If not for the last four jumps of last week’s Blue Grass Stakes, the entire Kentucky Derby picture would have gone from the High Renaissance of Raphael to the abstract of Jackson Pollock.
That was just a haughty way of saying the apple cart was nearly flipped completely over in the past week.
Essential Quality needed nearly every stride of the 1⅛ miles around Keeneland last Saturday to overtake Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass and remain undefeated. In the time since, Rock Your World moved successfully from the turf to dirt with a decisive upset in the Santa Anita Derby, Greatest Honour came off the Derby trail because of a bad ankle, connections for Rebel’s Romance declined an invitation to Louisville, and Weyburn was re-aimed for the Belmont Stakes.
Of the horses that looked like the big four two weeks ago, only Essential Quality and Concert Tour remain. Essential Quality is best-priced at 7-2 in Las Vegas futures to win the Kentucky Derby. Carrying a 3-for-3 record, Concert Tour is the 9-2 second choice.
Concert Tour (1-1 morning line) gets his chance to stay in the high-rent, low-odds district Saturday at 7:41 p.m. EDT, when he will be a heavy favorite in the $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, a veritable Rebel Stakes rematch that is the last points prep on the 2020-21 schedule.
Horses falling off the trail are always a part of the build-up to the Kentucky Derby, but seldom have they been so compressed in the final weeks of the prep season. This year was unusual in that attrition seemed to be in winter hibernation. Now it is as if every possible factor that could crumble the Derby framework has coalesced. Since the spring equinox, untimely injuries, cold feet and upset losses have cracked the foundation for the 3-year-old crop.
So might the most traditional of devices to separate contenders from pretenders. Longer distance.
“When they start going to a mile-and-an-eighth, that’s when I always say the cream comes the top,” Concert Tour’s trainer Bob Baffert said in an interview recorded Sunday for this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “We just saw a lot of cream.”
Baffert was not only referring to Essential Quality but also his growing respect for Rock Your World, the colt that left his horse Medina Spirit 4¼ lengths in the dust of last weekend’s Santa Anita Derby.
“I was pretty impressed,” he said. “Our horse ran well, and I think he can improve a little bit off of that. He’s the kind of horse that’s in the top 10. That’s where you want to be. If somebody stubs their toe, he’s going to be right there. He shows up every time. When you have a horse that shows up every time, you’re going to be tough.”
With Concert Tour joined by his stablemate Hozier (3-1), the top two horses from last month’s Rebel are back in the Arkansas Derby to try and prove they belong in the class that Essential Quality and Rock Your World currently occupy.
“Concert Tour has a lot of quality,” Baffert said. “With Concert Tour and Hozier, I think the distance is going to be good for them.”
On what is forecast to be a partly cloudy 71-degree day, the top two finishers the Arkansas Derby are assured of berths in the Kentucky Derby. Hozier could also get there if he finishes in the top three.
If Concert Tour were to finish out of the money, as many as three new horses could move from Oaklawn into the Kentucky Derby top 20 just before the door closes on invitations. Smarty Jones winner Caddo River (7-2), Grade 1 victor Get Her Number (6-1), minor-stakes winner Super Stock (6-1) and 2020 maiden breaker Last Samurai (15-1) are also fighting Hozier for at least one spot in the Kentucky Derby field.
The thinking here is Concert Tour is too good for the other five facing him Saturday, so he should win the Arkansas Derby. With local jockey Francisco Arrieta taking the ride, Get Her Number should avoid the homestretch trouble that he ran into in the Rebel to finish second and earn his place at Churchill Downs. And yes, Hozier on merit alone should finish third and advance as well.
Betting on something relatively predictable. That sounds mundane against the backdrop of the past week. What could go wrong?
Racing notes and opinions
If Proxy were to finish in the top two or if Hockey Dad were to win Saturday’s $200,000 Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, he would be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. Whether either horse goes to Louisville, though, is a whole nuther matter. Trainer Mike Stidham told Horse Racing Nation that if Proxy (6-5) were to qualify for Kentucky, it was doubtful he would go. Owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill had not said this week whether they would ship Hockey Dad (8-1). Forgetting the Derby byplay, Ultimate Badger (15-1) is my pick. Trainer Bob Hess Jr.’s allowance winner has a closing style that should come in handy in this race that is full of early pace. Making his first start in five months, minor-stakes winner King Fury (10-1) with blinkers off is also a bet to hit the board. Rain is forecast for the Lexington on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. EDT.
