It has long been a geographic island in the Thoroughbred landscape, yet California has somehow produced six of the last nine Kentucky Derby winners.
It is easy to remember that Bob Baffert has three of those victories, but it was actually a rival trainer who ended the state’s 1-for-9 Derby slump.
When I’ll Have Another won in 2012, Doug O’Neill was thrust into national consciousness, especially with the good-natured vibe he brought to Triple Crown trail. When Nyquist won in 2016, it showed that O’Neill was no fluke. O’Neill’s two Derby triumphs in the ’10s not only matched Baffert and that noted easterner Todd Pletcher, he got there first.
While Baffert is the funnel cloud who by sheer force of success is the nexus of the racing universe, O’Neill is that nighttime breeze that occasionally blows hard enough to oscillate the backyard chimes into a sweet melody.
More to the point, bet against Doug F. O’Neill at your own risk. Not just Churchill Downs on May 1 but also in this weekend’s Derby points prep at Santa Anita, the $100,000 Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. EST.
While Baffert sends the fast rising Medina Spirit and the underachieving $1 million colt Spielberg to the gate, O’Neill counters with the surprising Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Hot Rod Charlie and the Nyquist colt Wipe The Slate.
The Las Vegas futures market always goes gaga over Baffert, but also looks bullish on O’Neill. Hot Rod Charlie is best-priced at 60-1 to win the Derby, and Wipe The Slate is 125-1. Then there is The Great One. His 14-length maiden breaker last weekend propelled him into the futures at 45-1. Too short to touch?
“I probably would just because I’m an Irish gambler, and I do stupid things,” O’Neill told VSiN this week in an interview for the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “I’m very honored by the respect of the gamblers. If (The Great One) stays injury-free he should make the big dance and have a say.”
If there is one thing that the three O’Neill colts have in common, it is blinkers. Each of them showed marked improvement since they were added. Hot Rod Charlie and Wipe The Slate, in particular, come into the Bob Lewis a combined 3-for-3 with them.
“I think there’s some similarities with The Great One,” O’Neill said about Hot Rod Charlie (3-1 morning line), the Oxbow colt that drew post 4 and will be ridden by Joel Rosario. “He’s another one that trained really well before his debut. Then it was like three consecutive races of just not really applying himself and acting more like he’d rather be part of the pack than a leader. In the morning he’s all leader, so the addition of blinkers really helped him out.”
Wipe The Slate (4-1) went from losing by 9½ lengths without blinkers in his first start to winning by 3¼ with blinkers in his next. The equipment change, though, was not the biggest difference. Instead it was the absence from the encore of first-time winner Life Is Good, Baffert’s current Derby favorite.
“That was going to be tough, blinkers or no blinkers,” O’Neill said of Wipe The Slate’s debut. “We thought maybe the addition of blinkers might help him, and it surely didn’t hurt. He’s got a lot of natural speed – a lot of gate speed. He runs with his head down, and actually he’s got tremendous stamina. He acts like the route of ground won’t be a problem, and I’m real optimistic he is going to give us good effort.”
At 8½ furlongs the Bob Lewis could be the quintessence of the cliché pace makes the race. But among the eight colts entered, who will make the pace? On paper it should be set by presumptive favorite Medina Spirit (5-2), with jockey Abel Cedillo starting for Baffert from the rail, and Wipe The Slate, with Mario Gutiérrez for O’Neill from post 7.
Coming back from last month’s narrow victory over The Great One in the Los Alamitos Futurity, Spielberg (7-2) gets the advantage of leading California jockey Flavien Prat, but he got stuck with an outside draw and four extra pounds that may conspire against him.
“I’m sure Baffert will send one of his, so there’ll be some speed in there,” O’Neill said. “Mario will just have to make the best trip he can from the ‘7’ hole. Joel is so confident that, if they’re crawling up front, Hot Rod will be close up. If they’re flying he’ll be a little bit far back. So it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of field shapes up and how these top riders figure it all out.”
Himself a Derby winner, John Shirreffs saddles Parnelli (12-1) and Waspirant (20-1), two horses that would be a surprise this weekend since they have lost their three graded-stakes starts by a combined 42 lengths.
If there is a lot of speed up front, Simon Callaghan’s maiden winner Roman Centurian and Mike McCarthy’s American Pharoah Stakes runner-up Rombauer loom as deep closers. Roman Centurian (8-1) is coming off Lasix only three weeks since his win while Rombauer (8-1) is reunited with jockey Mike Smith, who may have a better sense of when to time a late rally.
Rombauer is certainly worth a look to include on tickets, but Hot Rod Charlie is the key here to upset the Bafferts. He was a steal of an overlay at 94-1 when he gave Essential Quality everything he could handle at the end of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. My play is Hot Rod Charlie over Spielberg and Rombauer.
