By Richard Rosenblatt
Call us crazy, but we’re celebrating Wayne’s Week on the road to the 148th Kentucky Derby (G1) – and the Oaks (G1).
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas finds himself in a great spot with perhaps two Kentucky Derby contenders following a gratifying weekend at Oaklawn Park.
The 86-year-old Lukas is a four-time Derby winner and has sent out 49 starters in the Run for the Roses, more than any other trainer except Todd Pletcher. His most recent Derby starter, Bravazo, finished sixth in 2018. His first was in 1981.
And now he has a pair of 3-year-olds in position for berths in the Derby and the Oaks – Lukas’ Ethereal Road was nipped at the wire by 75-1 shot Un Ojo in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (Feb. 26) at Oaklawn Park and his filly Secret Oath won the Honeybee Stakes (G3) earlier on the card.
With that, Ethereal Road earned 20 Derby qualifying points and moves into the usracing.com Derby Top 10 at No. 5. It’s likely enough to get into the Derby limited to 20 horses.
And we’re tossing in Secret Oath in at No. 7 after Lukas said he’ll consider the Derby for her rather than the Oaks for fillies. Secret Oath would have to earn enough points to get into the Derby, with the possibility of her running against the boys in the Arkansas Derby on April 2. Secret Oath earned 50 Oaks qualifying points.
“I loved that acceleration,” Lukas said after Secret Oath’s 7 ¼-length victory in a time faster than the winning one in the Rebel. “When she decides to leave them, she leaves them. Wow!”
As for Ethereal Road, he said, “We’re in the picture. “I’m really pleased with the race. We don’t want him to be at his best at the end of February. We want to progress. We can build on this.”
Some other substantial changes this week include Corniche eliminated since the unbeaten colt trained by embattled Bob Baffert has yet to post a listed workout this year, highly unusual for a Derby contender.
And with Baffert suspended by Churchill Downs and prohibited from running in the Derby, we’re not sure about Messier’s status on the Derby trail since Baffert said the colt won’t run in San Felipe Stakes (G2) on Saturday but will train up to the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 9. Messier drops to No. 10.
Baffert’s Newgrange is out, too, after a sixth-place finish in the Rebel.
That leaves No. 1 as a tossup, and we’ll jump Epicenter to the top spot following his 2 ¾-length victory over Smile Happy in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 19.
The colt trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen is 3-for-5 and won easily at 1 1/16 miles with Eclipse Award winner Joel Rosario aboard. Next up looks like the Louisiana Derby (G2) on March 26.
We loved Asmussen’s Midnight Bourbon at this point a year ago and while he’s raced with the best, he’s yet to take that major step to Grade 1 winner (he was sixth in the Derby). Asmussen is seeking his first Derby victory – he’s 0-for-23.
This weekend should shake up the Top 10, too, with three Derby-point qualifiers – the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park, the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita, and the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct. Derby points on the line are 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers.
Here’s our Top 10 (trainers, with jockeys listed from most recent race):
1 Epicenter (Steve Asmussen, Joel Rosario)
We’re back on the Asmussen bandwagon after his colt cruised to victory in the Risen Star over several other early Derby contenders … Looks like he’ll stay in New Orleans for his final Derby prep … Won the Gun Runner in December, and ran second in the Lecomte (G3) to 28-1 longshot Call Me Midnight … Derby qualifying points: 64 … Next start: Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds, March 26 … Derby future wager odds: 24-1 … BUSR odds: 12-1
2 Rattle N Roll (Kenny McPeek, Brian Hernandez)
Makes long-awaited 3-year-old debut on Saturday against a tough field in the Fountain of Youth … Posted six workouts at Gulfstream since winning the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 9 … Derby qualifying points: 10 … Next start … Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, Saturday … Derby future wager odds: 30-1 … BUSR odds: 25-1.
3 Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, Jr.)
Worked 4 furlongs in 49.37 at Palm Beach Downs on Feb. 26, and is entered in the Fountain of Youth … His fast-closing third in the Holy Bull (G3) and Remsen (G2) in December make him a strong Derby prospect. Derby qualifying points: 12 … Next start: Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, Saturday … Derby future wager odds: 30-1 … BUSR odds: 25-1
4 Smile Happy (Kenny McPeek, Corey Lanerie)
McPeek was pleased with Smile Happy’s runner-up finish in the Risen Star, and now says his colt could be headed to Florida for his final Derby prep … Derby qualifying points: 30 … Next start: Florida Derby, Gulfstream, April 2 … Derby future wager odds: 8-1 … BUSR odds: 8-1
5 Ethereal Road (D. Wayne Lukas, Luis Contreras)
- He didn’t win the Rebel, but it seems like it (he was beaten a half-length by 75-1 shot Un Ojo) … Lukas was delighted with the effort, and may have himself a nice Derby contender … Owner: Aaron Sones … Breeding: Quality Road-Sustained, by War Front … Derby qualifying points: 20 … Next start: Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn, April 2 … Derby future wager odds: 2-1 (mutuel field) BUSR odds: 16-1.
6 Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch, Irad Ortiz, Jr.)
Sam F. Davis winner worked 4 furlongs in 48.50 at Palm Meadows on Feb. 26 (25th of 122 at the distance) … Plan is to run again in Tampa … Derby qualifying points: 16 … Next start: Tampa Bay Derby, Tampa Bay Downs, March 12 … Derby future wager odds: 16-1 … BUSR odds: 16-1
7 Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas, Luis Contreras)
Welcome to the Derby Top 10 … May be the Oaks points leader (60), but Lukas is not shy about running a filly in the Derby (Winning Colors won in 1988) … Blowout win in the Honeybee at Oaklawn gave her a three-race winning streak … Owner: Briland Farm … Breeding: Arrogate-Absinthe Minded, by Quiet American … Derby qualifying points: 0 … Next start: Fantasy Stakes (G3) or Arkansas Derby (G3), Oaklawn, April 2 … Derby future wager odds: 2-1 (mutuel field) … BUSR odds: 40-1.
8 Forbidden Kingdom (Richard Mandella, Juan Hernandez)
Winner of the San Vicente (G3) – no Derby points for this one – but he can pick up points in the San Felipe on Saturday … Worked 7 furlongs in 1:25.00 at Santa Anita on Feb. 25 … Derby qualifying points: 0 … Next start … San Felipe Stakes, Santa Anita, Saturday … Derby future wager odds: 18-1 … BUSR odds: 25-1
9 White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph, Jr., Tyler Gaffalione)
Holy Bull (G3) winner passing on Fountain of Youth and waiting for the Florida Derby on April 2 … Worked 3 furlongs in 36.22 at Gulfstream on Feb. 27 – fourth of 29 at the distance … Derby qualifying points: 12 … Next start … Florida Derby, Gulfstream, April 2 … Derby future wager odds: 18-1 … BUSR odds: 20-1
10 Messier (Bob Baffert, John Velazquez)
Baffert passing on the San Felipe to wait for Santa Anita Derby (and perhaps some good news on his Derby ban) … Robert B. Lewis (G3) winner by 13 lengths worked 4 furlongs in 48.60 at Santa Anita on Feb. 28 (16th of 57 at the distance) … Derby qualifying points: 0 … Next start … Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita, April 9 … Derby future wager odds: 5-2 (mutuel field) … BUSR odds: 12-1
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.