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Regions Struggle for 'Derby Trial' Supremacy

by Jeremy Plonk

December 18, 2017

Don’t look now, but California has been shut out of the last four Triple Crown races. While that seems a pittance, consider the dominance of the west coasters like I’ll Have Another, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Exaggerator et al in recent years. The current quartet of classic winners reads quite differently, geographically-speaking: Creator via Oaklawn, Always Dreaming from Gulfstream Park, Cloud Computing from Aqueduct and Tapwrit from Tampa Bay Downs and Keeneland stop-offs.

The best we’ve seen from the Californians in the last four Triple Crown races was Battle of Midway’s third-place performance in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. There were no placings to show for in the last two Belmont Stakes or last year’s Preakness. Gormley managed fourth in the ’17 Belmont.

Granted, it’s not full-on panic mode…yet. But then consider the west’s wonder-juvenile Bolt d’Oro was taken down by a New York maiden, Good Magic, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. We should note that Solomini and Bolt d’Oro, albeit 4 ¼-lengths in arrears, did hold up for two-thirds of the Juvenile trifecta.

This kind of stuff is cyclical, of course. Good crops come; and good crops go. But after seeing a Triple Crown sweep in 2017 that was Pletcher-Brown-Pletcher, it’s a reasonable pause in our assumptions before we just assume the next west coast buzzsaw is coming down the line.

The west coast got a positive bounce Sunday in Remington Park’s $400,000 Springboard Mile as Greyvitos impressed on the road and earned 10 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby. The G3 Bob Hope winner at Del Mar has now won short and long and while running at home and on the road. That’s a big feather early in the campaign. We will see if he fits well in the Santa Anita Derby path, or perhaps would be a fleet Californian who could find more historical success at Oaklawn or Sunland Park in the coming months. They have options.

Most years we don’t get a great sense of the regional dominance until we get to and through the Triple Crown series. They just don’t travel east to west at all; and very rarely west to east with a top player. Nyquist’s dominance of the Florida Derby two years ago was a rare early barometer, and that was due to a bonus from the auction company that sold him. Bob Baffert often divides his brigade to Oaklawn and sometimes Aqueduct; that gives us some limited ideas most years.

Chad Brown has two races mapped out for Good Magic, one likely at Gulfstream in something like the Fountain of Youth or Holy Bull earlier; the second most likely in the Blue Grass at Keeneland or Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He’s not likely to meet any west coast resistance in the first one, but perhaps could in the final tune-up. 

I can’t imagine Bolt d’Oro leaving his Santa Anita base this spring as there’s no real reason to do so. Make them come to him – and history says they won’t from afar. If he remains strong and the leader out west, look for Baffert to split up his troops, including Solomini, McKinzie et al, and perhaps they will be the horses who give us a sense of regional strength this year.

There’s so much to play out and that’s what makes my Countdown to the Crown scouting reports so much fun to follow every week. But as the 2017 calendar closes, the west coast’s once-dominant position in the 3-year-old division looks to be up for grabs at best, and gone to the east at worst.