String of Debuts by Top Hopes Enliven Derby Futures

The Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit won the fourth time in five races in the Robert B. Lewis.

The Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit won the fourth time in five races in the Robert B. Lewis.

Stars are aligning nicely now that we’ve dropped below the “90 days ’til Kentucky Derby 142” threshold. We have seasonal debuts of the horses that are arguably the top three contenders for the Run for the Roses over a three-week span and Friday’s launch of the second of four pools of this year’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

The champion 2-year-old of 2015 – Reddam Racing LLC’s Nyquist – is set for his 2016 debut in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Vicente on the February 15 Martin Luther King Jr. Day program at Santa Anita. It will be the Doug O’Neill-trained champ’s first outing since his victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland and the first of only two preps planned for the unbeaten Nyquist by the team that brought you Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another in 2012.

Two weeks back, it was Shadwell Stable’s unbeaten Mohaymen who opened his 3-year-old season with a flourish in a romp in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The West Coast was the Derby prep epicenter when four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert’s best hope (for the moment) to take the roses this year, Mor Spirit, collected his fourth win in five races with a late-charging triumph in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita.

Mohaymen is the individual KDFW Pool 2 favorite in oddsmaker Mike Battaglia’s morning line, while Mor Spirits shows up as the overall fourth choice at 15-1.

20160206 Mor Spirit Robet B. Lewis (Benoit)The mutual field – the always popular bet that includes all 3-year-old Thoroughbreds other than the 23 individual horses in the Future Wager’s 24 betting interests – is an odds-on favorite at 4-5. That means that individuals who take a shot with “All Others” at this point are betting that the eventual Derby winner has yet to reveal himself or herself. In early February, that’s not a bad bet.

But the promise of a better return comes on horses on the roster of 23 individuals featured in this weekend’s three-day pool.

There are plenty of horses out there that are worth watching on the Derby 142 trail, but this group of 3-year-olds appears, at this point, to have significant strength at the top of the roster. The positioning of the season-opening preps for Mohaymen, Mor Spirt and Nyquist over a roughly two-week period provides fans with a very good opportunity to compare the quality of their off-the-bench runs in the New Year and hints of progress when we last saw them in 2015.

The two horses that have run and won in 2016 were impressive in their 3-year-old season-openers.

Mohaymen, a gray son of the hot sire Tapit, was extremely impressive in the Holy Bull. Trained by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, Mohaymen cruised past well-regarded runner-up Greenpointcrusader under jockey Junior Alvarado and was geared-down at the finish in a 3 ½-length romp.

Mor Spirit, who suffered his only loss on sloppy going at Churchill Downs in a runner-up finish to Airoforce in November’s Kentucky Jockey Club (Grade II), has confirmed in his two subsequent starts that he is at his best when he drops back and launches a strong late rally.  He bounced back from his setback in Louisville with an impressive win in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity.

Track conditions at Churchill Downs convinced the Baffert team to keep him close to the pace in his race at Churchill Downs. He definitely seems to be a better horse when he sits well off of the pace, so the combination of his tactics and first-ever encounter with a wet track in the Kentucky Jockey Club makes his Churchill Downs run even more impressive.

His rally behind a relatively slow pace under Hall-of-Fame-rider and three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens in Saturday’s Robert Lewis left Baffert, a Hall-of-Fame trainer looking for a suitable follow-up to his Triple Crown campaign with American Pharoah, beaming.

“His last race was a very important race,” Baffert said. “Gary, the way he rode him at Los Alamitos, found out how he wants to run, get him back. He really educated him and he got the win.”

Stevens was in the saddle for Baffert’s 1997 Kentucky Derby win with Silver Charm, and Baffert likes having Stevens, who will turn 53 in March, back in the saddle for the road to Louisville.

 “It’s fun working with Gary,” Baffert said. “He’s won a Derby for me before. I’ve got Peyton Manning.”

Given the results of last week’s 50th Super Bowl, having racing’s version of the veteran Denver Broncos quarterback on your team would not a bad thing.

Now we’ll await the results of the debut by Nyquist in Monday’s seven-furlong San Vicente. The colt turned in a sharp five-furlong work at Santa Anita last Sunday under jockey Mario Gutierrez, who was also part of the team that guided I’ll Have Another to his Kentucky Derby win.

We’re not quite to the point on the Kentucky Derby Trail when margin for error disappears, but it’s good when things go well.

Back in 1989, legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham’s Sunday Silence whipped favored Easy Goer in the Derby in best 1-2 rivalry since Affirmed and Alydar in 1978. Whittingham noted the day after the Derby triumph just how perfect the colt’s preparation for that day had been.

“He never had a straw in his path,” said the man known as “The Bald Eagle.”

For Mohaymen and Mor Spirit, that’s been the case in this relatively early stage of the journey to the Kentucky Derby. On Monday, we’ll know more about Nyquist and his path.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager betting opens Friday at noon (EST) at Churchill Downs and online at TwinSpires.com, along with off-track betting and online outlets across North America. Wagering will close at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Information on the wager is available at KentukyDerby.com.

A winning Future Wager ticket would be a lovely thing for your Valentine, although you won’t know if the ticket’s a winner until Kentucky Derby Day. Given the size of winning payouts in past years, it could be worth the wait. VT

Photos by BENOIT PHOTOGRAPHY