If races are supposed to grow more important as the Kentucky Derby gets closer, why is Saturday such a glaring exception? Simple, really. Neither the Withers in New York nor the Sam F. Davis in Florida has ever produced a Derby winner.
To be fair, we do not have much history with which to work. The old Withers Mile used to be in May at Belmont Park. It did not become a Derby prep until it was moved to Aqueduct eight years ago. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs did not get graded-stakes status until 2009.
That does not necessarily mean futures players should ignore these races. Their small sample sizes might be a call to pay less attention to their brief histories and more attention to the horses –— good advice under any circumstance.
If Kentucky Derby futures here in Las Vegas are any gauge, pacesetting Capo Kane (55-1 Circa, 60-1 William Hill) might be the horse who commands the most attention Saturday. The winner in a muddy running of the Jerome on New Year’s Day is expected to be entered for the 8½-furlong Withers. It would be his second time going two turns after breaking his maiden in November doing that at Parx in Pennsylvania. The worst thing that can be said about this Street Sense colt trained by Harold Wyner is that he looked green in his first three races, especially his habit of wandering outward while accelerating in the stretch.
Under hand rides, Capo Kane won by a combined 10¾ lengths in his last two starts. His Beyer Speed Figure of 84 was so-so for a Derby prep against competition that was not that tough. Remember that history lesson at the top of this story? It actually gets more involved with a deeper dive into New York. The last horse to use Aqueduct as a stepping-stone to a Derby victory was Funny Cide in 2003.
Candy Man Rocket (100-1, 75-1) appears to be the most fancied Derby candidate headed to the Sam Davis. He broke his maiden last month on his second try for trainer Bill Mott, producing an 85 Beyer while carrying John Velazquez to a 9¼-length victory going 6 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. It was a marked improvement over his first race, a fade to seventh when he did not switch leads late in the slop at Churchill Downs.
Even though he is venturing from the deep colony of Florida’s Atlantic coast to test the shallower racing waters near the Gulf of Mexico, Candy Man Rocket might find a level of competition that exceeds perceptions. Sole Volante was a more-than-credible winner of last year’s Sam Davis. And who knew in 2018 that third-place finisher Vino Rosso would go on to win the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic?
Saturday’s race is billed as a prep for the March 6 running of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, which actually has a modest history as a springboard to success at Churchill Downs. Super Saver finished third in the 2010 Sam Davis two months before he became Todd Pletcher’s first Kentucky Derby winner. In 2007, Street Sense won both races.
In some ways, the Withers and the Sam Davis are marking time until the bigger preps start. The first of those is Feb. 13, when the Grade 2 Risen Star at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas offers enough points to give the winner an almost certain berth into the Derby.
Trainers are certainly aware the stakes are about to grow, and that might be part of the reason that races early each February at Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs are not long on quality. They might, however, be sources of unexpected value. It just seems to be a matter of deciding whether the best horses are really diamonds in the rough.
If only it were that simple.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Greatest Honour (15-1 Circa, 16-1 William Hill). He was still 60-1 a week ago. That was before he became a buzz horse who capitalized on a dream trip to win Saturday’s Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. This Courtlandt Farms homebred by Tapit closed from 5½ lengths back on fractions of 23.28, 46.97 and 1:11.36. He might need that kind of pace again if he is to win the Fountain of Youth or the Florida Derby — or even May 1 at Louisville. Closers historically have it tough at Kentucky, but that has not deterred a betting surge on a colt who is trainer Shug McGaughey’s top candidate for his second Derby victory.
Medina Spirit (22-1, 20-1). If he left it all on the track in fending off two rivals Saturday in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis, can he be relied on to do the same thing going 110 yards longer in the Derby? He pushed Life Is Good to the limit going a mile early last month in the Grade 3 Sham. Bettors are either confident that, being trained by Bob Baffert, he will grow into longer distances and even develop a turn of foot. Or they are skeptical that, being sired by Protonico and costing only $35,000 at auction, he will fade in the final furlong of the long homestretch at Churchill Downs. Beyers suggest the latter. Medina Spirit got a 99 for his loss to Life Is Good and a 91 for winning Saturday.
Roman Centurian (55-1, 40-1). Trained by Simon Callaghan, this $550,000 colt is still only a maiden winner from three starts, including his neck loss in the Bob Lewis. Cynics might apply a bit of the Greatest Honour lesson and a bit from Medina Spirit. He is a deep closer, and he gave it all he had to finish a close second at 8½ furlongs. On the other hand, he is by Empire Maker out of a Bernardini mare. If that provides optimism that Roman Centurian can do some growing up between now and May 1, so be it.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Amount (70-1, 50-1). Coming off a 5¾-length debut victory, this $110,000 Curlin colt was on the “hot” list last month. Best-priced at 40-1 last week, he failed to finish the Holy Bull. That does not necessarily make him untouchable for the Derby. It depends on Pletcher’s assessment of what went wrong Saturday when jockey Luis Saez pulled up Amount before turning into the stretch. These things normally do not turn out well. In the last 20 years, only three Derby starters had a “did not finish” in their past performances. In all three cases it was not because the riders had decided to stop. It was because they had been dismounted.
Spielberg (200-1, 65-1). Talk about hard to figure. Baffert’s $1 million colt followed his narrow win in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity with an 11¼-length loss in the Bob Lewis. A month before the Los Al victory, he finished 9½ lengths up the track in the Grade 3 Bob Hope sprint at Del Mar. By Union Rags out of a Smart Strike mare, Spielberg seems impeccably bred. For whatever reason, he shows up only in his even-numbered races. Saturday’s fourth-place finish was his seventh start, so maybe he does better in start No. 8 next month.
Likeable (400-1, 150-1). As the 5-2 second choice in Saturday’s Grade 3 Swale sprint at Gulfstream Park, this $350,000 Frosted colt trained by Pletcher finished an empty fourth. That was after Saez ran into traffic early in the race. It would be unfair to lump that trip into the same category as his next-to-last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Yet he is still only a maiden winner and has shown few signs he can win outside New York.
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.