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The Kentucky Derby Trail is already heating up and it’s still the dead of winter on the east coast!
2018 has gotten off to a very good start. McKinzie and Mask both emerged as top Derby prospects during the first weekend of the year, winning the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park and the non-graded Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park, respectively .
Both were strong favorites, with McKinzie leaving the gate at 1/5 odds and Mask going off at 7/5. This continued a trend of short prices winning on the Derby Trail lately.
Since Good Magic won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 11/1, the past five Derby points races have been won at relatively short odds:
Add in the Sham and the Mucho Macho Man, and a trend may be starting with top choices consistently performing along the Derby Trail. Coming off of a 2017 Derby Trail with some wacky results at times, can we consistently rely on the stars of the 2018 crop to shine on the big stage?
Let’s first theorize on why this trend may be occurring, then evaluate if this trend will continue with a triple-header of Derby points races coming up this weekend and some big names in action.
There are two major reasons why this may be occurring:
1. Trainers aren’t waiting to run their “big guns,” bucking a trend in recent years where trainers would rest their top stars during December and January
Trainer Bob Baffert exemplified this trend with his decision to return McKinzie in four weeks after winning by disqualification in the Los Al Futurity. Baffert was quick to add foundation and experience to his lightly-raced pupil in the Sham instead of waiting for races like the Grade 3 Robert Lewis on February 3 at Santa Anita. This was a stark contrast to last year, when Baffert waited three months to run Mastery in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes after his Los Al Futurity win.
Additionally, after Catholic Boy ran a troubled fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, trainer Jonathon Thomas could’ve easily rested his stable star for a 2018 campaign, but instead, he brought the son of More Than Ready up to New York off of four weeks’ rest to win the Remsen.
2. Trainers have not been afraid to ship their top stars
Trainer Adam Kitchingman didn’t “sit on” Greyvitos after his Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes win and decided to run off of five weeks’ rest, shipping to Remington Park in Oklahoma from his California base. The result was a strong win, though a knee chip and subsequent surgery will keep Greyvitos off of the Derby Trail until a possible mid-April return in either the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn or the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
Even though trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is based in New York, he shipped Enticed to win the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, rewarding the decision to ship after his strong third-place finish in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont.
These two trends are continuing in Saturday’s Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes. Instilled Regard enters off of five weeks’ rest from his runner-up placement in the Los Al Futurity for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who’s willing to ship from California to Louisiana for the race.
The hype around the full Lecomte field packing the gate at Fair Grounds has been building since its early draw last weekend (click here for the Derby Trail Tracker for the full list of Lecomte entries). We’ll focus in this article only on the two big names headlining the race, Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme.
Instilled Regard is best known for being the meat of the Baffert sandwich in the Los Al Futurity, where he was squeezed by Baffert’s top trainees, McKinzie to his inside and multiple Grade 1-placed colt Solomini to his outside. After Solomini was disqualified for the contact, Instilled Regard was placed second in the race and will return in the Lecomte to try to prove that he’s a top contender on the Derby Trail.
Hollendorfer isn’t waiting to run his top 3-year-old charge; shipping Instilled Regard from his California home to Louisiana for this early season race is an unconventional move for the Hall of Fame conditioner. Hollendorfer has stated that Instilled Regard will enjoy the long Fair Grounds stretch, which is similar to the long stretch at Los Alamitos. The son of Arch will break from the 10 post for this 1 mile and 70-yard race, a slight cut back from the Los Al Futurity. Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano will fly in for the mount, his first time riding the winner of only one of four lifetime races.
Principe Guilherme has already shown a liking for the Fair Grounds stretch, having demolished an optional claiming field by 11 lengths in his last race in mid-December. With a debut win at Churchill Downs by 6 1/4 lengths, Principe Guilherme has yet to be tested in his two career starts.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is known for running his horses when they are ready and isn’t waiting on Principe Guilherme, returning him on four weeks’ rest from his most recent win and continuing the trend that may lead to favorites winning along the Derby Trail, as he has been installed as the 5/2 favorite on the morning line.
The key for the Asmussen pupil will be if he can settle early in his stakes debut and rate after breaking from the 12 post (out of a possible 14 entries). Even though Principe Guilherme has set the pace while leading in both of his career starts, he set moderate fractions in his last start, so signs point that he shouldn’t be hell-bent on getting the lead early and trying to clear the field from the outside under jockey Florent Geroux.
