The top two finishers from the Southwest at Oaklawn Park, Tapiture and Strong Mandate, figure to be heard from again and Bayern emerged as a possible star on the West Coast with a striking allowance victory last week.
The Early Season portion of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" has come to an end and the Championship Series begins this Saturday with the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, each offering a total of 85 points (50-20-10-5 scale).
Both races drew large fields with potential serious Kentucky Derby implications.
I'll review last week's races and take a look at some stats surrounding Kentucky Derby winners since 1990.
I came away impressed with both Tapiture and Strong Mandate in the Southwest. Tapiture proved best in a decisive manner, but Strong Mandate performed better than it looks on a paper after a terrible trip.
Tapiture broke well from post No. 1 and secured forward positioning into the first turn of the 1 1/16-mile Southwest. The pace was surprisingly moderate (:23 2/5, :47 4/5 and 1:13) and despite being to the inside of rivals, Tapiture was kept at least a couple paths off the rail by jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. while traveling comfortably down the backstretch
After being prominent for the opening five-eighths of a mile, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt began to edge away rounding the far turn and entered the stretch drive full of run, accelerating to an overwhelming lead while being pointed toward the middle of the track by Santana.
Tapiture was never threatened while drifting out late, scoring easily by 4 1/4 lengths. I took little stock in him failing to maintain a straight line in the stretch; Santana appeared to be intentionally avoiding the inside paths and wasn't alone as the rest of the jockeys in the Southwest acted more than willing to lose ground rather than race close to the rail.
A son of Tapit, Tapiture was making his first start since convincingly breaking his maiden over stakes rivals, posting a 4 1/4-length decision in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November. Runner-up to subsequent Grade 1 winner Strong Mandate in his career bow at Saratoga, Tapiture went on to finish a close third in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs in his second career start.
His BRIS Speed ratings have increased nicely in each of his last three outings, generating a career-best 99 in the Southwest.
Tapiture appears to have a lot going for him, including an affinity for Churchill Downs, and I won't be surprised to see him prove highly effective at distances up to 1 1/8 miles. But 10 furlongs looks like a significant challenge given his female family. His dam, Free Spin, is by Olympio, who is known as more of a speed influence.
Free Spin never raced past 6 1/2 furlongs in six career starts and Tapiture is a full brother to a pair of stakes winners, Retap and Remit. The former posted all three of his career wins in sprints and the latter was best at distances up to a mile.
Unlike Tapiture, Strong Mandate possesses a mouth-watering pedigree for classic distances. He's by two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow and is out of the multiple Grade 1-winning mare Clear Mandate, a daughter of Deputy Minister who captured a Grade 1 event at 1 1/4 miles by five lengths.
In his first start since a third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Strong Mandate failed to break alertly and was forced to check entering the first turn while at least five or six paths off the rail. His extreme journey continued as he raced ridiculously wide the rest of the way in the Southwest.
After being forced farther out in traffic leaving the first turn, Strong Mandate suddenly took off for the lead with a premature move down the backstretch before being taking in hand by jockey Joel Rosario. He never had the opportunity to settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Even though he came under a strong ride midway on the far turn, Strong Mandate kept trying hard all the way to the finish. He entered the stretch drive a clear second and wound up six lengths ahead of third-placer Ride on Curlin despite tiring noticeably in the end.
Strong Mandate wasn't geared up to beat the winner regardless of trips -- Tapiture was ready to run a big one -- but lost little in defeat. A hard race isn't going to hurt him and trainer D. Wayne Lukas had to view the Southwest as an encouraging effort to build upon.
El Camino Real Derby
Points were up for grabs in Saturday's El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and give the winning Tamarando credit -- the pace was slow and Dance With Fate looked poised to succeed after striking the front in upper stretch. The confirmed late runner overcame all obstacles to post his third career stakes win.
A substitute for unbeaten California Derby winner Exit Stage Left, who was forced out of a planned start due to injury, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Tamarando lagged at the back of the eight-horse field during the opening six furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile event on Tapeta.
