Build up to Kentucky Derby winding down

Apr 19, 2016 3:02 AM

On Saturday, the Bob Baffert-trained Collected won the $150,000 Lexington stakes at Keeneland, while the Steve Asmussen-trained Creator scored an important win in the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Yet, I think we learned a lot more about the losing favorite in the Arkansas Derby that could help us pick the Derby winner.

Specifically, Cupid, the Baffert-trained colt who previously had won the $900,000 Rebel stakes at Oaklawn last month, was a strong 4-5 favorite to win the 9 furlong Arkansas Derby. But, Cupid faded badly to finish 10th in the 12 horse Arkansas field after chasing front running Gettysburg to the top of the stretch.

“I think the fractions probably took a toll on us,” Baffert’s assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said, referring to the first half mile clocked in 46-4/5 and six furlongs in 1:10-3/5.

Barnes’ analysis of how the fast pace hurt Cupid seems accurate. Moreover, as impressive as Cupid looked winning the 1-1/16 mile Rebel last month, his fade job on Saturday suggests he probably does not have what it takes to be a serious win threat in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby. (Editor’s Note: At deadline, Daily Racing Form reported Cupid will not run in the Kentucky Derby on May 7.)

Because the grey son of Tapit has more than enough points to get into the race, Baffert could change his mind about not running Cupid and decide to run him for another purpose entirely.

Specifically, Baffert could use Cupid to ensure a relatively fast, contested pace that could help his primary Derby threat – Mor Spirit – to fire his most effective stretch bid.

To appreciate the way the Derby itself is shaping up, let’s take a look at the way the Arkansas Derby played out, as well as the way the Santa Anita Derby was run on April 9. In both of those $1 million, 1-1/8 mile Derby prep races, fit stretch-running types dominated the top finishing positions after intensive pace battles fell apart.

Creator, for instance, won the Arkansas Derby with a last-to-first burst of speed in the final 3/16 mile. Similarly, second place finisher Suddenbreakingnews and third place finisher Whitmore also closed from back in the pack after Cupid and Gettysburg battled themselves into submission.

Likewise, the Santa Anita Derby result was set up by a hotly contested pace, as Exaggerator fired a strong rally to win that important Derby prep, while Mor Spirit overcame some traffic issues before firing his late run for second and Uncle Lino essentially did the same for third.

While any and all of these stretch running types may prove to be the key contenders in the Kentucky Derby, recent Derby preps clearly suggest the top finishers were dependent upon contentious pace issues. So, with that, I believe there will be three key issues horseplayers will need to focus on, if they hope to pick the 2016 Kentucky Derby winner and/or the most logical horses who will be involved in the Derby exotics.

Those three key things are:

• During the next 18 days leading up to the Derby, horseplayers must try to determine which horses are training aggressively toward a probable top performance.

• It also will be crucial for horseplayers to identify which horses among the expected 20 in the actual Derby field are front-running types that can set fast fractional splits. If the actual composition of the race seems light on speed types, it will be hard to get excited about any of the prominent stretch runners.

• Beyond the two items outlined above, players have to recognize that this is a relatively slow group of 3 year olds who have been competing in the various prep stakes. That is documented by the modest 96 Beyer Speed Figure Creator earned winning the Arkansas Derby and the 90 earned by Collected in the Lexington. Even Exaggerator’s 103 for winning the Santa Anita Derby earlier this month, the highest earned by a 3 year old this season, was below the standard of performance set by the vast majority of Derby contenders in recent seasons.

All the recent stakes results have pointed out how vulnerable horses with early speed will be in this special 1-1/4 mile race that tends to test the stamina as well as the overall class of the contenders who compete in it.

To underscore what I included in my three points above, the final steps in the handicapping process will revolve around the fitness of the horses that can be expected to benefit from a favorable pace scenario.

If you wind up believing undefeated Nyquist is the fittest horse in the Derby and his near-the-pace running style will be suited to a modest early pace, then by all means stay with the probable Derby favorite. If, however, you think stretch-running Exagggerator, Mor Spirit, Creator, Suddenbreakingnews or Whitmore will have a contested pace in their favor, then I suggest the Derby winner will be the fittest horse in that group.

I also believe those stretch runners could dominate the Derby exotics, pending how fit they seem based on the professional Derby workout reports that can be found online.

With respect to that, on May 6 – the Day before the Kentucky Derby – I will be hosting a Derby seminar at the Sunset Station racebook with noted horseplayers Brian Blessing, Dave Valento and Richard Eng.

You can certainly expect the fitness of each horse, as well as various Derby pace scenarios, will be discussed in great detail at that seminar.

Speaking of May 6, which is the day the Kentucky Oaks is run at Churchill, we learned on Sunday, that the terrific 3-year-old filly Songbird will not be competing in this year’s Oaks due to a low-grade fever that will keep her on the sidelines through the next month or so. The entire racing world is hoping Songbird fully recovers with no lasting effects.

Steve Davidowitz, author of the best selling “,” has covered racing since Secretariat, lives in Vegas and has just completed a new book – “Cashing Big on Racing’s Biggest Days.” Should you wish to purchase a personally autographed copy, please send Steve a note for details: SteveDavidowitz