by Johnny D
February 20, 2020
Relax. Take a break. Hit ‘pause.’ Your determined search to find probable Kentucky Derby in-the-money finishers is suspended. For now. This weekend there are no races with Kentucky Derby starting-gate points attached.
However, don’t get too comfortable. Consider this Saturday and Sunday a mere coffee break, not a vacation. The hunt for the first four finishers in the featured race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May continues in earnest next week. And then it’s non-stop sleuthing until April 11--in Arkansas, with the 150-point Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, and in Kentucky, with a 34-point Lexington at Keeneland.
Following the holiday weekend’s sophomore scramble you may require a respite, anyway. Friday, highly regarded Gouverneur Morris made his 3-year-old debut in an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs. For the record, off the turn, the heavily favored Todd Pletcher-trained beast appeared to be going nowhere under vigorous scrubbing by jockey John Velazquez. The good ‘Gouverneur kept grinding, however, and not only won the race but actually stopped the timer just two tenths of a second short of the track record. One can assume he might return in the Tampa Bay Derby, although his camp hasn’t released future travel plans.
Saturday, a pair of sophomore stakes produced three separate events: the Risen Star was contested in two divisions and Golden Gate presented the Camino Real Derby. These races promised a slight clarification of the Kentucky Derby picture and may have helped…a bit. It’s still way too early to make any concrete statements. ‘Leans’ are about all we can currently deliver.
The El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate provided added proof (as if any was needed) that trainer Bob Baffert has the deepest bench of any Thoroughbred operation, perhaps, in the world. Azul Coast, no better than a ‘sixth man’ on the Great White Father’s soph roster, romped home to win and earn 10 Derby starting points. Victory didn’t appear as easy as his odd-on chances predicted, but he got it done. Over a synthetic surface he many not have particularly cared for, his talent and determination ruled. He’s probably destined to travel lots this season as he knocks off nationwide derbies other than the one in Kentucky.
The first division of the Risen Star featured favored Enforceable, decisive winner of the Lecomte Stakes. Saturday, he proved backers half-right as he closed ground late to catch Silver State for second. The Risen Star was the Tapit colt’s eighth start, and his late-running style that proved so effective in the Lecomte didn’t function as smoothly Saturday. He had a fairly clean trip while making up ground from last early, but he ran into a sharp, improved, front-running foe and that made all the difference. No reason to abandon Enforceable. He ran well. In recent years, late-runners like him have had a difficult time winning the Kentucky Derby. However, it should be noted that they do offer significant monetary rewards to those who can correctly select one-through-four Kentucky Derby finishers.
Mr. Monomoy and jockey Florent Geroux took control of the Risen Star out of the gate and never looked back. They finished strong and straight. Based on breeding there is some concern about the colt’s most effective distance, but he easily handled a mile and one-eighth. We’ll keep an eye on this one going forward.
Third-place finisher Silver State raced mid-pack early, moved up while a few lengths in front of Enforcable, entered the lane in front of that foe but was caught by him for second near the wire.
The second division of the Risen Star included both the weekend’s biggest surprise and greatest disappointment—at least from this observation point. Modernist, a dominant, four-length maiden winner over just five rivals Jan. 25 at Aqueduct, shipped south, won the Grade 2 Risen Star and just about punched his ticket toward a start in the Kentucky Derby. Generally, yours truly isn’t interested in recent maiden winners immediately challenging Grade 2 foes. And I wasn’t alone. Modernist was dismissed at 12-1 odds. That price looked a gift after he broke well, was hustled to vie for the lead, rated while eager inside of NY Traffic, put that one away in the stretch and held off the rest. The race was not as visually impressive as the first division and the final time was more than a second slower.
The emergence of Modernist was notable, but the real story of the second division of the 2020 Risen Star was the absolute dud fired by even money favorite Anneau d’Or. He had no visible excuse for the poor performance. Yes, he had to steady off heels a bit into the first turn, and, yes, he raced wide throughout. Still, none of that normally is enough to discourage a good horse from doing his job. We can guess about what might have caused a colt that was two necks away from the Eclipse Award as the top Juvenile to ‘phone one in,’ but we really don’t know and haven’t been offered a logical explanation. Jockey Joel Rosario surmised that it ‘just wasn’t his day.’ Really? Guess that sometimes happens, although usually not to good 3-year-olds on the road to the Triple Crown. To borrow the late Ricky Ricardo’s line, the son of Medaglia d’Oro ‘…has got some ‘splainin’ to do.’
Monday’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn added to the ‘cred’ of one Silver Prospector. The son of Declaration of War began his career with three turf races: two maiden tries at Belmont & Saratoga and one stakes attempt at Kentucky Downs. Still a maiden, he then was switched to a Keeneland dirt sprint and exploded to win with a big figure. Since then, before Monday, he’d started in three consecutive stakes races—a close third in a one turn mile at Churchill in the Street Sense; a win over top sophomore prospect Tiz the Law in the sloppy, mile and one-sixteenth Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill; and a mid-pack fourth in Oaklawn’s muddy, one-mile Smarty Jones.
Trainer Steve Asmussen couldn’t have drawn on a chalkboard a more perfect trip for Silver Prospector and jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. They rode the rail home, split horses off the turn and ran down a stubborn Wells Bayou. It was a solid, if unspectacular performance. The runner-up Well’s Bayou, in only his fourth start, was gigged to the lead, opened up a clear advantage, battled fiercely in the lane, and was a clear second best.
While this entertaining stakes action occupied most racing fans, Sunday at Santa Anita, Bob Baffert unleashed his most recent weapon of mass destruction in the form of Charlatan, a chestnut 3-year-old colt by Speightstown. He demolished just four foes in 1:08 4/5 but, as they say, it was the way he did it. Niggled a bit early to show speed from the outside post, Charlatan relaxed for jockey Drayden Van Dyke as they cruised unopposed to the stretch. There, Charlatan switched leads and spurted further from pursuers. He wasn’t really ‘asked’ for much in this glorified breeze and he galloped out like a good horse to earn a stratospheric 105 Beyer Speed Rating. Very impressive.
Those quick to compare Charlatan to another late-starting, Bob Baffert sophomore named Justify ought to be careful. That Triple Crown winner was a once-in-a-lifetime horse and unless you’ve figured out a way to beat the odds and return for a second act, you won’t ever see another do what Justify did.