By Ron Flatter
LAS VEGAS—It is happening again. Favorites are turning the prep races for the Kentucky Derby into chalky exercises in qualifying for the Run for the Roses.
This bodes well for Mo Town, the 7/2 morning-line favorite at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans to win Saturday’s $400,000 Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, the first race in the next level of points preps for the Derby.
Owned primarily by Coolmore, trained by part-owner Tony Dutrow and ridden by John Velázquez, the 3-year-old colt by Uncle Mo could be the 12th favorite in 22 Derby preps to finish a winner.
If favorites normally win about one-third of the time, how is it that they have been successful in more than half the Derby preps run to this point in the winter each of the last three years? The easy answer is that the foal crop has been getting smaller in both quality and quantity, and there are fewer good 3-year-olds go to around and fill the 36 Derby preps.
But Patrick McQuiggan, the pro handicapper here at the South Point race book, takes it one step further.
“One reason so many favorites are winning is slot machines,” McQuiggan said. “Look at the tracks where they have slots. Sunland Park down in New Mexico put up $1 million for 3-year-olds. When that happened that created another prep race for the Kentucky Derby. We have a smaller foal crop, but we still have more races out there now.”
That means a race like the Sunland Derby has become the perfect place for a big-time trainer to drop in a colt that might otherwise be in a deeper field someplace like Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park, especially since it carries enough points to make it a win-and-you’re-in qualifier.
“The points system is still getting the good horses there, and it’s making good horses compete,” McQuiggan said. “A 2-year-old that wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile now has to race probably more than once as a 3-year-old going into the Derby.”
That is how it is Saturday for Mo Town, already a prep winner in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes last November at Aqueduct in New York. He went off 4-1 that day. Only three of the Derby preps so far have been won by a horse starting at longer than 5-1.
Mo Town drew gate 9 and is likely to race in the middle of the pack in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star. “He’s done well since his last race and all winter,” said Dutrow, who is bringing the colt back from a nearly three-month break.
Local Hero is second on the morning line at 4-1 and is likely to set the pace in his first graded stakes for trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Florent Geroux. Five other horses in the Risen Star field have had graded experience; they were all in last month’s Grade 3 Lecomte in the mud at the Fair Grounds. The mid-pack gelding Guest Suite, a 5-2 winner that day, is 6-1 on Saturday’s morning line.
Since the Risen Star is the first of eight preps worth 50 points for a victory, Saturday’s winner will vault to the top of the Derby prep standings and virtually clinch a place in the Derby field.
Future Wager is back in play
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and reigning 2-year-old champion Classic Empire has been joined by unbeaten Tampa Bay Derby winner McCraken as the individual, morning-line favorites for the third pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which was set to open at 3 p.m. PST Friday and close at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
The “All others” entry – a bet on anything other than the 23 individual choices in the pool – is the 4-1 favorite followed by Classic Empire and McCraken, each at 8-1.
Classic Empire was on his way to being a consensus favorite before he developed a hoof abscess that trainer Mark Casse blamed for his third-place disappointment as the odds-on favorite three weeks ago in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Casse said Classic Empire would skip next week’s Fountain of Youth and will be pointed to the March 11 Tampa Bay Derby.
Top turf horse goes in Australia
The world’s top-ranked turf horse Winx is an odds-on, 1-10 favorite to collect her 15th consecutive win at 9:30 p.m. PST Friday when she races in the $462,000 Group 1 Chipping Norton Stakes over one mile at Royal Randwick in Sydney.
She will be challenged again by Hartnell (7-1), which finished second to Winx just 12 days earlier in the Group 2 Apollo Stakes over seven furlongs at the same track.
A 5-year-old mare sired by the 2002 Dubai World Cup winner Street Cry, Winx is the two-time reigning champion in Australia’s Group 1 Cox Plate, the top weight-for-age race in the southern hemisphere. If she wins Saturday, Winx will surpass the legendary Phar Lap’s 14-race winning streak in 1930-31.