Will the Derby favorites please step up?

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

© Courtesy of Zoe Metz via Santa Anita Park publicity

LAS VEGAS--This is supposed to be a showdown between Kentucky Derby futures favorites Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie. But what if Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita follows the recent trend and delivers a long-shot winner?

It has been that kind of winter on the Derby trail. Although favorites have crossed the wire first in half the preps, five double-digit bombers have still managed to find their way to the winner’s circle, including the Risen Star and the Fountain of Youth – the two races worth the most qualifying points so far.

In the case of last weekend’s Fountain of Youth, Promises Fulfilled led the whole race and delivered at 18-1, blowing up a valedictory for last year’s 2-year-old champion Good Magic.

“When you have a horse with speed that can go to the lead like that and doesn’t tire, they’re dangerous,” trainer Dale Romans said on VSiN’s racing podcast. “When they put their ears up, full-pointed forward, and he’s galloping along at 48 (seconds for the first half-mile), you have a lot of horse turning for home. It would just take a lot better horse to run by him. If they let you go you’re liable to keep on going.”

Just like Promises Fulfilled’s daddy Shackleford, another Romans trainee that just happened to win the Preakness seven years ago, after which Romans bought coffee for all the media who were interviewing him the morning after at Pimlico.

But let’s be real. While Promises Fulfilled and the Risen Star’s 21-1 winner Bravazo may have delighted chalk-busters lately, that does not necessarily make them worthy of serious consideration in eight weeks at Churchill Downs. Since the points system was established five years ago, only Danza – the 41-1 winner of the 2014 Arkansas Derby – hit the board in the Kentucky Derby after winning his last prep at odds of more than 10-1.

Last year there were three double-digit long shots that won major preps. But Hence, Fast And Accurate and Irap were never factors at the Churchill Downs betting window or in the Derby – finishing 11th, 17th and 18th at double-digit odds again.

So where does that leave us this weekend? One thing seems certain. Barring a dead-heat win between them in the $400,000 Grade 2 San Felipe, the futures odds for Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie to win the Derby are bound to move. Idle since he was a beaten, odds-on favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Bolt d’Oro is the 6-1 morning-line co-favorite with “all other 3-year-olds” to start this weekend’s third Kentucky Derby Future Wager at Churchill Downs. He is also 6-1 at William Hill. McKinzie is the 7-1 Derby favorite at the Wynn Las Vegas.

“I’m super excited,” said Mick Ruis, who owns and trains Bolt d’Oro. “I want a good race out of him but not a super race, because our goal here is the Santa Anita Derby and from there, if all goes well, the Kentucky Derby. That said I think he has enough talent to win.”

However, the forecast of rain in southern California this weekend complicates handicapping. According to The Weather Channel, showers will start at 1 p.m. EST Saturday and intensify as the day wears on. It is easy to imagine track announcer Michael Wrona announcing the dirt changing from fast to good to muddy to sloppy. How quickly he does that is important, especially since the San Felipe is the sixth race Saturday, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. EST.

Does the recipe to assure a long shot winning the San Felipe include the words “just add water”? Not necessarily. Although none of the eight colts has raced on an wet track, Bolt d’Oro (2-1 on the morning line) appears to have the best pedigree for slop if Tomlinson numbers are to be believed. Getting the rail in the draw did not hurt either, according to Ruis. “I think it’s a blessing,” he said. “You’re not going to have to gun for a good position.”

But based simply on the mud-in-the-face factor, the front-running Lombo (8-1) might get the most attention from sodden bettors. And the way things have been going in recent preps, maiden-winning speed horse Calexman (30-1) might even be worth a look.

“Lombo is in the second hole, so that gives us a gap between 1 and 3,” Ruis said. “I like the ‘1’ hole. It’s going to give Javier (Castellano) a lot of options.”

McKinzie (8-5) drew post position 4. Since he chases the pace, the Sham Stakes winner could be compromised by a sloppy track. But with Hall of Fame connections – namely trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith – and the only undefeated record in the race, neither rain nor snow nor all that other stuff may derail McKinzie from being the favorite let alone the winner.

“I go back to the day when they would have the mud mark in the past performances,” VSiN writer/handicapper Dave Tuley said. “Back when I first started handicapping there was a couple times I would have the winner. But then it would start raining. I’d start looking for those mud marks like everyone else, and my original would end up winning often enough that it was like, ‘What am I doing?’ The best horses run on any surface, and it’s got to be their day anyway.”

