was so slow.

If you’re looking for a real redeeming feature from this Spiral, maybe this is it:

In the wake of his win Saturday, Black Onyx does seem to have an analogous career profile to 2011 Spiral winner Animal Kingdom, who, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby at 20-1.

Black Onyx and Animal Kingdom were both unheralded juveniles who managed but maiden wins in two starts at 2. Like Black Onyx, Animal Kingdom started in a first-level allowance race on turf at Gulfstream prior to the Spiral (he was beaten a head in that race). They have similar Beyer progressions at this point in their careers – Animal Kingdom went from an 83 to a 94 in the Spiral, while Black Onyx went from an 81 in his Gulfstream win to improve nine points Saturday. And as Animal Kingdom did after the Spiral, Black Onyx will train up to the Kentucky Derby.

But before the Black Onyx fans get too excited, consider that in the judgment of at least two expert workout watchers, Animal Kingdom trained exceptionally well in the weeks leading up to the Derby, making tremendous strides, which is underscored by the fact that he took another Beyer leap forward to a 103 in his Derby win. A similar past performance profile certainly does not guarantee Black Onyx will rapidly develop in the same manner. And it should also be noted that Animal Kingdom’s Derby field was, well … let’s just say the first three betting favorites in that Derby were Dialed In, Pants On Fire, and Nehro. I know a lot can happen between now and this year’s Derby, but as of this moment, with Verrazano, Orb, and Itsmyluckyday out there, to name just three, it does seem like Black Onyx will be facing a tougher group at Churchill.

In many respects, the field Govenor Charlie crushed in Sunday’s Sunland Derby wasn’t any better than the one Black Onyx beat in the Spiral. So putting aside for a moment the fact that Govenor Charlie was a thoroughly decisive winner, it is probably wise to be reserved in this case, too.

Nevertheless, the vibe with Govenor Charlie feels totally different. Part of it has to do with how well connected he is (trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Mike Pegram), and part of it has to do with the real potential he showed at the start of his career at Santa Anita. But the main reason why Govenor Charlie seems more serious a colt is, he was making only his third career start Sunday. If he is this capable now, what might he do when he goes beyond scratching the surface of his abilities?

Govenor Charlie is reminiscent of another recent Sunland Derby winner, Endorsement. Endorsement decisively won the 2010 Sunland Derby off his maiden win, the same move Govenor Charlie made, although Endorsement did run faster (earning a 101 Beyer as compared to Govenor Charlie’s preliminary Sunland Derby Beyer of 95). In any case, it’s interesting to note that Endorsement was becoming a very popular wise guy pick into a 2010 Kentucky Derby field that saw Lookin At Lucky, Super Saver, and Sidney’s Candy wind up the first three favorites, only to suffer an injury a week before the race that eventually sidelined him for 21 months.