LAS VEGAS — We took an odd turn on the Kentucky Derby trail four weeks ago, and we have not gotten back on track since. Now there is a fork in whatever road we are on.
After a controversial finish in the Los Alamitos Futurity got us sidetracked, and after global warming went on a winter break at Aqueduct, we are left without GPS reception as we veer Saturday into either Santa Anita for the Sham Stakes or Gulfstream Park for the Mucho Macho Man Stakes.
Let’s be clear here. Both races are Derby preps. It’s just that only one of them – the Sham – has trappings that include the formality of “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points, the kind that are eventually needed to get into the starting gate May 5 at Churchill Downs.
What we have learned in the first five years of this qualifying system is that with few exceptions, horses do not need to be bothered with earning prep points until there are more of them being offered. Put more plainly, 18 of the 20 horses in last year’s Derby field got all the points they needed in the bigger preps after mid-February.
So there is no hurry, which is good news for backers of Bolt d’Oro. A favorite since Kentucky Derby futures betting opened in Las Vegas in late September, the colt trained by Mick Ruis suffered a muscle pull that has kept him from returning to training late last month, the Daily Racing Form reported Thursday. Ruis said that the two-time Grade 1 winner will not make his 3-year-old debut as planned next month. He did assure that Bolt d’Oro would be back to morning gallops this week after a clean nuclear scan Wednesday.
That hint of calm from Ruis sounded similar to the lack of panic coming out of Aqueduct. That is where the Jerome Stakes – the first scheduled points prep of 2018 – was postponed from New Year’s Day until whenever the new Ice Age ends in the northeast, presumably Saturday, Jan. 13.
What has become apparent is that trainers are getting more creative in choosing spots for new 3-year-olds to find their legs. This sort of trail was successfully blazed two years ago, when Doug O’Neill and Keith Desormeaux sent Nyquist and Exaggerator to the San Vicente Stakes – a sprint that carries no prep points. They finished first and second that day in February 2016. Less than two months later they each got the qualifying points they needed by winning big preps – the Florida and Santa Anita derbies – on the way to finishing one-two in Kentucky.
Todd Pletcher’s winning formula last year came from an even bigger gamble. While other Kentucky hopefuls were headed to the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth to earn points, Pletcher put Always Dreaming into maiden and optional-claiming races around the same time. After those two victories the next step was the Florida Derby – and a five-length victory. If Always Dreaming had not finished in the top two that day, he would not have made it to Churchill Downs let alone been fitted for a blanket of roses.
Now Ruis finds himself in a similar boat with Bolt d’Oro. He had planned to use next month’s San Vicente as a Kentucky Derby springboard. Now he will probably look at the San Felipe and/or the Santa Anita Derby – both points races – as a conduit to Churchill Downs.
The good news for bettors is that these roundabout paths to the Derby mean more value in the futures market. It is just a matter of finding it.
In the case of Nyquist his triumph was not all that lucrative, because he already had three Grade 1 wins by the time he ran in the San Vicente. His odds at the Wynn Las Vegas were never longer than 35-1. But anyone who had Always Dreaming at the Wynn early last winter when he was still a maiden got him at odds of 200-1. That was in contrast to his 9-2 price as the post-time favorite at Churchill Downs.
Which brings us to Saturday and the one-mile races that have lured 15 new 3-year-olds carrying their connections’ Derby aspirations. Seven of them will go two turns at about 5:30 p.m. EST in the $100,000 Grade 3 Sham with the top four earning Derby points. The others will race at 4:37 p.m. EST around one turn for $100,000 in the ungraded Mucho Macho Man and get no Derby points.
Dak Attack headlines Gulfstream pack
Trainer Dale Romans hopes the Mucho Macho Man is the perfect place to bring back Dak Attack, a 50-1 chance in the Wynn’s Derby futures. The $625,000 colt sired by Ghostzapper has not raced since last summer. He went 2-for-2 in Kentucky with a victory over eventual Grade 1 winner Sporting Chance.
“He had a little shin issue,” Romans said of Dak Attack (9-5), the morning-line favorite Saturday. “We had to back off with him, but he’s back at the top of his game now.” Evidence of that came in a 59.0-second, bullet work over five furlongs last weekend at Gulfstream. Dak Attack’s regular jockey Robby Albarado is expected to ride him in mid-pack Saturday.
Two other unbeaten albeit lightly raced colts – Mask (2-1) and Santiamen (8-1) – are also in the field. Sired by Tapit, the deep-closing Mask has raced just once for trainer Chad Brown, winning by three lengths with jockey Javier Castellano in a 6½-furlong maiden race in October at Belmont Park. Trained by Antonio Sano and ridden by Írad Ortiz Jr., the mid-pack-running Santiamen is 2-for-2, both races being sprint victories in Florida since Thanksgiving.
Bal Harbour (9-2) is the only two-time stakes winner in the field. Trained by Pletcher and ridden by John Velázquez, he won the $75,000 Sapling in September around two turns at Monmouth Park. He came back from a three-month break to win the $75,000 Smooth Air last month in a sloppy, one-turn mile at Gulfstream, getting the victory by a neck over Whereshetoldmetogo (6-1), another horse in Saturday’s field.
