03/29/2012 12:15PM

Kentucky Derby: Scouting the top horses and key prep races

Lynn Roberts
El Padrino (left) outduels Mark Valeski by a nose in the Feb. 25 Risen Star. What did the race say about both colts' Kentucky Derby chances?

As March turns to April, our analysts answer 10 questions about the top contenders and key Kentucky Derby prep races so far.

1. Withers/Robert B. Lewis

Withers: Grade 3, $100,000 at 1 1/16 miles (Feb. 4 at Aqueduct)  
Winner: Alpha
Beyer: 91
Time: 1:44.23
Next likely race: Wood Memorial (April 7 at Aqueduct)  
Robert B. Lewis: Grade 2, $200,000 at 1 1/16 miles (Feb. 4 at Santa Anita)  
Winner: I’ll Have Another
Beyer: 96
Time: 1:40.84
Next likely race: Santa Anita Derby (April 7 at Santa Anita)

Question: Alpha and I’ll Have Another will go into their final preps off two-month layoffs. What do you make of horses taking a break and bypassing a secondary prep at the mid-point of the Derby prep season?

The cause for these layoffs seems to be a matter of the connections desiring a fresh horse for their final Derby preps and for the Derby itself. Physical issues do not appear to be in play. It is easier to understand this unconventional approach with Alpha than with I’ll Have Another. The Withers was Alpha’s fifth start in six months and his third straight start around two turns, so he has a solid foundation. But the Lewis was I’ll Have Another’s first start in five months after three outings at 2 and his first attempt around two turns.

But more important here is the strength of the Withers and Lewis. Alpha was a tick under 2-5 in the Withers, and though he came from off the pace to score decisively, he did so over five undistinguished opponents, none of whom could be confused with a prominent Kentucky Derby candidate. The field that I’ll Have Another shocked in a daylight score at 43-1 in the Lewis was far better on paper, including such popular-at-the-time Derby aspirants as Liaison, Rousing Sermon, Sky Kingdom, and Empire Way. But none of those horses came back and ran particularly well, and their Derby stock has cratered. That brings into question the form of the Lewis.
− Mike Watchmaker

2. Risen Star

Grade 2, $300,000 at 1 1/16 miles (Feb. 25 at Fair Grounds)  
Winner: El Padrino
Beyer: 98
Time: 1:42.96
Next likely race: Florida Derby (Saturday at Gulfstream) 

Question: Did El Padrino’s narrow win in the Risen Star Stakes make him a top-tier Kentucky Derby contender?

I think the stock answer from the Thoroughbred punditocracy is “no” − for the most part, El Padrino still is considered a cut below the big three of Union Rags, Hansen, and Creative Cause − but my answer would be, “Yes, it did.”

Just because people hadn’t heard of Mark Valeski before the Risen Star doesn’t mean he is not a seriously talented horse. That El Padrino ran him down after Mark Valeski got the jump over a speed-biased, fast-playing surface is a mark in El Padrino’s favor, not one against him.

The fact that El Padrino earned one of the highest 3-year-old Beyers of the year seems to have slipped between the cracks. And to look at this massive specimen – a horse still learning to negotiate turns properly because of his heft – is to be left with the sharp impression that a 1 1/16-mile race such as the Risen Star will turn out to be on the short end of his ideal distance range.

Cautionary note: El Padrino is probably much better suited to a track like Fair Grounds, with a long stretch, than Gulfstream Park. He can lose the Florida Derby and still thrive at Churchill Downs, where the stretch is long, and the Kentucky Derby is at 1 1/4 miles.
− Marcus Hersh

3. Fountain of Youth

Grade 2, $400,000 at 1 1/16 miles (Feb. 26 at Gulfstream)
Winner: Union Rags
Beyer: 95
Time: 1:42.68
Next likely race: Florida Derby (Saturday at Gulfstream)

Question: Was the comeback by Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth as good as it looked, or could he be another overrated Derby favorite?

