For one well-backed colt, the difference between making and missing the Kentucky Derby could come down to a controversial decision more than four months ago in a garden-variety prep race.
Solomini is as short as 15-1 in Derby futures. But if he does not finish in the top four Saturday in the $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, the bump in the stretch that he had with Instilled Regard in the Los Alamitos Futurity will probably keep him from going to Churchill Downs.
It was a bump Dec. 9 that led stewards to disqualify Solomini, demote him to third place and promote stable mate McKinzie – the third horse in the chain reaction – to a tainted victory. It also triggered a firestorm that only social media can deliver with the delicate touch of Sasquatch.
“Crooked stewards” said one post on Twitter. “Absolute disgrace” and “corrupt,” said another. “The stewards should be removed for incompetence,” said a third. And it went on from there.
But Justin Zayat, whose family owns Solomini and even posted a Tweet or two that day, is not ruing the loss of the eight qualifying points that may make the difference between being in or out of the Derby.
“I’m more mad about losing the Grade 1 and everything that means to him being a stallion,” Zayat told VSiN from his New York home base Thursday. “We were robbed of a Grade 1 win. That’s more painful than losing the Derby points.”
That certainly is the long-range view that a stable manager like Zayat has to have. A résumé that has Grade 1 victories on it looks a lot better to future breeders who consider bringing their broodmares to a colt sired by Curlin. But even in the short term, Zayat finds what happened at Los Al irrelevant to Solomini’s worthiness as a Derby colt.
“The way I feel is if my horse does well in his last prep, then he deserves to go to the Derby,” Zayat said. “If Solomini runs in the top four in Arkansas to clinch, then he should be in the Derby. If he’s not in the top three or four I’d be hesitant at that point.”
Solomini (2-1) has the second-shortest odds on the morning line behind Magnum Moon (8-5), the 3-for-3 favorite that won last month’s Rebel Stakes on the same Oaklawn Park track. The runner-up that day in his first start off a three-month break was Solomini.
Saturday’s field also includes Tampa Bay Derby winner and likely pace-setter Quip (9-2). Like Magnum Moon, he is already qualified for the Kentucky Derby. No matter which horse it is, the winner of the Arkansas Derby and maybe the runner-up will earn the points necessary to get to Churchill Downs in three weeks.
The Zayat family has been there and done that seven times before in the Kentucky Derby, collecting three second-place finishes ahead of American Pharoah’s breakthrough on the way to the 2015 Triple Crown. It is easy to see then why Zayat is not just trying to squeak into the field.
“We’re not there just to do the dance and do the walk,” Zayat said. “We want to have a serious chance to win the Kentucky Derby.”
In other words, if Solomini fails to beat at least five of the nine horses racing Saturday at Oaklawn, he will not be allowed to get to Churchill Downs through the back door of defections.
“I’ve seen so many horses ruined because they’ve gone into the Derby when they didn’t belong there,” Zayat said. “If I have a horse that’s not meant to be in that Grade 1, then we look at a different Grade 1.”
A Grade 1 like the Arkansas Derby, which the Zayats have won twice with Bodemeister in 2012 and with American Pharoah. As was the case the first two times, Bob Baffert is the trainer, and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes is the advance man. Barnes has been at Oaklawn Park to handle Solomini’s morning track work this week. He was also there last month, when Solomini finished 3½ lengths behind Magnum Moon in the Rebel after coming up against rail traffic in the stretch.
“He wasn’t giving up,” Barnes said. “He was still trying. He didn’t get the exact kind of trip that you would have wanted. He was behind horses and trying to find a place to go at the top of the stretch.”
That race was 110 yards shorter than Saturday’s nine-furlong Arkansas Derby, which was not where Solomini was originally going to race this month. He had been ticketed for last weekend’s Wood Memorial, but that was before McKinzie got hurt. Baffert then decided not to send the Derby futures favorite Justify to Arkansas, instead running him victoriously in last week’s Santa Anita Derby. That bumped Solomini back to the familiar surroundings of Oaklawn.
“I wanted to run him here anyway,” Barnes said. “I wanted to leave Justify at Santa Anita and not have to travel. I’d rather just have the other horse (Solomini) that’s a little more seasoned come this way.”
If there is one thing Solomini needs to show the Zayats and – for that matter – bettors who have backed him with a future wager to win the Kentucky Derby, it is that he learned something in the Rebel.
