Saturday’s two big prep races both produced serious win candidates for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Sitting five weeks out from Kentucky Derby 144, the serious contenders have started to separate from the pretenders on the Derby Trail that will culminate in Louisville on May 5.
Florida Derby: Audible ($5.20), the Holy Bull winner, won the 67th Florida Derby with a patient ride by John Velazquez. The Hall of Famer sat behind a wicked pace set by front runners Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power that produced a sub-0:22 first quarter mile. By the far turn the Fountain of Youth winner Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power had nothing left in the tank.
Trainer Todd Pletcher couldn’t be happier with the rapid early pace. “The race unfolded exactly the way we had hoped for,” said Pletcher. It was the super trainer’s fifth win in Gulfstream’s marquee race and fourth in the last five years.
Velazquez also picked up his fifth Florida Derby win aboard Audible. “Once he got to the horses on the lead, it was easy,” said Velazquez. “The way he ran today, he was very impressive,” he said.
It was also Pletcher’s fifth Florida Derby victory. Audible, with the 100 points, is his third Derby qualifier, along with Noble Indy and Magnum Moon. “I’m thankful for the three that we have that appear to have enough points,” said Pletcher. “The next one’s super tough though,” said Pletcher who is squarely focused on the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
The son of Into Mischief completed the nine furlong trek in 1:49.48, finishing ahead of Hofburg by three lengths. The Bill Mott trainee, a son of Tapit, finished second and picked up 40 points, and one of the coveted 20 gates in America’s most famous race. Mississippi, a lightly raced son of Pioneerof the Nile, finished third and collected 20 points.
UAE Derby: Earlier in the day, Post Time selection Mendelssohn ($5.60) captured 100 qualifying points by winning the $2 million UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in electrifying fashion. Setting a track record handling the 1 3/16-mile race in 1:55.19, he defeated his closest competitor by 18 1/2-lengths.
He will head to the Kentucky Derby with the best chance in recent memory of any horse coming out of the UAE Derby.
Mendelssohn's in. ✅
Watch the incredible performance that gave him 100 points and a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. pic.twitter.com/dXrRZDEjmP
— Kentucky Derby (@KentuckyDerby) March 31, 2018
Under world class rider Ryan Moore, the son of Scat Daddy and half-brother to the four-time U.S. champion mare Beholder, dazzled the packed house in Dubai in scintillating fashion. Breaking alertly and taking up the lead, he started distancing himself from the field on the far turn and romped home in spectacularly.
He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf as a 2-year-old last November at Del Mar and should have no problems shipping back to the States for Derby 144. It was his first race on natural dirt and he showed that he can handle it with class. He was purchased at the 2016 Keeneland September sale for a whopping $3 million.
Moore was confident his prized horse would triumph running on the dirt for the first time. “Look, he’s a high quality horse,” said Moore. “He’s got the pedigree, he’s got the looks. He has been getting better with every start. I still think he will get better,” said Moore after the race.
Rayya, a filly likely headed to the Kentucky Oaks and the Bob Baffert barn, was a distant second at 8-1 odds to Mendelssohn.
Next steps: The Road to the Kentucky Derby makes three big stops next weekend, which should bring this year’s Derby picture even more into focus. After next weekend’s races we’ll be a month away from the 144th Run for the Roses.
Next Saturday’s 170-point races will be held at Keeneland (Blue Grass S.), Aqueduct (Wood Memorial) and Santa Anita (Santa Anita Derby). The top two finishers of those 1 1/8-mile races will likely earn the final spots in the 20-horse Run for the Roses slated for May 5.
Blue Grass: Probable starters in the Blue Grass Stakes on opening weekend at Keeneland include last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic. The Chad Brown-trained colt struggled in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and needs at least a third place finish to project him into the Derby.
Other notable starters include the top two from the Tampa Bay Derby in Quip and Flameaway. The latter is an Ontario-bred who we could see later this summer in the Canadian Triple Crown series at Woodbine and Fort Erie.
Wood Memorial: The much maligned Wood has not produced a Derby winner since 2000 and has fallen to Grade 2 status. Enticed, the Gotham winner will be the likely favorite with west coasters Solomini and Kanthaka shipping in looking for Derby points.
Jerome winner Firenze Fire and Pletcher hopeful Vino Rosso are both listed as potential runners in the Wood.
Santa Anita Derby: The most anticipated prep of the Championship Series will be held in suburban Los Angeles at Santa Anita Park received a major setback Saturday afternoon. The two most highly-regarded colts on the Derby trail, Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie, were set to renew their rivalry in the Santa Anita Derby.
Bob Baffert told the Bloodhorse in Dubai on Saturday evening, that McKinzie will miss the race next weekend due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t provided anything more, so the connections are being cautious and holding him out of next weekend’s big race.
The last time they met, Bolt d’Oro was nosed out by his rival, but a steward’s inquiry resulted in a disqualification for McKinzie for interference in the stretch.
Ranked 1-2 heading into this weekend in the weekly NTRA thoroughbred poll, the race was likely going to determine the Derby favorite on the First Saturday in May. Without McKinzie to deal with, the door has swung wide open for Mick Ruis’ Bolt d’Oro to grab the favorite role.
Apollo Curse: Justify, a highly regarded colt from the Baffert barn, is pointed towards Hot Springs and the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Unraced as a 2-year-old, he'll be attempting to break the dreaded Apollo curse. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without a 2-year-old race since Apollo's win in 1882.
The twists and turns on the Derby trail continue to generate excitement and disappointment as we move closer to the First Saturday in May.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.