Derby Prep Alert
Derby Prep Alert

March 3, 2017Sponsored by BRIS, our Preferred Past Performance Provider

Sponsored by BRIS, our Preferred Past Performance Provider

This year’s Championship Series is off and running. If you missed any of the action, be sure to check out last week’s installment for replays, Brisnet charts and links to recaps.

This is a great time of the year to remind ourselves that the Kentucky Derby is as much about the journey as the destination. Steve Haskin, senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse, follows the Derby trail closely in his weekly column and was kind enough to pen How to find a Derby Winner for our Letter to New Horseplayer series:

So, you can scrutinize over the top 3-year-olds all you want in January and February as long as you realize that the Derby winner might not even be a blip on the radar screen at that point.

It’s also handy to remind yourself that not all Kentucky Derby winners have won all, or even any, of their 3-year-old prep races! Our recent post, Paths to the Kentucky Derby since 1990, illustrates the paths that winners have taken. Look at the paths of Super Saver, Real Quiet and Silver Charm as reminders that the winners in February, March and April may not end up being the winner in May.

Remember to check back after the races for replays, charts from and links to recaps!

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News About the Contenders

Blood-Horse: Top Three Finishers Exit Fountain of Youth Well
Blood-Horse: Classic Empire Still Targeting Blue Grass Stakes
DRF: FOY’s top three may scatter for final Kentucky Derby preps
DRF: Watchmaker: Gunnevera’s win needs some perspective
DRF: It’s Your Nickel much the best in John Battaglia
NYRA: Aqueduct Racetrack Notes 3.5.17 (updates on Gotham runners)
The Racing Biz: Tough day for Midlantic Derby hopefuls
Santa Anita: STABLE NOTES – SUNDAY, MARCH 5, 2017 (updates on west coast contenders)

Blood-Horse: Derby Hopeful Beasley Brings Back Memories
Blood-Horse: Darby Dan Back on the Derby Trail
Blood-Horse: McCraken to Miss Tampa Bay Derby With Ankle Strain
Blood-Horse: Haskin’s Derby Dozen – February 28, 2017
Blood-Horse: Conquest Mo Money Still Undefeated, Sunland Derby Next
Brisnet: En Hanse stretches back out for Battaglia Memorial
Brisnet: Kentucky Derby Report March 1: Girvin steps up with Risen Star score
DRF: Classic Empire has training session cut short, shows discomfort in back
DRF: Risen Star thoughts
DRF: Hovdey: Unique Bella joins Smith’s gray gallery
DRF: Kentucky Derby: Who’s hot, who’s not for March 1
DRF: Road to the Derby: Risen Star Stakes analysis
DRF: Derby favorite McCraken to miss Tampa Derby
DRF: Conquest Mo Money stays perfect in Mine That Bird Derby
TDN: TDN Derby Top Twelve for Feb. 28
TRC: Girvin is improving, but it’s a big step up to contend at Churchill Downs

Davona Dale Stakes Kentucky Oaks prep race

Gulfstream Park, Saturday March 4, post time: 4:34 pm ET
1 mile (8 furlongs)

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Making her sophomore debut, Miss Sky Warrior (5-2) is the standout in this full field of 14 starters. Her juvenile campaign ended on a high note with consecutive victories in the Grade 3 Tempted and Grade 2 Demoiselle. Since the latter was contested at 1 1/8 miles, Miss Sky Warrior has already proven her stamina, so cutting back to one mile should not be an issue, especially as she’s posted a series of sharp works in advance of this start.

