By Ed McNamara
You never know where the Kentucky Derby winner is going to come from, especially when it’s only the first Saturday in February. Three Grade 3 stakes for Triple Crown hopefuls will be run on Saturday — the Withers (Aqueduct), the Holy Bull (Gulfstream) and the Robert B. Lewis (Santa Anita). Maybe they’ll provide a clue or two, but in recent years none of them has been much of a barometer for success in the big race at Churchill Downs.
I’ll Have Another, the 2012 Derby-Preakness hero, did have his coming-out party in the Robert B. Lewis, although no one saw him coming that day, when he scored at odds of 43-1. (The 2019 Lewis winner, Mucho Gusto, couldn’t beat the top 3-year-olds but he did dominate last weekend’s $3 million Pegasus World Cup.)
The New York road to the Derby has led nowhere since 2003, when the Wood Memorial produced both classic stars – runner-up Funny Cide (Derby, Preakness) and winner Empire Maker (Belmont Stakes). Three years earlier, Fusaichi Pegasus swept the Wood and the Derby, and the last horse to hit the Holy Bull-Derby double was Barbaro (2006).
Tiz the Law (Holy Bull) has the highest name recognition among the 21 runners in the three stakes, whose favorites look tough to beat. But you never can tell. Last week I gave out Gold Street in Oaklawn Park’s Smarty Jones Stakes for 3-year-olds, and he delighted me by leading all the way and paying $22.80. I also was right about Mucho Gusto, who dominated the Pegasus and paid $8.80. Unfortunately, I won’t be touting any price horses this week.
$250,000 Withers (1 1/8 miles, Aqueduct)
You always should give extra consideration to a course-and-distance winner, which is why I couldn’t get past the likely heavy favorite, Shotski. Last year he was the only 2-year-old in North America to win a graded stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the main track, and he did it at the funky Big A on Dec. 7 in the Remsen. I’m expecting a repeat victory, with Prince of Pharoahs the likeliest runner-up. The son of American Pharoah was second in Aqueduct’s Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1, when he dead-heated for second behind the 3-for-3 Independence Hall. I’ll go with Monday Morning Qb for third.
$250,000 Holy Bull (1 1/16 miles, Gulfstream)
Tiz the Law broke slowly and had a rough trip when third as the 3-5 favorite on a sloppy track Nov. 30 in a Churchill Downs stakes. He’s been working well for the past six weeks for trainer Barclay Tagg, and the race shape is very much in his favor. He’s the best finisher in a race packed with speed, and none of his six rivals has gone two turns on dirt. Tiz the Law won’t pay much, but he looks very formidable. Ete Indien and Toledo, who were 1-2, respectively, last time in a mile optional claimer at Gulfstream, should fight it out for second.
$100,000 Robert B. Lewis (1 1/16 miles, Santa Anita)
Five-time Derby champion Bob Baffert puts blinkers on the clear favorite, Thousand Words, who has been training impressively since his neck victory in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 7. He’s 2-for-2, and both times has shown the typical grit of a Baffert runner. High Velocity, a distant third behind Thousand Words in the Los Al Futurity, should make it a very chalky Baffert-Baffert exacta. Zimba Warrior, 1-for-6 but third in two Grade 3 stakes, should complete a trifecta that will pay very little.
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.