He launched his move on the far turn and caught Dance With Fate in deep stretch, posting a half-length victory.
Winner of the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity on Polytrack and the Real Quiet on Hollywood's Cushion Track, Tamarando likes all-weather tracks. But the colt is versatile enough to handle dirt, placing in all three stakes attempts at Santa Anita.
Tamarando registered only a 90 BRIS Speed rating in the El Camino Real Derby and probably doesn't want any part of better competition on dirt. But the California-bred son of Bertrando can earn a lot of money competing against state-bred rivals this year -- the hard-charging closer has finished in the money in all nine starts since making his career debut.
Dance With Fate, an excellent turf allowance winner at Santa Anita in his 2014 bow, recorded a solid effort finishing a clear second and the Florida-bred colt rates as an excellent turf prospect for trainer Peter Eurton.
Bob Baffert has been in this position before. Two years ago, he unveiled Bodemeister in January and the unraced two-year-old went on to nearly steal the "Run for the Roses," finishing a game second to I'll Have Another.
The Hall of Fame conditioner has another talented prospect to get excited about this year in Bayern.
A debut winner on January 4, taking a seven-furlong maiden special weight by 3 1/4 lengths, Bayern enhanced his reputation last Thursday (February 13) with a captivating 15-length triumph in his two-turn bow.
Jockey Gary Stevens guided the dark bay colt to the lead at the break and Bayern received token pressure along the backstretch before reasserting command entering the far turn. He gradually widened the advantage before being asked for run entering the stretch drive, exploding away from the competition before being taken in hand late.
Bayern received an excellent 99 BRIS Speed rating.
Offlee Wild captured the Grade 1 Suburban at 1 1/4 miles and is responsible for 2009 champion two-year-old filly She Be Wild, but he's proven unexceptional at stud and offers little appeal as a Kentucky Derby sire. However, Bayern was the top-selling offspring from his sire last year, commanding $320,000 as a two-year-old in training, and could receive a sturdy dose of stamina from broodmare sire Thunder Gulch, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1995.
Bayern had everything his own way and must prove himself against quality competition with other legitimate speed present, but I thought he delivered a sensational performance and am excited to see him run next time.
Going back to 1990 (last 24 years), let's take a look at Kentucky Derby winners based upon three categories:
1) Last 2 BRIS Speed ratings (most recent/second-to-last)
2) Location of the final two prep races
3) Finishing position in those starts
Derby winner Last 2 Speed Last 2 starts Fin. PositionOrb 97/102 Fla./Fla. 1st/1stI'll Have Another 98/102 Cal./Cal. 1st/1stAnimal Kingdom 97/96 Ky./Fla. 1st/2ndSuper Saver 99/99 Ark./Fla. 2nd/3rdMine That Bird 88/87 N.M../N.M.. 4th/2ndBig Brown 110/102 Fla./Fla. 1st/1stStreet Sense 98/105 Ky./Fla. 2nd/1stBarbaro 104/104 Fla./Fla. 1st/1stGiacomo 100/96 Cal./Cal. 4th/2ndSmarty Jones 105/109 Ark./Ark. 1st/1stFunny Cide 111/103 N.Y./La. 2nd/3rdWar Emblem 109/105 Ill./Ill. 1st/1stMonarchos 108/108 N.Y./Fla. 2nd/1stFusaichi Pegasus 110/103 N.Y./Cal. 1st/1stCharismatic 104/94 Ky./Cal. 1st/4thReal Quiet 107/103 Cal./Cal. 2nd/2ndSilver Charm 102/98 Cal./Cal. 2nd/2ndGrindstone 101/102 Ark./La. 2nd/1stThunder Gulch 98/103 Ky./Fla. 4th/1stGo for Gin 104/105 N.Y./Fla. 2nd/4thSea Hero 96/85 Ky./Fla. 4th/3rdLil E. Tee 102/96 Ark./Ky. 2nd/1stStrike the Gold 109/100 Ky./Fla. 1st/2ndUnbridled 108/101 Ky./Fla. 3rd/1st
BRIS Speed ratings for Kentucky Derby winners aren't what they used to be. With the exception of Sea Hero, every Derby winner earned a triple-digit Speed rating in their final two prep races from 1990-2008, most in the 105-110 range.
