It is hard to take Kentucky Derby preps very seriously this time of year. The winners are too often put on pedestals that undisciplined bettors target for ill-advised wagers. Call them overrated underlays.
History says, though, that the Los Alamitos Futurity is an exception. Although it has not produced a Kentucky Derby winner in nearly 16 years, it spawns legitimate Derby contenders almost every year. Most have been trained by Bob Baffert.
In fact, Baffert wins the Los Al Futurity every year. Period. He has won it each of the six years since “Doc” Ed Allred took the orphaned 8½-furlong race to his track after Hollywood Park was closed in 2013. Baffert will try to extend the streak Saturday.
Look at some of the Los Al graduates who have been entered in the Derby.
— 2019-20: Thousand Words. Last year’s winner was the 10-1 fourth choice on the Churchill Downs tote board when he flipped over while being saddled in the paddock three months ago.
— 2018-19: Improbable. Not only did he win at Los Al, he was the 4-1 post-time favorite for the Derby. His fifth-place finish (promoted to fourth) at Churchill made him the first favorite in six years who failed to wear the roses.
— 2017-18: Instilled Regard. McKinzie was awarded the win in December 2017 after stablemate Solomini was demoted to third for interference. Trained at the time by Jerry Hollendorfer, Instilled Regard was promoted to second. While McKinzie missed the Derby because of an injury, Instilled Regard finished fourth at 85-1 and filled out a $19,618.20 superfecta behind Justify.
— 2014-15: Dortmund and Firing Line. Baffert started his winning streak when Dortmund got the bob of a head in a nail-biting photo finish over Firing Line and Mr. Z. Nearly five months later Firing Line, trained by Simon Callaghan, chased Dortmund around Churchill Downs. Dortmund would fade to third, and Firing Line settled for second, a length behind American Pharoah.
The list of memorable winners goes back to when the race was still at Hollywood Park. Lookin At Lucky and Pioneerof The Nile, also for Baffert. The late Shared Belief for Jerry Hollendorfer and part-owner Jim Rome. Even standout stallions like Into Mischief and Violence are on the winners’ roll of the Hollywood/CashCall/Los Alamitos Futurity. And there was that runner-up in 2004. Giacomo was the 50-1 Derby fairy tale the next year.
It looks like Baffert will try to make it seven in a row with Classier and Spielberg, two expensive colts who have already made their presence felt in the Derby futures.
After winning his October debut by four lengths at Santa Anita and getting a Beyer Speed Figure of 78, Classier came back only 13 days later and finished a tired eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The $775,000 Empire Maker colt out of a Bernardini broodmare is 75-1 in the Derby futures at Circa Sports and 35-1 at William Hill Nevada.
The $1 million colt Spielberg has been disappointing in all but one start. That was Nov. 1 in a Del Mar mile, where he broke his maiden on his fourth try. Losses before and since included a second to Dr. Schivel in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, third in the Grade 1 American Pharoah and fourth in last month’s Grade 3 Bob Hope. Defeated three of four times he has been a favorite, the Union Rags colt out of a Smart Strike mare is 70-1 in Derby betting at Circa and 75-1 at William Hill.
As long as Baffert keeps sending good horses into the race, the Los Alamitos Futurity will punch above its weight. The American Graded Stakes Committee reduced the $200,000 race from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2. No doubt the committee was distracted by the average field of 5.3 horses since the race was moved. So much for recognizing quality over quantity.
It is not just how good the horses are. Los Alamitos provides an early snapshot of how they might do in certain conditions that replicate the Derby. It is a two-turn race, and the 490-yard homestretch is the longest for any prep — and about 80 yards longer than Churchill Downs.
If the field comes up small again this weekend, that will be fuel for critics to take their shots at the value of the Los Alamitos Futurity. But supporters will point to history. While neither side should be ignored, wise handicappers might actually pay attention to something more important. Like the horses.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Prime Factor (30-1 Circa, 25-1 William Hill). Flavors of the month: Life Is Good (November), Prime Factor (December). Momentum for this $900,000 colt in Todd Pletcher’s barn actually gathered with a big bet at a foreign book late last week. Being by Quality Road out of a Bernardini mare did not hurt. Neither did backside buzz. Then he won his debut at Gulfstream Park last weekend by 8¾ lengths, earning a strong but not jaw-dropping Beyer Speed Figure of 85. That attracted enough action to bring Circa way down from its 200-1 opener. William Hill added him Sunday at 50-1, and that was gobbled up in a hurry.
Savile Row (60-1 Circa, 50-1 William Hill). Another well-bred Baffert colt attracted more attention and money during the last week even though he has not even been in a timed workout since Abel Cedillo rode him to a 1¼-length debut victory Nov. 8 at Del Mar. He is by Quality Road out of a Malibu Moon mare, but bloodlines alone do not explain recent money. Maybe it was just someone wanting to hitch his betting wagon to the Baffert star.
Witsel (75-1 William Hill). Does the number 13¼ really mean anything? When it comes to lengths and a margin of victory, it becomes eye candy for bettors looking for the next Justify. But this Nyquist baby was not posted until after that lopsided debut win at Tampa Bay Downs that earned him an 85 Beyer. How about a tap of the brakes? Carlos Munoz is a grinder as an owner-trainer, but that does not qualify him as a developer of Kentucky Derby talent. At least not yet.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Bracken (100-1 Circa) and Broadway (200-1 Circa). These two first-time starters finished second and fourth, respectively, behind Prime Factor in that maiden race Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Circa is trying to lure bettors who want to be the first on their blocks to find that Derby Easter egg. Bracken is a $285,000 Speightster colt who is a stablemate of Prime Factor. Broadway was a $500,000 yearling who races for trainer Christophe Clement.
Vittorio (65-1 Circa, 60-1 William Hill). It took two tries for this $750,000 Ghostzapper colt to break his maiden, doing so in a summertime sprint at Del Mar. He has since been absent from the work tab for Callaghan. Absence makes the odds grow longer. Since last week Circa moved him from 50-1 to 55-1 to 65-1.
Alexander Valley (85-1 Circa). This looked all about an auction price when he was posted with 50-1 opening odds. Sired by Medaglia d’Oro and bought as a yearling by Godolphin for $2.15 million, he finished sixth Saturday at Gulfstream Park in his mile debut for trainer Bill Mott. But it is hard to say that was completely disappointing since he was a 6-1 fourth choice for the race won by 3-2 favorite Donegal Bay (100-1 William Hill).
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode will focus on Kentucky Derby preps in Oklahoma and California with Remington Park’s Dale Day and South Point’s Chris Andrews among the guests. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.