Early look at Kentucky Derby contenders after the conclusion of Prep Season

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 19th, 2016

The Kentucky Derby prep season concluded Saturday, with the Arkansas Derby (G1) guaranteeing the top three finishers – Creator, Suddenbreakingnews and Whitmore – a spot in a projected 20-horse field.

I’ll provide some early thoughts on the contenders, with the horses listed below by points:

GUN RUNNER (151 points): After opening 2016 with a diminishing half-length victory in the Risen Star (G2), Candy Ride colt improved with a convincing 4 ½-length tally in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Gun Runner will need to keep moving forward against deeper competition than he was facing at Fair Grounds, but the potential exists for the athletic 3-year-old. I like the acceleration he’s offered off the far turn in both starts this year, displaying a turn of foot that figures to serve him well in a bulky 20-horse field, and Gin Runner returned quickly to the worktab for Steve Asmussen, recording three workouts already under the Twin Spires since the March 26 Louisiana Derby. He owns the top last-race BRIS Speed rating (104) in the Kentucky Derby and will try to become the second recent winner off a six-week freshening (Animal Kingdom did the same in 2011).

NYQUIST (130): Unbeaten juvenile champion emits an aura of class – Nyquist will be an overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite – and brings a toughness factor to the equation that is easy to appreciate. An authoritative winner of the Florida Derby (G1), he has not allowed horses to pass him at any stage in seven previous starts and overcame a wide trip on both turns to prove much best in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). The Uncle Mo colt possesses plenty of speed but is versatile, rallying from sixth in the Juvenile, and trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez captured the 2012 Derby with I’ll Have Another. The 1 ¼-mile distance is the only serious question given his pedigree and light schedule (only a single two-turn prep this year), but Nyquist could be cut from the same cloth of a Big Brown or California Chrome, who simply overwhelmed the competition with their talent on the first Saturday in May.

EXAGGERATOR (126): He’s the only Kentucky Derby horse to record triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings in his last four starts, capped by a 103 for an outstanding 6 ¼-length tally in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), and the Curlin colt has been competing in the toughest prep region on the West Coast. Connections changed Exaggerator’s run style two starts back, adopting a one-run approach, and while his late kick didn’t pay immediate dividends when third in the San Felipe (G2), he utilized the change in tactics to perfection last time. What role a wet track in the Santa Anita Derby played remains a legitimate question, but I expect Exaggerator to launch a big move on the Kentucky Derby far turn regardless of conditions. And that’s where the race is won for stalkers and late runners. Exaggerator will bring positive momentum to Churchill Downs.

OUTWORK (120): Wood Memorial (G1) winner will carry his speed as far as he can on Derby Day. Lightly-raced colt didn’t make his two-turn or stakes debut until the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby (G2), finishing a respectable second to stablemate Destin, and displayed excellent grit withstanding a serious late bid in the Wood. By sensational young sire Uncle Mo, Outwork figures to receiving a nice dose of stamina from his dam, a daughter of Empire Maker, and the Todd Pletcher trainee remains eligible to develop into a leading member of his division. Whether he’ll be good enough on May 7 is the big question – Outwork was all-out to defeat a maiden in the Wood and his career-best 96 BRIS Speed rating isn’t encouraging – but speed can be a dangerous attribute on Derby Day for an improving 3-year-old (War Emblem, a 20-1 wire-to-wire winner of the 2004 Derby, serves as a perfect example).

BRODY’S CAUSE (114): After opening 2016 with a Tampa Bay Derby clunker, Brody’s Cause rebounded stylishly in the Blue Grass (G1), offering a sensational move on the far turn to reach the front by midstretch in a comfortable 1 ¾-length victory. His late kick could continue to play favorably at Churchill Downs, where the Giant’s Causeway colt broke his maiden, and it would be foolish to eliminate him from exotics consideration. But Brody’s Cause will need to up his game from a Speed-figure perspective, registering only a 94 last time (with a career-best 95 BRIS Speed rating to his credit). And his affinity for Keeneland – he ran big over the Lexington, Kentucky oval when capturing the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and posting a rallying third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall – is another factor for handicappers to consider when assessing the win chances of the Dale Romans charge.