The three-year stretch of Mine That Bird-Super Saver-Animal Kingdom eliminated the triple-digit Speed figure barometer for Derby winners. I'll Have Another and Orb restored some semblance, each registering a 102 Speed rating in the penultimate prep, but the last-race numbers (98 and 97) are much lower than many of their predecessors.
Speed ratings are declining, with numbers in the upper 90s/low 100s becoming the new standard. No horse has earned a triple-digit rating in a 2014 Derby scoring race so far.
The top 5 Speed ratings for prep race winners in 2014:
1) Samraat -- 99 (Withers)
2) Tapiture -- 99 (Southwest)
3) Cairo Prince -- 98 (Holy Bull)
4) Candy Boy -- 97 (Robert Lewis)
5) Midnight Hawk -- 95 (Sham)
5) Noble Moon -- 95 (Jerome)
When it comes to regions, Florida dominates the list since 2006, with six of eight Derby winners prepping at Gulfstream Park. I'll Have Another came from California two years ago and the state produced four Derby winners in a row from 1997-2000.
Arkansas and Kentucky are both responsible for two winners in the last 10 years, and Kentucky's influence has definitely waned in recent years. From 1990-95, Kentucky produced five Derby winners and the Blue Grass at Keeneland remains the all-time leading prep race with 23 alumni.
But the installation of Polytrack in 2006 reduced the appeal of the Blue Grass for major Derby contenders. Street Sense is the only Derby winner to race at Keeneland since then, with Animal Kingdom using the Spiral at Turfway as his final prep. Due to the Polytrack, the Blue Grass became more popular for horses with some turf prowess.
Since 1990, states producing a Derby winner (last two starts):
1) Florida -- 12
2) Kentucky -- 8
3) California -- 6
4) Arkansas -- 4
4) New York -- 4
6) Louisiana -- 2
7)) Illinois -- 1
7) New Mexico -- 1
Recording a top-two finish in the final prep race is a common trait but there are exceptions, with Mine That Bird, Giacomo, Thunder Gulch and Sea Hero all turning in relative clunkers with fourth-place efforts. However, don't expect the Derby winner to be third or worse in the last two starts; Sea Hero is the only one in modern times to produce such unfavorable results beforehand.
Ten of the last 24 Derby winners captured their final prep race and nine were second. In the penultimate prep race, 13 Derby winners posted a victory and six finished second.
No Derby winner since Iron Liege (1957) has finished worse than fourth in the final prep.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- Top Billing -- Powerful closer drew tough post (12) for stakes debut in Fountain of Youth; one of two top contenders for 2013 Derby winner McGaughey.
- Cairo Prince -- Holy Bull romper will await the Florida Derby for McLaughlin.
- Honor Code -- McGaughey trainee is back working, targeting the 3/15 Rebel.
- Commissioner -- A.P. Indy colt returned from lengthy layoff to defeat salty allowance field; will try stakes company in Fountain of Youth.
- Bayern -- Unbeaten colt has yet to be tested and could be any kind for Baffert.
- Strong Mandate -- Grade 1 winner returned with a solid second in Southwest; Lukas will tighten the screws moving forward.
- Candy Boy -- Recorded an excellent win in Lewis; Sadler charge heading to Santa Anita Derby next.
- Tapiture -- Asmussen trainee captured Southwest by open lengths and is a Churchill Downs stakes winner.
- Samraat -- New York-bred colt exits sharp victory in Withers; Violette will likely point him toward Wood Memorial.
- Shared Belief -- Two-year-old champ is back in training for Hollendorfer; waiting for gelding's first breeze.