Derby, Oaks Changes: More to Come as Clock Ticks

The lesson is reinforced year after year, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand or less jarring when misfortune arises late on the journey to Churchill Downs and the renewals of the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks.

Rare is the year that there is not a defection of a significant contender late in the game. Sometimes that has a major impact on the running and, quite possibly, the results of the Derby or Oaks. With fewer than three weeks to go before those races, this week provided a shot of drama for both events.

Photo by Benoit Photography

Photo by Benoit Photography

The most startling news, and the story with the most significant impact, was the setback that knocked the unbeaten Songbird, an overwhelming favorite for the Kentucky Oaks, out of this year’s 142nd running.

Fox Hill Farm’s fabulous 2-year-old filly champion and emphatic winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies – and all seven of her races – was knocked out of Kentucky Oaks consideration by what trainer Jerry Hollendorfer called a low-grade fever. A statement from owner Rick Porter’s farm said the fever arose after Songbird’s easy win in the Santa Anita Oaks and that the star filly started a course of antibiotics.

She was expected to miss another seven to 10 days of training, and timing of the ailment ruled out a run in the Oaks.

“It never got to be a high temperature, and we think she’s going to be fine, but we don’t want her to train right now, so that’s why we’ll miss the Oaks,” Hollendorfer told Bloodhorse.com. “You know what matters the most? Taking care of Songbird.”

With Songbird on the sidelines, the May 6 Oaks looms as a wide-open race sure to have a full starting gate of 14 3-year-old fillies.

In the absence of Songbird, the likely Kentucky Oaks favorite is the Todd Pletcher-trained Rachel’s Valentina, a daughter of 2009 Kentucky Oaks winner and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Southern California-based Land Over Sea, who had lost five consecutive races to Songbird, earned respect for herself and Songbird when she shipped to New Orleans to romp in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

Weep No More trainer Rusty Arnold’s romantically-named winner of Keeneland’s Grade I Ashland – the never worse-than-second East Coast heroine Lewis Bay – and trainer Dale Romans’ unbeaten Go Maggie Go should also have their supporters. Additionally, two-time Kentucky Oaks-winning trainer Steve Asmussen could have the field surrounded with four Oaks hopes at this point: Terra Promessa, Taxable, Royal Obsession and Nickname.

As a spectator event and betting proposition, the 2016 Kentucky Oaks figures to be a wonderful show. But a running of America’s top race for 3-year-old fillies with possible superstar Songbird as the main attraction would have been very special.

Here’s hoping that all future news for Rick Porter, Jerry Hollendorfer and all of those who are close to Songbird is good, and that she’ll return to top form soon.

Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

There was never going to be a case in which the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby would be less than full – at least at the time of entry. That situation was not changed last weekend when the Grade I Arkansas Derby and the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland wrapped up the scoring in the 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race point standings.

The first, second and third-place finishes at Oaklawn Park – Creator, Suddenbreakingnews and Whitmore – all secured spots in the Kentucky Derby field with their runs. The hard-luck Mo Tom, a stretch-runner who has encountered traffic moments in most of his races that have cost him precious points, was momentarily on the outside of the Kentucky Derby looking in. But trainer Tom Amoss’ colt crept back into the Derby field when the four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert ruled his Cupid, 10th as the favorite in the Arkansas Derby, out of a run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May because of a breathing problem.

The field for the Kentucky Derby has been assembling slowly at Churchill Downs, but that pace will pick up in the next few days. Among those making a favorable early impression on the Churchill Downs track are Mohaymen, coming off his first career loss in a fourth-place finish to a loss to Derby favorite Nyquist in the Florida Derby, and Tom’s Ready, who has worked well at the home of the Derby for trainer Dallas Stewart. Stewart’s last two Kentucky Derby bids have resulted in long shot runners-up Golden Soul (34-1) in 2013 and Commanding Curve (37-1) in 2014.

Japan-based Lani has, despite some quirky behavior, impressed observers in some of his trips over the track.

But the most impressive of the early arrivals has been the Steve Asmussen-trained Gun Runner, whose major training effort this week was a best-of-the-day five-furlong move in 1:00 over a fast Churchill Downs surface Monday morning.

Asmussen is an extremely skilled, but always cautious, trainer. His horses – no matter how talented they may be – rarely display brilliance in their morning works. He even managed to slow down the brilliantly fast Rachel Alexandra in her training after she joined his barn following her 20 ¼-length Kentucky Oaks in 2009.

A work like Gun Runner’s dazzler on Monday is unusual for an Asmussen trainee and should be taken as a good sign. I’ve mentioned in recent weeks that he was one of four likely Derby starters that raced in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Gun Runner has done nothing wrong since that race but could get overshadowed by Nyquist and other members of this competitive Derby field when the betting windows open and decision time arrives.

With just over two weeks to go before the big race, Gun Runner is doing as well as a Kentucky Derby contender could hope to be. If all continues to go well, it would likely be a mistake to forget about him before the field breaks from the starting gate in Kentucky Derby 142.