Road To The Triple Crown: Four Derby Prep Races This Weekend

The Road To The Triple Crown has three races Saturday that are mostly full fields and have the chance to offer some competitive racing, and then there’s one more race for dessert on Sunday. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at all four Kentucky Derby Prep races…

Action starts about 5:30 PM ET on Saturday, with the Tampa Bay Derby running slightly before that time and the Swale Stakes at southern Florida’s Gulfstream Park, going a few minutes later.

The Tampa Derby is a 12-horse race, but three look to have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the field. Spring Hill Farm is the favorite at 5-2. While he’s only run two races in his career, neither one of them noteworthy, he’s come in first and second. With Todd Pletcher as his trainer and Javier Castellano as the jockey, this isn’t a favorite who looks ripe for a big upset. But horses who rate competitively on the morning line are Take Charge Indy at 3-1 and Battle Hardened at 9-2.

The former is ridden by Calvin Borel, who’s drawn national fame for three recent wins at the Kentucky Derby, but this particular horse needs to run stronger than what we’ve seen thus far.  There’s no significant wins. The positives are that he did run 5th at the Breeders Cup, and just the fact he was invited to Churchill Downs in November is reason enough to be impressed. And there was a second-place finish five weeks ago at Gulfstream. If you believe in the power of a name, maybe the week the Indianapolis Colts chose to release Peyton Manning bodes well for a horse named Take Charge Indy. The latter horse, Battle Hardened is ridden by Julian Leparoux and won the Sam Davis Stakes, another Derby Prep that was run at Tampa little more than a month ago.

If you want to talk longshot, I’d see the best option as being Cozzetti, because he’s got a good trainer in Dale Romans, but this is a mount that Leparoux gave up for the chance to stick with Battle Hardened, and the horse hasn’t impressed thus far. I think ultimately this is a race you either play the favorite or just randomly pull a name out of a hat. If you’re a hard-core bettor you might try taking Spring Hill Farm to win, but pairing up a longshot or two in the exacta and trifecta combos.

The Swale is a 10-horse field and the favorite is another horse Leparoux gave up. Ever So Lucky is priced at 5-2, but has an unknown jockey and only two career starts, both at Churchill Downs back in November. He obviously ran well in them or he wouldn’t be the favorite on Saturday, but a 1st and 2nd place finish in off-Broadway races over three months ago hardly make him a clear front-runner. If I’m betting this race (and in the interest of full disclosure I’m not), I see this as a chance to go for better odds.

Options include Trinniberg at 5-1, another horse who hasn’t run since November and had a mixed record when he did. The strengths to Trinniberg are that he has run against top horses, from the Breeders Cup to Saratoga. On Selection Sunday weekend in college hoops, let’s call Trinniberg the UConn of the field and give him props for schedule strength. Motor City, ridden by the pride of Maryland in Martin Prado hasn’t run since October 30, but did win a stakes race at Churchill Downs when he did. And Good Morning Diva has only run two races in his career, neither of them noteworthy, but finished third and first here at Gulfstream this year.

Looking over the options at the top of the Swale odds list, it looks like it might be ripe to go even deeper. One choice could be Silver Menace at 15-1, with a solid jockey in Ramon Dominguez. The only positive on the resume are a couple wins at Arlington Park in Chicago, and Dominguez is not the normal rider. The next option, and the one I like is Seve at 12-1. With the team of Kent Desormeaux in the saddle and Dale Romans as the trainer, Seve will get what he needs to run a good race, and while his nine-race career is marked by mediocrity, the last two races have seen him finish 1st and 2nd. While the races weren’t notable, that’s also the reason he’s at a good price. In a Swale that looks like anybody’s to take, I’d put my chips on Seve.

Shortly after 7:30 PM ET, will be the San Felipe Stakes from SoCal’s Santa Anita. A 10-horse race, this is another one that looks up for grabs, although unlike the Swale, it appears to be balance rooted in quality rather than mediocrity—the Big Ten Tournament rather than the Pac-12 Tournament if you will.

Creative Cause is the favorite, another front-runner at 5-2. The last five races this horse, ridden by top West Coast jockey Joel Rosario, has run have been stakes races. He’s been in the money every time, including two wins. That’s called a worthy favorite, but there’s some pretty worthy challengers.

Bob Baffert is as good a trainer as there is in the world and he’s the master of the SoCal circuit. Today his top horse is Bodemeister, who’s done well in a couple warmup races. I like his chances, but 3-1 seems like a short price for a horse that still has to prove himself in a really big race. Midnight Transfer offers a 6-1 price tag, has already won a stakes race at Santa Anita, and has two wins in three starts at this year’s meet. Empire Way finished second in the Robert Lewis Stakes, a Derby Prep held a few weeks ago at Santa Anita. Of these credible challengers I like Midnight Transfer the best.

Other possible horses are Blingo, who’s done poorly in previous stakes, but has one of the nation’s best jockeys in Mike Smith in the saddle, and gets 8-1 odds. If you really want to shoot the works, try another award-winning jockey in Garrett Gomez, who gets a 20-1 price. As for me, I’m staying with Midnight Transfer.

Sunday’s Palm Beach Stakes is pretty tame compared to the action on Saturday. There’s only six horses entered in the race at Gulfstream Park and of the top three, none go off at better than 3-1. The favorite is Howe Great (8-5) who’s got three straight wins on this track, including against stakes competition. Dullahan (2-1) has the Desormeaux/Romans tandem preparing him and ran a respectable fourth in the Breeders Cup. And Coalport (3-1) with Leparoux taking the mount ran poorly at Breeders and has yet to win a race since the calendar flipped to 2012. I’d just take the favorite and go with Howe Great.

Were I a betting man, rather than just one who talked a good game, I’d take half my bankroll and put it on Seve to win outright at Gulfstream, 40 percent on Midnight Transfer to finish in the money at Santa Anita, and 10 percent on Spring Hill Farm to finish in the top two. Then I’d start figuring out how to adjust my recreational budget after I lost them all.