03/22/2012 11:13AM

Weekend Warrior for March 24: Local hero has big shot in Sunland Derby

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Lisa Dominguez/Coady Photography
Isn't He Clever, winner of last month's Borderland Derby, will try to use his affinity for Sunland Park to his advantage in Sunday's Sunland Derby.

A soft spot in the stakes schedule enables Turfway Park to command center stage Saturday with its key Kentucky Derby prep, the Grade 3, $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes, the race that proved the springboard to success for last year’s Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. Among the handful of stakes on the Spiral undercard are the Grade 3, $100,000 Bourbonette Oaks and the $75,000 Rushaway.

There are only two other graded stakes Saturday, and they are both Grade 3, 1 1/2 mile races: the $150,000 Pan American on the turf at Gulfstream Park and the $100,000 Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita.

Thanks to an early draw, we also know the field for the richest race of the weekend, Sunday’s Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby.

Sunland Derby

Three of the biggest trainers in the game – Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Steve Asmussen – have Triple Crown nominees in this race. The thing of it is, they each could have entered a three-legged mule and he probably would have taken inordinate betting action. But in this case, the representatives from each barn are obvious win threats.

Baffert’s big gun Sunday is Castaway (he also sends out Stirred Up, a recent maiden winner at Santa Anita who is certainly not impossible). Castaway took a while to find himself, but he seems to have figured it out lately. Castaway got his maiden win two starts back in his sixth career start, but then followed right up with a decisive score in the first division of the Southwest Stakes. On the plus side, Castaway handled a significant class jump and was able to draw away late after being pushed early to be with the early pace. The bad news is, the final time of Castaway’s division of the Southwest was almost a full second slower than the second division. While it is true the 92 Beyer Figure that Castaway earned in the Southwest looks better in the context of this race than it would if he was in a different Kentucky Derby prep, it still isn’t so imposing that it justifies the low price he will be Sunday.

Pletcher’s representative here is Ender Knievel, a last-out maiden winner at Gulfstream who earned competitive Beyers there in his last two starts. The issues here are, Ender Knievel’s last two Beyers were so dramatically better than the figures he received in his first two starts that you have to wonder if he might not have a thing for Gulfstream. And now, he ships across country while stretching out to two turns for the first time.

Asmussen’s starter is Daddy Nose Best, game winner of the El Camino Real Derby in his last start. Surface is a question for Daddy Nose Best. He made six straight starts on turf before successfully switching to a synthetic track most recently, and now goes to dirt, although he was second on dirt in his career debut last year. The bigger question for me is, how much can we trust the 93 Beyer Daddy Nose Best received in the El Camino Real Derby? That figure bettered Daddy Nose Best’s previous best Beyer by 15 huge points. Now, Daddy Nose Best is a young 3-year-old and as such, is eligible to improve quickly. But Daddy Nose Best wasn’t exactly a lightly raced colt beforehand. He made eight starts before his last appearance, so you wonder how big a move forward he had in him. Moreover, Lucky Chappy, who was beaten only a nose in the El Camino Real Derby, improved his previous best Beyer by 14 points.

I’m going with a local hope who isn’t even nominated to the Triple Crown yet, Isn’t He Clever. Isn’t He Clever is certainly a bear at Sunland. He earned a field-best Beyer of 97 when he won the Riley Allison Futurity there by almost 12 lengths three starts back, and he showed a new dimension when he won the Borderland Derby over the track last time out. Not only did Isn’t He Clever win around two turns for the first time in the Borderland Derby, he did so while rating off the early pace, and making a three-wide move on the far turn. In addition, isn’t He Clever was out well past the wire, and the colt he beat, Zack’nmat, had Santa Anita maiden form that was comparable to Castaway’s.

Tokyo City Cup

Twice the Appeal won last year’s Sunland Derby. Looking back on his past performances, it is incredible to think that he went off at less than 12-1 in last year’s Kentucky Derby, but that’s the power of Calvin Borel in the Derby for you. Anyway, Twice the Appeal will certainly attract attention again here because he is dropping out of the Santa Anita Handicap. But Twice the Appeal’s Beyers and form aren’t any better than others in this race, and he will be overbet.

Eldaafer might also be an underlay here purely on reputation as he did win the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon. But right now, Eldaafer seems far removed from that form.

I like Skipshot. While it is true that Skipshot will be making his sixth career start on dirt Saturday and hoping to finish first or second over it for the first time, he really wasn’t a bad third over the track in the San Pasqual three starts back. Skipshot ran better last time out when he won at Golden Gate over an opponent who scored in his next start with a 96 Beyer, himself earning a Beyer that was his best since he won the 2010 Swaps Stakes over the talented Sidney’s Candy. It also doesn’t hurt that Skipshot should sit a nice trip tracking the likely pacesetter, the class-jumping Coluda.

Happy Ticket Stakes

Inspired is very fast and looking for her third straight stakes win in this feature at Fair Grounds. But she has paired up career-best Beyers in her last two starts, and might be in line for a form regression.

I’m going with Speedacious. Speedacious is 0 for 2 on turf, but she has had excuses – a bad post and the wrong distance in her first start on grass, and soft footing in the other. Speedacious has won on synthetic, which is encouraging, and the fact that her most recent win (her third straight) was the sixth time in her career she has Beyered 90 or higher suggests she is good enough to win a race like this.