The Road To The Kentucky Derby is about to get serious. The prep races that lead to Churchill Downs on May 3 have been going on since September, but the first 17 of those races are mostly lower in prestige and are lower in the points horses can accumulate for Derby qualification. That all changes on Saturday.
Saturday starts the second half of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, and more specifically the third quarter. The point value of the designated races quintuples in value. Instead of getting points of 10-4-2-1 (for finishing 1st through 4th), the point awards now jump to 50-20-10-5. Later in the spring, the points will double one more time.
Thus, even though Tapiture is leading the way right now with 22 points, it can all change in a heartbeat. The horse led by national championship trainer Steve Asmussen has won twice, including last week. He’ll be off this week.
No trainer’s shadow looms larger over horse racing than Todd Pletcher and he’s got the #2 horse in the current standings. Havana has 14 points and has accumulate over $600,000 in purse money, more than twice that of Tapiture. With a bankroll like that, my guess is that ownership will live with sitting in second in the standings.
Cairo Prince and Honor Code are tied with Havana, with Tamarando and Middle Hawk having 12 points. Overall, 16 horses have at least 10 points.
Ultimately, whose first or second or wherever doesn’t really matter. Twenty horses will break from the starting gate at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby is notorious for being kind to the longshots.
Furthermore, the early favorites of the prep season don’t always make it to the post in early May, much less win. When I was working back in the handicapping rackets from 2008-11, one of the mail pieces that was sent out would proclaim that finding the Derby winner was about finding the “peaking horse.” Our company never actually found such a horse and the mail piece was almost exclusively B.S., but this constituted the seed of truth.
All of which means that while Tapiture is the horse to keep an eye on, it’s even more foolish to anoint him now than it is to anoint a college basketball team as a sure national champion in February. The next leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series starts Saturday, with big races in Louisiana and Florida. Read more about Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes and the Fountain Of Youth Stakes.
We’ve counting down the Road To The Triple Crown here at TheSportsNotebook since January, with previews of all the biggest Derby Prep races. Now the Kentucky Derby is just a month away and the last really big day of prep race action goes Saturday. And what a day it is, with three big races going across the country, at New York, California and Illinois. TheSportsNotebook previews all three…
Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, NY 5:15 PM ET): A million-dollar purse is on the line as part of a big day overall in New York racing. The eight-horse Wood Memorial has three horses that have emerged as betting line favorites and those are Gemologist (8-5), Alpha (5-2) and Street Life (4-1). Gemologist’s resume is thin, but impressive—a win in a Churchill Downs stakes race last November and a tuneup win at Gulfstream Park in Florida a couple weeks ago. The connections are even more impressive, with trainer Todd Pletcher in charge and jockey Javier Castellano in the saddle. The minimal action Gemologist has seen—along with the short odds—suggest clearly that Pletcher is pointing the horse to this race and has essentially babied him the way a manager might take a Cy Young-caliber pitcher out after six innings to preserve him for the postseason. Now we find out if Gemologist is up to the task.
Alpha has scores big victories here at Aqueduct in the Withers Stakes, a prep race in its own right, and the Count Fleet Stakes. Furthermore, last fall at Belmont, he came in second in the high-quality Champagne Stakes (Belmont is where New York horses go in the fall, while Aqueduct has spring and winter meets). So this horse is clearly comfortable in New York, but an 11th-place finish at the Breeders Cup last November, while no shame, does suggest a problem in stepping up in class. The Wood Memorial isn’t the Breeders Cup, but it’s a tougher race than anything Alpha has faced thus far. Street Life has won his last two races here at Aqueduct, including a St. Patrick’s Day stakes race.
Both Alpha and Street Life are worthy challengers. If you’re a bettor who wants to go for a longer price, or an interested fan who wants to be alert to a big upset, two horses to watch would be Tiger Watch (15-1) and My Adonis (8-1). Tiger Watch is ridden by John Velazquez, one of the best in New York, and while no stakes races are on his resume, the horse has improved each of his last four starts. My Adonis came close in good stakes races here at Aqueduct and Gulfstream earlier in the year.
If it were up to me—and since I’m writing this column, I guess it is—I’d take a flyer on Tiger Watch to win and maybe hedge the bet by also taking lower odds for him to get in the top two.
Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, CA, 5:30 PM ET): This race goes ahead of the one in Illinois because the SoCal track has scheduled it in the middle of the card, while the other two races are at the end. At this writing, odds are not yet posted, so I’m going to have to take my best guess at the favorites in the 10-horse field. I don’t think I’m taking any big chances in saying Creative Cause will be a factor, with a long record of success in stakes races here at Santa Anita, Del Mar (late-summer stop in SoCal) and Churchill Downs. Creative Cause has consistently run on the board and grabbed a 1-2-3 spot in the biggest races. I’ll Have Another won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, a Derby prep race at this same locale earlier this year. I have to think these two horses will be the favorites, and if you get anything better than 4-1, they’d be a quality bet.
The intriguing horse in this field is Paynter. There is nothing in the horse’s resume that suggest he’s ready to compete at this level. Yes, he won an off-Broadway race here in February. There’s up to nine races a day four days a week—you do the math and what kind of company that puts him in. But the trainer is Bob Baffert, one of the West’s best. More intriguingly is that jockey Martin Garcia, a former Preakness Stakes winner, chose to ride this horse over others in the field he’s regularly aboard. What do Martin and Baffert know? Another Baffert horse to watch is Liaison, ridden by another high-quality jockey in Rafael Bejarano, with a couple stakes wins at nearby Hollywood Park under his belt. The problem is that Liaison’s been less successful since SoCal moved to the higher-quality racing at Santa Anita. Finally, keep an eye on Midnight Terrace, who finished third and first in stakes races at this track. There’s nothing spectacular there, but if you get odds of 10-1 or higher, he might be worth it.
Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, IL 6:46 PM ET): 17 horses are lined up to go in the Midwest and that makes this the closest approximation we’ll see to the field that the Kentucky Derby trots out (usually about 20). It’s worth noting that Kentucky Derby winners usually come at good odds—it’s tough for anyone to be too big a favorite in a field like this, and more importantly, a big field creates huge uncertainty, with anything from early jostling to greater difficulty in finding a rhythm all being bigger factors than normal. So let’s look at the four favorites, then target three solid longshots who could upset the applecart.
Currency Swap (4-1) is the current favorite and an unimpressive one at that. He got a stakes win at Saratoga and has only run once in 2012, a second-place finish. Saratoga’s a great meet in upstate New York every summer, but one stakes win does not a heavy favorite make. Our Entourage (9-2) is next in line and trained by Pletcher, but there’s nothing stakes-level in his previous record. Pretension (5-1) ran two stakes race in New York, winning neither and finishing in the money only once. Hakama (6-1) had his best showing at a stakes race at a minor track in Laurel, Maryland—where he finished second. Pardon me if I’m not overwhelmed by the caliber of the favorites.
When looking for a longshot I’m not going to pretend I’m some expert in monitoring workout patterns, though you can do that at equibase.com if you’re so inclined. I’m more interested in finding a jockey or trainer with a good record. Similar to looking for an NCAA Tournament darkhorse—you might like Florida at a #7 seed just because of the reputation of Billy Donovan. At Hawthorne Saturday, the equivalents thereof are Morgan’s Guerrilla (10-1), with the jockey/trainer team of Rosie Napravnik and Mike Maker, Saturday Launch (15-1) trained by former Belmont Stakes winner Ken McPeek, and Skyring (20-1) who was the legendary D. Wayne Lukas behind him.
To start with I’m probably giving Napravnik the benefit of the doubt in putting her in this company, but I am fascinated with the whole quest of her being the first woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race. The story’s fun, and her horse has won a couple no-name races. I’d dismiss this if we were talking about a favorite—not so if you can get odds like 10-1. Saturday Launch has been even more consistent, running in the money the last six times out. Again, none in big races. But it’s Skyring I find the most improving. Like the others, this horse hasn’t gone against elite company, but in his last three races he’s gone from fifth to second to first. An improving horse, a legendary trainer and a great price. Why not? If you check my section Bad Betting Advice, where I put all the bets I’d really make if I were in Las Vegas with a grand to burn, I’m adding $10 to Skyring to finish in the top three.
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.