The real Kentucky Derby trail fun is about to begin, as the biggest names in the game will now start unleashing their cavalry of top Derby prospects all over the country along the rose-laden “yellow brick road” to Louisville.
When it comes to big-name trainers from coast to coast, no duo looms larger over the United States horse racing landscape than Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.
The “fifty point races” (preps where the winner basically clinches a berth into the Derby starting gate) started last week, with the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds in Louisiana, but neither man had an entry in the race.
That’s all about to change, as Baffert or Pletcher will most likely have an entry in each of the next 14 Derby “Win and You’re In” races left on the trail. When handicapping this next set of all-important races, it is wise for fans and bettors to start their analysis with the Pletchers and Bafferts for the following reasons:
• Over the past three years, Pletcher has won ten total Derby preps that have given out either 50 or 100 Derby points, doing so with nine different horses over seven different tracks (Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Keeneland, Oaklaw, Tampa Bay, and Turfway Park).
• Over the past six years, Baffert has won 12 total Derby preps with ten different horses over three different tracks (Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and Sunland).
• Baffert has won the Rebel Stakes six of the past seven years.
It’s common knowledge to most that Baffert and Pletcher dominate during this time of the year, and the tote boards will sway heavily in their entries’ directions. So, the main question on the Derby trail puzzle is: Do you play with them or play against them?
There’s no better time than the present to start planning your trip down the Kentucky Derby Trail (see full Derby Trail Tracker with probables for all races here).
In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we’ll preview where Bob and Todd may be pointing their top stars in the next nine Derby preps, with some thoughts on their likelihood to make it to Louisville on the first Saturday in May:
Saturday, March 4th – Grade-2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park
Pletcher starts his assault on the Derby gate with Made You Look, a Graded stakes turf winner making his debut on the dirt against a salty Fountain of Youth field. Sired by More Than Ready, who ran fourth in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, and out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, Made You Look has good dirt pedigree, so the surface switch shouldn’t be an issue. Additionally, he has worked well on dirt since the start of December, including a bullet best out of 28 four-furlong breezes on February 25 in preparation for this dirt debut.
After a wide trip to finish sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to end 2016, Made You Look showed a devastating turn of foot to start the year at Gulfstream, winning the Grade 3 Dania Beach. After the race, Pletcher stated that Made You Look would be looking at a dirt campaign to get on the Derby trail, so a race like the Fountain of Youth was always the plan. His third in the non-graded Kitten’s Joy Stakes last out can be dismissed as a troubled trip, where he was blocked badly and couldn’t get in the clear for his late move.
With a strong field that includes top Derby prospect Irish War Cry, it will be difficult to use Made You Look in the top spot, but he’ll be moving late and can pick up the pieces. It’s tough to back a horse doing something new for the first time at a short price, but it’s likely that the odds may be right to include Made You Look on your tickets.
NOTE: Non-graded Mucho Macho Man Stakes winner Sonic Mule was also rumored to run here for Pletcher, but after his cutback to 7 furlongs to run third in the Grade 2 Swale, it is likely that his connections will look to keep him to one-turn races.
Saturday, March 4th – Gotham at Aqueduct
Pletcher is never one to be scared to ship this time of year so that he can spread his three-year-olds over multiple stakes in order to give them all the best chance at a spot in the Derby gate. Action Everyday will make the trip up from Florida to run on the inner dirt at Aqueduct in his stakes debut to try to get some Derby points.
Lightly raced with only two career starts at Tampa Bay Downs, Action Everyday is undefeated, but the class level of horses that he beat in those two starts is questionable. Additionally, since he drifted out late in his last win, an optional claimer, Pletcher has decided to add blinkers for his stakes debut in the Gotham. Even though reports are that Action Everyday has worked well at Palm Beach Downs with the blinkers added, it may be tough to back him in the Gotham against horses that have run faster based on speed figures. Stakes winners El Areeb and So Conflated will be tough for Pletcher’s charge to topple.
Saturday, March 11th – Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs
Now that likely favorite McCraken will skip this race due to a strained ankle, Pletcher holds a strong hand in the Tampa Bay Derby with Tapwrit and possibly Always Dreaming.
Tapwrit was moving late to get second in the local prep Sam F. Davis behind McCraken and will look to continue advancing, running the same 1 & 1/16 mile distance here. The son of Tapit is starting to live up to his $1.2 million yearling purchase price tag, as he won the non-graded Pulpit in the slop to end 2016.
Always Dreaming may be the real gem in the Pletcher barn, though, as his 11-length maiden-breaking win a Tampa Bay on January 25 at a mile and 40 yards had the racing world abuzz shortly after. That was his first start in the Pletcher barn after moving over from trainer Dominick Schettino. Sired by Bodemeister, he has good distance pedigree and isn’t being asked to stretch out much farther in this spot. (UPDATE: Always Dreaming is entered in an allowance at Gulfstream on March 4, so he would need to scratch out of that race to run in Tampa Bay Derby).
