By Richard Rosenblatt
Now that the Kentucky Derby preliminaries are over, and the usual suspects — trainers Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher — have nearly one third of the top 44 horses on the Derby-qualifying points leaderboard, it’s time to get serious.
Yes, the Derby championship series portion of qualifying opened last weekend with split divisions of the Risen Star (G2) at the Fair Grounds (50-20-10-5 points went to the first four finishers). And the winners, Mr. Monomoy and Modernizer, are 3-year-olds that now have enough points to qualify to Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May.
The early prep season of 19 races offered points of 10-4-2-1 to the first four finishers (the BC Juvenile was the exception, awarding 20-8-4-2 points). But now the points increase dramatically, as in “win and you’re in.”
After a preps breather this weekend, the road to Louisville resumes on Feb. 29, when a strong field seems to be lining up for the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park. A week later, it’s the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs and the San Felipe (G3) at Santa Anita Park. All four races offer points of 50-20-10-5.
The Derby field is limited to 20 horses.
For now, five-time Derby winner Baffert has five contenders with qualifying points — Thousand Words, Azul Coast, Eight Rings, Authentic and High Velocity (Nadal and Charlatan are pointless for now, but it’s early).
Asmussen, seeking his first Derby win, has a lineup of Silver Prospector, Silver State, Shoplifted, Gold Street, and Jungle Runner.
Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, may be starting slowly but has Farmington Road, Gouverneur Morris, Chase Tracker, and Portos with points.
All that said, there is no standout 3-year-old yet, although there have been hints that a star or two will shine in the coming weeks. To me, Southwest (G3) winner Silver Prospector is one of them. He’s well-seasoned with eight career starts, and might just be the one to send Asmussen to the winner’s circle on May 2 for the first time (he’s 0-for-20 in the Derby). There’s also no doubt one or more of Baffert’s group he calls “The Avengers’’ will become stars.
With that, here’s my first Top 10 list of Derby contenders (with trainers and jockeys — based on previous race — in parentheses):
What’s not to love about a gorgeous gray who enjoyed a perfect trip in winning the Southwest at Oaklawn on Feb. 17? … We should also mention he already has a win over Churchill Downs, topping Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Jockey Club back on Nov. 30 … Owned by Ed and Susie Orr, who paid $190,000 at 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Spring Sale of 2-year-olds in training … Pedigree: Declaration of War-Tap Softly, by Tapit … No. 6 on points leaderboard (21) … Next start: Rebel at Oaklawn, March 14 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 2-1 (mutuel field)
Only blemish came over sloppy, sealed track in third-place finish behind Silver Prospector in Kentucky Jockey Club … Otherwise, perfect with wins in Champagne as 2-year-old and Holy Bull on Feb. 1 … Owned by Sackatoga Stable of Derby/Preakness winner Funny Cide fame … Pedigree: Constitution-TizFiz, by Tiznow … No. 5 on points leaderboard (22) … Next start: Florida Derby at Gulfstream, March 28 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 8-1.
Sham winner by 7 ¾ lengths over stablemate Azul Coast on Jan. 4 makes him 2-for-2 … Owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Frederick Hertrich III, John Fielding and Golconda Stables … Pedigree: Into Mischief-Flawless, by Mr. Greeley … No. 21 on points leaderboard (10) … Next start: San Felipe at Santa Anita, March 7 (possible) … Derby Future Wager Odds: 15-1.
Potential to become big star with wins already in Los Alamitos Futurity and the Robert Lewis in his 3-year-old debut … Owned by Albaugh Family Stables and Spendthrift Farm … Pedigree: Pio0neerof the Nile-Pomeroy’s Pistol, by Pomeroy … No. 7 on points leaderboard (20) … Next start … San Felipe at Santa Anita, March 7 (possible) … Derby Future Wager Odds: 16-1.
Clearly the best in first division of Risen Star, moving clear in the stretch for a 2 1/2–length win over Enforceable … Rising star trainer looking for first Derby starter … Owned by Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Doheny Racing Stables … Pedigree: Palace Malice-Drumette, by Henny Hughes … No. 1 on points leaderboard (52) … Next start: Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds, March 21 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 2-1 (mutuel field).
Talented but unpredictable colt who stumbled badly out of gate in BC Juvenile and ran eighth … a good start usually means a good race — he’s 2-for-4 overall, including win in Iroquois at Churchill Downs .. Flavien Prat gets mount in upcoming Fountain of Youth since Ortiz will be riding Mucho Gusto on Feb. 29 in the Saudi Cup … Owned by Albaugh Family Stables … Pedigree: Tiznow-Transplendid, by Elusive Quality … No. 19 on points leaderboard (10) … Next start; Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, Feb. 29 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 10-1.
Second in first division of Risen Star and winner of Lecomte before that, Casse has himself a solid prospect a year after winning the Preakness (War of Will) and Belmont Stakes (Sir Winston) … Experienced with an 8-2-2-2 record … Owned by John Oxley … Pedigree: Tapit-Justwhistledixie, by Dixie Union … No. 3 on points leaderboard (33) … Next start: Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds, March 21 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 29-1.
Prat likely will have decisions to make on which horse he rides in the Derby … Hard to discount BC Juvenile winner, even though it came at odds of 45-1 … 3-year-old debut resulted in a fourth in San Vicente … Owned by David Bernsen, Exline-Border Racing, Dan Hudock, Susanna Wilson … Pedigree: Court Vision-My Tejana Storm, by Tejano Run … No. 4 on Derby points leaderboard (22) … Next start: San Felipe, Santa Anita, March 7 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 30-1.
May not have the stamina for 1 ¼-mile Derby after giving way and finishing second in 1 1/8-mile Withers, but we’ll take a shot (he did win the Remsen) … Owned by Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable, Pantofel Stable, Howling Pigeon Farms … Pedigree: Blame-She Cat, by Bluegrass Cat … No. 10 on points leaderboard (14) … Next start: Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream, Feb. 29 … Derby Future Wager Odds: 2-1 (mutual field).
This ornery colt hasn’t really done much wrong on track in winning 3-of-4, his only loss a runner-up finish in Sam F. Davis on Feb. 8 to fellow Derby prospect Sole Volante … Owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Twin Creeks Racing Stables, Kathleen and Robert Verratti … Pedigree: Constitution-Kalahari Cat, by Cape Town … No. 9 on points leaderboard … Next start: Undecided … Derby Future Wager Odds: 19-1.
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.