If Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert does not win this year’s Kentucky Derby to follow up on American Pharoah’s 2015 Triple Crown sweep, it won’t be without a fierce fight.
On Saturday, Baffert’s Cupid, winner of only a maiden race in California before he took on a good field of Derby hopefuls in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, entered this year’s Derby picture with a performance that seemed even more potent than the 95 Beyer Speed Figure he earned for his effort.
Overcoming a slightly slow beginning, Cupid quickly sped to the front, held the lead through even fractions to the top of the stretch. And, after taking an awkward step near the final furlong, he courageously repulsed a strong, spirited late bid by Whitmore, who looked like he was going to go past, but could not match strides with the winner. I was further impressed that Cupid galloped out past the wire with considerable speed in reserve!
Not to confuse Cupid with American Pharoah, but this was a promising performance by an emerging Kentucky Derby prospect, the sixth winner of the Rebel Stakes trained by his Hall of fame trainer who clearly knows how to get his best 3 year olds to the race every trainer in America wants most to win.
It also should be pointed out that Baffert already has Mor Spirit in good form after that colt won the Los Alamitos Futurity last December; the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February, and was a very good second to Danzig Candy in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 12. He presently has 44 points and will be in line to earn more in his next and final Derby prep race.
While many options are open to all three of Baffert’s Derby prospects, Mor Spirit is expected to run in the 1-1/8 mile, $1 million SA Derby on April 9.
In an exchange of Emails with Baffert this weekend, he simply replied with these four words:
“Now the fun begins!”
The fun this next weekend probably will not involve Baffert’s 3 year olds; but we will see the first of seven Derby prep races in which 100 points will go to the winners, 40 for seconds, 20 for thirds and 10 for each of the fourth place finishers.
Besides those seven 100-point races, the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on April 2 is a 50-point race and the final Derby prep – the Lexington at Keeneland on April 16 – is a 10 pointer and will be the final chance for borderline Derby prospects to earn their way into the big race.
Moving right along, the scene this Saturday will shift to the 1-1/8 mile, $1 million Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and the 1-3/16 mile $10 million UAE Derby at Meydan racecourse in the Middle East. Both races are 100 point affairs.
I confess to having no realistic idea who is going to be in the UAE Derby; or if any in the race will show up at Churchill Downs. But post positions for the Louisiana Derby already have been drawn to conform to Louisiana’s unique racing rules. From the rail out, with their respective trainers, jockeys and morning line odds, here is the field before scratches:
1. Gun Runner, Steve Asmussen, Florent Geroux, 3-1.
2. Greenpointcrusader, Dominick Shettino, John Velazquez, 7-2.
3. Battery, Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano, 10-1.
4. Conquest Windycity, Mark Casse, Joseph Rocco, Jr., 15-1.
5. Candy My Boy, Roger Brueggemann, Francisco Torres, 15-1.
6. Mo Tom, Tom Amoss, Corey Lanerie, 5-2.
7. Tom’s Ready, Dallas Stewart, Brian Hernandez, Jr., 15-1.
8. Uncle Walter, Michael Maker, Robby Albarado, 20-1.
9. Dazzling Gem, Brad Cox, Shaun Bridgmohan, 12-1.
10. Zapperini, Gregory Foley, Julien Leparoux, 20-1.
11. Forevamo, Albert Stall, Jr., Colby Hernandez, 10-1.
Aside from the good form being brought into this race from the top three finishers in the Feb. 20 Risen Star Stakes – Gun Runner, Forevamo and Mo Tom – the great eastern-based trainer Todd Pletcher has entered Gulfstream allowance winner Battery, hoping to win enough points for the Derby.
Pletcher, en route to his 13th Gulfstream training title this year, has won the Louisiana Derby three times and last week scored his 4,000th career victory. Two things must be said about that:
• Despite obvious credentials, including having won $311 million – the most in history by any trainer – Pletcher is not yet a member of Racing’s Hall of Fame. That’s because he is a year shy of having put in 20 years as a trainer to qualify. Pletcher worked several years under Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas before going out on his own.
• It also must be pointed out that Pletcher has only won a single Kentucky Derby, with Super Saver in 2010. By comparison, his rival for training dominance in this era, Bob Baffert, already has won four.
As for my current ranking of Derby prospects, I still give the top spot narrowly to Mohaymen; with Nyquist second, Danzig Candy third, Destin fourth, Cupid fifth, Mor Spirit sixth, Exaggerator seventh, Whitmore eighth, Zulu ninth, and Fellowship tenth.
So many of these – and other 3 year olds still in the Derby game – probably need just one excellent performance in a 100-point race to catapult to the top of this list and possibly be the right horse for the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
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 @GamingToday.com.