Forget about robins singing and flowers blooming. The surest sign that the racing world is sharpening its focus on Churchill Downs may have come with this edition of Point Spread Weekly. The chart comparing Kentucky Derby futures was finally reduced to two columns and got bigger print.
The pithiest among us might say it could be reduced to two horses — Essential Quality and Concert Tour. With their combined record of 8-for-8, it would be an easy case to make. It would also be too breezy and blissfully ignorant of all the unconventional ways of getting to the Derby.
For anyone not paying attention — and even for those who were — trainer John Sadler came through the back door with Rock Your World, sneaking up on the rest of the competition and pouncing when it was least expected. Sneaking up meant two wintertime races on the Santa Anita turf. Pouncing meant a 4¼-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby. That would be the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Just the way Sadler planned it.
“You’re hoping, but it’s one of those things,” Sadler said. “You don’t know until you do it. We’re thrilled the way things worked out.”
It was another sign of the changing times on the Derby trail. No longer is it de rigueur to have two or three races as a 2-year-old and then at least three more at age 3, all on the dirt. Forget last year, when the trail was literally diseased. Check out how the last few first-Saturday-in-May winners of the Kentucky Derby got to Louisville.
2019 – Country House. The traditional way by volume but maybe not by outcome. Race in three maiden races as a 2-year-old. Then lose the Grade 2 Risen Star, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Next, make sure the apparent winner at Churchill Downs commits a disqualifying foul. See? The traditional way.
2018 – Justify. Don’t race at all at age 2, make a winning debut 76 days before the Kentucky Derby, finish first in a specially written allowance 55 days before and win the Santa Anita Derby four weeks out. Then win the Triple Crown and never race again. Nothing to it.
2017 – Always Dreaming. Race twice at 2, but don’t break the maiden until age 3. Win an allowance race before dropping in for a stakes debut in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Win that, and then win at Louisville. Who needs points preps before that first time at 1⅛ miles against the big boys?
2016 – Nyquist. Get sold three times, race five times in less than five months and win them all at age 2. Who does that anymore? And what Derby candidate makes his 3-year-old debut by winning a Grade 2 sprint outside the points system? It worked when Nyquist won the San Vicente. And the Florida Derby. And the Kentucky Derby.
2015 – American Pharoah. Finish fifth on debut before using a Grade 1 race on synthetic dirt as a maiden breaker. Get hurt after a victorious first time on dirt in another Grade 1 race before shipping to a victorious comeback on a sloppy track. Win on that same track when it dries out on the way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
This year the diversity is not limited to Rock Your World. Essential Quality’s path might have looked “normal” if not for two snowouts at Oaklawn that postponed his 3-year-old debut for 12 days. Concert Tour went the Justify route by skipping his 2-year-old season before he followed the Nyquist example through the San Vicente. After losing in two points preps, Known Agenda had his blinkers removed, squeezed in an allowance victory and then won the Florida Derby.
The message is clear. One size no longer fits all Derby candidates. Traditional handicappers slow to realize that would have been burned pretty much every year lately thinking that the unusual way to Louisville was the wrong way. Take heed, for 2021 may offer more of the same. Or the not-so same.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Essential Quality (3-1 Circa, 7-2 William Hill). Highly Motivated would not give up in last weekend’s Blue Grass Stakes, pressing Essential Quality all the way to the wire. The fact that Essential Quality answered the biggest challenge of this young career with a neck victory underscored just how good a horse this is. He rates. He sends. He fights. He wins on fast and sloppy tracks. His final fractions Saturday were 12 seconds for the last furlong and 36.3 for the last three, way under the Derby-winning criteria of 13.0 and 38.0. There is every reason trainer Brad Cox should have the favorite in his first Kentucky Derby.
Rock Your World (8-1 Circa, 8-1 William Hill). Only one horse on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard has a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, and that is what this Candy Ride colt got for his first dirt race Saturday. Yet his finish was not as fast on the clock as it might have seemed. The 12.9-second final furlong was quick enough, but his 38.5 for the last three leaves a shadow of a doubt. So might getting dirt kicked in his face for the first time, which did not happen last weekend. Unless he gets to the lead early May 1, it will happen at Churchill Downs.
Bourbonic (50-1 Circa, 100-1 William Hill). From a slowly run Wood Memorial, this 72-1 long shot came from the clouds to steal a place in the Kentucky Derby gate. His current odds in Las Vegas might actually be an underlay against what will be on the board come post time.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Medina Spirit (15-1 Circa, 15-1 William Hill). One might have thought Life Is Good’s absence would finally allow this “other” Bob Baffert colt to succeed. Instead he finished second all over again, this time as an odds-on favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. In an interview for Friday’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod, Baffert said Medina Spirit looks like a top-10 horse that might need everything to go just right — and just wrong for some rivals — to win the Kentucky Derby. Blunt as that might have been, it sounded about right.
Risk Taking (not listed). The Withers Stakes winner was the favorite in Saturday’s Wood Memorial, but an awkward start spelled early doom, and this Chad Brown-trained colt finished seventh. Since he will not have enough points to get to the Derby, tickets written on him last week at 28-1 may be trashed anytime without any, ahem, risk taking.
Roman Centurian (75-1 Circa, 75-1 William Hill). A low-energy workout led trainer Simon Callaghan to scratch this promising maiden winner from the Santa Anita Derby. He said the following day that Roman Centurian was probable for the Arkansas Derby. By the time the draw happened Tuesday, though, Callaghan decided not to go, saying he was “just going a different direction.”
In addition to this article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert previewing this weekend’s Arkansas Derby, Las Vegas Review-Journal turf writer Mike Brunker on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicapping weekend races. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.