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Major preps are at hand for Kentucky Derby

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Mandaloun_Jan_Brubaker_Photos
Risen Star winner Mandaloun is expected to be the favorite Saturday for the $1 million Louisiana Derby, the first major prep for the Kentucky Derby. (Jan Brubaker Photos via Fair Grounds)

Now we are talking Kentucky Derby preps. This time we mean it.

Life Is Good can race across, up and down or diagonally through the San Felipe. Greatest Honour can close on pedestrian fractions in the Fountain of Youth. Concert Tour can be anointed prince of the Bob Baffert Invi … er … Rebel Stakes. Essential Quality can be forgotten with his undefeated record after he won the twice snowed-out Southwest Stakes. Those were like the regular-season games before the playoffs.

Now the real stakes are at hand. Eight major preps during the next four weekends start with Saturday’s $1 million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in New Orleans. It renews the Fair Grounds rivalry between Risen Star winner Mandaloun (8-5 morning line), two-time prep runner-up Proxy (7-2) and Lecomte winner Midnight Bourbon (5-1).

In the bigger picture, though, the winner gets 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, an arbitrary reward that translates into an automatic berth. Second place is worth 40 points, enough for one of the three rivals or even a party crasher to join Saturday’s winner in 43 days at Churchill Downs. Even the 20 points for third should put Mandaloun, Proxy or Midnight Bourbon over the top.

Similar stories will be told seven more times this spring. Since favorites have won 12 of 26 American preps so far (46 percent), it has been an easy winter for the most respected 3-year-olds on the Derby trail. The springtime storylines, then, look very predictable.

March 27, UAE Derby, Meydan, Dubai. This could be a showdown between Sheikh Hamdan’s 2-for-2 Panadol and last month’s Saudi Derby winner Pink Kamehameha of Japan. But in the annual warning about throwing good money after bad, 16 horses have run in the UAE Derby before starting in America’s biggest race. None finished better than fifth.

March 27, Jeff Ruby Steaks, Turfway Park. Welcome to the NIT. The only reason this race was elevated to major status was because Churchill Downs Inc. bought the track – lock, stock and synthetic surface. It has been 10 years since a horse came out of the artist formerly known as the Spiral to win the roses, and Animal Kingdom is not walking through that starting gate. Hush Of A Storm, last month’s Battaglia Memorial winner on the same rubber stew, may be the favorite. Yeah. Whatever.

March 27, Florida Derby, Gulfstream Park. Greatest Honour will do again what he did in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. He will retreat to the back of the pack, come from out of nowhere to pick off horses one by one in the stretch and win again for trainer Shug McGaughey. Gobsmacked bettors will then replace Life Is Good and make Greatest Honour the favorite to win at Churchill Downs.

April 3, Wood Memorial, Aqueduct. Was Weyburn a silly overlay when he won at 46-1 this month in the Gotham? We – and he – will find out against the likes of triumphant Withers favorite Risk Taking and Jerome winner Capo Kane, who is in the race as much to erase his bad Withers and Gotham impressions as he is for Derby points. Spielberg might even show up for Baffert. No matter. The Wood winner will not be mistaken for a Derby favorite.

April 3, Blue Grass, Keeneland. On the same track where he clinched his 2-year-old championship last fall, Essential Quality will run his record to 5-for-5 for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. Gobsmacked bettors will then replace Greatest Honour and make Essential Quality the favorite to win at Churchill Downs.

April 3, Santa Anita Derby. He may be split wide to the right by the time he crosses the wire perhaps minutes after the Blue Grass. Life Is Good will win for the fourth time in as many starts for Baffert. It will be by daylight, so he will get a Beyer Speed Figure that resembles the summertime high in Death Valley. Gobsmacked bettors will then replace Essential Quality and make Life Is Good the favorite to win at Churchill Downs.

April 10, Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park. Baffert has won this race three times, including one of the two divisions last year with Nadal. It would have been four, including twice in 2020, if Charlatan had not tested positive for whatever it was that spread from assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes’s Salonpas patch through his fingers into the horse’s mouth into a urinalysis before or after the other division last year. Now it is Concert Tour that will win for Baffert. Gobsmacked bettors will then replace Life Is Good and make Concert Tour the … well, maybe that is going a step too far. But if this month’s pattern is repeated, he will be the second choice in Derby futures.

And that will be that. Eight major preps whose winners will be assured of places in the Derby, provided they are paid up and healthy. Already with more than 50 points each, Greatest Honour, Life Is Good and Mandaloun are in. Although there is a mathematical chance that exactly 50 could be on a bubble, historical reality says Concert Tour, Helium and Weyburn are also qualified with their wins in the just-concluded mid-majors, although the last two are not yet formally nominated for the Triple Crown. That is the “paid up” part.

All eight horses that come in second in the major preps should also qualify for Louisville, especially since some of them are already in the top 20 in the points standings. Throw out last year, when the Derby was undersubscribed, and 40 was the most recent cut line for getting in.

All this does not take into account the two spots left open for foreign qualifiers – one from Japan and one from Europe. Only 1 of 7 times has anyone taken up Churchill Downs’ offer, so planning for that is like worrying now about a July rainstorm in Arizona. Japan leader La Pérouse is nominated, so if he wins the Fukuryu Stakes on March 27, he could be coming.

Of the seven major preps not run in the Middle East, the Florida Derby has produced the most winners at Kentucky – 24 – including three in the ’10s. The Blue Grass is next with 23 – but none in the last 30 years. The Wood has 20 – but zero since 2000. There have been 19 that came out of the Santa Anita Derby, including Authentic last year. American Pharoah in 2015 was the last of the Arkansas Derby’s seven successful graduates. The Louisiana Derby has yielded only four, including promoted 2019 winner Country House. Finally, Li’l E. Tee and Animal Kingdom are the only two that came out of the Jeff Jim Gallery Lane’s Spiral Beam End Furniture Ruby Steaks Stakes, the Turfway Park race to be named later.