CREATOR (110): Tapit colt needed some time before discovering his best form, breaking his maiden in the sixth career start in late February, and Creator has made tremendous strides this spring for Asmussen. He jumped straight to stakes company with a rallying third in the Rebel (G2) before easily proving best in the Arkansas Derby, registering his first triple-digit BRIS Speed rating (100) for the 1 ¼-length decision. Creator will need to keep improving while stepping up in class on Derby Day, but I’m viewing him as an intriguing prospect.

LANI (100): Japanese-based colt earned a Kentucky Derby berth with a victory in the U.A.E. Derby (G2), defeating the filly Polar River by about a length, and his pedigree (by Tapit and out of a mare by dual classic winner Sunday Silence) appears well-suited to the 1 ¼-mile distance. The disappointing eighth-place performance last year by well-regarded U.A.E. Derby winner Mubtaahij will dissuade bettors and the competition gets much steeper in the Kentucky Derby, but Lani is 2-for-2 on fast tracks overseas. And it’s difficult to get an accurate gauge on his overall talent

MOR SPIRIT (84): A juvenile Grade 1 winner, Mor Spirit opened 2016 with a victory in the Robert Lewis (G3) before recording a pair of non-threatening seconds in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Those were respectable performances in tough prep races and the Eskendreya ridgling didn’t appear all-out either time, with three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens waiting until the stretch drive to ask his mount. His connections came away extremely pleased – winning wasn’t important as they try to build toward a peak performance on May 7 – and Mor Spirit is in good hands with four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert. The grinder won’t wow observers with an eye-catching turn of foot, but Mor Spirit possesses good tactical speed and is a candidate to parlay a midpack trip into a strong finish.

MOHAYMEN (80): After opening his career with five straight wins, Tapit colt was favored at 4-5 over Nyquist in the Florida Derby and the question now is whether Mohaymen can rebound from a disappointing fourth-place effort. A wet track and wide trip may have conspired against him last time, but class concerns exist for the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee considering most of the horses he’s beaten haven’t panned out as quality 3-year-olds. The 1 ¼-mile trip in a 20-horse field represents another daunting challenge for the lightly-framed sophomore, but Mohaymen remains eligible to receive a favorable trip with his tactical speed and his BRIS Speed ratings (a pair of 102s) are among the best in the field.

DANZING CANDY (60): One of two confirmed front-runners along with Outwork, Danzing Candy appeared poised to be one of the top betting choices following an outstanding two-length score in the San Felipe that netted him a 104 BRIS Speed rating. However, perceptions changed after he ran off in the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby, going way too fast on a clear lead before weakening to finish 13 lengths behind in fourth. We can give the Twirling Candy colt a pass due to the wet conditions, but it’s also fair to ask whether Danzing Candy will be able to settle on the front end of the Kentucky Derby after dealing with a raucous paddock environment and a post parade in front of more than 150,000 people. The Kentucky Derby is a difficult spot to rebound for a 3-year-old displaying immature behavior and trainer Cliff Sise Jr. has never had a Kentucky Derby starter. Danzing Candy may be one of the more talented members of the field, but mixed signals surround his chances.

DESTIN (51): After starting his season with a well-beaten fourth in the Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds, the Giant’s Causeway colt came on strong at Tampa Bay Downs, recording nice wins in the Sam F. Davis (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby. A full-brother to multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Creative Cause, who finished third in the 2012 Preakness, Destin bypassed a final prep race in favor of an eight-week freshening in advance of the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher can get horses ready off the shelf and Destin has earned a spot among the upper echelon of contenders, but Tampa is a quirky track (it would be preferable to have seen him carry his form elsewhere before the Kentucky Derby) and the gray 3-year-old has never raced past 1 1/16 miles (every winner in modern times had at least one prior start at nine furlongs). Destin still appears to have plenty of upside, but it’s difficult for me to get too excited about a lightly-raced Derby horse who hasn’t started in nearly two months.

SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (50): Suddenbreakingnews utilized a dynamic kick to capture the Southwest (G3) and after a troubled fifth in the Rebel, the Mineshaft gelding closed stoutly for runner-up honors in Arkansas Derby. The Donnie Von Hemel trainee will be one to think about for the bottom of the Derby exotics, but Suddenbreakingnews also promises to leave himself plenty of rivals to pass in the final furlongs. He hasn’t been better than fifth at the stretch call in any starts this year, waiting until he straightens for home to offer his best stride, and that’s a tall order for any deep closer in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

OSCAR NOMINATED (50): Ken Ramsey’s greatest obsession is winning the Kentucky Derby and he nominates a lot of horses to the Triple Crown every year. But the leading owner failed to do so with Oscar Nominated, a turf specialist who was overlooked at 23-1 when switching to Polytrack for the Spiral (G3) at Turfway Park. As a result of the neck upset, the Mike Maker-trained colt will be supplemented for a $100,000 fee and make his first dirt start in the Derby. Ramsey will bring unbridled enthusiasm to any discussion, but it’s impossible for a neutral observer to have faith in Oscar Nominated’s ability to make an impact.

