Meeting the Cast of Characters
by Tom Carley
This is by far my favorite column to write each year. Within this column, I begin to introduce you to the horses vying for the 2020 Kentucky Derby. I will be factual, yet also interject my opinions. To make it easier to identify the horse, I will bold the name of each horse discussed.
The best way to think of this is look at it as a television drama and look at each horse, trainer, and jockey as a character in an evolving story. Horse racing provides stories that no screenwriter could match. The next 5 months should give us twists and turns that will keep all of our interest.
First, let’s recap last week’s Derby prep action:
A full field of 14 horses tried to earn 10 Derby points and get the upper hand on early favoritism for the Louisiana Derby. The field had a lot of early speed and the early fractions were brisk. As the field turned for home, the speed horses began to tire and drop back while three horses made significant moves. Mr. Monomoy fought his way through foes on the rail while Enforceable chose the 4 path (a measure from the rail equal to the width of the horse) and found no traffic as he made a bold move and Silver State, the race favorite, who went 6 horses wide and started his late move well after the other two foes. In the end, Enforceable, prevailed. What I liked was that he made a controlled, steady acceleration (called one run) at the field and when he got the lead, he did not look back. Silver State might have been running the fastest of all at the end, but he just started his move way too late. Enofrceable’s trainer has already said he would compete in the next Louisiana prep race, the Risen Star, on February 15. This race did show me at least three horses that should be in the Derby field.
The girl’s race held Saturday at the Fairgrounds. Contrary to the LeCompte, this race had no defined speed horses. As a result, there was very little change of horse’s position during the race (often called a merry-go-round). Ursula set the early pace and was fighting for the lead right to the end. Finite laid five lengths off the pace until the far turn and began a run. She eventually won the race by a long neck. Do not let the short margin of victory fool you. Her jockey rode her very confidently and never used his whip until mid-stretch. She appeared to save energy for her next prep race which will be in mid-February. Tempers Rising was the only horse that really moved up during the race and made a swift move in the last 100 yards to be in the photo finish with the other two mentioned. She continued her streak of never being off the board (finishing 1st, 2nd or 3rd). I just do not know how talented of a group this was and how many will be in the Oaks. The Oaks is different than the Derby in that fewer horses race in it as it is less prestigious and owners tend to not enter a horse unless they feel they have a good shot to win.
I will only touch on a few contenders for the Derby this week. I must start this year differently than most as we have a female horse whose trainer has indicated that he is pointing her toward the Derby and not the Oaks. She will get a lot of attention if she does proceed towards the Derby. Taraz is her name and she is trained by Brad Cox. Cox won the Kentucky Oaks in 2018 with Monomoy Girl and over the last three years has grown from being a reginal trainer to a trainer known nationally by winning major stakes races.
Taraz did not begin her career until November of her 2-year-old year (late in today’s world) missing all of the big stakes races for 2-year-olds. She won her career debut by 7 lengths at Churchill Downs and then in December won the Letellier Memorial at the Fairgrounds by 11 lengths. Her next start will be against the females in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn on February 1. This will be her first race going two turns (over 1 mile). Still, Cox has stated he is looking at racing her in the Derby versus the boys rather than facing the girls in the Oaks the day before in Louisville.
She will have to overcome a few obstacles to make it to the Derby. First, with the new points system the points she earns against the females will not count toward her needed Derby points. In the past, stakes money earned against females was credited to those stakes earnings of a female when being considered for the Kentucky Derby without consideration of what sex they were earned against. Most importantly, she has only proven herself at ¾ of a mile distance. In the Derby, she will have to run 1 ¼ miles. The Martha Washington should give us an idea how she will handle a longer race.
Storm the Court is a California-based horse who shocked the racing world when he won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. The Juvenile was considered a two horse race between Eight Rings and Dennis’ Moment (both introduced later in this column). Storm the Court had won a few minor races, but had been beaten by other 2-year-olds in the California 2-year-old stakes races. The horse is trained by Peter Eurton whose daughter Brittany is one of the hosts on the NBC telecasts of major races. When Storm the Court won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile at odds over 45 to 1 it set the stage for a memorable interview between the trainer and daughter. I do not know how talented the horse is, but he will continue to run in the California pep races and traditionally, the winner of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile is the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby and likely winner of the Eclipse Award (an industry award for excellence in many racing divisions to be given January 25) for Outstanding 2-year-old.
Dennis’s Moment is a Louisville-based horse trained by Dale Romans. Romans grew up in the neighborhood behind Churchill Downs and in fact in 2016 was involved in a car accident going to the VFW located behind the racetrack (and where this author parks when he goes to the Derby) after the Derby, thus demonstrating his neighborhood ties. Romans has won more stakes races than any trainer at Churchill Downs, yet has never won the Kentucky Derby. This appears to be his best chance. The horse won the Iroquois at Churchill Downs and was undefeated coming into last year’s Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. Dennis’s Moment went off as the favorite, but unfortunately stumbled at the start of the race ending any chances for him to win. He will compete in the Florida prep races.
Eight Rings is trained by Bob Baffert who has won 2 triple crowns in the last 4 years. Named after the New England Patriots recent Super Bowl run in which they have won 8 rings, he dominated the California 2-year-old races last year. He was sent off as second choice in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and never found his stride that day finishing off the board. Eight Rings appears to be the major Kentucky Derby contender on the West Coast and should be a major player in the California prep races. Baffert does have other Derby contenders so we will see if this horse gets shipped to Oaklawn for stakes races as he has done in the past or if he stays in California.
Maxfield is my current pick to win the Derby. He is undefeated and is owned by Godolphin, which is owned by Sheik Mohammed. Sheik Mo is one of the world’s richest men and has won every major race around the world except for the Kentucky Derby. In fact, he built a racetrack in Meydan and hosts the UAE World Cup. He has made no secret that he wants to win this race more than any other race and has spent many millions of dollars trying to do so. In fact, to that end he bought a yearling from Sinatra Thoroughbred Racing, who hosts this site. The colt out of Street Cry and Sage Cat was named Cry of the Cat. He was taken to Dubai, renamed Desert Party, and competed well there with his stablemate Regal Ransom. Both were contenders in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. You can read more about Desert Party’s life as a sire here at racehorses.com.
Maxfield is undefeated in two starts with a win in his first career race at Churchill Downs. He then won the Grade I (the highest grade) Breeders Futurity Classic at Keeneland. What impresses me is not his record, but the maturity and statuesque physique he has on the track. He had to scratch out of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, but before so he took my breath away the way he worked on the track his first day there. He looked like a horse late in his 3-year-old year when he was just a baby. This will help him when a crowd of 180,000 start to holler as they play “My Old Kentucky Home”.
These are just a few contenders. Next week we will look at some more as well as the top trainers.