Log In

Seven Key Sophs Set to Return on Kentucky Derby Trail

by Jeremy Plonk

February 25, 2019

Seven of the most promising 2-year-olds of 2018 have yet to start at age 3. But that’s about to change in a big hurry. Two are slated for returns in important bi-coastal allowance races this Friday; two more are expected in Saturday’s Xpressbet Fountain of Youth; the remaining three are on target for the San Felipe a week from Saturday. We are just 12 days away from knowing so much more about the 2019 Triple Crown chase than we know today. 

The Friday returnees are Roadster in a Santa Anita allowance race and Mucho in a Gulfstream Park allowance. Roadster was considered Bob Baffert’s hottest shot going into Del Mar last summer. He won his debut with ease and then was a surprising runner-up at 3-5 in the G1 Del Mar Futurity to barnmate Game Winner, who would go on to add the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 2-year-old title. On the east coast, Mucho broke his maiden by nearly 10 lengths at Saratoga before finishing second in the G1 Hopeful and going to the sidelines. Bill Mott has had an exemplary winter already at GP with Hidden Scroll and Country House making statements. But Mucho still may be his best. 

The Friday tests are varying in that Mucho runs just 6 furlongs, but faces what appears to be an overmatched field and he should roll. Roadster, on the other hand, has a 1-mile assignment (his first around 2 turns), and meets respected maiden winner Nolo Contesto as well as stablemate Dessman, runner-up by a nose in the San Vicente. I won’t be shocked to see Dessman eventually scratch. 

Saturday’s comebacking duo in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth is expected to be comprised of Signalman and Vekoma. Entries will be drawn Wednesday for the key tune-up for the Florida Derby. Signalman won Churchill Downs’ G2 Kentucky Jockey Club on the heels of a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for Kenny McPeek. That barn already has won the Holy Bull this GP meet with Harvey Wallbanger, but (pun intended) would be happy to pour a double. Meanwhile, Vekoma has been training very well for George Weaver, easily out-working millionaire Breaking Lucky in a recent drill seen at XBTV.com. Vekoma is 2-for-2, including a victory in the G3 Nashua. He’s beaten some solid sophomores like Network Effect, Caul Paul and Mihos, but the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth would be his stiffest, and longest, test to date. 

And that leaves the potential trio of smashers for the March 9 San Felipe. Champion Game Winner (pictured above) has been aimed at this spot all winter by Bob Baffert. Now he’s talking about Improbable, the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity winner, also considering the San Felipe and limiting road trips early in the season. That alone would make for some March Madness. But then add in Instagrand, last seen winning Del Mar’s G2 Best Pal in August by 10 lengths; that’s the same margin he won his debut by last summer and sits a sparkling 2-for-2 by 20 lengths. Jerry Hollendorfer’s $1.2 million Into Mischief colt has worked in scintillating fashion of late as seen at XBTV.com. The San Felipe could be as compelling a mid-season Triple Crown prep as I’ve scouted in the 14 years of Countdown to the Crown. 

So while the calendar flips to March by week’s end, we’ve been treated to some very good performances in the sophomore class already. No one has been more impressive in 2019 than dual-Fair Grounds stakes winner War of Will. Baffert’s Mucho Gusto looked the part in the Lewis Memorial. Mind Control’s Jerome put him ahead of New York’s winter warriors. The scene in Florida and Arkansas has been more chaotic with huge upsets in the Holy Bull and Southwest. 

But starting this Friday, March 1, the roll call of sophomore stars will pick up in intensity at a very rapid pace. A dozen days from now things could look radically different in the division. These seven important stakes returnees from last year will have a big say in how we feel about this class. I personally can’t wait … TGIF, TGIF, TGIF ...