Derby Winner (Who Else?) Tops Spring Meet Equine Stars

 The emphatic victory by Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby is John Asher’s pick for the finest equine performance of the just-concluded Spring Meet. Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

The emphatic victory by Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby is John Asher’s pick for the finest equine performance of the just-concluded Spring Meet. Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

The rush of incredible performances and dramatic moments during each year’s celebration of Kentucky Derby week threaten, in any year, to diminish the often fabulous moments that occur each year as Churchill Downs moves on through the two months of live racing that follow each renewal of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s been no different in 2016 than most other years, but the end of any Spring Meet does provide the gift of perspective on the exploits of Derby week heroes and a greater appreciation of where post-Derby performances rank in comparison to one of the most glamorous and star-studded weeks in American racing.

Against that backdrop, here’s a stab at the top 10 individual equine performances during the Spring Meet. Note: This was written prior to Saturday’s “Downs After Dark” closing night program, so we’ll reserve the right to adjust the roster given that night’s results – especially in two stakes events for 2-year-old stars.

That asterisk aside, here’s one individual’s look at the Spring Meet’s top star turns:

1. Nyquist – Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI)
Yeah, I know – this one is not exactly stunning news. But the triumph by trainer Doug O’Neill’s then-unbeaten 2-year-old champion was a dazzler and compared favorably to last year’s triumph by 2015 Derby winner and eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The son of sizzling first-year sire Uncle Mo was close to hot pace, made an impressive move to sweep to the lead at the top of the stretch, and it seemed that jockey Mario Gutierrez had left plenty in the tank at the end of 1 1/4 miles. Nyquist’s winning time of 2:01.31 was the 14th fastest at a mile and a quarter in Derby history.

2. Gun Runner – Matt Winn (GIII)
Trainer Steve Asmussen’s star was compromised as much as any Kentucky Derby runner when he chased a strong pace on his way to a determined third-place finish behind Nyquist.  But his return victory in the June 18 Stephen Foster Handicap (GT) undercard indicated that the son of Candy Ride (ARG) had moved forward from that setback on the first Saturday in May. His Matt Winn competition was far weaker, but Gun Runner went right to the front, pulled away to an easy win and stopped the clock in 1:41.12 – missing the record time for 1 1/16 miles by just .08 while barely breaking a sweat. Future meetings with Nyquist should be entertaining and instructive.

3. Tepin – Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (GII)
There was no suspense in Tepin’s second consecutive victory in the one-mile turf race for older fillies and mares on Kentucky Derby Day, but that is the point. The female turf champion of 2015 and conqueror of males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile prepped in this race for a planned trip to Europe to compete in the Group One Queen Anne at Royal Ascot. The 5-year-old Bernstein mare cruised to a 3 1/2-length win in a snappy 1:34.36 on Derby Day for trainer Mark Casse, then crossed the Atlantic to become the first U.S.-based horse to win the Queen Anne and, in doing so, became this year’s front-runner for “Horse of the World” status. Do not be surprised down the road when Casse’s star has a Churchill Downs stakes race named in her honor.

4. Carina Mia – Eight Belles (GII)
She displayed potential for brilliance in a win in last fall’s Golden Rod (GII) at Churchill Downs, but the Bill Mott-trained Carina Mia missed the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) after being caught in a quarantine during winter training at Florida’s Payson Park that caused her to miss a prep race. After a solid return in Keeneland’s Grade I Ashland, Carina Mia dominated the Eight Belles and then brushed aside Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia to win the Acorn (GI) at Belmont. After those back-to-back sparklers, one cannot avoid wondering what might have happened had Carina Mia not missed that critical Kentucky Oaks prep race.

5. Divisidero – Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI)
The Turf Classic win on Derby Day by the son of grass champion Kitten’s Joy provided another highlight for Kentucky-born trainer William “Buff “ Bradley, who previously enjoyed priceless moments beneath the Twin Spires in wins by two-time champion Groupie Doll and $2 million-earner Brass Hat. Divisidero is a bit erratic, but his late-charging neck victory over World Approval in the WRTC was among the meet’s most dramatic finishes. And the result made Bradley’s colt two-for-two in races over Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course.

6. Cathryn Sophia – Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI)
While lavishing praise earlier on a 3-year-old filly (Carina Mia) who did not compete in the Kentucky Oaks, it should be noted that the John Servis-trained Cathryn Sophia won America’s top race for 3-year-old fillies with complete authority. While her Oaks victory was wonderful, Cathryn Sophia’s subsequent loss to Carina Mia in the Acorn raised questions about her ultimate spot in the hierarchy of this year’s 3-year-old filly crop. But she remains the filly that earned the lilies.

7. Bradester – Stephen Foster Handicap (GI)
After coming up short in previous runs in big races, the Eddie Kenneally-trained Bradester found the Stephen Foster, a “Breeders’ Cup Win & You’re In” race for the $5 million Classic, to be a spotlight event that suited him perfectly. As the only true speed in the race, Bradester did what was natural: He went to the front under Joe Bravo and never looked back in providing Kenneally with his signature (so far) win at Churchill Downs.

8. Catch A Glimpse – Edgewood (GIII)
The Mark Casse-trained 2-year-old filly turf champ of 2015 did what was needed in winning this turf test on Kentucky Oaks Day. She spurted clear in the stretch and cruised home. In her next start, Catch A Glimpse dominated male rivals and looked very much like a possible second coming of Tepin.

An easy victory by Bitumen in his June 30 debut at Churchill Downs made him a “horse to watch” for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

An easy victory by Bitumen in his June 30 debut at Churchill Downs made him a “horse to watch” for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs

9. Bitumen – June 30 maiden race
The 2-year-old sparkled in his June 30 debut for Kenneally during which the son of Mineshaft toyed with rivals and won easily in one of the meet’s fastest six-furlong times. He was impressive enough to earn a prominent spot on your checklist of early candidates for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Bitumen’s huge effort and the apparent quality of the horses he defeated could make that event a “key” race – one that turns out winners and big performances at other tracks over the next few months.

10. Alsvid – Aristides (GIII)
Trainer Chris Hartman’s defending winner made it back-to-back wins in the six-furlong Aristides and, in doing so, snapped a year-long losing streak. Alsvid held off the talented but hard-luck runner-up Limousine Liberal by a head in a swift 1:08.26. There’s a big race out there with his name on it. VT