We’ve reached the mission critical stage on the Kentucky Derby trail and this weekend presents three big prep races as the second leg of the Derby Championship Series commences. Kicked off by the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard this morning, the series will continue this afternoon with two major feature races in Florida and Louisiana.
This weekend’s races present the winners with an opportunity to secure 100 points and a spot in the gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Second place will be worth 40 points and third and fourth will garner 20 and 10 points, respectively. The next seven prep races on the series schedule over the next three weekends will widely determine who will be running for the roses.
The $1 million Florida Derby (NBC Sports Network, 6 p.m.) has drawn 10 starters and is shaping up to be a showdown between three top horses on the trail. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby (24 points), Fountain of Youth winner Orb (50 points) and Holy Bull champ Itsmyluckyday (10 points) will face off at Gulfstream Park, going 1∂-miles.
Shanghai Bobby had the unfortunate luck of drawing the rail, a spot that has not claimed victory in the Florida Derby since 1971, when Eastern Fleet captured the race from the inside gate. He’ll be guided by red-hot jockey Rosie Napravnik, seeking to become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Last year she became the first female to win the Kentucky Oaks. A top three finish will likely place Shanghai Bobby in the Derby.
The Juvenile champ’s undefeated string was broken in the Holy Bull, even though his time would have set a track record were it not for Itsmyluckyday, who passed him in the stretch and now owns that record. Questions abound about potential distance limitations, but Starlight Racing principal Jack Wolf thinks he will overcome that challenge.
“He’s matured and as far as his first race as a 3-year-old, from a numbers standpoint,” the Holy Bull was his best race, Wolf said. “So as far as I can see and as far as Todd [Pletcher] has told me as how he handles himself in the barn and his works, that he’s made the step in good order.”
One horse that has enough points to start in the Derby is Orb, trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, an accomplished trainer who has never won the roses. He’s a trainer who takes it a little slower with his horses and doesn’t rush them just to make the Derby.
“I want the horse to take me there,” McGaughey said. “I think I’ve only run six horses at it, and maybe I made a mistake a time or two, but I really don’t think so. I think we’re excited about the opportunity of this weekend, hoping that Orb will run well enough to take us there.”
The Fountain of Youth winner will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
Itsmyluckyday has been nothing but sterling in his morning workouts since the Holy Bull victory and has won two straight over the Gulfstream strip. He has the highest speed figure of any 3-year-old on the Derby trail currently and looms as the likely favorite at post time. Shanghai Bobby and Merit Man figure to set the early pace. I see Itsmyluckyday having a stalking trip and holding off a late charging Orb at the wire.
With the Derby points growing in this stage, full fields are expected in most of the seven series races in this leg, and the Louisiana Derby is no exception. The $1 million race at the Fair Grounds has drawn 14 starters, including the highly regarded Revolutionary from the Pletcher barn and second place finisher in the Risen Star, Code West, out of the Bob Baffert barn. The race will be telecast along with the Florida Derby and has a 6:44 p.m. post time.
However, the most intriguing entry comes from a partnership made up of former Green Bay Packer greats, including Paul Hornung and Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis. The aptly named Titletown Five is trained by the four-time Derby winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Titletown Five decided to skip last weekend’s Sunland Derby to point toward the Louisiana Derby based on Lukas’ direction to give him another week of training. The Tiznow colt out of a Forest Wildcat mare will be stretching out for the first time going the 1∂-mile Louisiana Derby distance.
Hornung described his childhood in Louisville on a recent call with the national racing media. “I grew up in Louisville and worked at Churchill Downs when I was a kid. I lied about my age when I was 13 to become an usher and make $40 on a Saturday, which was a huge amount when I was 13 years old. So this has been a special race for me. If I could win and be a part of a winning Derby, for heaven sakes, this would be the greatest thrill of my life.”
This statement coming from a Heisman Trophy winner and first overall NFL draft pick tells you how much a Derby victory would mean to him.
Titletown Five will have some rock-solid competition with Revolutionary (10 points), Palace Malice (10 points) and Code West (20 points), contenders that will try to keep him out of the gate on the first Saturday in May.
Revolutionary comes off an impressive victory at Aqueduct in the Withers, where he had to weave through traffic under a horrific trip, getting up in the shadow of the wire. He’s had a history of bad trips and big hype and I will be playing against him. He’ll be pitted against his stable mate, Palace Malice, also trained by Pletcher, who runs for Dogwood Stables.
Dogwood managing partner Cot Campbell beamed over Palace Malice’s recent workout. “He’s done really well since his last race and this work on Sunday was a knockout; and Todd is not one to gush, as we all know, and I’ve never known him to be more enthusiastic than he was about the work.”
The horse I will be backing is the Baffert-trained Code West, a Lemon Drop Kid colt who was just nosed out of a victory in the Risen Star after a game effort finishing in front of Palace Malice. He comes in third off the layoff and looks to improve as he stretches out another ½-furlong in the Louisiana Derby.
The UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai will include six American horses of the 12 entered.
A preview of that race and the $10 million Dubai World Cup can be found online at the Sports, Ink blog.
It’s win and you’re in time on the road to the Kentucky Derby, so be sure to keep tabs on your potential Derby horses over the next three big weekends of racing.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.