There is little doubt Union Rags’s 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth was visually impressive. But what made his performance all the more special was that it even exceeded the expectations of trainer Michael Matz, who’d given his star some time to unwind a bit following his unlucky defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Matz had worked him only four times in preparation for his return at 3.

Union Rags looks bigger, stronger, and more mature now than he was as a 2-year-old. As with Barbaro six years earlier, Matz’s master plan has been to bring him along gradually this winter and spring to have him ready for a peak performance at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. From the looks of his effort in the Fountain of Youth, it would appear Union Rags is not only right on but perhaps even ahead of schedule and a deserving favorite five weeks in advance of Derby Day. 
− Mike Welsch

4. Gotham

Grade 3, $400,000 at 1 1/16 miles (March 3 at Aqueduct)
Winner: Hansen
Beyer: 95
Time: 1:43.84
Next likely race: Blue Grass (April 14 at Keeneland) 

Question: How do you assess Hansen’s victory at 1 1/16 miles, and can he get the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles?

Racing without blinkers for the first time, Hansen showed a new dimension to win the Gotham from just off the pace, and he overcame post 12 to do it convincingly.

In terms of overall development, Hansen may be sitting on a forward move after beginning his 3-year-old campaign with two figures that essentially matched his title-clinching Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Stretching out past 1 1/16 miles, Hansen’s newly discovered tractability is a plus.

Hansen’s pedigree seems neutral, at least up to 1 1/8 miles. Like Stay Thirsty (by Bernardini), he comes from the A.P. Indy sire line, but although his dam, Stormy Sunday, won three of four starts, she never raced past 6 1/2 furlongs. Hansen’s older full brother Tapanna has yet to win past a mile for the same connections.

Track surface and field strength are additional factors to consider as Hansen tries to stretch out successfully. Being rerouted from the Wood to the Blue Grass could be risky, since off-the-pace types have fared best in that race since Keeneland switched to Polytrack in 2007. Brilliant Speed posted a last-to-first upset at 19-1 a year ago, and Stately Victor (40-1) rallied from seventh in a field of nine the year before.
− Dave Litfin


5. San Felipe

Grade 2, $300,000 at 1 1/16 miles (March 10 at Santa Anita)  
Winner: Creative Cause
Beyer: 102
Time: 1:41.84
Next likely race: Santa Anita Derby (April 7 at Santa Anita)

Question: Did the fast time of the San Felipe make Creative Cause a more attractive Kentucky Derby candidate, or was something missing?

Creative Cause’s victory in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe ranks among the year’s fastest stakes by a Derby prospect. But final time – a 1:41.84 that produced a 102 Beyer – falls short of complete analysis. In winning 4 of 7, including three stakes, Creative Cause was repeatedly flattered by slow fractions. It happened again in the San Felipe.

The tempo was slow – first half 46.98; three-quarters 1:11.23. The tepid splits allowed Creative Cause, a presser, to stay in contention. Positioned 1 1/2 lengths behind after six furlongs, Creative Cause had plenty in reserve, finished strongly, and won going away. Well done.

However, a fast finish in a slow-pace dirt race has negligible relevance.

On dirt, ability to sustain speed is more revealing. In that regard, Creative Cause remains unproven. He is one of 12 horses this winter at Santa Anita to win a 1 1/16-mile race under 1:42. The San Felipe six-furlong split of 1:11.23 was slowest of the 12.

Ultimately, the San Felipe fails to answer a key question facing Creative Cause – is he effective pressing true fractions? The correlation between pace and final time is distinct. And when a slow-pace presser is challenged by the fast pace typical in the Kentucky Derby, the presser often is found wanting.
− Brad Free

6. Tampa Bay Derby

Grade 2, $350,000 at 1 1/16 miles (March 10 at Santa Anita)  
Winner: Prospective
Beyer: 88
Time: 1:43.35
Next likely race: Wood Memorial (April 7 at Aqueduct) or Blue Grass (April 14 at Keeneland)

Question: Although his Beyer Speed Figures pale in comparison to those of the division’s heavy hitters, can Prospective be taken seriously as a Kentucky Derby contender?

