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1. Mor Spirit
I was hoping to see something special from him in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita, and he definitely delivered. After settling casually in third behind fairly modest fractions of :47.78 and 1:12.34, he cruised into contention on the far turn and finished up strongly under a confident ride from Gary Stevens, running the fourth quarter-mile in about :24 2/5 and the final sixteenth in :06.11 to win going away in 1:43.21 seconds. That translated to a Beyer speed figure of 92, a solid figure, but Mor Spirit once again gave the impression that he had a lot left in the tank and is just getting started at a mile and a sixteenth, which is why he’ll likely retain the top spot on my list until further notice.
He’s scheduled to return to the work tab on February 12th, and assuming all goes well, plans call for him to run in both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby before heading to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. “He’s doing great. Everything’s good. He’ll work again on Friday, as long as the weather’s good. He bounced out of the race great and he’s happy. We’ll point for the Fountain of Youth with two works in between,” McLaughlin was quoted as saying on the Gulfstream Park website. “We always have the option to not run if we draw 12 of 12 or something like that, and just wait for the Florida Derby. But, we’re pointing for the Fountain of Youth.”
He wrapped up his preparations for the February 15th San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) by breezing four furlongs in :47 2/5 at Santa Anita today, the second fastest time of the morning at that distance. He’ll be facing a stiff task trying to win off a layoff while cutting back in distance and taking on champion Nyquist and possibly several other talented colts, such as Rockin Bayou and Toews On Ice, but Exaggerator showed a lot of talent sprinting last year and I’m expecting a big effort off the bench. Even a late-running second- or third-place finish would be a great start to the year and serve as something he can build on down the road.
He’s continued to train very well for his comeback, going five furlongs in 1:02.97 on February 7th at Gulfstream Park, and since he’s not expected to return to action until the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) on March 12th, he should be fit and ready to roll by the time that race comes around. He’s already shown that he has a big late run and can rally into both fast and slow paces, and he’s also proven himself on dry tracks, wet tracks, and at Churchill Downs. Assuming he takes even a small step forward this year, he should be a major factor from off the pace in the Kentucky Derby.
5. Smokey Image
He’s unbeaten in six starts, has proven himself at a wide variety of distances, and has shown he can be effective setting the pace or coming from behind. True, he hasn’t beaten the toughest competition, but he won the California Cup Derby in effortless fashion and seems to have a ton of untapped potential. In terms of pedigree, he should have no trouble with the distance of the Kentucky Derby–his sire is Southern Image, winner of the ten-furlong Santa Anita Handicap, and his damsire is Free House, another Santa Anita Handicap winner who also won the ten-furlong Pacific Classic.
6. Gun Runner
He followed up a bullet six-furlong workout on February 1st with an even faster breeze on February 8th, going the distance in 1:12 1/5 at Fair Grounds. The Daily Racing Form has reported that he will be ridden in the February 20th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) by Florent Geroux, a rising star in the sport who won two Breeders’ Cup races last year, and although he’ll be facing a tough field that will include Airoforce and Mo Tom, I think Gun Runner is sitting on a big race and could pull off the upset.
He returned to the work tab in a big way on February 6th, breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59.75 at Palm Meadows Training Center, and after that workout, trainer Mark Casse confirmed that Airoforce will make his 2016 debut in the Risen Star. As mentioned previously, he still has to prove that he can handle a fast dirt track, but if he can replicate the impressive acceleration that he showcased on the far turn of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) last year, we’ll know he’s back on track and will be a factor this year, both in the major prep races and the Kentucky Derby.
As I mentioned on last week’s episode of the Turf’s Up podcast, Danzing Candy looked fantastic winning a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on February 4th, dominating in gate-to-wire fashion while eased up late. None of his rivals were able to give him a meaningful challenge, and he received a Beyer speed figure of 93, not far off of Mohaymen’s two 95 Beyers that mark the best figures earned by any colt or gelding in this crop so far. He’s already beaten some talented colts, including Jerry Hollendorfer’s promising Mr. Coker, and I’m really excited to see what Danzing Candy can do in the March 12th San Felipe (gr. II) next month. Time will tell, but with Mor Spirit expected to head out of town for his next start, Danzing Candy might be poised to take command of California’s three-year-old division.
He completed his preparations for the San Vicente Stakes by breezing five furlongs in company with stablemate Bad Read Sanchez on February 7th, going the distance in a quick :59 1/5. After a long string of slower workouts in previous weeks, it was nice to see Nyquist turn in a really fast breeze to sharpen him up for his 2016 debut. Interestingly, while the Florida Derby (gr. I) had initially been mentioned as the probable goal for Nyquist’s second start of the season, it now sounds as though nothing is set in stone yet, opening up the possibility that Nyquist could run three times before the Derby, possibly in the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby.
After two defeats to open his career, Cupid turned in an eye-catching performance to win an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight on February 7th at Santa Anita by 5 1/4 lengths. Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Martin Garcia, Cupid settled nicely a couple lengths off the lead through slow fractions of :48.62 and 1:13.12, then unleashed a terrific burst of acceleration to sweep past his rivals, run the fourth quarter-mile in about :24 flat, and draw off in powerful fashion to win easily. Visually, this was a stunning performance, and since it marked his first start around two turns, there’s little reason to think he can’t repeat it down the road. Bob Baffert already has a strong group of Derby contenders, including Mor Spirit, Collected, Let’s Meet in Rio, Toews On Ice, and Sunset Malibu, but I have the feeling Cupid may prove to be one of the best of all.
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