Road To The Triple Crown: Sunday Showdown At Sunland

The $800,000 purse at Sunday’s Sunland Derby is the biggest thus far on The Road To The Triple Crown, so it’s no surprise that top-caliber racing will come to the outpost of El Paso, TX for a showdown stakes race at 7:45 PM ET.

There are eight horses ready to go, and the card is highlighted by Castaway, who won the Southwest Stakes at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park a little over a month ago, and with another win could elevate himself up with runners like Hansen and Secret Circle, who deserve to be on the list of early Derby favorites. Castaway’s team of jockey Rafael Bejanaro and trainer Bob Baffert is as good as you’ll find west of the Mississippi River. The only thing not to like about this horse is the 2-1 odds you’re stuck with at the betting window. You can jump the price up to 3-1 and get another horse with a key Prep win under his belt. Daddy Nose Best, ridden by Julian Leparoux and handled by national championship-winning trainer Steve Asmussen won the El Camino Real at San Francisco’s Golden Gate track in February.

Whatever you cut it, Castaway and Daddy Nose Best are the class of the field and who knows how much the odds will be bet down by post time. The three other possible challengers to the Big Two are…

*Isn’t He Clever won a big stakes race at this very track, and finished fourth in Santa Anita’s important Robert B. Lewis Stakes. While his win didn’t feature the kind of horses that will be on display Sunday, clearly Isn’t He Clever deserves respect and at 4-1 the morning line has given it to him.

*Ender Knievel has my favorite jockey/trainer combo of John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher (favorite from a prognostication standpoint, not a rooting one). Ender Knievel is on an arc of steady improvement, going from fifth to second to first in his last three races. Sunday will be his first run against stakes competition and at 6-1 he might be worthy a flyer.

*Stirred Up is another Baffert horse, this one ridden by Martin Garcia, who won the 2010 Preakness Stakes for Baffert aboard Lookin’ At Lucky. Stirred Up has ran three times at Santa Anita, and finished in the money all three times. Like Ender Knievel, this race has been set as his first appearance on the big stage.

If I were betting this race, I’d probably steer away from the favorites and split a bet evenly between Ender Knievel and Stirred Up with the hope that one of them would have their coming out party. But as a fan, I’d just like to watch a big showdown to the finish between Castaways and Daddy Nose Best.

Saturday also offers Derby Prep action, with the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky. Maybe it’s appropriate I’m writing this column with the Kentucky-Indiana Sweet 16 game on in the background so I can get in a BlueGrass kind of mood. It’ll take something to alter the mood, because given the $500,000 prize at stake, I find this eight-horse field to be disappointing.

The field splits evenly between four who have a legitimate chance, and four for whom there’s no rational reason to predict a win for in advance. But then again there is one rational reason and it’s this—none of the four  favorites have a resume worth getting excited about. Flashy Dresser at 5-2 is the morning line fave based on a non-stakes win at Gulfstream on March 4. With a resume that thin, he must really be impressing someone in workouts. Gung ho and Gold Megillah each clock in at 3-1. Each has good jockeys in Javier Castellano and Velazquez respectively. Gung Ho hasn’t run since October and most of his work has been at minor tracks. Medillagh has run seven races and only has one win. In his two stakes races he’s come in seventh and eighth. Then at 7-2 is Dynamical, who finished third in the John Battaglia, a big Derby Prep race here earlier this month.

This is the best four the Rushaway has to offer. None of the longshots looks live, although I guess if I had to, I’d take out a ticket on Sky Alert (15-1) and jockey Rosie Napravnik, just because I’m fascinated by the whole quest of her being the first female jock to try and win a Triple Crown race. But realistically I think the best bet is Dynamical, if only because he’s got a good showing in a big race to his credit.

All Derby Prep races are on HR-TV and TVG and both are available in the sports channel listing on your TV package. The Rushaway’s at a bad time—right after the tip of Florida-Louisville in tomorrow’s NCAA regional finals, one more reason to avoid it. But the Sunland will make some good Sunday evening entertainment, as a quick checkdown from the Miami-Oklahoma City NBA game. Take a couple minutes and see if a Derby favorite can emerge.