Derby Countdown – April 6

The picture is gradually becoming clearer as we now have a solid Derby favorite, Eskendereya, as he crushed the competition for a second consecutive time with a Wood Memorial victory that was earned with devastating ease.  He is a force to be reckoned with on May 1.  Out west Sidney’s Candy emerged as California’s co-top dog with a SA Derby win in a race where the favorite was not able to factor into the decision after encountering trouble on the far turn.  The Illinois Derby produced another inconclusive result as American Lion went wire-to-wire after setting slow fractions on a day where the wind blew mightily down the homestretch.  It’s hard to imagine anyone from that event making an impact in Louisville.  Anyway we’re into the final weekend of the big-time preps which means the big day is right around the corner…

#1 – Eskendereya

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Owner: Zayat Stables

Pedigree:  Giant’s Causeway x Aldebaran Light (Seattle Slew)

Previous Rank: 1st

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: 22-1 (Pool 1), 5-1 (Pool 2), 5-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, 4/3, 1st

Where to next?  Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like?  This strapping chestnut colt solidified his credentials for the Derby with a terrific win in the Wood Memorial.  He tracked a moderate pace intently, took over when ready and ultimately kicked clear with jockey John Velazquez a statue in the stirrups.  They’re not even close to the bottom of this horse and he seems to be getting better.  His price won’t be attractive on May 1 but this guy’s going to be very tough to beat. 

What’s not to like?  If some thought that the Wood would expose any issues this guy has then they are probably disappointed that it most certainly did not.  He showed no real weaknesses, so if there’s anything not to like on about him heading into the Derby it could be that he’s not really battle-tested and has enjoyed positive pace setups in his last two victories.  A rodeo with 19 rivals where the early pace is strong could be an issue.

2. Sidney’s Candy

Trainer: John Sadler

Owner: Craig Family Trust

Pedigree:  Candy Ride x Fair Exchange (Storm Cat)

Previous Rank: 6th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: Field, 3/2 (Pool 1), 33-1 (Pool 2), 22-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita, 4/3, 1st

Where to next?  Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like?  No horse’s stock has risen as much as this guy’s over the past four weeks.  He backed up his San Felipe victory with a wire-to-wire score in the Santa Anita Derby kicking clear of the competition in the stretch drive.  He never met a challenge from Lookin at Lucky, who ran into trouble around the far turn, and it probably matters not as no one was catching this chestnut son of Candy Ride.  He rolls into Kentucky as the winner of three straight graded stakes races where he’s been in front at every point of each one.

What’s not to like?  Trainer John Sadler has blossomed into one of the best in California in recent years.  However, his success has not traveled with him when shipping out of town.  In fact, Sadler is 0 for his last 16 with horses moving from synthetic surfaces to dirt in stakes races, both graded and ungraded.  There is also serious concern about Sidney’s Candy handling pace pressure.  He has had things his own way at SA and that’s certainly helped him have something left late.  What will he do when met with some resistance in the opening half-mile, especially if drawn outside?

#3 – Lookin at Lucky

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Owner: Watson & Pegram

Pedigree:  Smart Strike x Private Feeling (Belong to Me)

Previous Rank: 2nd

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: 8-1 (Pool 1), 9-1 (Pool 2), 9/2 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Rebel, Oaklawn Park, 3/13, 1st

Where to next?  Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like?  The 2YO Champion of 2009 will show up in Kentucky with a bruised ego as he was defeated by Sidney’s Candy in the SA Derby.  That result must be handled with care, though, as ‘Lucky ran into a tight spot on the far turn and jockey Garrett Gomez was forced to check abruptly, falling towards the back of the pack.  He picked his way between horses and got in the mix for a minor placing after the trouble and is clearly a horse who’s not going to struggle with the distance of the Run for the Roses.  He didn’t need to do much in the SA Derby in order to stay in the picture and that’s good, because he didn’t do much.

