Derby Details 2021 Edition 9

Homestretch run on the 5/8-mile training track at Berkley Farm

Derby Details 2021 Edition 9

An Eastern Feel

by Tom Carley

March 1, 2021

The eastern two-thirds of the country has come out of its thaw.  The calendar is turning to March today and with the Derby being May 1, this Derby picture is going to start to develop in the next three weeks.    This and future columns will focus more on specific horses and trainers than strategies and philosophies.   

I have noticed some emerging trends among the major contenders.  The talent pool this year seems really slanted toward the East Coast and Midwest horses.  I really only see one west coast trainer with the type of horses that can win the Derby.  

East Coast Bias

Last week I detailed the leading horses and made an attempt to guess what each horse’s path to Louisville would be.  This week I compare that to the current leaderboard.  I see that of the 25 leading horses, a high percentage of these are based in the Midwest or the East.  Three of these horses are trained by Brad Cox and 2 by Steve Asmussen.  I expect Asmussen also to have Cowan qualify by earning enough points in the UAE Derby.

Only 6 of these 25 horses are based in California.  Three of these are trained by Bob Baffert.  I really see this field being made up of 60% to 70% Eastern/Midwest horses.  This is unlike other years in which west coast horses have shipped east to earn points.  The depth of this 3-year-old crop is becoming more apparent by the week.  

I had a reader ask me about my bias against west coast trainers.  This was in response to a statement I made that the west coast trainer pool was not very deep.  In support of this statement I offer the following:

West Coast Trainers:

Bob Baffert  

Has 5 horses on the trail and currently at spots #7, #10, and #20.  

Mike McCarthy

Has a horse at #9.  Has not hit the board in Derby before.

Doug O’Neil 

Multiple Derby winner has one horse at #13.

Peter Miller 

Better known for sprinters and has a horse at #14.

East Coast Trainers:

Shug McGauhey 

Has the current points leader and has won a Derby.

Bill Mott 

Has 2 on the Derby Trail at #17 & #25 and has won a Derby.

Todd Pletcher

Has 3 horses on the Derby Trail and has won multiple Derbies.

Chad Brown

Has 2 horses on the Derby Trail with 1 in the top 20.

Dale Romans

Louisville native with multiple past Derby runners & a horse at #15

Harold Wyner

Has the #11 spot.

Antonio Sano

Has the #12 spot.

Daniel Velazquez

Has the #19 spot.

William Morey

Has the #121 spot after his horse won the Battaglia.

Rodolphe Bisset

Has the #22 spot.

Midwest Trainers:

Brad Cox

Three Derby starters with 2 in the top 3 on the points list.

Steve Asmussen

Currently has 2 horses in top 8 and #23 should have a third starter.

Michael Stidham

Experienced trainer who trains the other Godolphin horse at #5.

Robert Diodoro

Trains the #6 horse.

Greg Foley

Longtime Churchill trainer has the #24 spot on the leaderboard.   

Not only do the East Coast/Midwest trainers appear to have the top horses, but the volume and depth of training talent, in my mind, clearly outweighs the West Coast trainers.   Only two west coast trainers on this list have won a Derby.  There are 3 trainers on the East Coast that have won a Derby.  When you factor in wins in the other triple crown races, the number expands to 6 trainers.

As far as Derby experience, the West Coast trainers also come up short.  The above trainers have 35 Derby starters.  East Coast trainer Todd Pletcher alone has this number beat with over 45 starters.  Throw in Steve Asmussen with over 20 Derby starters, Dale Romans with over 8 starters, Chad Brown, and Shug McGauhey with over 5 starters.        

Some will make the argument that Bob Baffert has won this race 6 times.  For starters, Aunthentic’s 2020 Derby victory last year occurred after a total upset of both the traditional prep race and Triple Crown schedule (based on Covid-19 prep race cancellations and a September out-of-sequence Kentucky Derby).  And I will always believe that the credit for the 2002 War Emblem victory should go to his prior trainer Frank Stringer as Baffert only picked up this horse just 3 weeks before the Derby.   Then, when you look at Justify only running 3 prep races before the 2018 Kentucky Derby one can argue that Derby was not run with a training job like you see today.  Some could point that if Justify was disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby (based on a positive test for a banned substance which the California Racing Board chose to not act upon and has tried to ignore in subsequent legal arguments), the horse would not have had any Derby points and not been eligible to run in that race.  This is still a legal matter and eventually Churchill Downs will have to make that decision.  Therefore, one could surmise that Bob Baffert has won 3 Derbies in which horses ran a traditional path to the race.

