Kentucky Derby field starting to take shape

Feb 16, 2016 3:06 AM

By the time this is published on Tuesday, Feb. 16, the results will be known about a pair of Kentucky Derby prep races in Arkansas and Southern California.

Fact is, Nyquist, the undefeated winner of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes at Keeneland last fall, was to make his 2016 debut in the 7 furlong, $200,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Monday. Likewise, there were 14 promising 3 year olds also set to compete on Monday in the 1-1/16 mile $500,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Whether Nyquist did or did not win the San Vicente, that Monday result seems unlikely to have any effect on trainer Doug O’Neill’s plan to get Nyquist to Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

“We just need to get him started,” O’Neill explained. “He’s grown a bit during the past few months and he’s had a series of useful five and six furlong workouts. This race (the San Vicente) comes at the right time at the right distance.”

Accordingly, Nyquist need only to have run well on Monday and come back to his barn in good physical shape for O’Neill to point Nyquist for the next logical step in the colt’s Kentucky Derby program. That next race figures to be the 1-1/16 mile, $400,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 12, which in turn should help Nyquist compete in the 1-1/8 mile, $1 million Santa Anita Derby, on April 9.

Meanwhile the field for the Southwest stakes at Oaklawn on Monday was loaded with horses that have yet to become household names. But there was a lot more quality in the starting gate than most fans probably realized.

For instance, the 14 horses entered already had won 24 races, including five stakes for earnings in excess of $1.3 million. Perhaps of equal import, there were horses in that group trained by four horsemen who previously had won the Kentucky Derby including Jack Van Berg who had Cutacorner in the Southwest; John Servis who saddled Bird of Trey; as well as D. Wayne Lukas who had Z Royal in the field, and Bob Baffert who shipped Collected to Arkansas for this race from California.

Van Berg, the Hall of Famer who trained Alysheba to a Kentucky Derby victory in 1987 has been enjoying one of his best seasons in several years. He certainly was encouraged by Cutacorner’s solid victory over the Oaklawn racing surface on Jan 21 that led him to believe he just might have a 2016 Derby horse in his barn.

Van Berg, of course, needed to see Cutacorner turn in a good effort in the Southwest to keep his Derby dream alive. Of the other three horses trained by former Derby winners, two of their Southwest starters previously had won stakes.

Service, who trained 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, won a minor stakes with Bird of Trey, while Lukas, a four time Derby winner not only had Z Royal in the field, but he convinced Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens to accept the mount.

Baffert, who also has trained four Derby winners, was hoping Collected would continue his development after that swift son of City Zip won the one mile, Grade-III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 9.

Obviously, when the dust settled, those horses that performed well on Monday, probably will be pointed next for a second 1-1/16 mile stakes at Oaklawn – the $900,000 Rebel Stakes on March 19. The Rebel, of course, usually provides top contenders for the 1-1/8 mile, $1 million Arkansas Derby, April 16.

The calendar says we are about 12 weeks away from the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6. But, the pace of preparing the most promising 3 year olds in America for that prestigious 1-1/4 mile race definitely has picked up and will become even more intense during the next few weeks.

Even this past weekend we saw at least two potential Kentucky Derby contenders emerge from the $200,000 El Camino Real stakes at Golden Gate Fields. Fact is, that 1-1/8 mile race was won nicely by another O’Neill Derby prospect – Frank Conversation – who finished strongly to score as the 8-5 betting favorite over the converted turf horse, Tusk, who also showed some promise for trainer Graham Motion.

As I see the Kentucky Derby from this early vantage point, there literally are more than three dozen rapidly developing 3 year olds who have shown enough so far to be on my long list of potential contenders. And, for what it may be worth, here is my present top five who are all heading in the right direction.

1. Mohaymen: Has performed well in all starts to date and has the top Beyer Speed Figure by any 3 year old so far – a 95 Beyer – earned in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30.

2. Mor Spirit: This Baffert trainee improved in his latest stakes victory and has even more potential.

3. Frank Conversation: Demonstrated a much stronger finishing punch than expected when he won the El Camino Real Derby and seems more advanced than his Eclipse Award winning stable-mate, Nyquist.

4. Nyquist: Did win the 1-1/16 mile Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last fall with a good performance while forced to race wide. Is being handled well by solid Derby winning horsemen.

5. Exaggerator: Finished fourth in the BCup Juvenile last fall, but did come back from that to win the rich Delta Jackpot at 1-1/16 miles and has trained superbly so far this year. Should get his 2016 season off the ground with a good effort in the San Vicente and, as hinted earlier, this son of Curlin is among many to keep an eye on through the next several weeks.

Steve Davidowitz, author of the best selling “,” has covered racing since Secretariat, lives in Vegas & is writing a new book, “Cashing Big on Racing’s Biggest Days.” Email: SteveDavidowitz