A New Derby Flirtation

Part of the unusual mix joy and personal torture of the weeks leading up the Kentucky Derby each year is the prospect of falling in love.

That’s “falling in love” with possible Derby contenders, just in case my wife is reading.

Experience offers many lessons on what it takes to find the Kentucky Derby winner and, perhaps, place a couple of bucks on the nose of that horse. But for many Derby fans, and put this writer in this group, tend to lead with their hearts rather than their heads when promising 3-year-old Thoroughbreds do something special on the track in advance of the Run for the Roses.

Well, it’s nearing springtime again and the 139th Derby is fewer than 60 days away – and here comes that feeling again.


The object of my growing affection, with the potential to transform into obsession, is a colt named Rydullic. The son of Medaglia d’Oro is on the fringe of consciousness of Derby Nation following a strong victory on grass in last weekend’s Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He has yet to crack the personal top 10 of Derby 139 contenders, but consider trainer Gary Contessa’s colt to be bubbling just under that group.

His only start on dirt was something less than an eye-catcher. He ran fifth, beaten 22 ¼ lengths by Derby 139 hope Delhomme in his October racing debut at Belmont Park.

Contessa then moved him to the grass and Rydilluc responded with three straight victories. Rydilluc sat just off the Palm Beach pace, made a strong move on the turn and dashed away from his opponents to win by 3 ½ lengths under jockey Edgar Prado.

Rydilluc’s winning time of 1:36.78 was okay, but – as is often said in racing – it was the way the colt did it that was most impressive.

The colt has a terrific stride and the fact that he has not won on dirt is not a major concern at this point. In 2011, a colt named Animal Kingdom came into the Kentucky Derby with a resumé that included experience on grass and synthetic surfaces, but no racing on dirt. There’s a chance that AK was simply exceptional individual and won the Derby because of that, but if you could make a case for Animal Kingdom in 2011, it’s not difficult to sell oneself on Rydilluc two years on.

The Palm Beach offered no points in the new “Road to the Kentucky Derby” eligibility system, but the race served as a good Derby prep in 2012 for Dullahan, who opened his 3-year-old season in that race. Dullahan then won the Toyota Blue Grass on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland before he ran a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby behind I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister.

social media boost

Co-owner Team Stallion stable took to social media to exclaim “Derby Dreamin!” on Twitter immediately after the Palm Beach win, so the intent to bid for a Derby run seems clear.

But why flirt with a horse that is perfect on the grass but 0-for-dirt with less than two months to go before the Derby?

Pedigree is one factor, as the offspring of sire Medaglia d’Oro have run pretty well at Churchill Downs. He has produced a pair of Kentucky Oaks winners in 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and 2011 winner Plum Pretty.

There’s also a strongly-held personal view that the presence of some turf blood in the pedigree is a good thing for a horse running on Churchill Downs’ one-mile dirt oval. Animal Kingdom, Barbaro and Big Brown immediately leap to mind as horses that spent the early part of their careers on grass before shifting to dirt and earning Derby glory over the Downs’ distinctive sandy loam surface.

Rydilluc’s win on the Gulfstream grass was visually impressive, and he came home very fast. He ran his final quarter-mile in just over 23 seconds under no urging from Prado.

Despite that, he still has much to accomplish in order to chase the Derby dream. He must earn the point to get into the starting gate for the Derby and, if that occurs, he’ll need to handle the Churchill Downs dirt. But there’s much to like about Rydilluc and 60 days can be both a flash and an eternity for the development of young horses in the spring of their 3-year-old seasons.

Yeah, Rydilluc clearly caught my eye in Florida. And this could get serious by the time he arrives in Kentucky.

Before a peek at the personal Top 10, a salute is in order to Vyjack, the unbeaten gelding who unleashed a big stretch run to take Saturday’s Gotham at Aqueduct. The quality of his competition in the race is tough to assess, but his performance put him in the Derby 139 mix.

Titletown Five, the colt owned in part by Louisville-born football legend Paul Hornung and trained by four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas, ran well enough in a runner-up finish in the six-furlong Gazebo Stakes at Oaklawn Park to merit continued Derby consideration.

Sprinting is not the game for the beautiful son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, but his next race will be huge. Titletown Five must earn some “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points to get him into the Derby 139 picture. But even if the colt fails to win his next start, Lukas will still have the Derby Trial as a back pocket option for the lightly-raced colt.

There is no reason for admirers of Titletown Five to give up on seeing Hornung’s colt in the Derby.

Big Kentucky Derby Championship Series races loom this week with the Tampa Bay Derby, which will feature trainer Todd Pletcher’s unbeaten Verrazano, the favored individual in both of the 2013 Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools, and the San Felipe at Santa Anita, which is expected to be headed by the highly-regarded Flashback from the Bob Baffert barn and Goldencents, co-owned by University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. Both races are set for Saturday, March 9.


Putting aside the temptation to slip Rydilluc into the rankings (thought it could happen next week), here is the personal Derby 139 Top 10 posted on www.KentuckyDerby.com:

  1. Shanghai Bobby
  2. Itsmyluckyday
  3. Super Ninety Nine
  4. Flashback
  5. Verrazano
  6. Revolutionary
  7. Orb
  8. Goldencents
  9. Normandy Invasion
  10. Vyjack