Yes. While Prospective lacks the sexy triple-digit Beyer of El Padrino, Creative Cause, Secret Circle, and Bodemeister, he has improved with each start at Tampa Bay Downs this year while displaying true grit. 

After winning the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes on Jan. 14, Prospective endured an extremely wide trip before finishing a game second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Given a better journey in the Tampa Bay Derby, Prospective briefly lost the lead in upper stretch before battling back to win by three-quarters of a length. The Tampa Bay Derby was Prospective’s first race in blinkers, and he improved his Beyer eight points, to a career-best 88. The main track at Tampa Bay can give a horse excellent foundation, and Prospective’s three races over the surface may have him ready to tackle longer distances.

Prospective, a $250,000 yearling purchase, has run only one bad race, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He reportedly scoped mucus after the race, so perhaps we can excuse the only off-the-board effort from his seven-race career. 

Prospective may have enough pedigree to successfully navigate the demanding Derby distance. His grandsire, A.P. Indy, won the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles, and his broodmare sire, Awesome Again, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at 10 furlongs. Prospective’s dam was a stakes winner around two turns.
− Dan Illman

7. Palm Beach

Grade 3, $150,000 at 1 1/8 miles on turf (March 11 at Gulfstream)  
Winner: Howe Great
Beyer: 88
Time: 1:46.56
Next likely race: Blue Grass (April 14 at Keeneland)

Question: Considering Animal Kingdom’s turf-synth prep-race strategy last year, has the Palm Beach gained legitimacy in producing a Derby candidate? How would you assess Howe Great’s chances in the Derby?

In early spring, nearly any allowance or stakes race for 3-year-olds could potentially be a stepping-stone toward the Kentucky Derby, and after what happened last year with Animal Kingdom, prepping on turf and synth should not be a concern.

Last year, Animal Kingdom made his seasonal debut in an optional claimer on the turf and stamped himself a Derby contender with a decisive score in Turfway’s Spiral Stakes in his next start. He then went on to win the Derby. Like Animal Kingdom, Howe Great will try to win the Derby using a turf-to-synthetic-to-dirt strategy, now eyeing Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes after winning the Palm Beach Stakes on turf last time out. It was his third straight victory, but Howe Great did benefit from a forward trip in a race that was very light on pace, a scenario that gave him a big edge on the closers. That includes runner-up Dullahan, who rallied well to miss by a length; considering the race flow Dullahan was perhaps the more impressive of the pair.

The Derby is usually loaded with speed, and given the expected extreme contrast in pace scenarios between the two races, it could be Dullahan, not Howe Great, who is more likely to emerge from the Palm Beach to win the Kentucky Derby.
− Kenny Peck


8. Rebel

Grade 2, $500,000 at 1 1/16 miles (March 17 at Oaklawn)  
Winner: Secret Circle
Beyer: 92
Time: 1:44.55
Next likely race: Arkansas Derby (April 14 at Oaklawn)

Question: Did the Rebel confirm Secret Circle as more than a one-dimensional sprinter? Is he capable of getting 1 1/4 miles?

Secret Circle has faced the “one-dimensional sprinter” question ever since he won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint on the front end, but he erased those doubts in the Rebel, coming from farther off the pace than usual to win at 1 1/16 miles. But just how far Secret Circle really wants to run remains a question as he heads into his first significant distance test April 14 in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby.

Secret Circle has genetics in his favor for the upcoming start. He is a son of Eddington, a Grade 1 winner at 1 3/16 miles, and Ragtime Hope, a Dixieland Band mare who was a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles. And the responsiveness Secret Circle showed in the Rebel, when he waited for jockey Rafael Bejarano’s command to move on the final turn, will help him negotiate added distance.

There’s also his tenacity. Secret Circle is 5 for 6 and seems to love a good fight, winning the Rebel by three-quarters of a length over a fast-closing Optimizer, to whom he gave seven pounds.

