Derby fever is in the air with the first three of seven Kentucky Derby prep races in the Championship series portion of the schedule kicking off Saturday. The seven races over the next three weeks are all worth 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers, so the stakes are high for owners seeking one of the 20 valuable gates on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
Today’s three races include the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, the $750,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and the $2 million UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. All three races will be contested at 1∂ miles on dirt.
The Florida Derby, which has produced three Kentucky Derby winners in the last nine years, drew nine colts. The race will feature a rematch of last month’s Fountain of Youth stakes wherein Itsaknockout was declared the winner when Upstart was disqualified to second in a controversial bumping incident.
Both colts have accumulated enough points to vault them into the Derby with 50 and 36, respectively, but Upstart (8-5) will be looking to avenge last month’s loss and has been training spectacularly coming into the race.
“We kind of let him rip the other day,” said trainer Rick Violette. “He started off with a workmate that didn’t stay with him too long, and he didn’t look like he was going that fast. Every time he’s worked down here he confuses the clock and still he looks like he’s going seconds slower and he just gobbles up the ground. He kind of knows we’re planning on something. He doesn’t know exactly what day, but he’s ready to roll,” said Violette.
Last year’s Eclipse-winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, will send out Itsaknockout (2-1) and Materiality (7-2), who ran off by over five lengths in his second career race at Gulfstream last month. Pletcher termed it a “wow effort.”
Ami’s Flatter (8-1), the current winterbook favorite for this summer’s Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, has top jockey Javier Castellano aboard and will look to improve on his second-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby and garner enough points to run for the roses in May.
Upstart is obviously the class of this field and should handle this group handily. I’ll look to Materiality to outduel his barn mate Itsaknockout and crash the exacta behind the favorite.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Upstart; 2 – Materiality; 3 – Itsaknockout; 4 – Ami’s Flatter.
The Louisiana Derby drew a salty group of nine to contest for the $750,000 in purse money. The field includes the winner and runner-up in both prep races for the Louisiana Derby in International Star (3-1, 71 points) and War Story (4-1, 24 points). In both instances, International Star was the victor and War Story the bridesmaid.
After starting slow in both races, War Story will look to turn the tables on his Louisiana rival Saturday afternoon. Jockey Joe Talamo, a native of Marrero, La., thinks the added eighth of a mile will help overcome War Story’s tendency to break slow.
“When some horses break slow, usually it’s hard to finally get that going,” said Talamo.
“He gets right into stride, and he’s got a real nice quarter mile late run. So if he breaks a little slow, I don’t think it’s going to be a big detriment to him because I think the added distance of a mile and an eighth and that late turn of foot is really going to help him.”
War Story’s trainer, Tom Amoss, is also from New Orleans, so a victory in the Louisiana Derby would be special. He finished second in the race with Mylute in 2013.
“War Story, who has prepped in the last two before this race, both the Lecomte and the Risen Star, comes in as what I believe is my best chance going into the race,” said Amoss.
“That’s exciting for someone that grew up in New Orleans, attended this race since the time he was 10 or 11 years old to now. And I think it’s safe to say while other kids dreamt about throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, I dreamt about winning the Louisiana Derby.”
A contender, similar to War Story, who will enjoy the extra half-furlong, is Keen Ice (5-1), a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, out of an Awesome Again mare.
Both Curlin and Awesome Again are Breeders’ Cup Classic winners. The Dale Romans-trained colt was closing hard after the top two finishers in the Risen Star, but ran out of track as he made up over four lengths in the stretch. He was caught four-wide going into the first turn and looked much the best with his strong finish.
Other contenders include Mr. Z (4-1), who will try the Fair Grounds after two third-place finishes in prep races at Oaklawn, and the Pletcher-trained Stanford (5-1), who finished second to Materiality in his last effort.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Keen Ice; 2 – War Story; 3 – International Star; 4 – Mr. Z.
The UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai has 10 colts entered, including two Kentucky-breds, My Johnny Be Good and Godolphin Racing’s Maftool, a Hard Spun colt. Another top contender is Mubtaahij, who lost to Maftool two races back in the UAE 2000 Guineas. A preview of the race and the $10 million Dubai World Cup featuring California Chrome can be found online at sportsink.buffalonews.com.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.