Ownership has its privileges. Because Turfway Park was bought in late 2019 by Churchill Downs Inc., its Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on fake dirt was elevated to a 100-point “win and you’re in” Kentucky Derby prep, just like the Arkansas Derby. And the Santa Anita Derby. And the Florida Derby. No one would mistake the Jeff Ruby for the Florida Derby, right? Yet the Lexington, also a Grade 3 but on real dirt, is a 20-point afterthought.
With four victories, trainer Chad Brown has owned the $300,000 Grade 1 Jenny Wiley turf stakes for older fillies and mares, winning the last three years with Sistercharlie (April 2017) and Rushing Fall (April 2019 and July 2020). Saturday at 6:03 p.m. EDT he starts former French horses Tamahere and Étoile in the 8½-furlong turf race at Keeneland. The 4-year-old Tamahere (5-2) is back from a narrow but empty sixth-place finish Thanksgiving weekend as the favorite in the Grade 2 Matriarch at Del Mar. Making her 5-year-old debut Étoile (3-1) cuts back from a neck victory last October in the 1¼-mile Grade 1 E. P. Taylor at Woodbine. Drawing the rail in the field of six, 4-year-old Micheline (2-1) is the morning-line favorite after winning a nine-furlong Grade 2 race at Tampa Bay Downs, where he also produced a bullet work last Friday. Since it is supposed to be wet, and the turf could be soft, the play here is on a horse that was third in this race last year – Brad Cox’s recent Grade 3 winner Juliet Foxtrot (7-2). That recent Grade 3 was last autumn’s Gallorette Stakes on the Preakness undercard. And on a yielding track. Unless the rain holds off, she is the pick. If not, I may sit this one out. One other note that may repel players: every horse in the race is coming off Lasix.
Other than Derby preps, the six most recent Grade 1 races in the U.S. have drawn fields of six (Saturday’s Jenny Wiley), seven (Friday’s Maker’s Mark Mile), seven (Madison), six (Ashland), five (Carter Handicap) and seven (Beholder Mile). Foal crops are smaller, and shipping is difficult in the COVID era, and the no-Lasix trend may be a repellent. The rush to get horses started in their breeding careers may be the biggest culprit here. This feels like a chicken-and-egg circumstance, doesn’t it?
This is the last regular Friday column that will originate from Las Vegas. The management of VSiN extended my wife and me the flexibility to move to Louisville, Ky., where I will continue my coverage of racing, hopefully without any noticeable effect for readers and listeners. The catalyst for this is another gig, namely my role as managing editor of Horse Racing Nation, which is headquartered in Louisville. I expect there will be growing synergy between VSiN and HRN that will unfold in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, next month’s Kentucky Derby becomes a home game for me, and the shorter distance between me and other points like the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Saratoga and a farewell to Arlington Park will come in handy. Not to completely guild the lily on this move, it is as much a case of being repelled by a state that was once a great place for horseplayers. Those days are over. Racebooks have become an afterthought at most casinos – and that was long before the eternal impasse between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association. I will write much more about that in the next couple weeks. (Let me answer before being asked. No, I have no progress to report.) Rather than dwell on the negative, I instead focus on embedding myself in the middle of horse country. Of racing country. And on being somewhere that has a true four seasons. My thanks go out to the Musburgers and the rest of the management of VSiN for bringing me aboard four years ago. My gratitude is to the same parties and the new owners at DraftKings for keeping me on – and for what I am confident will be an even better opportunity to cover racing. From now on it will be right from the horses’ mouths.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode of the RFRP features Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert previewing Concert Tour and Hozier in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. Las Vegas Review-Journal turf writer Mike Brunker takes the long view of the road to the Kentucky Derby. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races, including the Arkansas Derby and the Lexington Stakes. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.