I question the path that Baffert has taken with his horses this year.  He has waited so long to earn points that he now has 5 horses, only 3 of which have Derby points.  With the number of Derby horses so limited, he will no longer have the luxury of having his horses avoid each other.  This trend of having horses wait later and later to begin their career continues each year.  This might be a year that Baffert finds one of his primary contenders coming up short and not having enough points to qualify for the Derby.  One could look at highly respected Bezos, who waited until early February to make his career debut and faltered and now must win or run 2nd in a 100-point prep to have enough points. 

I believe the focus this year as far as quantity and quality would be on the horses running at Oaklawn and east from there.   There could be late developing horses, but the field this year appears to be slanted toward the East coast and Midwest.  

Hats off to Keeneland.

A real challenge in writing this column each week is finding current information on who is nominated to each race.  A key 100 point prep race is the Blue Grass Stakes held at Keeneland.  Recently, the nominations closed for the Blue Grass Stakes.  Keeneland was transparent and proactive and published on their website not only the list of nominees, but also the past performances of these horses.

  • This race is held 4 weeks before the Kentucky Derby and awards 100 points to the winner.   
  • The number of nominees is 148 horses with 10 of the top 11 horses (at the time of release) on the Derby leaderboard.
  • Both Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen each have 15 nominees along with Brad Cox having 13.

Thank you to Keeneland for making fan’s lives easier by publicizing the information.  They truly are the best run racetrack in the country.  You rarely hear a negative word about the racetrack and care about the horses, fans and connections.  

This is in sharp contrast to the outfit that puts on the Kentucky Derby— who, last week, chose to ignore horsemen and sell a racetrack it ran down when it chose not to apply for casino license. They refused to reward the horsemen that have shown their loyalty and sacrificed for years accepting smaller purses waiting for the casino to be approved.  Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) chose to maximize its shareholder wealth instead of caring about the industry.  CDI gives the impression they care about racing only 2 days per year.  I would not be doing my job if I did not point that out.   

Weekly Developments   

Senor Buscader is officially off the Derby Trail due to an injury suffered last week.  I am glad the connections are choosing to do what is right for the horse and give him some rest and recovery time.

Last week I reported that Cowan, who ran 2nd in the Saudi Derby was off the Derby Trail.  However, the connections announced last week that he would race again in the UAE Derby.  Based on the preview races, he should be one of the favorites and if he runs third, he should have enough points to give trainer Steve Asmussen his third horse in the Derby.

Recap of Prep Races

Last week there were two major prep races.

Southwest Stakes

The Grade III, 11/16 mile Southwest Stakes was finally run at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas for a purse of $750K.   The field only drew seven horses, but the race appeared to be a rematch of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile.  The two leading horses were 2-year-old champion Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior.  The racetrack was very muddy due to the continued wet weather in Hot Springs.  Essential Quality broke poorly and was in the rear of the pack while Jackie’s Warrior raced on the front end.  As the horses entered the stretch, the 2-year-old champion made a strong move and drew off to a commanding victory.  Jackie’s Warrior faded to third with Spielberg running second. Check out the amazing homestretch video here: https://youtu.be/nSXDn_mA1eU .

Takeaways from the race:

  • Essential Quality showed the heart of a champion as he struggled with the racetrack.  Each step he took was a real effort as he looked fearful of falling in the mud.  We knew this horse had talent, but no one had any idea the size of the heart he had.   This challenge will only help him going forward.
  • Jackie’s Warrior continues to show problems sustaining his speed for distances farther than one mile.    The trainer spoke of this before the race and still believes his horse can get 10 furlongs.  I do believe the horse will take 6 weeks off and come back in the Arkansas Derby at 9 furlongs to answer the distance question.
  • Spielberg will most likely have to face barn mate Concert Tour in the Arkansas Derby.  It seems to me only one of those horses will have enough points to move forward. 

Fountain of Youth Stakes

The final prep race ( a Grade II) for the Florida Derby Fountain of Youth was held Saturday Feb 27 at Gulfstream Park.  Running a race at 11/16 miles (for a purse of $300K) at Gulfstream Park is always unique due to the track being 11/8 mile long.  The racetrack uses a shorter stretch than normal in order to have the race have a longer run into the first turn and not to give the outside horses a steep disadvantage.  As expected, Drain the Clock set the early pace.  He surprisingly was very effective in keeping the lead.  Papetu made a move at the 3 furlong pole and appeared to be in good position.  He got the jump on favorite Greatest Honour and the favorite appeared in trouble.  However, as the horses entered the stretch, Greatest Honour found another gear and got the win in convincing fashion.  Drain the Clock held on for second and Papetu ran third. Watch that exciting homestretch finish here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeXnqH0-7oM .

Takeaways from the race: 

  • Greatest Honour has now won 3 races in a row at Gulfstream after failing to win his first 3 career races in New York.  Is he a horse for a course or has he matured?
  • Will the winner be able to find a winding trip from the rear of a 20 horse field as he likes to lay so far off the pace?
  • The Florida group of 3-year-olds appears to weaker than in year’s past.

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