The Kentucky Derby is less than two months away, and soon it, and spring will be here and for those living in the northeast, winter can’t leave soon enough. As for the Kentucky Derby contenders, to me, there is still not a clear cut favorite. Of course, in horse racing, labeling a horse as a clear cut favorite usually backfires, but this year’s crop of three year olds seems to missing something. That said, there is still time for one or perhaps more to rise to the forefront. And, we must be careful to anoint. Last year, many thought Orb was a superhorse after winning the Derby and in the end; he was just a good horse who happened to win the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is “limited,” to 20 starters. I use the quotations because that’s about six too many, but it is the Kentucky Derby, the greatest day of the American sports calendar, so why not allow a few extra to try to win it? In order to make the Derby field, you have to accumulate enough points, which usually require a horse to make at least two starts. Currently, Samraat sits at the top of the standings with 60 points. He has two wins; one was worth ten points, the other 50 which occurred in a thrilling Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 1. Samraat is likely safely in the field, but he will need another race to get ready for the Derby on May 3. Samraat is a New York bred, which means there will be disdain for him when he gets to Kentucky. The handicappers and bettors will dismiss him because he isn’t a Kentucky bred, so even if he comes in undefeated, will he be the morning line favorite? We all know that a horse can be dropped anywhere, but that’s a story for another column.
Bloodlines are a major reason why I love this sport. If you follow horse racing, it’s fun to trace the lineage of every horse. As we know, they’re all related to one of the three breds, but when you see a horse break his or her maiden, it’s fun to check out who the father and mother are. When you do that, it brings back memories. The light bulb goes off, and you say things like, “I remember him or man, she was a tough filly in her day.” That’s what makes the sport so satisfying. It has a rich history and that history is found in the blood.
With that said, our current leaderboard lineage is okay, but far from great. Samraat is the son of Noble Causeway, who was a nice horse, but nothing special. In fact, he won just three times in 18 starts. I like the way Samraat runs. He is tough, stubborn and fights, but do I think of him as a Derby winner? The answer is no.
Intense Holiday is second with 53 points. He is the son of Harlan’s Holiday, who was a very good horse and has been a nice sire. Harlan’s Holiday, who died in 2013, was a Derby contender, who won the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes in 2002, before finishing seventh and fourth in the Derby and Preakness respectively. On paper, you have to like Intense Holiday over Samraat, but thankfully, the race is not a beauty contest, like many of the recently completed sports at the Olympics.
Wildcat Red is third with 50 points and is tied with two other horses, Ring Weekend and California Chrome. Wildcat Red is the son of D’wildcat, who was nothing more than ordinary in his career. He did have five wins in 18 starts, but none of those wins grabbed the headlines. When you see Wildcat Red at 40/1, don’t be surprised.
Ring Weekend pulled off a major surprise by winning the Tampa Bay Derby to get his 50 points. A longshot to be sure, he is the son of Tapit, who despite just six career starts, did win three times, including the 2004 Wood Memorial. He has been a very good sire, and even though the odds for Ring Weekend are sure to be long, you never know.
California Chrome also has 50 points. He is the son of Lucky Pulpit, a non-descript horse, but Chrome has already made nine starts in his career and has won his last three. He might be peaking a bit too early, but he may get some attention because he has a record of performance and a lengthy one at that.
Midnight Hawk is fourth with 32 points and the son of Midnight Lute who in 13 starts had six wins, three seconds and one third and earned over $2.9 million. The only concern here is that Lute was known best for sprinting and come Derby time, everybody will be questioning whether the Hawk can get the distance and most will say no and dismiss him.
Albano and Uncle Sigh are tied for fifth with 24 points. Albano is the son of Istan, who was just ordinary with no impressive wins. If Albano shows up at Churchill Downs, don’t expect him to have a truckload of fans rooting for him. Uncle Sigh has two impressive second place finishes at Aqueduct in the Withers and the Gotham, but he too, is a New York bred, and we covered New York breds with Samraat. He is the son of Indian Charlie, who has been a good sire, but only made five career starts. He did win the Santa Anita Derby in preparation for the Kentucky Derby where he finished a disappointing eighth.
There is still a long way to go before the Kentucky Derby; in fact round one still has two weeks remaining. On March 29, round two begins with the 100 point races, starting with the Florida Derby. The top five point getters are all nice horses and they’ve earned their status by going out and performing on the race track. None of the top five scare anybody but that can certainly change. If Samraat goes out and blows the field away in the Wood Memorial, than his bandwagon will grow. Based on pedigree, all of these horses have question marks. But, remember, these horses are still three years old; in fact, some technically haven’t turned three yet, so they’re still babies. Will Take Charge came into the Derby with high hopes but ran poorly in all three Triple Crown races before finding himself over the summer. He will someday sire and many will look at his poor performance in the Derby and dismiss his offspring. But, those in the know will realize that he was a very good horse.
It’s still early but as Yogi Berra once said it gets late early. Before you blink the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial and the Louisiana Derby will be here and gone and then the frenzy will really begin.