What’s not to like?  The jury’s still out on how good Lookin at Lucky is.  His race on Saturday certainly earns the grade of “Incomplete” because we have no idea what would have happened if he hadn’t been checked on the turn.  I can tell you that I think he would have finished somewhere around where he did, perhaps in 2nd but I doubt he was catching the winner.  He’s now had trouble in each of his last two starts and it’s questionable whether he’s improved as a 3YO.  Is that the type of horse you want at 6-1 in the Derby?

#4 – Rule

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Owner: WinStar Farm

Pedigree:  Roman Ruler x Rockcide (Personal Flag)

Previous Rank: 3rd

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: 24-1 (Pool 1), 20-1 (Pool 2), 30-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Downs, 2/13, 1st

Where to next?  Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like?  Rule contested a very strong pace in the Florida Derby and stayed on well despite being passed late.  He has gradually improved and is a solid animal and he’ll go into the Kentucky Derby off a six week layoff, which should be perfect given that he left a lot on the track at Gulfstream.  Trainer Todd Pletcher should have ample time to try to get Rule to relax a bit in the morning as it’s been his Achilles heel so far.

What’s not to like?  If Rule doesn’t rate in the Kentucky Derby he’s cooked.  Horses like Conveyance, Sidney’s Candy, and maybe even his stablemate Super Saver will put a great deal of pressure on the front end and if he attempts to go with them, survive, and stay on he’ll fail.  I’m still high on this son of Roman Ruler but he’s going to be one of the types that you’re asking to do something they’ve never done before in the Derby and that’s dangerous.

#5 – Dublin

Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

Owner: Baker & Mack

Pedigree:  Afleet Alex x Classy Mirage (Storm Bird)

Previous Rank: 4th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: 20-1 (Pool 1), 10-1 (Pool 2), 18-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Southwest, Oaklawn Park, 2/20, 2nd

Where to next?  Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park, 4/10

What’s to like?  I’m not down on Dublin after his third-place finish in the Rebel.  He was victimized once again by a wide trip and a premature move towards the lead by jockey Corey Nakatani.  He’ll now be ridden by Terry Thompson again, who piloted him to a strong 2nd place finish in the Southwest.  The Arkansas Derby field is shaping up to be small, probably between 6 and 8 horses, so it looks like the perfect opportunity for this son of 2005 Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex to assert himself.

What’s not to like?  Critics are maintaining that Dublin is a one-run sprinter who flattened out after being in contention in the Rebel.  That is a consideration at this point and one has to wonder if he’s the type that’s going to be able to sit back and make one run in the Derby, a race that often goes to a horse with that type of style.

#6 – Noble’s Promise

Trainer: Kenneth McPeek

Owner: Chasing the Dreams Racing 2008

Pedigree:  Cuvee x The Devil’s Trick (Clever Trick)

Previous Rank: Unranked

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: 36-1 (Pool 1), 26-1 (Pool 2), 19-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Rebel, Oaklawn, 3/13, 2nd

Where to next?  Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park, 4/10

What’s to like?  You’ll probably wonder where this guy’s been and why his debut in the countdown comes so late in the year but I had reservations about where he stacked up with the rest of his generation.  As time goes by it’s becoming clear that he’s pretty darn good.  His Rebel was a solid race as he moved into the pace a bit prematurely and nearly saw the whole thing out.  He should progress in his 2nd start of 2010 and is in the care of a good horseman.

What’s not to like?  Trainer Ken McPeek has remarked multiple times that he’s waiting on this colt to let him know if he has distance limitations.  So far he really hasn’t and if the ride had been a bit more patient in the Rebel he probably would have a graded stakes win as a 3YO to match his GI win as a juvenile.  So, his pedigree is of some concern but luckily we’ll see just how much of a problem it is in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

7. Odysseus

Trainer: Tom Albertrani

Owner: Padua Stables

Pedigree: Malibu Moon x Persimmon Hill (Conquistador Cielo)

Previous Rank: 7th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: Field, 3/2 (Pool 1), 25-1 (Pool 2), 18-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Tampa Bay Derby, Tampa Bay Downs, 3/13, 1st

Where to Next? Blue Grass, Keeneland, 4/10

What’s to like?  Odysseus backed up his smashing N1X win at Tampa with a gritty, determined win in the Tampa Bay Derby.  He’s obviously a horse that doesn’t have push button acceleration and he needs to be ridden to his stride but it sure did look like he was done when the field reached the top of the stretch on Saturday.  He dug in gamely and was able to re-rally as the horses in front of him began to falter.  Whether the TB Derby was a race of any quality or not remains to be seen but he is at least a horse worth watching going forward.

