Derby futures tree gets a sharp pruning

In the pandemic era, there is nothing like the new rites of spring. Or summer. Or fall.


This week the 9-furlong, one-turn Belmont Stakes was scheduled for the third Saturday in June. Already the Kentucky Derby had been switched to Labor Day weekend. And the Preakness Stakes was set for the first Saturday in October.


But nothing says a new Triple Crown like the pruning of the Derby futures tree — in the middle of May.


Just last week, bettors could get odds ranging from 4-1 to 500-1 for any of 181 horses at William Hill Nevada. Now 80 horses are off the list, and 37 others were assigned longer odds, but nothing more than 250-1. With four horses added, bettors now have 105 choices for a race still 3½ months away.


All but three of the dropped horses carried odds of at least 125-1. The exceptions were the underlaid Blackberry Wine (was 65-1), an Oxbow colt who is 1-for-9 and off the work tab this month; Devil Made Me Doit (75-1), a Daredevil foal who has been unraced and unworked since his debut win in December; and Maximiliano (90-1), a Quality Road colt who has not been on the track since he finished fifth in last year’s Springboard Mile.


William Hill was not alone. One global bookmaker drifted the odds for 71 of its 179 would-be Derby horses, shortened them for only three and dropped six.


In hopes of creating some churn, it is as if bookmakers are having going-out-of-business sales for 3-year-olds that really have no shot at finding the Triple Crown trail. Does anyone really think Moon Over Miami is a value play at 250-1 coming off an eighth-place finish in a turf mile stakes nearly two months ago?


Not just results are dictating this inevitable culling of the betting herd. Horsemen are also showing their hands, declaring former Derby hopefuls to be one-turn horses or candidates for the turf. Others are being given more modest goals or perhaps visits to the farm for a few weeks before being brought back for something less rigorous this fall. Or later.


Trainer Dale Romans told “The Pressbox at the Louisville Thoroughbred Society” on Monday that Dennis’ Moment (20-1), last in his two graded-stakes starts since last fall, would not race in the Derby. “We decided we’d try to run him as a 4-year-old next year,” he said. “So let’s just stop on him right now, try to give him a little time and get him moving like he did last fall.”


Dennis’ Moment was dropped this week from the global market, and it is only a matter of time before William Hill removes him.


The unknown that might not be determined until next month is how the Derby being second on the new Triple Crown schedule will affect the field that fills it.


The Belmont was moved back only two weeks to June 20, the first day of summer. It will lead off a Triple Crown journey that will take a leisurely 3½ months, not the more taxing five weeks. Right away trainer Bob Baffert committed his Arkansas Derby winners, Nadal (4-1) and Charlatan (9-2), to the shortened race that is also likely to feature Barclay Tagg’s Florida Derby winner, Tiz The Law (4-1).


So what happens if any or all those horses do not do well in a race that will be worth 150 Derby qualifying points to the winner? Since the Run for the Roses will not be for 2½ months afterward, horses have plenty of time to regroup –— and horsemen have plenty of time to change their plans.


Horseplayers are also no doubt trying to educate themselves through all this. But by the time all the lessons are learned, the racing schedule might be back to normal. At least we hope it is.


Derby futures: Who’s hot?


Major Fed (60-1). Shortened from 75-1, optimism surrounds this maiden winner who starts Saturday in the next Derby points prep, the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs. The colt by 2004 champion Ghostzapper finished a troubled fourth in his most recent start March 21 in the Louisiana Derby. Two sharp workouts followed at the Fair Grounds before he splashed his way through a 51.4-second, 4-furlong breeze in the slop Saturday at Churchill Downs. “He’s fit, so the work was just a little maintenance,” trainer Greg Foley said. “We just need to catch a good trip, and our time will come.” Major Fed will face likely post-time favorite Maxfield in the Matt Winn.


Casino Grande (100-1). Unraced at age 2, this Christophe Clement trainee is 2-for-2 this year, most recently winning by 3¼ lengths against a strong field in a 1-mile allowance Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The vanquished rivals included three last-time winners and two horses, Edge Of Fire and Untitled, already in the Derby futures. After leading the whole way in his debut victory in March, Casino Grande stalked the pace last weekend and showed his turn of foot when urged late in the race by Irad Ortiz Jr. Sired by Cairo Prince out of a Tapit mare, he is a home-bred owned by Calumet Farm, which has won a record eight runnings of the Kentucky Derby — but none since Forward Pass’s controversial promotion in 1968.


Portos (100-1). This is clearly a case of drawing a line through his most recent start, a rough battle through traffic to a last-place finish in the Louisiana Derby. Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher, he has fired four bullets since at Palm Beach Downs, a big reason his odds were cut from 125-1. Still just a maiden winner, the Wertheimer brothers’ colt by Tapit figures to pop up at some point next month at Belmont Park, maybe even for a certain 9-furlong classic June 20.


Derby futures: Who’s not?


Ete Indien (35-1). Every week there is a head-scratcher on this list. This time it is a Summer Front colt who finished third in the Florida Derby. After getting a break in April, Ete Indien returned to the work tab this month, producing a 47.0-second bullet over 4 furlongs on the turf at Palm Meadows. Maybe the surface change was why he drifted from 30-1. But trainer Patrick Biancone told Horse Racing Nation he has the Haskell in mind, especially since that July 18 race at Monmouth Park will be worth 100 Derby points to the winner.


Untitled (65-1). Bettors and bookmakers were once high on this Khozan colt trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, especially after a tenacious second-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham just before Aqueduct was shut down. An allowance win against only three other Florida-breds in April at Gulfstream Park proved nothing. Saturday’s fifth-place finish to Casino Grande as an 11-10 favorite sent his Derby odds on a long move from 25-1. Casse said in January that Untitled “could be exceptional.” But he also admitted “he still has a lot to prove.”


Toledo (85-1). His odds have not changed at William Hill, but they certainly did globally after his latest disappointment. Globally he went to 150-1 after he was a beaten 4-5 favorite Saturday in a wet sprint allowance at Churchill Downs. That followed his third-place finish at 9-5 in the Holy Bull. In neither case did he look interested in fighting for ground in the stretch. Trainer Chad Brown may be back to the drawing board with this colt, proving again that a blue-blooded owner (Juddmonte Farms) and sterling bloodlines (by Into Mischief out of a Bernardini mare) go only so far.


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