The past few weeks on the 2014 Kentucky Derby trail are a great example of how the pendulum can swing crazy in the Sport of Kings, especially around this time each and every year.
We’ve had three major preps, a breakthrough performance and a couple of pretty significant defections from the Shug McGaughey barn, meaning the trainer of last year’s winner, Orb, seemingly will not get a chance to win the roses in back-to-back years.
Funny thing is, just three weeks ago Shug was loaded for bear. Top Billing was coming off of a strong third place finish in the Fountain of Youth over a speed biased Gulfstream Park surface and was certainly the colt I wanted moving forward out of the race.
Along with Top Billing, the highly regarded Remsen winner Honor Code appeared to be on track after a few early season hiccups and was training up to a start in the Rebel before Shug altered course and entered him into what seemed to be a tailor-made allowance contest on a lazy Wednesday afternoon at Gulfstream. And that’s when the wheels fell off of the bus.
The very next morning after he entered Honor Code, Top Billing was injured in a workout and was declared off the Derby trail with a cannon bone injury. A big blow for sure, Honor Code was even more important now and seemed poised to take the first steps towards Louisville. Social Inclusion, however, had other ideas.
Sent immediately to the top in the allowance contest, Social Inclusion made every pole a winning one and broke the track record for 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream by stop the clock in a shade under 1:41. Honor Code wound up second but never seriously threatened.
A rematch between the two appeared to be a go this past Saturday as both colts worked and were announced as starters for the April 5th Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Then, on Sunday, Shug announced that Honor Code, like his stablemate, would miss the Derby due to a suspensory injury.
On the other side of the country, three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert appeared to be staring at an empty cupboard when it came to Derby contenders. Chitu and Midnight Hawk, second and third in the Robert Lewis respectively, appeared to have some distance limitations and that statement was further solidified, in Midnight Hawk’s case at least, by a non-threatening second place finish in the San Felipe.
His other hopefuls were, Hoppertunity, a well-beaten fourth in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and Bayern who was forced to scratch from the San Felipe with a bruised foot. Combine that with the retirement of last years’ Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day and it was starting to look as if 2014 wasn’t going to be Bullet Bob’s year.
But as Shug’s luck was turning for the worse, Baffert’s got a whole lot better, especially the past couple of weekends. It started at Oaklawn in the Southwest, a race Baffert has owned for the better part of this decade as Hoppertunity survived a roughly run stretch war to win the coveted 50 points and almost assure himself a spot in the Derby gate.
what amounted to a perfect finish points-wise as Chitu needed the 50 points to the winner much more than Midnight Hawk did as Midnight hawk had already accumulated 32 points this season. They now both have over 50 points.
Strangely enough, one or both of Baffert’s runners encountered some good fortune in the Sunland Park Derby as well as Commissioner broke poorly, lost a shoe and never appeared comfortable yet still managed to get third in his first start with blinkers. Trainer Todd Pletcher is now left with having to run this colt in yet another points race should he still be aiming him towards Kentucky.
Pletcher did manage to get himself a Derby runner this past Saturday when We Miss Artie won his second graded stakes over Polytrack when he got up in the nick of time to win the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.
Owned by Ken Ramsey, you can rest assured We Miss Artie, winner of the Breeders’ Futurity, a grade 1 event at Keeneland last fall, will head straight for Churchill Downs and a shot at the roses. Keep in mind that We Miss Artie will be looking for his first win over conventional dirt in the Derby as he is 0 for 3 over it thus far in his career.
With all of the 50 point races now behind us, the Derby picture should be a lot clearer than it is but it’s been such an interesting season that it’s really not for most people. As for me, here are my top 5 for the Derby as of Monday, March 24th:
1. Cairo Prince
5. Conquest Titan
In all honesty, it should be read as a list of one and a list of four. I’m convinced Cairo Prince is the absolute real deal and hope he proves me right this coming Saturday in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream.
We’ll talk about the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby as well as their undercards and the action in Dubai, all slated for this Saturday, in next week’s blog which I promise you will be much longer than this one as we’ll have TONS to cover. See you then!!!