By Ed McNamara
These are disturbing times for the world and for America, and our national race reflects the chaos. Two of the past three winners of the Kentucky Derby were disqualified, an unprecedented burst of weirdness. The 148th edition also is shaping up as odd, and for a unique reason.
Mr. Derby himself, six-time winner Bob Baffert, is barred from competing at Churchill Downs, and his long series of medication violations justify the ban. All of his stakes-winning 3-year-olds — Messier, Pinehurst, Blackadder, Newgrange, Corniche — are prohibited from earning Derby qualifying points.
Chances are that some, if not all, will be moved to other trainers before the five major preps — Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial. Each offers 100 points to the winner and 40 to the runner-up, which would allow them to catch up and make the big race.
It’s too early to draw conclusions about this 3-year-old class, but the current list of top 10 qualifiers is hard to get excited about. Besides Epicenter, the leader with 64 points, Smile Happy (No. 2) and Classic Causeway (No. 6), none has impressed me.
The filly Secret Oath has no Derby points, but she’s on a roll for Wayne Lukas. She dominated Saturday’s Grade 3 Honeybee at Oaklawn by 7 1/2 lengths, her third consecutive stakes win there (total margin: 23 lengths). The daughter of Arrogate is nominated for the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, and it would be a great story if the 86-year-old Lukas bypassed the Kentucky Oaks for the Derby. Lukas trained the last filly to win it (Winning Colors, 1988).
The big picture will begin to change starting with Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. It’s only 1 1/16 miles, though, and a win at that distance rarely forecasts success at 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May. Going back to 1980, only Orb (2013) and Thunder Gulch (1995) hit the Fountain of Youth-Kentucky Derby double, but a win (50 points) Saturday will get you into the big race.
$200,000 Gulfstream Park Mile (G2), 4-year-olds and up
I’ll use only two horses, likely favorite Speaker’s Corner (3) and Fearless (4), whom he beat by 1 1/4 lengths last time over the course and distance. Speaker’s Corner has won four straight around one turn, and he can lead or stalk.
I left out Ny Traffic, who’s not close to what he was in 2020, when he lost by a nose to eventual Horse of the Year Authentic after running second in back-to-back stakes. He’s dropped eight in a row against open company, with the only two wins in his last 10 races against fellow New York-breds.
I’ll single favorite Abaan (1), a front-running marathoner who’s won three in a row at 1 3/8, 2 and 1 1/2 miles, the last two at Gulfstream. He’s taken five of his last six on grass and comes in off three strong workouts for Todd Pletcher.
I’ll go with four horses in a competitive scramble that should have a lively pace. Simplification (2) ran well to be second in the Holy Bull after a poor start. Howling Time (3), at 15-1 in the morning line, could be a live longshot judging by his three straight bullet works at Gulfstream. He won a two-turn stakes at Churchill in his second start before fading to fifth behind the highly regarded trio of Smile Happy, Classic Causeway and White Abarrio.
Rattle and Roll (6), a strong closer, has two wins around two turns but like Howling Time makes his first start at 3. Emmanuel (8), 2-for-2 by 11 1/4 lengths for Pletcher, gets a class test as he moves into stakes company.
$300,000 Gotham (G3), 1-mile, 3-year-olds
You have to go back 49 years, to Secretariat, to find the last Gotham winner who won the Kentucky Derby. No matter who finishes first Saturday, it’s most unlikely he’ll be a factor in the Triple Crown. But the winner gets 50 points, so we may see him on Derby Day.
Baffert usually has the goods when he ships from California to New York stakes, and Rockefeller (10) looks tough. He gets serious class relief after chasing stablemates Corniche and Newgrange out west. He’s also the only graded-stakes winner in the field — Belmont’s Grade 3 Nashua, like the Gotham a one-turn mile.
Morello (9), 2-for-2 at the Big A, looked good stalking and finishing big to dominate the 7-furlong Jimmy Winkfield in only his second start. Bold Journey (8) is quick, has solid figures but could be compromised by a likely hot pace.
$400,000 San Felipe (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Trainer Richard Mandella tries two turns with Forbidden Kingdom (6) after he went wire to wire against three Baffert runners in the 7-furlong San Vicente. One of them, Pinehurst, won the Saudi Derby last weekend, and another, Doppelganger (5), returns to challenge Forbidden Kingdom after falling short by 2 3/4 lengths. Baffert’s quick Armagnac (3) dominated a 1 1/16-mile maiden at Santa Anita, shows four solid workouts since, and is eligible to improve.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.