Trainer Mark Casse sends out two strong contenders: Grade 1 Spinaway winner Pretty City Dancer (7-2) and listed Old Hat third-place finisher Summer Luck. Both come out of the 7-furlong Grade 2 Forward Gal where Pretty City Dancer looked a little rusty in her first start since last September but closed bravely to finish second, just a half-length back of the winner. Stretching out shouldn’t be a problem for this daughter of Tapit; her half-sister, 9-furlong Grade 1 Gazelle winner Lear’s Princess, was also twice a Grade 1 runner-up at 10 furlongs (Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama). Traveling mostly at the back of the pack, Summer Luck closed late to finish fourth in the Forward Gal, a regression from her previous start, which usually isn’t a good sign. She did break her maiden going one mile last November at Churchill Downs, so perhaps she’s just craving more distance. Given that her second dam Cymbala won the 12-furlong Grade 3 Bewitch on turf, Summer Luck’s future may lead in that grassy direction.

At nearly 46-1, Brahms Cat (15-1) was closing best of all in the Forward Gal, rallying from dead last to finish third. She’s actually posted the highest BRIS speed figure (94) in the field, which occurred when she finished third in the sloppy 6-furlong House Party behind subsequent Old Hat runner-up and winner Bode’s Dream and Wildcat Kate, respectively. A wet track may significantly improve her chances.

Third-place finisher behind Miss Sky Warrior in last November’s one-mile Grade 3 Tempted, Eloquent Riddle (9-2) concluded her juvenile campaign running second in the 6-furlong Furlough Stakes behind Yorkiepoo Princess, subsequent winner of both the Ruthless and the Busher. That strong form should make her a danger. It wouldn’t be surprising if trainer Chad Brown switches her to turf at some point, given that her dam is a half-sister to 10 1/2-furlong Group 1 Prix de Diane winner Nebraska Tornado, French Group 1-placed turf sprinter Mirabilis, and 10-furlong French Group 2 turf victor Burning Sun.

Off her maiden Gulfstream win going one mile, Florida-bred Gran Cherry (30-1) shipped to Aqueduct and failed horribly in the Grade 3 Tempted in November, finishing 32 lengths back in last place. In her seasonal debut, she did finish second behind Brahms Cat in a 6-furlong allowance optional claiming event and that, in fact, may be her sweet spot: sprinting. Her half-sister is 2013 Canadian Champion Female Sprinter Youcan’tcatchme.

Lightly raced Modacious (10-1) emphatically broke her maiden last December at Parx and began this year with a strong second in an allowance optional claiming event going 6 1/2 furlongs. Stretching out to one mile shouldn’t be a problem for this daughter of super sire Uncle Mo, especially since her dam is a half-sister to Grade 1-placed Delightful Kiss, winner of the 12-furlong Grade 3 Turfway Park Fall Championship.

Champagne Problems (20-1) could pose a real danger for an upset. She ran into all kinds of trouble in her last start, that same allowance optional claiming race that saw Modacious run second. Last September she closed impressively over a muddy Churchill Downs track to finish third in a maiden race behind subsequent stakes winner Lovely Bernadette and next-out maiden winner No More Babies—and ahead of subsequent Grade 2 Golden Rod and Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra victress Farrell. In breaking her maiden going 7 furlongs at Keeneland, she nailed subsequent Martha Washington third-place finisher Torrent at the wire. There’s no doubt that she possesses tremendous stamina breeding. A daughter of 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper, Champagne Problems’ unraced A.P. Indy dam is a half-sister to 10-furlong Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap victor Southern Image.

Available last November for a $10,000 claiming tag at Mahoning Valley, well-bred From Ria to Riches (50-1) appears way out of her league against these. A daughter of 12-furlong Grade 1 Belmont winner Union Rags out of Grade 1-placed sprinter La Nez, she was a $130,000 Keeneland November weanling who sold just four months later at the Ocala sales for $25,000. Obviously she must have issues.

Speedy last-out OBS Sprint victress Yes I’ll Go (12-1) hails from same family as recent Grade 2 Risen Star winner Girvin, but this is definitely a step up in class for her.

After being claimed for $25,000 at Gulfstream last December, Saratoga Citizen (30-1) improved tremendously in breaking her maiden in wire-to-wire fashion for her new connections. A $220,000 yearling auction purchase, she is a half-sister to 5-time Grade 1-placed Musket Man.