“I think we’ll probably try him around two turns again,” Pletcher said. “He’s been effective around one and two turns. He’s a pretty game, hard-trying horse.”
The biggest question in the Mucho Macho Man may be which horse will bring the early speed? With the possible exception of Puerto Rico-based Handsome Franco (50-1), none of these colts has led at the first call in any of a combined 33 races.
McKinzie returns as Sham favorite
When last we were on the Derby trail, McKinzie was crossing the wire second last month in the Los Alamitos Futurity. But he was awarded the victory after stewards made a controversial, split decision to take down first-place finisher Solomini after bottlenecking a third horse.
Now 11-1 in the Wynn Derby futures, he won’t have Solomini to try and kick around Saturday. But McKinzie (3-5) will be a favorite again to win in southern California. This time the 2-for-2 colt sired by Street Sense will carry top weight and face six other new 3-year-olds in the Sham. With Hall of Famers Bob Baffert training and Mike Smith riding, McKinzie will be the only horse cutting back from a longer distance to the one mile on the main track.
With McKinzie likely to be just off the pace, Baffert has also thrown a speed horse into the field. Mourinho (4-1), a $625,000 colt by Super Saver, finished second in his last race – the Grade 3 Bob Hope two months ago at Del Mar. Only McKinzie has higher speed ratings than Mourinho, which gets blinkers for the first time. Drayden Van Dyke gets the ride.
All Out Blitz (10-1), a maiden winner owned by Kaleem Shah and trained by Simon Callaghan, may also press the pace. Ridden by slumping Tyler Baze, the colt sired by the Tapit stallion Concord Point had a bullet, 47.0-second work over four furlongs last Friday at Santa Anita.
Other than McKinzie, the only stakes winners in the field are My Boy Jack (12-1), a Breeders’ Cup also-ran that is going from turf to dirt for the Desormeaux brothers, and City Plan (20-1), a Godolphin colt that won last month at 24-1 on the all-weather track at Golden Gate Fields.
Notes: Bolt d’Oro remains Derby favorite
Before news of his injury came to light, it came as no surprise that Bolt d’Oro (7-1 at Wynn, 10-1 at William Hill) led the Kentucky Derby winter books. That is a catch-all term that Churchill Downs uses as a New Year’s Day reference point for futures bets. The online Kentucky Derby media guide says that Street Sense in 2007 was the last winter-book favorite to win the Derby.
Greyvitos, winner of last month’s Springboard Mile prep for the Kentucky Derby, had bone chips removed from one of his knees, according to a report from Horse Racing Nation. Trainer Adam Kitchingman said that the Derby remains the long-term goal, but he admitted it will be difficult to get there now. Greyvitos was 40-1 in the William Hill Derby futures last week; he was taken down by Wynn after being shown at 60-1 last week.
Gun Runner (3-5 at Wynn Las Vegas) will see a lot of familiar rivals when he goes off as the favorite in three weeks at the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. He will face four of the horses he defeated in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, including second-place Collected (9-2), third-place West Coast (5-1), fourth-place War Story (45-1) and dead-heat fifth Gunnevera (12-1). Five other horses are confirmed for the nine-furlong race, including Sharp Azteca (8-1), Seeking The Soul (15-1), Giant Expectations (20-1), Toast Of New York (22-1) and Stellar Wind (25-1). Two other spots have yet to be filled for the Jan. 26 feature at Gulfstream Park.
Unnamed trainers in Europe say that Al Shaqab, the stable owned by the royal family that runs Qatar, owes them more than $1.3 million. A report Wednesday in The Times of London said that Sheikh Joaan had debts dating to May with at least one trainer saying that Al Shaqab has a reputation for being slow to pay its bills. The stable’s general manager apologized, blamed the delinquency on red tape and promised that the money would be paid in the coming weeks.
This year’s Equestricon will be Monday, Oct. 29, and Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky. Racing’s answer to Comic-Con was first held last August at Saratoga. Organizers said more than 1,500 people took part.
The Eclipse Awards will be given out Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park. Here is how I voted on my ballot:
* Horse of the Year: Gun Runner.
* 2-year-old male: Bolt d’Oro.
* 2-year-old filly: Rushing Fall.
* 3-year-old male: West Coast.
* 3-year-old filly: Abel Tasman.
* Older dirt male: Gun Runner.
* Older dirt female: Forever Unbridled.
* Male sprinter: Roy H.
* Female sprinter: Unique Bella.
* Male turf horse: World Approval.
* Female turf horse: Lady Eli.
* Owner: Juddmonte Farms.
* Breeder: Clearsky Farms.
* Jockey: Jose Ortiz.
* Trainer: Chad Brown.
I abstained from the apprentice-jockey and steeplechaser categories because, frankly, I don’t pay enough attention to those to make an informed vote. If you want to hear why I voted the way I did, check out my racing pod.
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features jockey Rajiv Maragh, who talks about his move west and his recovery from a 2015 spill, and CBS Sports Radio’s Jody McDonald, who discusses Kentucky Derby futures and how racing may be helped by legalized sports gambling in his home state New Jersey. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.