by Noel Michaels
As we make our way toward the final round of prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, things continue to sort themselves out at a very slow pace this season in the three-year-old division. Some horses have managed to distinguish themselves in the prep races, but many other would-be Derby contenders have disappointed, and many others have not yet even begun their sophomore campaigns.
The latest big news on the road to the Kentucky Derby is twofold. First, the cancellation of the San Felipe (G2) due to track safety concerns plaguing Santa Anita has affected some of the top Derby contenders, disrupting their training and prep schedule and delaying the progress of horses such as Bob Baffert’s dynamic duo of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champ Game Winner and Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner Improbable, among others.
Secondly, the ripple effect from Santa Anita’s cancellation of the San Felipe is being felt at far away as Oaklawn Park. Many of those affected by Santa Anita’s temporary closure, including both horses mentioned above, will now be headed to the next available Derby prep race spot which just so happens to be the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn on Saturday, March 16.
The Rebel is scheduled to be a $1 million prep race run at 1 1/16 miles. With an overflow of entries now expected, however, due to the large purse and the San Felipe’s cancelation, the Rebel is now expected to be “split” into two $750,000 races offering adjusted Kentucky Derby points (37.5 points to two winners instead of 50 to a single winner, etc.).
The good thing for Baffert and other trainers considering entering two horses in the Rebel, is that horses from the same barn will automatically be entered in different Rebel heats, meaning that his top contenders will avoid a showdown and, theoretically, Baffert could win both splits of the Rebel with Game Winner and Improbable.
While the San Felipe / Rebel drama continues to unfold, another round of prep races is now in the books with last weekend’s Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct and the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) yielding more questions than answers, as even more Derby hopefuls recorded big flops. Favorites going down in flames in the Gotham and Tampa Bay Derby included Jerry Hollendorfer’s Instagrand and Bob Baffert’s Much Better (third and fourth in the Gotham after getting cooked on an unrealistically hot pace) and Sam F. Davis winner Well Defined, who got KO’d on a similarly fast pace at Tampa in a race where well-bet, last-out winners Win Win Win and especially Dream Maker also underperformed.
Kiaran McLaughlin’s Gotham winner, Haikal, benefitted from sitting behind the blazing pace and waiting for the race to fall apart — and that’s exactly what happened. That win probably will not propel the horse to bigger and better things. The big winner of the weekend was Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus, who looked good in his 3-year-old debut off a four-month layoff for trainer Bill Mott. Tacitus will have another prep before the Kentucky Derby, but now seems to have replaced Hidden Scroll and the off-the-Derby-trail Mucho as the barn’s leading Derby contender.
Based on the latest results, here are my current top 5 overall Kentucky Derby contenders heading into this coming weekend’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.
- Code of Honor – Turned in the best prep race performance so far this season, in my opinion, when winning Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth against a loaded field for trainer Shug McGaughey. Back on track now and headed toward either the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial next — and the likely favorite in either spot.
- War of Will – Undefeated since switching to the dirt three races ago for trainer Mark Casse, including back-to-back graded stakes wins in the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds. Looking very good heading into the Louisiana Derby on March 23.
- Game Winner – Many people’s No. 1 contender is the undefeated winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for the loaded barn of multiple Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert. He has yet to make his 3-year-old debut, however, and is delayed a week and off his original schedule thanks to the San Felipe debacle. Also, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has turned out to be something of a negative key race, with second- and third-place finishers Signalman and Knicks Go running terribly this year.
- Improbable – Baffert’s second-stringer might actually be his best Derby candidate, having crushed the Los Alamitos Futurity when last seen back in December over a field that included Robert B. Lewis winner Mucho Gusto. Also owns a 7-length stakes victory at one-mile at Churchill Downs, but like Game Winner has now had his training / prep schedule altered thanks to the canceled San Felipe.
- Tacitus – The aforementioned winner of the Tampa Bay Derby for trainer Bill Mott beat a big field, earned a solid speed figure, and will be given the chance to develop further with another prep race planned before the first Saturday in May.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.