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Derby hopefuls' time, opportunities dwindle

The road to the Kentucky Derby has passed that line of no return. It came and went Thursday. Call it the Justify line.

 

Feb. 18 was the third anniversary of Justify’s debut. It was the latest date since 1882, the year of the now-discarded curse of Apollo, that any horse began his career before winning the Derby.

 

Though it is mathematically possible for a horse to prolong his unveiling until as late as April 10 and still get into a fully subscribed Run for the Roses, let’s be real. That is not going to happen.

 

Put another way: If a horse has not made its debut by now, it is not getting into the Derby. Almost as big a long shot is the 3-year-old that has already made his debut, looked awful doing it and has yet to be listed in the Las Vegas futures.

 

Circa Sports and William Hill Nevada have been cutting their lists of horses by the dozens. Where they have not done that, they have made the odds longer on the least likely candidates to win the Derby, perhaps in hopes of luring someone who wants to take a cheap flier on a 400-1 shot like, say, Ricochet. Roughly speaking, it is horse racing’s version of hitting 6 of 8 in Keno — without the free drinks.

 

Now it seems a matter of lowering the bar separating a good bet from an underlay. Personally, 100-1 is usually as short as I would go betting on Derby futures before this time of year. The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, which will be run Saturday, is usually that point when I think 75-1 is worth taking.

 

The element of injury is still there. So is the chance that an owner and trainer will say their horse is less apt to go 1¼ miles, and they will keep him in one-turn races. Or maybe push him to the turf. A bet now is still action no matter whether the horse gets to the gate in Louisville.

 

What is becoming less of a gamble is whether horses will have enough points to make the Derby. Or whether they have enough chances. Mandaloun already has 52 points, virtually assuring him of his place in the Derby gate. He can sip on daiquiris between now and May 1 and still get in.

 

Essential Quality’s 2021 year has been postponed twice by snow in Arkansas, but trainer Brad Cox is in no hurry. His Eclipse Award winner already has 30 qualifying points, which might be enough. If he wins Saturday when they finally run the Southwest Stakes, he will have 40 points. If for some reason he falls short, he will still have chances to pad his total.

  

Consensus favorite Life Is Good has two chances to top up his 10 points with what he needs to make it to Churchill Downs. He can do it by winning or maybe even finishing second in 1½ weeks in the San Felipe Stakes. Or maybe with a top-three finish a month later in the Santa Anita Derby. Then again, if he fails to win those races, 7-1 would look pretty bad, wouldn’t it?

 

 In the coming days, the weekly chart that compares Derby futures will have a lot fewer names. It is literally a matter of time and opportunity, both of which are dwindling. True, there are still 66 days until post time. Perhaps more importantly for futures bettors, only 45 days remain until the last points prep for the Derby.

 

DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?

 

Dream Shake (20-1 Circa, 20-1 William Hill): Trainer Peter Eurton has been down this road. Storm The Court won the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 45-1. Within minutes his odds for the Kentucky Derby were cut to a best price of 20-1. In the abstract, then, he was considered more likely to win the Derby than he was to win the Breeders’ Cup. In the last two weeks, especially at William Hill, Dream Shake has been bet down to the same odds to win America’s biggest race as he was to win his debut at the expense of the much-ballyhooed Bezos. That was a 4¾-length victory two weeks ago at Santa Anita to top a 10-cent superfecta that paid $1,415.45. Let’s see, 20-1 over 13-1 over 7-2 over 89-1. Overrated as Bezos might have been, the results of this sprint still had fluke written all over it. Sold twice in seven months with a top price of $75,000, expectations were never as high with this Twirling Candy colt as they were when he was bet down in the current futures. There is nothing wrong with an overachieving horse — until he turns into a crazy underlay.

 

Keepmeinmind (28-1, 28-1): Bettors have zeroed in on this prospect’s 3-year-old debut Saturday in the twice-postponed Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. It will be his first race since Thanksgiving weekend, when he won as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. That race, like the Southwest, was 8½ furlongs. Trained by Robertino Diodoro, the Laoban colt never finished out of the money in his four starts as a 2-year-old. That includes his third-place finish to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. They will be rematched this weekend in Arkansas, where rain is forecast. Again, these futures odds seem awfully short more than two months before the Derby, unless bettors are supremely confident he is that much better than a champion like Essential Quality.

 

Hozier (75-1, 75-1): After finishing a distant fourth in his sprint debut for Bob Baffert last month, this $625,000 Pioneerof The Nile colt bounced back to win by 1¾ lengths in an 8½-furlong maiden race on Presidents’ Day at Santa Anita. Joel Rosario did the same thing last week that Flavien Prat did in January, chasing the pace early. The difference in the maiden breaker may have been the move inside to the rail instead of a wider trip. Or maybe it was having a second turn, from which Hozier looked far more interested and full of energy, especially after switching leads under Rosario’s hand ride in the stretch. Bigger fields and faster company beckon, but bettors could do worse than having an improving Baffert at 75-1.

 

DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?

 

Prevalence (20-1, 15-1): The Godolphin homebred spiked a fever since his debut win, forcing him to miss his next start in a Friday allowance race or the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on Saturday. He is back in training, so there is apparently no cause for alarm for trainer Brendan Walsh — and maybe not for bettors who could not wait to put money on him for the Derby. They were clearly inspired by the Medaglia d’Oro colt’s 8½-length triumph on the Pegasus World Cup undercard, good for an 89 Beyer Speed Figure. No fever will wipe out that memory. If only it could wipe out the Derby underlay.

 

Stage Raider (175-1, 150-1): It looks like bookmakers are trying to lure some business for a horse that finished a distant second when he was overmatched Jan. 23 against Prevalence. Trained by Chad Brown, this Pioneerof The Nile colt out of a Ghostzapper dam was bred well by owner John Gunther. He stalked the pace in his first start but did not appear to have the added gear he needed to find the winner’s circle. Maybe a second turn will change that, but bettors are not clamoring to find out.

 

Outasite (200-1, 150-1): In Cox’s deep stable of 3-year-olds, this horse that has been sold three times looks out of his league. Bought for $380,000 last March by Jim Rupp, he of Owendale fame, the Outwork colt out of a Speightstown mare needed three tries to break his maiden. That was at Oaklawn Park last month at 6 furlongs after two 7-furlong failures as a 2-year-old at Churchill Downs. Cox has worked Outasite just once since, so there appears to be no urgency to throw him in the deep end of the Derby pool.

 

In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The Kentucky Derby trail reaches the Southwest Stakes and Fountain of Youth this weekend, and they are the focus of the RFRP. Trainer Steve Asmussen talks about his top Derby prospect, Jackie's Warrior. John Pricci of Horse Race Insider offers a preview from South Florida. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps Saturday’s preps. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET. 

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