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Derby Watch: Prep races start to hit stride

By Ron Flatter  ( 

March 31, 2017 11:36 AM

LAS VEGAS--This is the part in the script where the general public is called to the stage, invited to join hard-core racing fans in gazing down the road to the Kentucky Derby. Now if only just one horse could step out of what has been a foggy winter to star in this show.


The Louisiana Derby and the Florida Derby are the first two of six big prep races beckoning over the next three Saturdays. The winner in each gets an automatic invitation to Churchill Downs in five weeks with the second-place finishers almost certain to join them.


In a normal year we by now would have identified a few 3-year-olds that look like the alpha dogs, or horses, not only in these last prep races but also for the Run for the Roses. Not so this year. Maybe not even this week.


Take the $1 million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Girvin, winner of last month’s Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on the same track, is the 8-to-5 morning-line favorite. But Local Hero (7-to-2), third in that same race, and Guest Suite (4-to-1), winner of the muddy Lecomte on the same track in January, are not easily dismissed.


“I think that there are five or six really, really excellent colts out there,” Guest Suite’s trainer Neil Howard told me in a media teleconference this week. “Right now there’s so much mystique to this Triple Crown season.”


Howard did identify a few standouts, names already familiar to anyone swimming in racing’s deep end, not to mention bookmakers here in Las Vegas writing futures tickets for the first Saturday in May. At the Wynn, double-prep winner McCraken (6-to-1) is the top Kentucky Derby choice followed by Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit (7-to-1) and Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera (8-to-1), the favorite in Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Florida Derby.


Guest Suite faced McCraken last October in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs and lost, finishing five lengths up the track in third. From there the two horses were sent their separate ways for the winter.


“I just wanted to see (McCraken) get on that van and go to Florida and not come to New Orleans,” Howard said. “That night after that race (owner Bill) Farish and I decided if the opportunity presented itself we would just sit tight and try to get that next allowance race under our belt rather than run back in a stakes at the end of the meet at Churchill. We saw enough that night right then and there.”


With Robby Albarado riding, Guest Suite would win his next two races, including the Lecomte, before a wide-running fourth in the Risen Star, 4½ lengths behind Girvin. Saturday’s rematch is 110 yards longer at 1 1/8 miles, and both horses are expected to be just off the lead for most of the race.


“I do like that (Girvin) obviously was on the lead when he was asked in his maiden race,” said Joe Sharp, Girvin’s trainer. “He stopped just off the pace in the turf (in a February stakes at the Fair Grounds, finishing second), and he came from considerably further back in the Risen Star. So, he’s shown three levels of versatility. With all the situations that are thrown at you with a 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May, that’s huge for us.”


Sharp, who is married to former jockey Rosie Napravnik, wants Girvin chasing honest fractions this weekend under rider Brian Hernández Jr. So he put front-running Hotfoot in the Louisiana Derby to play the role of rabbit. “We were trying to develop a little bit of pace,” Sharp said, “because it seemed like it could be a one-horse-on-the-lead type deal.”


That one horse might yet be Local Hero, sired by speedster Hard Spun. Trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Florent Geroux, he is a colt that has been on a loose lead in his last three races but is still only a maiden winner. He will start from post position 3, inside Guest Suite at 6 and Girvin at 8.


With nine horses in the field, the Louisiana Derby has a post time of 6:21 p.m. EDT Saturday.


Gunnevera is favored in Florida Derby


A closer that came from 13 lengths back to win the Fountain of Youth, Gunnevera has been made the 9-to-5 favorite on the morning line to win the Florida Derby, scheduled for 6:40 p.m. EDT Saturday at Gulfstream Park near Miami.


Trained by Antonio Sano, Gunnevera already has three graded-stakes victories in the four races he has been paired with reigning four-time U.S. champion jockey Javier Castellano. The colt sired by Dialed In drew the outside post in a field of 11.


Two front-runners handled by 13-time Gulfstream training champion Todd Pletcher loom as his biggest challengers. Battalion Runner (3-to-1) and Always Dreaming (4-to-1) were odds-on winners in each of their last two races in Florida. Both are making their stakes debuts.


Not to be forgotten is Three Rules (8-to-1), a five-time winner as a 2-year-old with two victories over Gunnevera in sprints at Gulfstream last June and July. Could trainer José Pinchin pull off the surprise over 1 1/8 miles with his front-running colt that finished third to Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth?


“I’m sure I could,” Pinchin said. “Gunnevera had it real set up for him last time. There was a real fast pace, and he is a nice horse. He is a good closer.”


No prep race has been a stepping stone to more Kentucky Derby victories than the Florida Derby, the 23rd being Nyquist’s victory in both races last year. Only the Champagne Stakes in New York and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland have spawned as many Kentucky Derby winners.


Sunny weather is forecast for New Orleans and south Florida on Saturday with the temperature peaking in the 80s.


Bone chip costs El Areeb his Derby shot


Winner of two Derby preps at Aqueduct in New York, El Areeb suffered a bone chip in his right front knee and will not be able to race in the Kentucky Derby.


Trainer Cal Lynch said the injury was discovered after a four-furlong workout Wednesday at Laurel Park in Maryland. The 3-year-old winner of the Jerome and Withers was being aimed for next Saturday’s Wood Memorial, also at Aqueduct.


El Areeb is the second Derby prep winner to be sidelined by injury. Mastery will not be in any Triple Crown race after suffering a condylar fracture seconds after he was an impressive winner three weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.


Oaks favorite Unique Bella is sidelined


For the second year in a row the top 3-year-old filly in the country, again trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, will miss the Kentucky Oaks. This time it is Unique Bella.


Hollendorfer said Tuesday that she has a shin injury that forced her to be scratched from next Saturday’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. The problem was discovered in the days after she had what appeared to be a routine workout March 19 at Santa Anita.


With wins in three Oaks preps, Unique Bella was the even-money favorite in the only Kentucky Oaks Future Wager conducted by Churchill Downs.


Hollendorfer was also forced to scratch Songbird from the Oaks last year because of an illness. She went on to win four Grade 1 races including the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and was voted the top 3-year-old filly in North America in 2016.


Arrogate loses something in translation


It was like the Golden State Warriors’ win at San Antonio on Wednesday night. Arrogate was slow out of the gate and trailed early by 15, but he eventually found a way to the front and win going away last Saturday in the $10 million Grade 1 Dubai World Cup.


Left to debate afterward was whether Arrogate is the top-earning thoroughbred of all time. That all depends on the currency being used to measure him.


Most charts listing top earners show Japanese horses Orfèvre and/or Gentildonna having made about $19 million in their careers. Arrogate’s $6 million pay day coupled with the $7.2 million he made winning the $12 million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January at Gulfstream brought his career earnings past $17 million.


Where this all gets murky is the exchange rate for the horses from Japan. Using the yen-to-dollar ratio at the time of each of Orfèvre and Gentildonna’s races, the two of them still lead Arrogate. But if it the conversion is from yen and dollars to, say, euros, then there is a viable conclusion that Arrogate has the lead.


Whatever the case, Bob Baffert’s 4-year-old that was not even racing at this time last year is without dispute the top earner in North American history, passing California Chrome with the win at Dubai.


Until the Pegasus came along, the Dubai World Cup was the world’s richest race. Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed told CNN that it will be again, promising that the purse will be raised to surpass the Pegasus. In the meantime Arrogate is being rested and will be prepared in the long term for summertime races building to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. A win there would make him without question the world’s top earner of all time.


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