Anticipation runs high as major preps begin

Profile Picture: James Scully

March 25th, 2015

The final round of major preps kicks off this Saturday with the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby and U.A.E. Derby, and there are a number of interesting storylines to follow.

Upstart turned in one of the year’s best performances when capturing the January 24 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park by 5 ½ widening lengths. Trainer Richard Violette Jr. practically guaranteed a regression in his next outing, the February 21 Fountain of Youth, because it was unrealistic to expect Upstart to keep moving forward in every start leading up to the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

Sure enough, the New York-bred ridgling took a step back, with his BRIS Speed ratings dropping from a 105 (Holy Bull) to a 95 as he wound up being disqualified for interference in deep stretch.

Violette, as well as many racing observers, are expecting Upstart to rebound with his best in the Florida Derby and the sophomore figures to be a solid favorite. I’ve had him rated in my top 5 all year and am looking for a big effort, but there are no guarantees that Upstart can run back to his previous sterling form while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles.

Todd Pletcher will send out a pair of unbeaten and lightly-raced challengers, Itsaknockout and Materiality. Both will be looking for a breakout performance that stamps them as a legitimate win contender on the first Saturday in May. And Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Ami’s Flatter will provide a better context upon the competition that the highly-rated Carpe Diem was facing last time.

International Star was not well-regarded entering 2015, overlooked at 9-1 when capturing January’s Lecomte at Fair Grounds. He came back a month later to capture the Risen Star as the 7-2 third choice and will be seeking a sweep of the three-year-old graded stakes at the New Orleans oval in the Louisiana Derby.

Added pressure surrounds the probable favorite, who cut the corner with a rallying move up the rail in both the Lecomte and Risen Star, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether International Star has more to offer for trainer Mike Maker. A victory Saturday will also put Ken Ramsey in the spotlight as the two-time reigning Eclipse Award-winning owner seeks his first Kentucky Derby trophy.

That angle will get plenty of notice should International Star proceed to Churchill Downs as a serious contender – longtime owners such as the Phipps (2013), Roy & Gretchen Jackson (2006), Bob & Beverly Lewis (1997), W.T. Young (1996) and Frances Genter (1990) were celebrated for finally achieving Kentucky Derby success and the 79-year-old Ramsey would be another addition along that sentimental journey.

We’ll be watching to see whether War Story can finally turn the tables following runner-up efforts in the Lecomte and Risen Star, and the late-running Keen Ice will look to enhance his credentials for Dale Romans, who has recorded a pair of top three Kentucky Derby finishes in the last five years. Mr. Z is also highly intriguing as the seven-time stakes-placed colt removes blinkers for four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas.

Pletcher has the numbers to be represented in most major prep races and will send Stanford for the Louisiana Derby. But considering the colt’s disappointing showing in the 1 1/8-mile Islamorada at Gulfstream on March 6, along with his only wins coming at six furlongs or less, Stanford would undermine the credibility of the Fair Grounds’ three-year-old division with a victory.

My attention will be focused upon Mubtaahij in the U.A.E. Derby. Unplaced in a pair of turf starts last year, the Godolphin colorbearer became a different horse when switching to the dirt track at Meydan this winter, reeling off three wins and a head second from four attempts.

The son of Dubawi delivered his best performance yet in the March 7 Al Bastakiya, a convincing 2 ½-length victory over the well-regarded Sir Percy, and he’ll be pointed to the Kentucky Derby with another strong showing on Saturday.

This weekend also features the fourth and final Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which opens Friday at noon (ET) and closes Sunday at 6 p.m.

I believe the West Coast-based division is much deeper than its counterparts, with American Pharoah and Dortmund the likely one-two betting choices among individual interests this weekend, and will look to get some action on a couple of runners who should be overlooked in advance of the April 4 Santa Anita Derby, Bolo and Prospect Park.

Upstart photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese Photography