All these stats and trends are nice to formulate arguments between now and May 1. But horses have a way of ruining a good opinion. Just look at Authentic, the colt that supposedly could not get 1¼ miles. His Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year trophies should serve as testaments to be more entertained by history than to be ruled by it.

Racing notes and opinions

Forecasters say it will be 63 degrees, clear and calm Saturday at New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby. Easier to predict the weather than the winner of this race. Wags who suggest it is a same-ol’, same-ol’ Fair Grounds race may just box Mandaloun, Proxy and Midnight Bourbon into a 50-cent trifecta box and wait for the $29 to come rolling in. That is all it paid in the Risen Star, which was a repeat of the Lecomte. It was just a question of the order between the three. This time, though, there is more speed in the race than there was in the first two preps, and there will be 9½ furlongs to cover, making it the longest Derby prep this side of Dubai. The addition of blinkers by Cox seemed to make all the difference last time for Mandaloun, a bay colt known to look green. Mike Stidham puts blinkers on Proxy and hopes for the same result. Tunneled vision or not, Mandaloun should be focused on the horses racing in front of him early, like Proxy. Rightandjust (20-1) figures to be the fastest of them all again; he faded to sixth in the Risen Star. If Starrininmydreams (20-1), again drawn into post 1, comes out of the gate better than he did last month, he could yet create a speed duel with Rightandjust that never materialized. Should that actually happen, it would work against Midnight Bourbon, who led a languid January merry-go-round in winning the Lecomte. Hot Rod Charlie (3-1) is the new shooter, having been shipped in from California off his close third-place finish to Medina Spirit in the Robert B. Lewis. He races this weekend for assistant Leandro Mora while trainer Doug O’Neill finishes a 10-day medication suspension. Hot Rod Charlie will not beat Mandaloun, my choice on top, but he could split the course horses in the exotics. He is a must-include on chalky exacta, trifecta and superfecta tickets, So, too, is Starrininmydreams, the very definition of my own insanity. The Louisiana Derby is scheduled to start Saturday at 6:44 p.m. EST.

Early speed? Who needs early speed? There is not any in the $400,000 Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks, a win-and-you’re-in qualifier Saturday for the April 30 Kentucky Oaks. All eight fillies have Quirin Speed Points that start with a “P” (presser) or an “S” (sustainer). That translates to mid-pack or closer. It may be 8½ furlongs on the dirt, but this sets up more like a turf race. It is also a renewal of the rivalry between the Asmussen standout Clarière (5-2), the Oaks futures favorite, and Cox’s filly Travel Column (2-1), the favorite for this particular race. They finished one-two with just a neck between them last month over the same course in the Rachel Alexandra, reversing their order of finish in a one-length outcome last fall in the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Those races were also 8½ furlongs. Travel Column closed on slow early fractions in the Golden Rod. Clairière had the benefit of a more honest pace to pursue in the Rachel Alexandra. Since there appears to be no pace whatsoever this weekend, it says here there may be a new winner, maybe the horse that gets the early lead. That should be Zaajel (8-1), the rail starter that Todd Pletcher has shipped in with a 2-for-2 record – in sprints. Her widening of leads at the end of her two races at Gulfstream Park suggest she can get the added distance. It is really all about whether she is comfortable with the second turn. It says here the answer is a definite maybe, so the Street Sense filly Zaajel will key my tickets with Clairière and Travel Column boxed into my exacta and trifecta bets. The Fair Grounds Oaks is posted for Saturday at 6:14 p.m. EST.

Add Fair Grounds Oaks. Will someone explain to me why each filly is carrying 122 pounds? Why is the impost one pound more than each filly will carry in the Kentucky Oaks?

There is nothing new to report on last week’s whispers that there may be conversation anew between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association to resolve their 510-day dispute, which has locked bettors out from betting CDI-controlled racetracks. One wrinkle worth remembering: Churchill has insisted that Nevada stop booking fixed-odds futures unless it were to get a piece of that action. In January, William Hill US CEO Joe Asher said he would be open to discussing it. “In the spirit of peace and harmony and collaboration,” he said, “if we’re able to do some joint-marketing type stuff, I would not have an issue with paying Churchill.” Bookmark that.

Add CDI vs. NPMA: A statement from NPMA executive director Patty Jones to the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week read like it was inspired by “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If CDI were to get its way with a bigger piece of the Nevada handle, Jones said cheap past performances and free drinks for customers could go away. “The member books are unwilling to change the Nevada business model,” Jones wrote, “because it impacts their customers and impacts the books’ ability to be profitable and remain open through their most challenging year.” One question, Ms. Jones. Since it seems nickels and dimes are getting the once-over, could the cost of those PPs and drinks be recouped if the racebook cartel stopped paying some of its handle to the Las Vegas Dissemination Company? With every race televised and available on handhelds for at least a generation, why is there still a need for an extra layer of bureaucracy to verify the results? This winter Asher called it an “antiquated concept that still exists in Nevada.” Reduce or erase that expense, and it is amazing how much money might be left for a Daily Racing Form and a bourbon rocks, maybe two. If there is anything left over, perhaps it could be used on something silly – like an agreement with that mean Mr. Potter, a.k.a. Churchill Downs.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The first major prep for the Kentucky Derby highlights the RFRP. Fair Grounds TV analyst Joe Kristufek previews the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds Oaks. Juddmonte USA general manager Garrett O’Rourke talks about Proxy’s chances in the race as well as other standout horses from his farms. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races.The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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