When searching for a Derby contender to root in the Run for the Roses, you know it's as important as selecting the perfect sauce for your chicken wing.
This weekend’s Derby trail heads to Hot Springs, Ark. at Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes, a race with points worth 50-20-10-5 for the top four finishers going 1 1/16-miles.
Keeping with our mid-March tradition of looking at the current leaders in the chase for the first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, let's check out the 3-year-olds that are creating a buzz on the Derby trail. In concert with prior years, the colts will be sorted Buffalo-style: Hot, Medium and Mild.
Hot. Two horses sit atop most racing pundits’ Top Ten lists, and deservedly so. They also were the top two choices in last weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool No. 3. Mohaymen and Nyquist are the two horses on the lips of most fans heading into a monster matchup on Apr. 2 at Gulfstream Park where they will actually face off before the Derby.
Mohaymen, a son of Into Tapit, has won the first two preps at Gulfstream, the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth heading into the duel with Nyquist in two weeks. He sits on top of the leaderboard with 70 Kentucky Derby points and is already assured of a spot in the gate in Louisville as long as he stays healthy. He finished Pool No. 3 at odds of 4-1 and is also the favorite amongst all horses listed on the Wynn Las Vegas futures for the Derby.
Joining him on the Hot list is the reigning 2-year-old champion Nyquist, winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His connections decided to leave the west coast and run him in South Florida, after winning the 7-furlong San Vincente in February. One of a cast of thousands of Uncle Mo progeny on this year’s Derby trail, he’ll face the biggest test to date in Mohaymen in the Florida Derby.
Medium. Our medium horses are those colts quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not mesmerizing performances in the Derby prep races to date. It’s been awhile since a horse that won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct came through to win the Derby.
Shagaf, winner of the Gotham on the winterized inner track at the Big A, could be the one. He has a stunning pedigree for distance and handled a speed-favoring track on Gotham Day. Looking for this colt to move forward in the coming weeks and assert himself as a valid contender. Trained by Chad Brown, who is red-hot over the past year, he looms as a horse starting to heat up. His final odds in Pool 3 were 14-1.
Another horse who gathered 20 valuable Derby points in the Fountain of Youth and didn’t embarrass himself against the talented Mohaymen was Zulu. Another son of Bernardini (Shagaf was also sired by him), he is lightly raced, but fared well against graded stake competition in his first try for trainer Todd Pletcher. He’ll likely run into the top two in the Florida Derby, but Pletcher doesn’t duck anyone and he must have confidence in his colt to run him against the top two. He finished at 27-1 in Pool 3.
A horse that could continue to make noise this weekend at Oaklawn, also crashes our medium category. Suddenbreakingnews won the Southwest Stakes, the local prelude to the Rebel. The 3-year-old gelded son of Mineshaft out of an Afleet Alex mare came out of the clouds to win convincingly after being in dead last with a half-mile to run in the 14-horse race. Closers rarely fare well in the Derby, other than picking up the pieces late, but his pedigree and turn of foot could make him a factor.
Mild. Our horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional spices and seasoning.
While I’ve categorized him as mild, Frank Conversation has done everything he’s needed to so far on the Derby trail, winning the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. He’ll need to finish in the top four in next weekend’s UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai to qualify for the Derby. Don’t count him out even though his only win on the Derby trail has been on Golden Gate’s synthetic Tapeta surface.
What’s a Kentucky Derby without Bob Baffert? We’ll add his current star pupil in the 3-year-old category and Mor Spirit, who has accumulated 44 Derby points to date and has likely qualified for the Run for the Roses. He finished second last weekend in the highly-competitive San Felipe behind the impressive performance by Danzing Candy.
It’s been a few years since we’ve had a "Suicide" horse to discuss, but we’ll go with the Eric Guillot-trained Laoban, for the horse most likely to set the pace on Derby day. Guillot, who trained the front-running Moreno, isn’t afraid to send his horses out to the front and we think the son of Uncle Mo out of a Speightstown mare has the goods to burn your mouth (and your wallet).
With the 100-50-20-10 point races gearing up next weekend in Dubai and Louisiana, make sure you grab some bleu cheese, your favorite sauce and settle in for some great Derby preps over the next few weeks.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.