What’s not to like?  I can’t be certain that the Tampa Bay Derby was any good.  While many are caught up in the hubbub of how Odysseus looked beaten then re-rallied, it did seem as if the race was served up to him as he started running again.  No one made a winning move in the stretch and it turned into an eyesore with the final three-sixteenths seeming to take an eternity.

8. Ice Box

Trainer: Nick Zito

Owner: Robert V. LaPenta

Pedigree: Pulpit x Spice Island (Tabasco Cat)

Previous Rank: 9th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: Field, 3/2 (Pool 1), Field, 3-1 (Pool 2), 19-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Florida Derby, Gulfstream, 3/20, 1st

Where to Next? Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like? Ice Box burst onto the Kentucky Derby scene with a dramatic last-to-first win in the Florida Derby.  He obviously has very little speed but does have a big late kick and can take advantage of a strong pace setup (as most good horses can).  He will be moving in the right direction late in Louisville and can grab a share if the pace boils over.

What’s not to like?  Ice Box was a beneficiary of circumstances in the Florida Derby.  Plain and simple the race came back to him and he was there to take advantage.  He is obviously improving but is going to need everything to break right for him to take the top prize on May 1.

#9 – Awesome Act

Trainer: Jeremy Noseda

Owner: Mrs. Susan Roy & Vinery Stable

Pedigree:  Awesome Again x Houdini’s Honey (Mr. Prospector)

Previous Rank: 5th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: Field, 3/2 (Pool 1), Field, 3-1 (Pool 2), 13-1 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Gotham Stakes, Aqueduct, 3/6, 1st

Where to next?  Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like?  Despite his handy defeat at the heels of #1 Eskendereya, this colt still has some potential.  He clearly is going to benefit from the likely strong Derby pace and if he does so then he can crack the exotics and win if things break right.  He should be able to get the distance without issue and has run well enough on dirt to be considered a fringe player.

What’s not to like?  It’s tough not to think that the Wood exposed this guy as a fraud in some ways.  He didn’t get much of a pace to run into but he looked absolutely loaded at the quarter pole and was ultimately outfinished for 2nd.  He may be a quick burst, one run type of horse but those types rarely have success in the Derby where a horse is asked to make a prolonged bid.

10. Endorsement

Trainer: Shannon Ritter

Owner: WinStar Farms, LLC

Pedigree: Distorted Humor x Charmed Gift (A.P. Indy)

Previous Rank: 10th

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Odds: Field, 3/2 (Pool 1), Field, 3-1 (Pool 2), Field 9/2 (Pool 3)

Best Performance: Sunland Derby, Sunland, 3/27, 1st

Where to Next? Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, 5/1

What’s to like? Imagine that, an impeccably bred colt owned by WinStar Farms now on the Derby trail.  It seems like there were about 12 of them when we turned the calendar to 2010.  This guy was not on the Derby radar back then but he is now after a sharp win in the Sunland Derby where he rated kindly, took over from pacesetter Conveyance and kicked well clear in track record time.  While it’s never a great idea to back recent maiden winners in graded stakes, and it’s obvious this guy lacks seasoning, he is a horse moving forward at the moment.

What’s not to like?  Whether this guy can handle the rapid advance class-wise that he’s undertaking is a serious question.  He broke his maiden just five weeks ago and he’s now less than four weeks from one of the most demanding races in this country.  He has the pedigree and is gradually gaining the experience but he will not go off anywhere near what would be fair odds for a horse with his paltry credentials.

Races this week: Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass

See you back next week with an update.  With 4 weeks remaining until Kentucky Derby 136 I’ll countdown the last four Kentucky Derbies.  Here’s the 2006 running:

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