© Benoit Photo
1. Mor Spirit
He hasn’t run badly in four starts so far and looked great winning the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) in December, reeling in stablemate Toews On Ice to win by a deceptively easy 1 1/4 lengths. The way he has performed so far has trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens talking with excitement about the Kentucky Derby, and I don’t think we’ve seen Mor Spirit’s best yet. He’s scheduled to make his much-anticipated 2016 debut in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) tomorrow at Santa Anita, which should give us a feel for how he’s progressing over the winter.
His comeback win in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream was sensational, and not just because he had no difficulty settling behind horses and moving through a narrow opening to take the lead. In the final 4 1/2 furlongs of the race, he ran the third quarter-mile in about :23.36, the fourth quarter-mile in :23.52, and the final sixteenth in :06.03–that’s flying! Granted, the track was playing very fast on the day of the Holy Bull, and the opening half-mile in :49.06 was very slow, but in my opinion, you couldn’t have asked for a better comeback performance from Mohaymen, and I think this race is something that he can build on down the road.
Exaggerator caught my eye last year when he overcame a tough trip to win the Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga, and after missing some training with an illness and encountering bad luck in both the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I)–racing on slow rails compromised his chances each time–he rebounded at the end of the season with a gritty win in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) over Sunny Ridge, who came back to win the Withers Stakes (gr. III) last Saturday. As a son of Curlin, Exaggerator should only get better as he gets older, and I love that he’s starting his season in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) on February 15th at Santa Anita. Running in a sprint should help sharpen his speed for the coming season, and judging from his most recent workout–five furlongs in a blazing :58.20 at Santa Anita–he’s ready for a big race.
After a solid two-year-old season that saw him win the Breeders’ Futurity and place third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile–finishing ahead of Exaggerator on both occasions–Brody’s Cause took it easy during the winter but is back in serious training now, having posted three workouts at Gulfstream Park since January 18th. The March 12th Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) is expected to mark his 2016 debut, with the April 9th Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) to follow, meaning that Brody’s Cause will be taking a path to the Derby that is identical to the one successfully used by Street Sense in 2007.
5. Smokey Image
Time will tell if he’s another California Chrome, but Smokey Image’s effortless win in the California Cup Derby–which brought his record to a perfect 6-for-6–has launched him firmly on to the Kentucky Derby trail and has the racing world excited about his future. Although he received a Beyer speed figure of just 82 for his win, I have reason to believe that it could have been higher, and the way that he ran–never getting out of a gallop and being eased through the final sixteenth–suggests that he could have gone even faster if necessary. The San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) is expected to mark his next start and should show us how he stacks up against California’s best Derby contenders.
Unlike the first five colts on my list, Let’s Meet in Rio hasn’t won a stakes race yet, but he looked terrific closing a ton of ground to finish second in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita last month. That performance was similar to his maiden win, when he gained five lengths on the leader in the final furlong to win going away, and my feeling is that it’s only a matter of time before the combination of extra distance and more experience combines to stamp Let’s Meet in Rio as a major Kentucky Derby contender. He’s entered in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Saturday, and while I’m not necessarily expecting him to beat Mor Spirit, another strong late run to hit the board would be a very encouraging step in the right direction.
7. Gun Runner
After two straight victories to open his career last year, Gun Runner was entered in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs and ran a huge race, overcoming a slightly tricky trip over a track he may not have cared for to finish fourth after leading at the eighth pole. After taking things easy during December, Gun Runner returned to the work tab on January 4th and has posted five workouts since then, most recently six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 3/5 on February 1st at Fair Grounds. The February 27th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) is expected to mark his 2016 debut, and while he’ll be facing a strong field that could include Airoforce and Mo Tom–two colts that finished ahead of him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes–my feeling is that Gun Runner can turn the tables on them over a dry track.
This Mark Casse-trained colt started his career with success on turf, winning the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) and finishing second by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), but he handled a sloppy dirt track just fine in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, unleashing an eye-catching burst of acceleration on the far turn and maintaining it to the wire to win convincingly. He still has to prove that he can be successfully over a dry dirt track, and a recent illness will cause him to miss his scheduled debut in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III), but this setback isn’t expected to cause much of an issue, and we could see him debut in the Risen Star or the February 15th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn.
9. I Will Score
Call it a hunch, but I think I Will Score could be a major factor on the Derby trail. He’s unbeaten in two starts so far, most recently winning a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita after dueling for the lead through blazing fractions of :21.02 and :43.23, and if he can carry his speed around two turns–his pedigree suggests that he can–he might end up being a front-running sensation. I think he has as much raw talent as any colt in this crop. One thing is for certain, he won’t be ranked #9 on my list next week–he’s entered in the Robert B. Lewis on Saturday, and if he carries his speed, he’ll be moving up, and if he tires in the homestretch, he’ll likely drop off the list.
Trained by Doug O’Neill, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another, Nyquist went unbeaten in five starts last year and compiled one of the best records of any two-year-old colt we’ve seen in years, but he did give the impression that he could be best at shorter distances and might not thrive going ten furlongs in the Kentucky Derby. We’ll get our first look at him this year when he takes on Exaggerator in the San Vicente Stakes, and after that, Nyquist is expected to head to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby (gr. I), which will mark his only two-turn prep race before the Kentucky Derby. It’s not your typical approach to getting ready for the Derby, but so far, Nyquist has done everything right, and as an undefeated champion, he deserves a lot of respect.
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