Saturday, March 11th – San Felipe at Santa Anita Park
You thought this article was about both Baffert and Pletcher, right? So where are all the Bafferts?
Well, one of Baffert’s top colts, Mastery, will get a strong look in the San Felipe. Unraced since December, when he won the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Los Alamitos over the maiden Irap, Mastery recorded only two workouts in January because Santa Anita Park received 11 inches of rain during the month.
In the grand scheme, it was probably better that Mastery got a little break from training, as his works in February have been strong. His last six-furlong work on February 27 in a slow 1:15 flat has raised some concern, but Baffert stated that it was just a maintenance drill and he’d have one more serious work before the San Felipe.
Mastery better be sharp if you’re looking to take an expected short price on him, since former Baffert trainee Iliad (now with 2016 Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill) looks like a true challenger after taking the 7-furlong Grade 2 San Vicente. Also, trainer John Shireffs will send out one of his two top Derby prospects in either Gormley or Royal Mo. The San Felipe may be a short field, but it will be stacked with quality up top.
Saturday, March 18th – Rebel at Oaklawn Park
Baffert’s success in this race is well-documented, and American Anthem will look to extend his trainer’s unprecedented winning streak. American Anthem looks like the “real deal” Derby horse with a top-notch pedigree, sired by Bodemeister out of an A.P. Indy mare.
His second place finish in the Grade 3 Sham to start the year, fighting back in the stretch with Gormley, shows his mettle and resolve at a young age, since that was only his second career start. His five-furlong work at Santa Anita on February 26 in 58.80 shows that Baffert is priming the engine on one of his top prospects. In a recent interview with XBTV, Baffert said that American Anthem is a big, strong horse and is likely to take the ship to Oaklawn better than Mastery, who is lighter. He also said that Mastery is ready to run, so he didn’t want to wait the extra week to get him a prep.
In a rare case where we may see a Pletcher versus a Baffert on the Derby trail, Pletcher may take a shot with ultra-fast Malagacy here. Pletcher has been hesitant to fully commit to getting Malagacy on the Derby trail, after starting his career at Gulfstream with wins at 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 furlongs by a total 22 lengths. Sired by Shackleford out of a Dehere mare, he may not have true distance pedigree to go ten furlongs. If he enters in the Rebel, there is no doubt that he will be on the engine early, most likely setting a fast pace.
Saturday, March 25th – UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse
Even overseas trips cannot stop the range of Pletcher’s reach, as plans to ship Master Plan to Dubai are in the works. After a late closing second place finish in the slop behind stablemate Tapwrit in the aforementioned Pulpit in December, Master Plan returned with a closing win in the OBS Championship at the Ocala Training Center at 1 & 1/16 miles on their all-weather track.
Master Plan is another one starting to live up to a big price tag ($850,000), and he will most likely need to take on top foreign horses Thunder Snow and Epicharis in the UAE Derby.
Saturday, March 25th – Spiral at Turfway Park
Since this is the last Derby prep ran over a synthetic track, this is a possible landing spot for Pletcher’s Made You Look if things don’t go perfect in the Fountain of Youth on dirt, but would be a quick 3-week turnaround. Most likely neither Pletcher or Baffert will enter a horse in the Spiral.
Sunday, March 26th – Sunland Derby at Sunland Park
Baffert used Sunland to spring Chitu into the Derby in 2014 and also won the race in 2013 with Governor Charlie. This is speculation, but Baffert has a barn full of potential colts looking for a spot to run, and he may be looking to use Sunland again. There are a bunch of Bafferts we will highlight in Part 2 of this series that may land here or at other races down the Derby path.
Pletcher has stated that he will point Hedge Fund to the Sunland Derby, so this may be another race where we get the rare Pletcher versus Baffert match-up. As a half-brother to graded-stakes winner Stanford, Hedge Fund has a lot of promise, which he showed when breaking his maiden on second asking at Tampa on February 4. The son of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver is not Triple Crown nominated for his top connections in WinStar, China Horse Club and SF Racing.
PART 2 PREVIEW
Part 2 of this series will focus on more of the Baffert Derby hopefuls, including Reach the World and Dabster, who may both go straight to 100-point Derby preps. Bronze Age and Irish Freedom will also be highlighted in Part 2 for Baffert.
On the Pletcher side, Battalion Runner‘s possible run in the Florida Derby will be discussed, along with Grade 3 Southwest winner One Liner‘s plans to go straight to a 100-point Derby prep. Plans for Pletcher’s Third Day will also be covered, along with much, much more!
Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and like on Facebook for updates on when Part 2 will be ready, along with many other Derby updates.