03/23/2012 3:41PM

Klein: Shrewd group of trainers shooting for Sunland Derby

Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Sunland Derby contender Castaway wins the first division of the Southwest Stakes in his last start.

Sunday’s Grade 3 Sunland Derby isn’t officially labeled a “Win and You’re In” race for the Kentucky Derby, but it might as well be. The winner’s share of the $800,000 purse is $400,000, which should easily guarantee him a place in the starting gate in Louisville. It’s easy to overlook, but the second finisher will receive a healthy $176,000 boost to his graded stakes earnings, which might be enough to make him a starter too.

When you note that there are only eight runners scheduled to participate in the race, and there is a reasonable chance that 25 percent of them will earn their way into the Kentucky Derby, you can see why running in the Sunland Derby is a clever move. 

With that in mind, you shouldn’t be surprised to see that half of the field is trained by some of the leading trainers in the country. Bob Baffert (Castaway and Stirred Up), Todd Pletcher (Ender Knievel), and Steve Asmussen (Daddy Nose Best) already had other 3-year-olds among the top 20 in graded stakes earnings coming into this weekend, but they know a good spot when they see one, and would like to add to that total.

Castaway is the horse to beat. He was stuck outside in Post 11 with a short run to the first turn going a mile at Oaklawn in the first division of the Grade 3 Southwest. He was used early to get closer to the inside, pressed the leader, then drew away to win more impressively than his 3 3/4-length win margin indicates. That late kick can be seen in his fractions. He ran the seventh furlong of that race in 12.93 seconds and the last furlong in 12.56. He’ll save ground breaking from the rail in this race.

[SUNLAND DERBY: Watch Sunday's full Sunland Park card live]

Ender Knievel stretched out from 6 1/2 furlongs to a mile, and was a comfortable maiden special winner at Gulfstream in his fourth career start, which was his first race for Todd Pletcher. He toyed with his rivals through a slow early pace, then hid from them late in a 7 3/4-length win. There was a 6  1/4-length gap from second to third. Ender Knievel and Castaway will have to avoid dueling with each other. If they go too fast early, they could set the race up for a horse from off the pace.

Daddy Nose Best is the horse most likely to capitalize if the fractions are lively. He rallied from fifth to edge Lucky Chappy by a nose in a game win at Golden Gate in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby. But there is a catch. Daddy Nose Best ran twice on dirt, and six times on turf prior to that race, and his highest previous Beyer was a 78. It might not be a coincidence that his dramatic 15 point Beyer improvement to a 93 occurred in his first start on Golden Gate’s synthetic Tapeta surface. He can win if he runs another big race, but his 3-1 morning line could be an underlaid price when the possibility of regression is considered.

Isn’t He Clever has home court advantage. He is 2 for 2 at Sunland, with both of those wins earned in stakes races. He won the Borderland Derby by only 1 3/4 lengths last time, but the 10-length margin between the second and third finishers suggests that it was still a nice effort. He’s better than he showed when he finished fifth in the Grade  2 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita two races ago.

Stirred Up is the other Baffert horse. He edged maiden specials by a neck in a 1 1/16-mile race at Santa Anita in his third start, with a 6  1/4-length gap from second to third. It’s encouraging that Baffert likes this lightly-raced horse enough to give him a chance to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby with a win, or possibly a second in this race.

Tequila Factor has won three of five races on turf. And he owns a win, and a second from three tries on synthetic surfaces. But he is 0 for 2 on dirt, so it would be easy to assume that it is his least preferred surface. However, a subtle case can still be made for him on dirt if you take a closer look at his Beyers.

His two contending finishes on Arlington’s Polytrack were in slow $25,000 maiden claiming races, so they can be downgraded. Look past them, and his first four turf Beyers closely resemble the Beyers he earned on dirt in his two Sunland Park races. Three-year-olds can blossom suddenly early in the year, for no other reason than they are maturing quickly, both physically and mentally. The 89 Beyer Tequila Factor earned last time out in his 5  3/4-length win on grass in a small stakes at Turf Paradise is 18 points higher than his next fastest race on any surface, so he might simply be ready to run that well now on any surface. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt with a 15-1 morning line. Use him in the exotics.

No Spin has to improve to contend, and Justanoldsong needs to run much faster than he did in his first two races.

I’ll bet Castaway to win, and I’ll key him in the exacta over Ender Knievel, Stirred up, Isn’t He Clever, and Tequila Factor.