With the Kentucky Derby less than four weeks away, the recent round of prep races has done little to clarify a decidedly murky picture. Only two major preps remain: next weekend’s Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. Although I have opined that the Blue Grass should no longer be considered a major prep, it has attracted Hansen, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. To add to the confusion, two horses that had been well-regarded before their last prep races, Mark Valeski and El Padrino, are not on the top 20 list of graded stakes earnings that will determine entry into the field if the race is oversubscribed as it undoubtedly will be.
Union Rags has long been regarded as a top contender with a record that was only a head away from being a perfect 5-for-5, the only defeat being after a difficult trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had another less-than-desirable journey in the Florida Derby in running third behind Take Charge Indy and the unheralded Reveron. If you cannot overcome difficulty in an eight horse field, how are you going to deal with the chaos that so often ensues in the 20-horse field that is the Kentucky Derby? Add to that the fact that his Beyer top of 95 was first run in August at Saratoga (matched by the same number in the Fountain of Youth), and there are several reasons to not regard this guy as the favorite. Take Charge Indy‘s winning figure of 95 is a tick below his career top, and he has a jockey named Calvin H. Borel as his expected rider in Louisville. The second and fourth finishers, Reveron and El Padrino, may also being going to Churchill Downs but will have to wait for horses above them on the graded stakes earnings list to not enter, since they are 24 and 23 on that list respectively.
The UAE Derby was run the same day as the Florida event, and produced the highest speed figure run by any Derby hopeful. Daddy Long Legs earned a Racing Post Rating of 117 which, by my calculation, is the equivalent of a 105 Beyer. Despite this win, he is unlikely to be viewed as a leading Derby contender since the Dubai race, now run on a synthetic surface, has never produced a top Derby finisher. More to the point, in the colt’s only dirt race, he finished 12th by almost 20 lengths in last year’s Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
On the following day, Hero of Order upset the Louisiana Derby at odds of 109-1, beating the well-regarded Mark Valeski who finished second. It was not, however, as much of an upset as it appeared. Yes, the winner had a career record of only one win and one second in 13 career starts, but his Beyer top of 87 in the Risen Star stakes fit in with this largely mediocre group. Mark Valeski had earned a 98 in the Risen Star, beating the fourth-place finisher Hero of Order by six lengths, but that race looks like a negative key race given that the winner, El Padrino, showed nothing in the Florida Derby. The winning Louisiana Derby Beyer of 90 suggests that the Kentucky Derby winner will not be coming out of this group.
Last weekend we saw the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and the Illinois Derby. The mid-Western race is only considered a prep because the winner came back and won at Churchill in 2002. Other than that, I think the race has a record similar to that of the UAE Derby. This year’s version was won by Done Talking, a colt who finished 20 lengths behind Hansen in the Remsen. His winning Beyer of 86 was better than the last race Beyer of any entrant save one, and is unlikely to produce much of a bandwagon going to Louisville.
The other two races were unique in this season of preps in that the top two choices in each race ran to form, producing exciting finishes. The still undefeated Gemologist held off Godolphin’s Alpha in winning Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial. His winning Beyer of 98 is near the top for this year’s final prep races. At Santa Anita, I’ll Have Another, a 43-1 winner in his prior start, held off Creative Cause, the winner of three graded stakes and third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The winning Beyer of 94 was below the figs run by this pair in their last outing.