By Gene Kershner
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
If you’re searching for a Kentucky Derby contender to root for in the Run for the Roses, you know it’s as important as selecting the right sauce for your chicken wing.
The first year under the new Derby points system has meant new strategies for owners and trainers attempting to garner enough points to qualify for a gate on the first Saturday in May. Pundits feel that 40-45 points will be enough to earn a spot, with three races remaining in the 50-20-10-5 leg of the series.
Two horses already have fallen off the trail, Risen Star winner Ive Struck a Nerve and Fountain of Youth runner-up Violence.
Both have dropped out due to injury.
Keeping with our mid-March tradition of looking at the current leaders in the chase for the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, let’s check out the 3-year-old colts that are creating a buzz on the Derby trail.
In concert with prior years, the colts will be sorted Buffalo-style: Hot, Medium and Mild.
Two horses seem to be gathering steam having good fortune in New York and Florida to sit atop the Derby point standings heading into the weekend.
Vyjack, a son of Into Mischief, looks to have earned his way into the Derby via his recent win in the Grade 2 Gotham. After being taken way back by jockey Joel Rosario in the early stages of the Gotham, he was in eighth place when they hit the quarter pole after reasonable early fractions. At that point the undefeated Vyjack cruised past his foes by more than two lengths. His sire had success on the Derby trail before going down to injury before the big race. Look for him next in the Wood Memorial in early April at Aqueduct.
Probably the hottest colt in the land went into last weekend without a single point and came out of the Tampa Bay Derby with a share of the lead. The highly touted Verrazano stumbled at the start but put it into another gear in deep stretch to capture valuable points for trainer Todd Pletcher. With an interesting pedigree with speed on top (King’s Bishop winner More Than Ready) and stamina on the bottom (Giant’s Causeway is his damsire), he will be a force to be reckoned with in Louisville.
Ironically his first race and win came on New Year’s Day, giving him a chance to become the first horse since Apollo in 1881 to win the Derby after going unraced at age 2. Bodemeister almost broke the Apollo curse last year, finishing second behind I’ll Have Another. Pletcher has options on where to race him next and has said that the Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial or Florida Derby are all possible next stops for Verrazano.
Our medium horses are those colts quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not mesmerizing performances in the Derby prep races to date. Closers don’t typically win the Derby, as horses usually close to the pace around the quarter pole have fared the best in recent years. This year’s crop provides us with two closers that have moved toward the head of the class and could make some noise if a hot pace should arise on Derby day.
Orb pulled a major upset in the Fountain of Youth, defeating heavily favored Violence, a horse that would have been on the “hot” list a few weeks ago, but now is off the trail completely due to injury. The Malibu Moon colt took advantage of a very fast pace that had extremely fast splits for the quarter (23 and change) and the half (45 and change) and zipped past Violence, one of many Pletcher 3-year-old hopefuls, in the final furlong. Orb is the kind of horse that most likely won’t win the Derby, but you’d be smart to consider him in the third and fourth spots, where deep closers typically finish on Derby day. His next start should be the Florida Derby.
The other horse that makes up our “medium” category had the perfect trip in winning last weekend’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Hear the Ghost, a son of Ghostzapper, charged past the two front-runners, Flashback and Goldencents, who dueled themselves out of the race. I love the Ghost’s pedigree with a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner on top and a damsire (Coronado’s Quest) that is a Travers winner at the classic mile and a quarter distance on the bottom. His next outing should be the Santa Anita Derby. The Kentucky Derby is all about stamina and staying power, and this colt seems to have both.
Our horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional spices and seasoning.
A horse on top of my Wireplayers.com Derby dozen poll, Itsmyluckyday, earned 10 points in his win in the Holy Bull last month at Gulfstream Park. He still needs a first (100 points) or second place (40 points) finish in one of the next legs of the Championship Series to secure a gate in Louisville. He upset Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull and set a track record in doing so. The Lawyer Ron colt is headed to the Florida Derby next.
Included in our mild category is a horse that finished first on the turf in the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream named Rydilluc, who currently has no points. Rydilluc will attempt the same route to the Derby as Dullahan (2012) and Paddy O’Prado (2010), two colts that rounded out the Derby trifecta in their respective years. The Medaglia d’Oro colt has three straight turf wins . It appears that trainer Gary Contessa will point him toward the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as a final Derby prep.
There’s no horse on the radar that could be dubbed the “suicide” horse, so grab some blue cheese, your favorite sauce and settle in for some great Derby preps in the coming weeks.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.