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Derby trail reaches validation season for favorites

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Trainer Mike Trombetta (center) and his team are looking after Independence Hall in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Saturday’s next step on the road to the Kentucky Derby. (Tampa Bay Downs photo)

Las Vegas


Tiz The Law answered his first big challenge last week. Now it is Independence Hall’s turn with Storm The Court on deck.


It is that time of year for the way-too-early favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Call it validation season – the time when we find out if these newly turned 3-year-olds are worthy of the money they have attracted in future wagers not to mention the hype that goes with it.


“You have a lot of horses testing the waters to see how good they are,” said trainer Mike Trombetta, who sends Independence Hall into Saturday’s $250,000 Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, the next points prep for the Derby. “All of us have the same goal – to see how far they can take us. We’d love to show up and run big and win the race, but the big picture is a little further down the line.”


Tiz The Law did nothing to discourage his backers last Saturday when he won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Florida. Now 3-for-3 on fast dirt, he is the 6-1 favorite in Derby wagering at William Hill Nevada. He is also the shortest individual choice at 8-1 on the morning line in the second pari-mutuel pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW), which is open nationwide from Friday at noon to Sunday at 6 p.m. EST.


“He’s always done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Tiz The Law’s trainer Barclay Tagg said right after the Holy Bull. “He’s just been a dream. He’s been flawless, and his races have been exciting.”


Will Trombetta be offering a similar encomium about Independence Hall after his race at 5:29 p.m. EST Saturday? The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining his futures price.


In the case of 2019 juvenile champion Storm The Court, it is a little more complicated. At 12-1 in the William Hill futures, his 30-1 KDFW morning line opens the door for a possible overlay. But that all depends on how he does Sunday in a prep that does not carry any Derby points. Instead, his 3-year-old debut represents a cutback to a seven-furlong sprint, namely the $200,000 Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita.


“The expectations are just to watch and see,” Storm The Court’s trainer Peter Eurton told VSiN. “We don’t think we’re better than everybody. We’re just trying to get another race into him from Point A to Point B, which is the first week in May. We’re just trying to get him ready for Derby time.”


Because Storm The Court already has 22 points on the way to the 40 that he may need to qualify for the Derby, there is no sense of urgency for Eurton. He admitted that he may schedule only one more prep race to split the 12 weeks between now and May 2.”


“We’d like to find another two-turn race preferably in probably six weeks,” he said. “That’ll put us at a pretty far distance from the Derby still. There’s a chance he could have three (2020 prep) races. There’s a chance he could have two.”


For what it’s worth, the Louisiana Derby is the one and only prep race that falls in six weeks. Eurton did not specify it, but he also said that shipping Storm The Court out of California would not be a problem.


For bettors, though, Storm The Court’s luxury of having banked points makes it hard to judge the context of the San Vicente – both coming and going. Remember, this colt by Court Vision has never started a race at odds shorter than 12-1. Although that will change this weekend, and even though a sharp-looking effort that results in a defeat might not worry Eurton, there is still plenty of room for skeptics to feast on Storm The Court’s curriculum vitae.


“At seven (furlongs) anything is possible after what happened to us down south,” said Eurton, referring to last summer’s Del Mar Futurity, in which Storm The Court lost his regular rider Flavien Prat just after the start of the race. “Things happen. You have to be open for those kinds of things. The whole point is to try to get yourself ready to have the beset you can in a few months.”


In other words, a must-win for some horses might just be a paid workout for some others. Let the bettor beware.


Racing notes and opinions


Seven rivals will take on Independence Hall (6-5) in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. José Ortiz will again ride the morning-line favorite that is 3-for-3, including stakes wins in the Grade 3 Nashua and last month’s Jerome, both at Aqueduct. Ridden by Joel Rosario and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Ajaaweed (4-1) is a maiden winner coming off a second-place finish to Shotski two months ago in the Grade 2 Remsen. He drew favorably along a rail that has yielded 23 percent of the winner’s during the current Tampa Bay Downs meet. Chapalu (8-1) drew wide for his dirt debut for trainer Arnaud Delacour and jockey Daniel Centeno, both of whom have been on hot streaks. Chalky though they may be, those are the three horses that will be on my tickets with the thought that Ajaaweed is mostly likely to spring the upset coming from just off a pace that Independence Hall may help to set. If there is too much speed at the front, Sole Volante (8-1) seems the most likely to pounce on it late.


The second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager includes the usual, skimpy assortment of 23 horses plus the “all others” choice (5-2) that is the morning-line favorite. Tiz The Law (8-1) seems unlikely to end up carrying his predicted price. The odds for Independence Hall (10-1) and the seemingly overlaid Storm The Court (30-1) will swing on the outcome of their races this weekend. The currently idle Dennis’ Moment (12-1) may be the equivalent of buying and holding a blue-chip stock. As usual, I will hector those who bet the KDFW too early – as in before this weekend’s preps are run. Since the odds you see Friday are not the odds you get Sunday, why not wait?


The National Horseplayers Championship moves to Bally’s Las Vegas for its 20th annual competition Friday-Sunday. Some 556 players with nearly 700 entries will be playing for $2.95 million, including a first-place prize of $800,000. Scott Coles of Chicago will try to be the first champion to repeat in the contest that requires players to make mythical $2 win-place bets on 53 races – some mandatory, others optional – in the course of three days.


A jockey strike threatens Saturday’s card at Parx Racing near Philadelphia. As first reported by Ray Paulick in the Paulick Report, 34 riders said that they would not ride unless the jockeys room was given an overdue cleaning, that track management would back down from demanding disclosure of past legal trouble and that Parx would start paying money to the Jockeys’ Guild to pay for their insurance. The demands came in writing to the racing secretary and the clerk of the scales, guild attorney Tom Kennedy told Paulick. A track executive said that meetings going on to try and head off the strike.


Finally, after 78 years of dealing with that confounded gap between the main and auxiliary gates in the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs has gotten rid of it. It is buying a custom-made, 20-stall gate to be used for the first time at this year’s Derby. It is being built by Steriline Racing of Australia, where a 24-stall gate has been in regular use every year for the Melbourne Cup. The old 14-stall gate will still be used for all other races at Churchill Downs. This will not only eliminate the crush of horses merging from gates 14 and 15, but it will also allow more room between gate 1 and the inside rail as well as gate 20 and the outside rail. In other words, horseplayers might not make the rail an automatic toss anymore. My overanalysis of this has only just begun.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at The biggest handicapping contest in the country is the focus of the current episode of the RFRP. Competitors Chris Fallica, David Gutfreund and Judy Wagner take part in a roundtable to talk about betting strategy for the National Horseplayers Championship at Las Vegas. Trainer Peter Eurton discusses 2019 juvenile champion Storm The Court’s return to the track Sunday in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher and is sponsored by Xpressbet.

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