Both Jordan’s Henny (20-1) and Ellie’s Honor (15-1) come in off solid maiden wins, with the former taking a bit more time to accomplish that feat. The positive is that Jordan’s Henny has been well-tested in terms of distance (all but one of her seven races have been contested at one mile or over). Unfortunately, she just hasn’t demonstrated a lot of speed, plus she’ll be making her first start since December. Ellie’s Honor broke her maiden first-up going 7 furlongs. With talented jockey José Ortiz taking the reins, it will be interesting to see what this daughter of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen can do.

Of the four last-out maiden winners in the field, Aspen Hilltop (10-1) may hold the most promise. A Saratoga juvenile maiden winner in her only start, the runner-up in that race was subsequent Grade 3 Tempted runner-up Berned, while the fourth-place finisher Torrent recently ran third in the Martha Washington. A daughter of 7-furlong Grade 1 Santa Monica victress Home Sweet Aspen, her breeding is impeccable. Her sire Bernardini was twice a 10-furlong Grade 1 winner (Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup), while her damsire is undefeated 10-furlong Grade 1 Pacific Classic victor Candy Ride. Here she could either demonstrate the need for another race to tighten her up or she could provide the kind of breakout performance that sets her on a path to the Kentucky Oaks.

Valerie Grash

Gotham Stakes Kentucky Derby prep race

Aqueduct, Saturday March 4, post time: 4:50 pm ET
1 1/16 miles (8.5 furlongs)

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Over the last few years we’ve seen several horses—El Kabeir, Samraat, Vyjack, Sunny Ridge—make some noise in the winter Derby preps at Aqueduct, only to fall short on the first Saturday in May, or, in the cases of El Kabeir and Sunny Ridge, not to run in the Kentucky Derby at all.

This winter’s standout is El Areeb, the 6-5 morning line favorite in Saturday’s Gotham. He’s on a four-race win streak, with all of his victories coming by open lengths, and he comes to the race having won the first two preps at Aqueduct, the Grade 3 Jerome and the Withers. He’ll see here some of the horses he’s already dispatched, but he’ll also face some intriguing and emerging horses. He’s shown an affinity for being on the lead, but in the Withers last month, he and jockey Trevor McCarthy were happy to let True Timber, who also returns in this spot, set the pace, then cruise past them to get the win by 4 1/4 lengths.

Among the new faces here is So Conflated (8-1), trained by Doug O’Neill and owned by Reddam Racing, connections not often seen in the chilly paddock at Aqueduct. The team that found Kentucky Derby success with both I’ll Have Another and Nyquist have shipped this gray/roan ridgling east after a win in the California Derby over Golden Gate’s synthetic surface in his third start. That win came at the Gotham’s distance of 1 1/16 miles, and while it was the first time that So Conflated hit the wire first, it was his second victory, having been placed first in a maiden race at Santa Anita through disqualification.

Also shipping in from warmer climes is J Boys Echo (8-1), whose third-place finish in the Withers over this track was impetus enough for trainer Dale Romans to skip the Fountain of Youth in his Gulfstream Park barn’s backyard and head north again. He comes with just a maiden win to his credit, that at Keeneland last October, but the Withers was his first start off a three-month layoff, and with that race under his belt, and three races at this distance, his fans might reasonably expect improvement on Saturday.

The horse might be a new face on the Derby trail, but the connections certainly aren’t: trainer Chad Brown and owners Bill Lawrence and Klaravich Stables, whose Practical Joke is the morning line second choice in the Fountain of Youth, attempt to get a second Derby qualifier here with Cloud Computing (5-1), who broke his maiden at first asking last month at Aqueduct. He’s been training with Brown’s string at Belmont this winter, and he’ll be stretching out from 6 furlongs. There’s distance in his pedigree, though, and while this is a big step forward for the colt, he’s an intriguing newcomer.

