Catching My Eye: Fair Grounds' Road to the Derby Kickoff Day

Profile Picture: Kevin Kilroy

December 28th, 2022

Fair Grounds’ “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” is all about the two-year-olds. The nine-stakes card features four stakes for two-year-olds: the Gun Runner, the Untapable, the Sugar Bowl, and the Letellier. Who out of these races might we see the first weekend in May? 

Three out of the last four Kentucky Derby winners come through Fair Grounds, and both Epicenter and Rich Strike, the Kentucky Derby 148 exacta, ran in last year’s Gun Runner Stakes. There’s good reason to believe many of the top contenders on May 6, 2023 will have run in either the Gun Runner, the Sugar Bowl, the Lecomte, The Risen Star, or the Louisiana Derby. Who could be next year’s Epicenter and Rich Strike?

Let’s start with a measuring stick of sorts to get a feel for how good the juveniles did compared to Epicenter and Rich Strike. Rich Strike finished fifth and ran a 74 Brisnet Speed figure (all figures are Brisnet), so the real ruler we’ll use is the speed and pace figures from Epicenter who won the race earning a 90 speed figure, with pacelines of 94 (early pace 1), 92 (early pace 2), and a late pace figure of 87.  

Brad Cox’s barn is stacked with talented two-year-olds, and after saddling the winner of both the Gun Runner (1 1/16 miles) and the Sugar Bowl (6 furlongs) on Monday, I would take the over on whether he’ll enter more in Ky Derby 149 than the three runners he had in 148 (Cyberknife, Zozos, Tawny Port). 

Jace’s Road won the Gun Runner, fending off the likes of Determinedly from Brendan Walsh’s barn, Hayes Strike from Kenny McPeek, and the buzz-worthy longshot from Ben Colebrook’s barn, Raise Cain, among others. Jace's Road set the pace and had more than enough in the tank at the end to win by open lengths. 

How do Jace’s Road figures stack up to Epicenter? Flattering to say the least. The son of Quality Road ran a 96 speed figure and a paceline of 94, 103, and 86. Better than Epicenter.

Yes he had racing luck on his side with Determinedly stumbling out of the gate. The odds-on favorite recovered to apply some pressure, but Jace’s Road kept him chasing throughout, and the Cox trainee galloped out well showing me the Classic distance will not be a problem.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but the runner who finished behind Jace’s Road that could be the next Rich Strike is Raise Cain. The son of Violence looked fantastic in his first time going long, closing with authority to beat out Determinedly for second and earning a 90 speed figure with a paceline of 90, 96, 82. Very similar to Epicenter.

In the Sugar Bowl it was Corona Bolt. By Bolt d’Oro out of the Quiet American mare Stormbeforethecalm, Corona Bolt should be able to get two turns, and Cox said after the race he intends to try him going long sooner rather than later. The plan was to let the race shape up as it did, not to get to the lead, but Corona Bolt’s natural speed that put him on the lead. He ran a 99 speed figure. Huge, and it was just his second start.

One other runner to add to your Derby radar is Distorted Pro. The other Cox horse in the Sugar Bowl finished second to Corona Bolt but was threatening to pass him before Geroux shut off the lane on the rail. Still, the son of Distorted Humor out of the Touch Gold mare Pro Pink galloped out past Corona Bolt, possibly earning the right to try two turns even though his 88 speed figure pales in comparison to Corona’s 99.  Touch Gold won the 1997 Belmont and Haskell, and maybe Distorted Pro has a similar ability around two turns.

However, the colt I am ready to place a Derby future wager on didn’t run in either the Gun Runner or the Sugar Bowl. He ran in a maiden special weight on the undercard. 

In his second start for trainer Brendan Walsh, the Godolphin-homebred Banishing beat a field of 12 in Race 7 on Monday. Beat them to the lead, and humbled them down the homestretch to win by 8 1/2 lengths. At 20-1 on debut at Churchill Downs, he did the splits as the gates opened, got stuck wide and finished fourth, earning a 78 Brinset speed figure. On Monday, the word was out about the son of Ghostzapper and he was bet down to 2-1, glided out of the gate to the lead, took pressure from Notion and Amanwalksintoabar, but put those foes to bed before pouring it on late to earn a 96 Brisnet Speed figure. 

Ghostzapper has produced some impressive runners: Shaman Ghost, Mystic Guide, Goodnight Olive, Judy the Beauty, Moira, and Moreno to name a few. Both Moreno and Mystic Guide were out of A.P. Indy mares, as is Banishing, who is out of Dowager. Walsh has trained two other of her five foals.

Physically Banishing is still coming into himself, but he looked stronger and more coordinated than on debut. As he continues to put on weight, his long legged stride and smooth glide will continue to serve him on the road to the Kentucky Derby.