Whether it is The Great One or Hot Rod Charlie or even Wipe The Slate that fires the loudest shot over the bow of the good ship Baffert, will O’Neill have enough this spring to become only the seventh trainer to get to three Derby victories? If so, has he done as he famously did nine years ago with I’ll Have Another and gotten some Las Vegas action on any of his new 3-year-olds?
“No, not yet,” he said. “I’m probably a little bit behind that. That’d be a problem I could deal with.”
Of the six trainers who already have at least three Derby wins, only Ben Jones at 6-for-11 has a success rate better than 27 percent. O’Neill is 2-for-6.
If there is a moral to this story, it might this for those who consider fading him. Tread lightly.
Racing notes and opinions
The deep closer Greatest Honour is the morning-line favorite to beat two of Pletcher’s debut winners in the $200,000 Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes. The Derby points prep is posted for Saturday at 4:50 p.m. EST at Gulfstream Park. A Tapit colt trained by Shug McGaughey, Greatest Honour (5-2) gets better with added distance. He came from seven lengths back to break his maiden last month over the same 8½ furlongs as the Holy Bull. Pletcher is represented by the once-raced Prime Factor and Amount. It has been seven weeks since Prime Factor (3-1) cruised to an 8¾-length win going six furlongs. The $900,000 Quality Road colt comes into this weekend off a reported bullet work at Palm Beach Downs. Late last month Amount (6-1) turned a three-length deficit into a 5¾-length debut victory. That was against a soft field in a maiden sprint, so he is being asked to do a lot more going a second turn against a deeper field. Sittin On Go (5-1) has finished out of the money twice since his win in the Grade 3 Iroquois, and former Baffert colt Tarantino (8-1) moves off the turf, where he won last month in his first start for Rodolphe Brisset. Admittedly chalky, Greatest Honour is the play with Prime Factor and Tarantino.
More than three months since his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory, Essential Quality is expected to make his 3-year-old debut on Presidents’ Day, Feb. 15, in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Trainer Brad Cox said he chose that race over the Grade 2 Risen Star two days earlier at the Fair Grounds because it is 110 yards shorter. “The right thing for him off the layoff would be the mile-and-a-sixteenth,” Cox told The Daily Racing Form. This sets up a likely rematch with Jackie’s Warrior, the odds-on favorite that finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup. At the time trainer Steve Asmussen agreed with skeptics who said it was doubtful whether Jackie’s Warrior could succeed at two turns. As Asmussen put it that day, “I think it will be until he wins.”
There was no shortage of media predictions that Authentic could not get 1¼ miles, could not win the Kentucky Derby and could not win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yes, I was among those skeptics. Here is a prediction, however, that did come true. Authentic indeed claimed the Horse of the Year trophy Thursday night at the 50th annual Eclipse Awards. This year’s event was presented as a recorded, 106-minute, multi-platform show because of COVID. These were the recipients as decided by 238 voters, mostly in the media (in totally self-serving fashion I included my votes in parentheses where they differed from the winners):
Horse of the Year: Authentic.
2-year-old male: Essential Quality.
2-year-old filly: Vequist.
3-year-old male: Authentic.
3-year-old filly: Swiss Skydiver.
Older dirt male: Improbable.
Older dirt female: Monomoy Girl.
Male sprinter: Whitmore (Vekoma).
Female sprinter: Gamine.
Male turf horse: Channel Maker.
Female turf horse: Rushing Fall.
Steeplechase horse: Moscato (abstained).
Trainer: Brad Cox.
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr. (Joel Rosario)
Apprentice jockey: Alexander Crispín (abstained).
Owner: Godolphin (Spendthrift Farm).
Breeder: WinStar Farm.
The National Horseplayers Championship was supposed to be here in Las Vegas this weekend. COVID superseded. The NHC was pushed back to Aug. 27-29, and it is still scheduled to be held at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. One wonders if the ever-widening chasm between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association might eventually be influential in where it is held next year. If CDI and the racebook cartel are still cold-shouldering one another, there will not be much of an impact this summer. Only the remains of the Arlington Park calendar appear be off-limits to NHC competitors. But what about next year at this time? If the NHC reverts to the week before the Super Bowl, and if nothing changes between Las Vegas and Louisville, then races at the Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park and Turfway Park will all be blacked out. If that is the case, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association might be well served to move the NHC at Gulfstream Park, where the only track that might be off-limits is Turf Paradise. If nothing else, a little NTRA pressure could go a long way toward getting someone in the embarrassing CDI-NPMA stare-down to actually blink.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On this week’s episode, trainer Doug O’Neill discusses horses that could win him his third Kentucky Derby, outgoing Gulfstream Park TV analyst Jason Blewitt previews the Holy Bull Stakes, Rampart Casino’s Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races, and there is a wrap-up of the Eclipse Awards. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.