“He was showing a little greenness when he got there,” Zayat said. “He kind of missed the break and got pinned on the inside. But he just keeps grinding it out, grinding it out. I don’t know if we would have beat (Magnum Moon) that day, but I thought we ran a very good race, and we are looking forward to a rematch. Hopefully, we could turn the tables on him.”
VSiN handicapper Dave Tuley’s Takes on the Arkansas Derby are also posted at VSiN.com.
Racing notes and opinions
For trainer Steve Asmussen, the promise of the Derby trail has been unrequited. Last fall he appeared to have a barn full of contending colts, but none has qualified for Louisville. His last chance comes with three entries in the Arkansas Derby led by Combatant (6-1), the third-place finisher behind Magnum Moon and Solomini in the Rebel. “I think he’s been a little disadvantaged just with the pace scenarios and his placement in the starting gate,” said David Fisk, racing manager for Combatant’s owner Winchell Thoroughbreds. “The circumstances have kind of conspired against him.” If Combatant or the deep-closing Sunland Derby runner-up Dream Baby Dream (15-1) hit the board, they will run for the roses. Asmussen’s other Arkansas Derby horse – 2-for-2 maiden winner Tenfold (10-1) – needs a win to get in and might qualify by finishing second. Post time is 7:18 p.m. EDT on what is forecast to be a partly cloudy, 61-degree day.
My Boy Jack (5-2), the only horse in the field with a chance to get to the Kentucky Derby, is the morning-line favorite to win Saturday’s $200,000 Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at rainy Keeneland. The race at 5:34 p.m. EDT is worth one-fifth the points that will be awarded in Arkansas, but a win would be enough to send trainer Keith Desormeaux’s deep-closing colt to Churchill Downs. A second-place finish might also get the job done, probably as long as Magnum Moon or Quip hits the board later at Oaklawn. Drawn widest of the 12 horses, My Boy Jack is one of four in the Lexington field with a wet-track win; that was in the mud of the Southwest Stakes. Front-running Battle At Sea (8-1), maiden winner Honor Up (12-1) and the well-traveled Zanesville (20-1) are the other mudders.
Jockey Víctor Espinoza will replace Javier Castellano on Bolt d’Oro for the Kentucky Derby, a curveball that owner/trainer Mick Ruis anticipated but hoped would not happen. He said that Castellano would only get the Santa Anita Derby ride if he committed to Louisville, too. Instead, Castellano will ride Florida Derby winner Audible for one of his regular bosses – trainer Todd Pletcher. This weekend Espinoza will ride Tenfold for Asmussen in the Arkansas Derby.
Reigning female sprint champion Unique Bella (2-5) is the heavy, morning-line favorite to win the $700,000 Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap on what is expected to be a wet Friday at Oaklawn Park. Carrying top weight of 123 pounds – between 6 and 11 more than the other six in the field – the 4-year-old gray filly sired by Tapit will be stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in what will be her first race outside California. Post time is Friday at 6:38 p.m. EDT.
A turf version of the $16 million Pegasus World Cup could be coming to Laurel Park as soon as 2019, but the Stronach Group would not confirm it. A racing source told VSiN that the invitational event could be limited to one horse from each of a number of racing nations with an expensive ante, although not as much as the $1 million entry fee for the Pegasus. “They want it to be like the old Washington D.C. International,” the source said, referring to the race that was run from 1952 to 1994 at Laurel. The biggest challenge will be to find an open place on the calendar to attract European and Australian horses. An autumn date that has been speculated could be hard to wedge between the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, British Champions Day, the Cox Plate, the Melbourne Cup and, of course, the Breeders’ Cup, which eventually killed off the old International.
Sharing the world’s No. 1 ranking with the now-retired Gun Runner, the Australian mare Winx (1-5) goes for her 25th consecutive victory as the prohibitive favorite in the $3.1 million Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick in Sydney. Going into the 1¼-mile turf race that she also won last year, Winx has been victorious in a world-record 17 Group 1s in a row. Post time is 1:05 a.m. EDT Saturday (10:05 p.m. PDT Friday), and unlike the U.S., races in Australia tend to be on time.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include Hall of Fame jockey Víctor Espinoza, who rides Tenfold in the Arkansas Derby, and Brad Free, Daily Racing Form handicapper, with a look at the Kentucky Derby trail. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher. VSiN handicapper Dave Tuley’s Takes on the Arkansas Derby are also posted at VSiN.com.