As racing fans have begun to realize, the annual march toward the Kentucky Derby is off and running. That’s because the Derby is a race exclusively for 3-year-olds and we already have seen a handful turn in some noteworthy performances.
For instance, on New Year’s Day Ax Man earned a spot on my (Derby) horses-to-watch list when he earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure winning his career debut. Five days later, the promising McKinzie scored a 97 Beyer to solidify the positive impression he made when he earned a 99 at Santa Anita as a 2-year-old last October.
Just this past Saturday, the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct was won by Firenze Fire and the Le Comte at the Fairgrounds was won by Instilled Regard. While neither of these newly turned 3-year-olds resembled Citation, both made my early list of Derby horses to watch by scoring moderate 90 and 92 Beyer Figures, respectively.
Just so we are talking the same language, readers should know I annually begin listing possible Derby contenders in mid-January and to make my list(s) I only consider horses who have achieved at least one, or both of the following:
• Dating back to Aug. 1 of the horse’s 2-year-old season, a prospective Derby contender must have won a non-claiming race going one mile or longer; OR, earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 90-plus. Moving into February, my minimum qualifying number goes up to a 92 Beyer, while in March it goes up to 94 and remains at that level through the final Derby prep race – the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 14.
Similarly, my qualifying distance remains at one-mile until April 1, when I insist upon an in-the-money finish in a race at 1-1/16 miles or longer and a 94 Beyer Speed Figure.
So, as I compiled my first Derby horses-to-watch list on Sunday morning, Jan. 14, I only rated my top dozen prospects and left out seven other horses that ranked very close. That said and pending future performances, I will re-assess my list in mid-February and will do the same in mid-March. By that time, most of the leading Derby contenders will have shown their class and suitability to races beyond a mile. And there is one other important point: My rankings are not strictly based on Beyer Speed Figures; they also reflect what I saw these horses do.
My Jan. 14 rankings:
1. Good Magic, 100; DMR, Nov. 4, strong late to win BCup Juvenile.
2. McKinzie, 97; SA, Jan. 6, good form, with a recent 1-mile win.
3. Strike Power, 102; GP, Dec. 23, terrific debut win at 5-1/2 furlongs.
4. Mask, 91; GP, Jan. 6, easily won a weak 1-mile stakes.
5. Analyze It, 93; DMR, Nov. 26, terrific on turf; must find out about dirt.
6. Bolt d’Oro, 103; Santa Anita, Sept. 30, top Figure of these to date.
7. Solomini, 93; DMR, Nov. 4, 2nd in BC Juvenile and a 93; LRL, Dec. 9.
8. Ax Man, 96; SA, Jan. 1, fine debut win at 6 furlongs for Baffert.
9. Instilled Regard, 92; FG, Jan. 13, comfortable win in weak stakes.
10. Firenze Fire, 90; Aqu., Jan. 13, worked hard in mud for this.
11. Greyvitos, 93; DMR, Nov. 11, well built colt to watch going longer.
12. Win the War, 93; Woodbine, Nov. 19, good effort by a fast filly.
There are sure to be more than 40 Derby prep races going forward and all Derby age horses will attempt to earn their way into the 20-horse Derby starting gate at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 5. Readers should know a complete calendar of those prep races can be found on the Daily Racing Form’s website (DRF.com). But, cutting to the chase, I intend to focus on the 18 prep races listed below that will help me finalize my Derby analysis and selections.
• In February there will be five key Derby preps: The Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, the Withers at Aqueduct, Holy Bull at Gulfstream, Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and the Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
• In March there will be eight high-profile Derby preps: The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, the Gotham at Aqueduct, San Felipe at Santa Anita, Tampa Bay (Downs) Derby; the Rebel at Oaklawn, the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby and the UAE Derby.
• In April there will be five more important Derby preps. Together, they tend to produce more serious contenders for The World’s Most Famous Race than any combination of 20 races on the schedule. These five are: The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland, the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes.
Bottom line: The national racing season has just begun and players who learn how to spot improving 3-year-olds this winter should make several excellent plays along the way.
Added Note: Next week we’ll take a close look at the $16 million Pegasus World Cup, to be run at Gulfstream, Saturday, Jan. 27.