Early Derby contenders forming

Early Derby contenders forming

February 06, 2018 3:00 AM
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We are about 12 weeks away from the 2018 Kentucky Derby, but this past Saturday we saw a few prep races that may have identified legit contenders for the world’s most famous race.

In particular, Audible’s 5-length victory over Free Drop Billy in the 1-1/16 mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park clearly stamped him as one of the horses to carefully watch going forward. Not only did this New York bred son of Into Mischief win his third straight at one mile or more, but he earned a solid 99 Beyer Speed Figure for his 1:41-4/5 clocking and performed so smoothly under regular jockey Joe Bravo that the added distances to come should be well within his natural range.

On Sunday morning, trainer Todd Pletcher suggested Audible’s next and last Derby prep race probably will be in the $1 million Florida Derby at GP on March 31. “We might change our minds and put him into a race before then,” Pletcher said, “but, right now we think we can train him up to that 1-1/8 mile race.”

Among other 3 year olds who performed well on Saturday, I was impressed by Avery Island, who scored his second Graded stakes victory, taking the 1-1/8 mile Withers by two lengths over the 2017 Champagne Stakes winner Firenze Fire, in 1:51. That was good for an 87 Beyer Figure, the best of Avery’s career to date.

A well-built son of highly prized sire Street Sense, this Kiaran McLaughlin trainee seemed strongest toward the end of the contest, which always is a good sign for a horse hoping to hold his form or improve upon it at the classic 1-1/4 mile Derby distance. By the way, most people may not know it, but the Withers has been run since 1874, a year before the first Kentucky Derby.

At Santa Anita Park, the traditional Grade-3, $150,000 Robert B. Lewis stakes was won wire to wire by recent maiden graduated Lombo, who earned a respectable 86 Beyer for his effort. Yet, for me, the significance of the race was not tied to the winner as much as to the disappointing efforts by the rest of the field, including five would-be Derby prospects who had earned 80-plus Beyer Figures in one or more of their previous starts.

Among them was second place finisher Ayacara, as well as 8-5 favorite Peace, who was nowhere close. Silvermetimbers, who had earned four straight Beyers of 83-89, also ran poorly, as did recent maiden winner Pepe Tomo and the Bob Baffert trained Regulate who struggled to finish fourth. Frankly, I doubt we saw the 144th Kentucky Derby winner in this race, although I would give Ayacara another chance to fit into the Derby picture.

Before I share my first list of 2018 Derby prospects – with more to come as we move closer to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May – I think interested horseplayers should go back to Gulfstream to take note of an impressive maiden race winner on the Holy Bull card.

The colt, named Machismo, had been trained by Pletcher and did need four starts to score his first victory. But wow! All Machismo did for his new trainer Anthony Quartarolo, was draw away from his competition to win by 11 lengths in the snappy time of 1:16-1/5 for 6-1/2 furlongs. While his 85 Beyer fit in well with the day’s best, Machismo will be a distinct longshot to stretch out in distance.

Nevertheless, I believe this colt should have a good career in stakes up to one mile. By comparison earlier on the GP Saturday card, Strike Power comfortably won the 7 furlong, G-3 $200,000 Swale Stakes with an 87 Beyer.

And now for my first listing of 2018 Derby prospects. While I ordinarily would list a top 10; I have a seven-way tie for ninth and a six way tie for tenth.

1. Good Magic: Looked quite strong winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November. Will be in action soon.

2. Audible: Acted like a serious Derby colt winning the Holy Bull at GP on Saturday.

3. Avery Island: His strong performance in the Withers suggests there is more to come.

4. McKinzie: Earned 93 and 99 Beyer Figures in his last two races. Right now, he’s the best Derby colt in California.

5. Solomini: A respectable 2nd in the BC Juvenile, he’s been patiently handled for a 2018 return. Watch carefully.

6. Enticed: Weak 4th in Audible’s Holy Bull, but was not cranked up. Next start should be quite revealing.

7. Noble Indy: This lightly raced, lightly publicized Jan. 11 winner at GP could be dangerous in his stakes debut.

8. Bolt d’Oro: Earned a big Figure last fall and was 3rd in the BC Juvenile. Been slow to get into training.

Added Note: There will be one Graded Derby prep stakes at 1-1/16 miles next Saturday, Feb. 10 – The $250K Sam F, Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.