With just over six weeks (!) remaining until the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I), a solid and consistent group of major contenders for the Run for the Roses continues to move cautiously along the road to Louisville.
Itâ€™s safe to anticipate some surprises on the road to Churchill Downs and the first Saturday in May, but no remaining Kentucky Derby prep races will have the advance allure that the April 2 Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park will.
The 1 1/8-mile race is set to be an early East-West showdown matching trainer Kiaran McLaughlinâ€™s unbeaten Fountain of Youth (GII) winner Mohaymen and Nyquist, the unbeaten champion 2-year-old of 2015 trained by Doug Oâ€™Neill.
The average number of pre-Derby starts has dwindled in recent years, and this type of major East-West showdown has been nearly non-existent for a good while. But Nyquist is set for a second journey outside of California for a battle of 2016 Kentucky Derby hopes.
The only other road trip by Nyquist worked out well last when Paul Reddamâ€™s colt ventured to Lexington to win the $2 million Sentient Jet Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile (GI) at Keeneland.
Nyquistâ€™s connections insist the five-week gap between the Florida Derby and the big race on May 7 at Churchill Downs makes the former an ideal prep for the latter. But a $1 million bonus offered to a graduate of Fasig-Tiptonâ€™s 2-year-old sales who also wins the Florida Derby â€“ and Nyquist is eligible for that check â€“ does nothing to diminish the allure of the cross-country trip.
While looking ahead to the prospect of Mohaymen and Nyquist looking each other in the eye somewhere in the Gulfstream Park homestretch, thereâ€™s still plenty of time and opportunity for developing 3-year-olds to earn spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
So take a look at the â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ point standings at KentuckyDerby.com for the status of the current major Derby 142 players. As you do so, consider these mostly under-the-radar horses (with RTTKD points in parentheses) that could make a late splash during the coming weeks:
Cherry Wine (5 points) â€“ A fourth-place run in the Grade III Rebel at Oaklawn snapped a two-race streak of wins in lower-level contests, but the Dale Romans trainee ran very well from gate 13 over a track that is often unkind to horses breaking from outside posts. Remember that his grass-loving sire, Paddy Oâ€™Prado, also trained by Romans, ran third to Super Saver in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and that horses with grass in their pedigrees often run well in the Derby.
Creator (10) â€“ An improving son of Tapit, trained by Steve Asmussen, broke last from his rail post before squeezing through traffic to finish third in Oaklawnâ€™s Rebel. Heâ€™s only one-for-7 in his career, but the Rebel run indicated that Creator could be getting things together at the right time.
Forevamo (20) â€“ The Al Stall Jr.-trained son of Uncle Mo announced his presence on the Derby Trail with a 40-1 runner-up finish behind the well-regarded Gun Runner in Fair Groundsâ€™ Grade II Risen Star. Heâ€™ll get a quality check in the Saturdayâ€™s Louisiana Derby (GII), where he must overcome the outside post in a field of 11.
Kasseopia (6) â€“ He started his career in England, and in his last outing, finished a better-than-it-looked third in the El Camino Real Derby over Golden Gate Fieldsâ€™ synthetic Tapeta racing surface. Heâ€™s now trained by Graham Motion, who trained Animal Kingdom to score the lone, synthetic-to-dirt win in Kentucky Derby history, and could follow that starâ€™s path to Louisville with a prep in the Grade III Spiral over Turfway Parkâ€™s synthetic racing surface.
Laoban (22) â€“Heâ€™s winless in four races for trainer Eric Guillot, but he ran second and third in stakes races in his most-recent outings. Heâ€™s a son of the sizzling sire, Uncle Mo, and there could be a handful of those in the Derby 142 starting gate. Remember that running a winless horse in the Kentucky Derby is not usually a good thing. The last maiden to win the Derby was Brokers Tip in 1933, and Laobanâ€™s last to get a win before Derby Day will likely remain Aqueductâ€™s Wood Memorial.
Matt King Coal (0) â€“ The Linda Rice-trained son of Cool Coal Man has yet to start in a stakes race or compete outside of New York but won his last two races over promising rivals. He figures to attract considerable attention in his expected stakes debut at the Wood Memorial.
Outwork (20) â€“ Narrowly beaten by his Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII), this homebred son of Uncle Mo runs for Mike Repole, who also owned, bred and raced his white-hot sire. The colt has been strong in all three career starts, and his dam is by Empire Maker, an unlucky runner-up to Funny Cide in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
Star Hill (10) â€“ This son of Elusive Quality was a distant, but promising, third to Team Pletcher in the Tampa Bay Derby. He could show significant improvement off that outing for veteran Kentucky trainer Rusty Arnold.
Tomâ€™s Ready (4) â€“ His seventh-place run in the Risen Star (GII) came with a big excuse as he was forced to run wide over a Fair Grounds track strongly-biased toward horses racing near the rail. Heâ€™s a 15-1 morning line risk in Saturdayâ€™s Louisiana Derby for trainer Dallas Stewart, who saddled longshots Golden Soul (34-1 in 2013) and Commanding Curve (37-1 in 2014) for runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby.
Suddenbreakingnews (10) â€“ He finished fifth as the favorite behind Cupid in the Rebel, but his earlier stretch-running win in Oaklawnâ€™s Southwest (GIII) should be his race to remember. He broke from the 14-hole, and the list of Oaklawn winners over the years who have started from that, or a similar outside gate, is a very quick read.
Unbridled Outlaw (2) â€“ His troubled third in last fallâ€™s Iroquois (GIII) remains, in my view, one of the more impressive runs by a 2-year-old at Churchill Downs in 2016. The Romans trainee returned from winter break with a very good runner-up finish against older horses at Oaklawn Park. I love it when young 3-year-olds compete against older rivals, and this resurgent colt should be a presence at strong odds in either the Arkansas Derby or Keenelandâ€™s Toyota Blue Grass (GI). VT