Romans looks for two more

With the Fountain of Youth already in his back pocket, Romans also has a strong hand for this weekend’s eastern preps with likely favorite Free Drop Billy in the $300,000 Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct and Tiz Mischief in the $400,000 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.

“Free Drop Billy is my most accomplished 2-year-old,” Romans said. “At least he was until last weekend.”

Expected to race early in the middle of the pack under jockey Dylan Davis, Free Drop Billy (9-5) drew post position 6 in a speed-laden field of nine for the Gotham. Two-time prep-winning closer Firenze Fire (5-2) and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Enticed (7-2) also bring strong résumés to the one-turn mile.

Romans considered putting Free Drop Billy in the Fountain of Youth, but he thought better of it when he saw the field take shape.

“It just looked like a difficult race the way the pace set up for us to win,” Romans said. “We decided to go to the Gotham to try and get our Derby points. No horse has ever been in front of him, but the Fountain of Youth was chock with speed.”

So is the Gotham, but Old Time Revival (15-1), Nine Route (30-1) and Free Drop Billy’s stable mate Cove Blue (30-1) do not appear to measure up to the Fountain of Youth field. Then again, Promises Fulfilled was not supposed to be in the same league last week.

“It is a loaded race,” Romans said, “but I haven’t been able to find an easy race this year for Derby preps.”

Tiz Mischief (8-1) is expected to be a deep closer for Romans at Tampa Bay Downs. But he also said that his maiden winner that was third in the Holy Bull does not have to set up so far back in the field that includes Flameaway (3-1), the 10-1 winner of last month’s Sam F. Davis over the same 1 1/16-mile course.

Post time for the Tampa Bay Derby is Saturday at 5:20 p.m. EST under a threat of warm rain. The Gotham is scheduled for 5:42 p.m. EST at Aqueduct, where it is forecast to be 40 degrees and clear after this week’s latest New York snowstorm.

Racing notes and opinions

Bolt D’Oro and “all other 3-year-olds” outside 23 individual options are the 6-1 morning-line co-favorites for this weekend’s third pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Again, this pales by comparison to the Wynn Las Vegas, where Bolt’s price is 11-1. Audible, McKinzie and Promises Fulfilled are each forecast to be 8-1 in the KDFW. At the Wynn, Audible is 12-1, McKinzie 7-1 and Promises Fulfilled 25-1. Let the buyer beware, since the morning line for last month’s second pool often bore little resemblance to the reality of the KDFW betting.

Rachel Alexandra Stakes winner Monomoy Girl is the 5-1 morning-line favorite for something that Churchill Downs is offering that Nevada is not – a Kentucky Oaks Future Wager. Dream Tree and Midnight Bisou, both two-time graded-stakes winners in California, are 6-1 second favorites. The KOFW opens at the same time as the KDFW – Friday at noon EST. Both close Sunday – at 6 p.m. EDT for the Derby wager and 6:30 p.m. EDT for the Oaks. An Oaks-Derby future double is also on offer this weekend.

Star-crossed jockey Ronnie Franklin, who rode Spectacular Bid to wins in the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and within four lengths of a Triple Crown, died Thursday in Baltimore. Franklin, 58, had been dealing with lung cancer. As a teenage rider who was on top of the world 39 years ago Franklin also dealt with drug abuse that he said was exacerbated by losing the Belmont Stakes. Nevertheless he still won 1,403 races – but if only it were 1,404. If Spectacular Bid had not stepped on a safety pin the morning of the 1979 Belmont, who knows how different Franklin’s life might have been?

If Dave Tuley can pick pricy winners as well as he did last week, why am I not just staying on a permanent vacation and letting him filling here every week? While I keep bracing for someone in management to get wind of this, I suggested that he provide his tips as a companion to this column as often as he can. You may expect to see Tuley’s takes – or whatever clever alliteration we may choose – to appear at VSiN.com every Friday. (Or at least when he has a good thought to offer about a race or two). And if you scan right below to my boilerplate plug, you will see there is more from Tuley than meets the eye.

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 guests are Dale Romans, trainer of Kentucky Derby contenders Free Drop Billy and Promises Fulfilled, and VSiN writer/handicapper Dave Tuley. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.



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