The same owner/trainer combo also has Apartfromthecrowd SCRATCHED (12-1) entered here. He debuted at Saratoga last September, finishing fourth, then didn’t race again until December, breaking his maiden in January before finishing fifth in the Withers. Kiaran McLaughlin’s True Timber returns for his third engagement with El Areeb, hoping to best him for the first time.

Todd Pletcher’s Action Everyday (10-1) makes his cold weather debut after going two-for-two to start his career at Tampa Bay Downs. Aqueduct’s leading trainer Rudy Rodriguez will saddle both Zayat Stables’ longshot maiden Glennrichment SCRATCHED (30-1) and Robert LaPenta’s Miggsy (15-1), who broke his maiden at this course and distance last month. By far the most experienced horse in the field with 10 starts, 50-1 Gaetano ships in from Parx to make his stakes debut.

Teresa Genaro

Santa Ysabel Kentucky Oaks prep race

Santa Anita Park, Saturday March 4, post time: 6:00 pm ET
1 1/16 miles (8.5 furlongs)

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From a points perspective, the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel on Saturday at Santa Anita Park is a prep race for the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, but if Unique Bella wins as expected (she’s the 1-to-5 morning line favorite), then the chatter coming out of the race will be more about the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.

Most bettors expect Unique Bella to contest the Kentucky Oaks—making her the 11-to-10 favorite in the recently concluded Kentucky Oaks Future Wager—and those bettors would be quick to point out that her trainer, Racing Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Hollendorfer, had Songbird last year and did not consider facing males.

But there are some differences this year. First, Unique Bella’s owner, Don Alberto Stable, paid $600 to nominate her to the Triple Crown, while Songbird was not nominated last year. Second, Unique Bella has run faster to this point in her career than Songbird had.

But there won’t be any Kentucky Derby discussion without winning the Santa Ysabel, which attracted six other 3-year-old fillies for its $100,000 purse and 85 Oaks points (50 to the winner).

Unique Bella will be the prohibitive favorite off three consecutive victories, including graded stakes wins over last year’s 2-year-old filly champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes and the highly regarded It Tiz Well and Shane’s Girlfriend in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez.

There are also seemingly no trip concerns, as the rail has won 25% of races at the 1 1/16-miles distance at Santa Anita, and Unique Bella has won from both off the pace and on the lead. If she were to taste defeat for the first time since June, then it would be one of the biggest upsets in horse racing history.

“She can adapt to any situation,” said Dan Ward, assistant to Hollendorfer. “She can be on the lead or sit off it. She’s schooled well for the race and ready to go.”

But it is horse racing, and anything can happen—especially when graded stakes talent is involved. Abel Tasman (5-1) won the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes to conclude her 2-year-old season and makes her 3-year-old debut here. If Unique Bella doesn’t finish strong, then Abel Tasman could be the one to blow by the field, as she did when winning the Starlet.

Sandwiched between Unique Bella on the rail and Abel Tasman on the outside are Tap It All (20-1), Spooky Woods (20-1), Mistressofnight (30-1), What What What (20-1), and Grade 1 Chandelier winner Noted and Quoted SCRATCHED (6-1).

Ed DeRosa

Fountain of Youth Kentucky Derby prep race

Gulfstream Park, Saturday March 4, post time: 6:05 pm ET
1 1/16 miles (8.5 furlongs)

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The 2-year-old champion Classic Empire made his much-anticipated debut in this year’s Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream in early February. He finished a disappointing third, eight lengths behind the winner Irish War Cry, who is the morning line favorite at 5-2 in this year’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. After two victories in Maryland at sprint distances against lesser competition in 2016, Irish War Cry vaulted to the head of Kentucky Derby prospects with an impressive front-running victory against the reigning 2-year-old champ. He faces a solid group of graded stakes winners in this year’s Fountain of Youth, but he will be the deserving favorite on Saturday. He is trained by Graham Motion, who won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011.