To maintain the trend of big-name stars winning along the Trail, Instilled Regard or Principe Guilherme will need to win the Lecomte, as they’re expected to be the top two betting choices by a wide margin. The winner will be thrust into the Top 10 of Derby Rankings across the country.
A horse looking to regain his spot atop these Derby lists is the once highly-regarded (and now somewhat-forgotten) Firenze Fire. Entering the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Firenze Fire was touted as one of the threats to the favored Bolt d’Oro. Firenze Fire spiked a fever after shipping from New York to California, though, and didn’t run well, finishing seventh, 20 lengths behind Good Magic.
Trainer Jason Servis isn’t waiting until February or March to return his star to the races like some trainers exiting the BC Juvenile. Firenze Fire’s targeted return is the Grade 3 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, which has been delayed 12 days due to frigid weather from New Year’s Day to this Saturday, January 13. With regular rider Irad Ortiz, Jr., moving his tack to Florida, jockey Manny Franco will pick up the mount. The one-turn mile configuration of the Jerome should be perfect for Firenze Fire, as he won the Champagne at the same distance over the eventual BC Juvenile champ Good Magic and the KJC winner Enticed.
The original draw of the Jerome didn’t look like the strongest group to challenge a Grade 1 winner like Firenze Fire and he’ll be very tough to beat, especially if he gets an honest pace to close into.
UPDATE: Coltandmississippi has been supplemented for Pletcher and will take some money in the betting, but Firenze Fire will still be a heavy favorite at 3/5 morning line odds.
The fun doesn’t end with the two Derby points races on Saturday in the Lecomte and Jerome, though. On Monday (Martin Luther King Day), Oaklawn kicks off its march to the Arkansas Derby with the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes at a mile for the newly-turned 3-year-olds.
When Baffert ships to Oaklawn, he gets bet heavily, and it’s likely that the colt he’s shipping in, Mourinho, will go off as the Smarty Jones favorite.
Originally entered in the Sham last weekend, Baffert scratched Mourinho in order to send him to Oaklawn, continuing the trend of trainers not being scared to ship early in the season. Baffert’s plan was always to target the Smarty Jones for Mourinho, but he previously was having issues finding a flight that would get his charge to Arkansas. It’s pretty amazing that the most famous trainer in the game would have issues getting a flight for his horse, but all has been rectified and Mourinho will ship in mid-week.
Sired by 2010 Kentucky Derby winner and Arkansas Derby runner-up Super Saver, Mourinho will need to stretch out to the mile from his runner-up finish in the 7-furlong Bob Hope in November. Mourinho was the even-money favorite and couldn’t track down the 19/1 longshot Greyvitos, who was loose on the lead that day. The main question confronting Mourinho in the Smarty Jones is if he will excel in his first two-turn race.
What’s peculiar is that the horse Greyvitos beat in the Springboard Mile, Combatant, will also contest the Smarty Jones. Combatant was the 2/1 favorite in the Springboard Mile, so it’s likely that the last two horses who ran second to Greyvitos will be the top two betting interests in the Smarty Jones.
Combatant was finishing well in the Springboard Mile to finish second and will look to move forward for Asmussen. Asmussen returns Combatant in four weeks for the Springboard Mile and will be making the minor ship from Fair Grounds, where he’s been training.
It should be noted that Asmussen could be in for a big weekend on the Derby Trail, as he’s also entered Zing Zang (a horse that he’s compared to 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator) and Snapper Sinclair (moving from turf to dirt) in the Lecomte on Saturday. Asmussen also is running the highly-regarded New York Central in an allowance race at Oaklawn on Saturday.
UPDATE: Navistar will ship in for Pletcher and most likely be the second or third choice in the betting after breaking his maiden impressively at Gulfstream in December. In his debut, Navistar was second to Mask.
With trainers continuing to run their top horses early along the Derby Trail and not being fearful of shipping, all signs point to big performances this weekend from Instilled Regard, Principe Guilherme, Firenze Fire, Mourinho, and Combatant.
All five horses have questions to answer, but Mourinho proving that he can excel at two turns in the Smarty Jones may be the most glaring, as he wasn’t making up ground on Greyvitos late in the Bob Hope. It’s difficult to take a stand against Baffert shipping to Oaklawn, but Mourinho will be heavily bet simply because he’s trained by Baffert. Those looking to take a stand against a favorite on the Derby Trail this weekend may consider the Smarty Jones as their best opportunity.
Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and follow the hashtag #DerbyTrailTracker for constant updates to the probables for all Kentucky Derby prep races. Don’t forget that you can always check for updates to the Derby Trail Tracker here.
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