SHAGAF (50): Bernardini colt turned heads with a good-looking debut win at Aqueduct last November, but Shagaf hasn’t run fast enough in three starts this season to be considered a viable win contender. He deserves credit for overcoming an inside bias in the stretch drive of a game Gotham (G3) win two starts back but despite a favorable wet-track pedigree, Shagaf had nothing left for the latter stages of the Wood Memorial last time, finishing a non-threatening fifth. I’ll look for more from the Chad Brown runner later this season.

WHITMORE (44): Chestnut has shown a willingness to grab part, finishing more than a length back as he’s placed in the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby in succession, and Whitmore hasn’t had the cleanest trip in any of those starts. Putting it all together in a 20-horse Derby field won’t be easy, and Whitmore has never earned a BRIS Speed rating better than 97, but the hard-trying Ron Moquett-trained gelding can’t be eliminated from exotics consideration.

TOM’S READY (44): A non-threatening second in the Lecomte and Louisiana Derby, the late-running Tom’s Ready has drawn comparisons to the last two starters from trainer Dallas Stewart, Golden Soul and Commanding Curve, who both managed to finish second at long odds in the Kentucky Derby. There’s no guarantee Tom’s Ready will show up with a similar performance, and his lower Speed ratings rate as a legitimate concern along with the class hike facing him, but I like the way Tom’s Ready has passed horses on the far turn in the aforementioned placings. He’s one of many to consider for a minor award.

MY MAN SAM (40): Maiden winner gave a fine account of himself in the stakes debut, rallying boldly through the stretch to finish second in the Blue Grass, but it’s difficult to win the Kentucky Derby off only a single stakes start. And despite a trio of commendable performances at two turns, his pedigree threatens to catch up to him at 1 ¼ miles as a son of the speedy Trappe Shot. My Man Sam remains eligible to win major races in the future – he’s a very promising 3-year-old for Brown – but the Kentucky Derby may be too much too soon for the inexperienced colt.

MAJESTO (40): The Gustavo Delgado trainee can finish, registering a 109 BRIS Late Pace rating from an impressive maiden tally two starts back, and Majesto jumped straight to the Florida Derby with a runner-up effort. Can’t envision another forward move in the Kentucky Derby – it will be a completely different ballgame for the inexperienced runner -- but the Tiznow colt could be any type later this year with further improvement expected.

TROJAN NATION (40): He obviously took to the slop finishing second in the Wood Memorial, but Trojan Nation’s fast-track form is an eye-sore; the maiden has failed to finish better than third in five starts. A wet track is the only hope he has to factor, but Trojan Nation will likely be overmatched regardless of conditions.

MO TOM (32): Blew the doors off a Lecomte field with a sensational late kick in mid-January, but the Tom Amoss-trained colt was severely compromised by troubled trips in the stretch of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. His BRIS numbers are solid and the son of Uncle Mo rates as a top-three contender on Derby Day, but he’s facing a class hike and it remains to be seen whether Mo Tom can put himself in position to offer a serious challenge turning for home – the deep closer has waited until the conclusion of the far turn before passing horses with earnest in previous starts. Mo Tom risks further traffic issues, as well as having too many rivals to pass in a 20-horse field, if he’s still far back at the midway point of the final bend at Churchill Downs.

FELLOWSHIP (32): Dedicated closer will need one defection to draw into field (21st on the points’ list) but Fellowship hasn’t been a serious factor in any start this year despite finishing third in the Holy Bull (G2), Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby, clunking up for a minor award each time. He’ll be in too tough if he makes the Derby field.

ADVENTIST (32): He’ll need a pair of withdrawals to make the field and similar to Fellowship, Adventist wasn’t a major player finishing third in the Withers (G3), Gotham and Wood Memorial in his last three outings. He probably wants no part of better competition at this stage in his career.