By Noel Michaels
With eight weeks remaining until the 2020 Kentucky Derby on May 2, things have finally started to sort themselves out on the road to the Triple Crown thanks to the latest round of prep races, including the San Felipe, Gotham, and Tampa Bay Derby, plus last weekend’s Fountain of Youth.
The San Felipe, Gotham, and Tampa Bay Derby were run within a span of about 10 minutes on Saturday, and those 10 minutes have already become the most important 10 minutes of the year in terms of the Derby and who’s hot and who’s not. Certain horses disappointed, while others made bold statements to stamp themselves as serious contenders.
Here’s a look at who’s who:
Perhaps the weekend’s biggest race in terms of Derby implications was the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, because it featured the most accomplished horses of any of the preps so far. Included in the field coming into the race were the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner STORM THE COURT, promising October maiden winner HONOR A.P., trained by John Shirreffs, and two of Bob Baffert’s top Derby hopefuls, THOUSAND WORDS, who entered the San Felipe with a 3-for-3 record, and AUTHENTIC, who started his career 2-for-2 coming off a speedy win in the Sham Stakes (G3).
Coming out of the San Felipe, it was Authentic who stood clearly above the rest as he cruised home in front-running fashion to win by 2 ¼ lengths. He could have gone around again and still been in front. “He glides over the ground like a gazelle,” Baffert commented after the win. Honor A.P.’s runner-up finish was encouraging for a horse making his 3-year-old debut as a maiden winner off a five-month layoff. He finished well for second and gave himself something to build on as he goes forward.
Things did not go so well, however, for Storm the Court and Thousand Words, who finished third and fourth. Storm the Court was coming off a fourth-place effort behind Nadal at 7 furlongs last time, and failed to improve much in the San Felipe. His BC Juvenile win last fall is starting to look more and more like a fluke. Perhaps even more surprising was the no-show effort from Thousand Words, who showed none of the ability he appeared to have when winning the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) in December and the Bob Lewis (G3) on Feb. 1.
Baffert is likely to keep Authentic home for the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in his next start, while Thousand Words will try to regroup in either the Wood Memorial (G2) or Blue Grass (G2). Yet another Baffert Derby contender, NADAL, who was the winner of the San Vicente (G2) at 7 furlongs on Feb. 9, is on track to make his next start this coming weekend in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn.
While the weekend’s biggest race might have been the San Felipe, the weekend’s biggest performances – both good and bad – came out of the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), which was won by 49-1 long shot KING GUILLERMO, trained by Juan Avila, who coasted to a 4 ¾-lengths score. As much as that win made King Guillermo look good, it also made losers, such as Mucho Macho Man Stakes winner CHANCE IT, look bad (fifth place). The Todd Pletcher contingent in the race, TEXAS SWING (third, MARKET ANALYSIS (sixth), and UNRIGHTEOUS (seventh), also did not fare well.
Tampa Bay Derby favorite SOLE VOLANTE, trained by Patrick Biancone, ran on late for a non-threatening second. While he is a horse still with some upside who could improve with even more distance, he appears to be no better than the second-best horse in his own stable at the moment. That’s because no horse in the recent round of preps has looked better than Biancone’s other top 3-year-old, the powerful winner of the Fountain of Youth, ETE INDIAN, who crushed the field to stamp himself as a major factor on the road to the Derby. The other story out of the Fountain of Youth was the bad flop of DENNIS’ MOMENT, trained by Dale Romans, who has now disappointed much more than he has delivered. According to Romans’ own pre-race comments in an interview with Jason Blewitt, Dennis’ Moment and has failed to progress physically from age 2 to age 3. At this point in time he seems to be highly overrated.
The one-turn mile Gotham was won by the John Servis-trained favorite, MISCHEVIOUS ALEX, who still must prove he will be capable of successfully stretching out to two turns.
Meanwhile, the biggest winner the last couple of weekends, in terms of the Derby, is a horse who didn’t even race. TIZ THE LAW, trained by Barclay Tagg and owned by Sackatoga Stable, (the people who brought you Funny Cide), beat Ete Indian in the Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream on Feb. 1, and was flattered by that rival when he came back to crush the Fountain of Youth. Tiz the Law’s credentials also include winning last fall’s Champagne Stakes (G1), and a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). He has a chance to solidify himself as the Derby favorite when he makes his next start in the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream on March 28.
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.