Gunnevera (7-2) ran second to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, five lengths clear of Classic Empire. He is one of the more experienced of the bunch with seven career starts. He counts the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot among his three wins. He does his best running late in races. A moderate early pace as well as traffic trouble around the final turn compromised this runner in the Holy Bull. He ran step-for-step with the winner in the stretch but could not close any ground. A faster pace (and better racing luck) could give Gunnevera the set-up he needs to turn the tables on Irish War Cry.

Practical Joke is a two-time Grade 1 winner with victories in the Hopeful and Champagne last year in New York. In both of those races, he came from off the pace. He ran third, eight lengths behind the winner, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his most recent start. In that race, he had a rough start and was forced to race wide around the first turn. A clean trip and a solid pace will make him a legitimate contender on Saturday. He is saddled by the 2016 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown. He is the 3-1 second choice on the morning line behind the favored Irish War Cry.

Trainer Todd Pletcher committed Made You Look (10-1) to the Fountain of Youth after a stellar workout at the Palm Beach Downs training facility this past weekend. Made You Look counts the Grade 2 With Anticipation and the Grade 3 Dania Beach, both on turf, among his three career wins from six starts. He finished a length off the winner as the post time favorite in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes, his most recent start at Gulfstream Park. Made You Look will make his first start on the dirt on Saturday and will have four-time Fountain of Youth winning jockey John Velazquez in the saddle.

Beasley SCRATCHED is making his graded stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth. He has two second-place finishes in allowance races at Gulfstream this year at 7 furlongs and 1 1/16 miles. In his most recent start, he finished a length behind Battalion Runner, who is expected to make his next start in the Florida Derby. Small Bear, a horse he beat in his debut in December, won his next two races. While Beasley has yet to run in a stakes race, he has faced against solid competition in three career races. He also has the respect of the morning oddsmaker who made him the fourth betting choice at 6-1.

Three Rules (12-1) has won five of six starts over the Gulfstream Park track. His only loss at Gulfstream came in his last start when he finished second in the Grade 2 Swale Stakes, a 7-furlong sprint. All of his wins have come in minor stakes races against fellow Florida state-breds. His connections boldly sent him to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, where he suffered the worst defeat of his career in finishing a well-beaten sixth. He seems better suited for sprint distances, making the Fountain of Youth a tough task for this runner.

Takaful (12-1) made a promising debut in a maiden race in New York last October. He followed his maiden win with a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Remsen. In his 2017 debut, he ran horribly, finishing last of seven runners over a muddy track in the Grade 3 Jerome Stakes. All of his races were in New York and a change a scenery can only do some good for this colt, but a monumental reversal of form is needed for him to earn a check on Saturday

Talk Logistics (20-1) ran well in two minor stakes races at Gulfstream Park in December and January with a second- and third-place finish. In his last start, the Grade 2 Holy Bull, he ran within a length of the front-running Irish War Cry for the first six furlongs but faded badly in the stretch and finished 14 lengths off the winner. Unless he has made a great leap in his fitness level since the Holy Bull, he seems destined to be among the also-rans again this Saturday.

The mystery entry Huracan Americo has raced twice in South America. He won the Group 1 Derby Nacional at Hippodromo de Moterrico in Lima Peru last November at the distance of 2400 meters (approximately 1 1/2 miles), an unheard-of distance for only the second start of a career. Tomcito — who also won the Derby Nacional — finished third in the 2008 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Huracan Americo has a familiar pedigree out of the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer. He is one of the two long shots with a 50-1 the morning line.

The other 50-1 shot Quinientos didn’t earn his first victory until his seventh career race. He finished a distant fourth in his lone race of the year in a state-bred race at Gulfstream Park on February 8.

Looking for Eight exits a 7-furlong maiden win at Gulfstream Park in just the second race of his career. The Fountain of Youth will be his first race against winners.

Kevin Martin