Horses are not the only animals active during prep season for the Kentucky Derby. Owners and trainers also play a game of cat and mouse. Some of this will be on display in the buildup to the first virtual win-and-you’re-in race less than a month away.
More to the point, will Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality go against freshly minted Lecomte Stakes victor Midnight Bourbon in the Grade 2 Risen Star on Feb. 13 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans? Or will he take a separate path through Arkansas on his way to Kentucky?
With his victory Saturday, Midnight Bourbon joined Jackie’s Warrior to give trainer Steve Asmussen two prime but flawed Derby candidates, each with a victory in a Derby points prep. A $525,000 Tiznow colt, Midnight Bourbon was shortened from 80-1 to 60-1 in the Derby futures at Circa Sports and from 75-1 to 50-1 at William Hill Nevada.
Midnight Bourbon earned a healthy 91 Beyer for his efficient, front-running performance under jockey Joe Talamo. The old saying is that he was “clicking 12s,” as in 12 seconds per furlong. His quarter-miles were clocked at 24.68, 24.31, 24.58 and 24.52. But he appeared to be tiring late as he drifted out and was clocked at 6.32 seconds for the final 110 yards. What will happen if and when he is challenged for the lead, especially going longer than last weekend’s 8½ furlongs? Can he become only the second horse in the last 59 years of the Grade 3 Lecomte to win that race and then wear the roses in May?
Jackie’s Warrior (45-1 Circa, 40-1 William Hill) raised different questions in November, especially about his ability to go two turns when he finished fourth as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Now it looks like Asmussen may put him in the 1-mile, $1.5 million Saudi Derby next month on the Saudi Cup meeting’s undercard.
Trainer Brad Cox gave Essential Quality seven weeks off after the Keeneland triumph that may have won the 2-year-old male championship. As for a 3-year-old debut, Cox narrowed that to the Risen Star or the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park. Since stablemate Mandaloun has been committed to the Risen Star (keep reading), it would make sense that Essential Quality goes to Arkansas. Even though the Southwest is not a win-and-you’re-in, the 30 points he has already earned might be more than enough to get him into the Derby.
Not that Cox has to duck anyone. Not with a horse that was shortened this week to 7-1 at William Hill, making him that book’s new Derby favorite. Essential Quality remains the second choice at Circa, carrying odds of 12-1 compared with 11-1 for its favorite, Life Is Good.
If there is one thing to remember about Derby preps in this ninth year of the points era, it is that there is really no hurry for horsemen to take their equine talents into early points races. Really, all they need to do is finish first or second in one of the big springtime preps — the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Jeff Ruby Steaks (now a win-and-you’re-in), Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby or Arkansas Derby.
Hey, it worked for Justify.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Concert Tour (15-1 Circa, 20-1 William Hill). The congregation that sings from the speed-figure hymn book would point out that this front-runner’s debut victory Friday in a 6-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita was rewarded with an 88 Beyer. That was the best for any current 3-year-old colt in a sprint. Of course, current 3-year-olds have been running and graded as such for fewer than three weeks. Weigh that performance against the best sprint Beyers produced by Derby contenders when they were 2. Highly Motivated had a 96, Jackie’s Warrior 95, Golden Pal 92, Roderick 92, Life Is Good 91, Prate 90 and Reinvestment Risk 90. Since Bob Baffert is the trainer, that would be the reason this Street Sense colt became such a big Derby underlay.
Medina Spirit (70-1 Circa, 22-1 William Hill). Nevada bookmakers took his odds in opposite directions, so this $35,000 Baffert colt that was sired by Protonico (by whom?) could have been listed among “Who’s Not?” In moves that indicate it is taking significant bets, William Hill has methodically shortened the Sham Stakes runner-up from the 100-1 odds he carried New Year’s Day. Just last week, though, Circa drifted him from 50-1. His first formal activity since he pushed Life Is Good to the wire Jan. 2 was a relatively easy 4-furlong workout in 49.8 seconds at Santa Anita ahead of an undetermined start next month. The question seems to be whether to bet on the potential he showed as a 9-1 shot in the Sham or to fade him because of his ordinary bloodlines.
Shaftesbury (250-1 Circa). There is some nuance to liking this $675,000 turf specialist and, in particular, his second-place finish in a 1-mile maiden race Saturday at Gulfstream Park. For one, trainer Todd Pletcher got jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. to keep Shaftesbury closer to the pace than he did finishing fifth in his sprint debut last month. This time he looked more interested at the end, showing a turn of foot to pick off two rivals and capitulating by only a length to the deep closer that won. Shaftesbury is out of Lemon Kiss, a Lemon Drop Kid mare who was accomplished on dirt, turf and synthetic. He was sired by Uncle Mo, a stallion who already produced a Kentucky Derby winner in Nyquist. With that pedigree and with a Derby-friendly style, Pletcher has to be tempted to move him to the dirt. One more thing. The $675,000 check written for him 16 months ago at Keeneland was signed by Mike Repole, Vinny Viola and the Coolmore lads. One could do worse than taking a 250-1 chance with this guy.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Mandaloun (35-1 Circa, 40-1 William Hill). “Hot” one week. “Not” the next. Mandaloun’s odds drifted by $10 at each Las Vegas book after he finished third, a length behind Midnight Bourbon, as the 4-5 favorite in the Lecomte. It was the Into Mischief colt’s first time going two turns — and his first loss in three career starts. Saying he might add blinkers next time, Cox plans to enter Mandaloun in the 9-furlong Risen Star, setting up a rematch with Midnight Bourbon. Could the extra equipment and 110 more yards bridge the gap? If the answer is yes, consider what an extra 330 yards at Churchill Downs might mean.
Santa Cruiser (200-1 Circa, 125-1 William Hill). There was some wise-guy buzz around this horse before the Lecomte. But what do you know? As the 7-1 fourth choice he finished — wait for it — fourth. In fairness, this Calumet homebred by Dialed In got a really bad trip Saturday. He was boxed in at the start and squeezed back to last place, 15 lengths off the lead and completely out of the TV picture. But jockey James Graham never gave up, and he picked off four rivals in the long homestretch to finish an unrelenting fourth. Still just a maiden winner in four starts for trainer Keith Desormeaux, Santa Cruiser bears a second look — and maybe a first bet at these prices.
Erawan (750-1 Circa, 350-1 William Hill). Wait. What? Does that really say 750-1? It is apparently not a record. Johnny Avello said he went as long as 1,000-1 in his days booking Derby futures at the Wynn Las Vegas. In this case the big odds are on a Laurel Park debut winner who has lost four races since, including a fifth-place finish last month in the Grade 2 Remsen. That was the third race he ran in 27 days for owner-trainer Jose Corrales. He has run twice since, finishing third and fifth in black-type stakes at Laurel. This is a small-time horse that will not last much longer in the futures pool, even in the shallow end.
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning with a separate column after the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Saturday night at VSiN.com. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted twice this week at VSiN.com/podcasts. In a pop-up episode Thursday, Las Vegas bookmakers and horseplayers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo analyze every horse in Saturday’s two Pegasus races at Gulfstream Park. On the regular Friday episode, Gulfstream Park TV’s Acacia Courtney offers local insight into the Pegasus, and publisher Ed Musselman talks about the final issue of Indian Charlie. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.