Such qualities make Secret Circle seem capable at 1 1/8 miles. At 1 1/4 miles? I’m not convinced yet, but he is a better candidate to get the trip than a number of 3-year-olds because he is a seasoned racehorse who showed composure and rateability in the Rebel.
− Mary Rampellini

9. Vinery Spiral

Grade 3, $500,000 at 1 1/8 miles (March 24 at Turfway)  
Winner: Went the Day Well
Beyer: 92
Time: 1:51.33   
Next likely race: Lexington (April 21 at Churchill) or Kentucky Derby (May 5 at Churchill) 

Question: Does Animal Kingdom’s win in the Vinery Spiral last year make the Spiral a serious prep race for the Kentucky Derby?

The value of the Vinery Spiral as a Kentucky Derby prep race is largely dependent on the type of horse who wins it. The horses in the field with the most racing experience are typically a couple of cuts in quality below those you’ll find in the better prep races. A win by a horse like that is less significant than a victory by a lightly raced, improving horse such as Animal Kingdom, who had started three times before his Spiral win last year, or Went the Day Well, who had started four times before winning the Spiral last weekend.

Spiral winners who fit that profile are getting good at the right time six weeks before the Kentucky Derby and have a reasonable chance to improve enough to be a factor. Animal Kingdom earned a 94 Beyer in the Spiral and a 103 in his Kentucky Derby win. Went the Day Well earned a 92 Beyer for his Spiral win. His connections are considering one more prep race before the Kentucky Derby.
− Steve Klein


10. Sunland Derby

Grade 3, $800,000 at 1 1/8 miles (March 25 at Sunland)  
Winner: Daddy Nose Best
Beyer: 100
Time: 1:48.59  
Next likely race: Kentucky Derby (May 5 at Churchill)

Question: Given that his two prep victories have come against second-tier competition, does Daddy Nose Best have the potential to challenge in the Kentucky Derby?

It’s not out of the question. Although Daddy Nose Best has not faced the cream of the division – horses such as Union Rags, Hansen, El Padrino, or Creative Cause – he ran a Beyer Speed Figure of 100 when he won the Sunland Park Derby, a number that ranks him among the fastest 3-year-olds.

Yes, it was earned in a Grade 3 race, but Daddy Nose Best beat Isn’t He Clever on his home track and with that rival effortlessly making the lead on the far turn.

More important, the win came on dirt, marking his first victory on the surface after he had run nearly all of his races on turf or synthetic courses.

Not to be overlooked, he has familiarity with the Churchill dirt surface, having run second in his debut over 5 1/2 furlongs June 9. Making that race all the more telling is that 5 1/2 furlongs is not his game; long-distance routing is. His two Derby prep victories came at 1 1/8 miles, giving him a distance foundation few rivals will have heading into the Kentucky Derby.
− Byron King

Kentucky Derby: Ranking the contenders

Our experts weigh in on their top-five Derby horses before the final round of major prep races:

  Mike Watchmaker Marcus Hersh Mike Welsch Dave Litfin Brad Free
1. Union Rags El Padrino Union Rags Union Rags Union Rags
2. Creative Cause Creative Cause Creative Cause Creative Cause Dullahan
3. Bodemeister Union Rags El Padrino Dullahan I'll Have Another
4. Hansen Hansen Gemologist Hansen El Padrino
5. El Padrino Mark Valeski Mark Valeski El Padrino Creative Cause
  Dan Illman Kenny Peck Mary Rampellini Steve Klein Byron King
1. Union Rags Mark Valeski Union Rags Creative Cause Bodemeister
2. Creative Cause El Padrino Hansen Union Rags Union Rags
3. El Padrino Union Rags Creative Cause Daddy Nose Best Creative Cause
4. Bodemeister Creative Cause Secret Circle El Padrino El Padrino
5. Hansen Hansen Gemologist Hansen Hansen