Final works for three alternatives to the Kentucky Derby favorite

Profile Picture: James Scully

May 2nd, 2016

The Kentucky Derby landscape is easy to figure this year: unbeaten 2-year-old champ Nyquist, a convincing winner of the Florida Derby (G1), will be the decided favorite. The race appears up for grabs if Nyquist falters at the 1 1/4-mile distance.

Horseplayers trying to beat the favorite had the opportunity to watch three prospects from the next tier of contenders – Creator, Gun Runner and Mor Spirit – post their final workouts Monday morning at Churchill Downs for the 142nd Kentucky Derby.

To my novice eye, Creator was impressive; the gray colt moves like a beast on the track. I don't know how his late-running style will play in a field packed with closers, and with the potential for a moderate pace, but Creator is one of only three horses to register a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating in his final prep and I'll be using him underneath in vertical wagers and as a back-up on multi-race tickets.

Gun Runner, who along with Exaggerator can also boast a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating from his final prep, looked good to me as well. Winner of the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Risen Star (G2), the sleek chestnut recorded splits in :12.60, :25 & :37 4/5 en route to breezing a half-mile in :50.40. The Louisiana circuit wasn't the strongest for preps, but Gun Runner remains eligible to keep moving forward on Derby Day.

Creator, a maiden winner in late February who will bring improving form into the race following a third in the Rebel (G2) and a 1 1/4-length score in the Arkansas Derby (G1), was credited with splits of :12.40, :25.20 & :38 before completing his move in :50.60.

Gun Runner and Creator are trained by Steve Asmussen, who has finished second and third in previous runnings but will be seeking his first Derby victory. My colleague Ed DeRosa had a piece on Kentucky Derby nerves over the weekend and I've been on the backstretch in previous years when Steve Asmussen has appeared anything but relaxed heading into the race. When it comes to the media, the recently elected Hall of Famer has long had the reputation for not being the easiest person to deal with.

Asmussen's demeanor appears different this year – he seems more relaxed & confident in his horses. Monday's workouts were more maintenance after serious drills a week earlier, when Gun Runner zipped through six furlongs in 1:12.20 and Creator completed five panels in 1:02.40 on April 25, and Asmussen was pleased afterward.

"I think that both horses are in a frame of mind that they're going to run their best," he said.

Asmussen isn't overconfident, making sure to pay tribute to Nyquist, but he clearly believes both 3-year-olds have a big chance.

Mor Spirit's low head-carriage means he isn't the prettiest mover visually, but Grade 1 victor continued to show good early speed while breezing five furlongs in :59.80, posting splits of :12.40, :23.60, :35.40 and :46.80 with a six-furlong gallop out in 1:13.20. I expect him to be more forwardly-placed Saturday than in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and San Felipe (G2).

Trainer Bob Baffert strung together consecutive wins in the 90s and will be seeking his fifth overall Derby victory after capturing the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah. And jockey Gary Stevens adds further expertise, winning three times and finishing second last year with Firing Line. The Hall of Famers are focused upon having Mor Spirit at his best on Saturday.

The atmosphere is much different at the Baffert barn from last year when he was readying a pair of leading contenders, with American Pharoah the prohibitive favorite and unbeaten Dortmund looming large, and the silver-haired conditioner appears glad to be flying under the radar this time around.

Mor Spirit did not thrive finishing a well-beaten second on a sloppy track in the Santa Anita Derby, but he'll receive the fast conditions necessary to perform his best on Derby Day. The Grade 1-winning riddling isn't receiving a lot of respect despite hailing from arguably the toughest prep circuit out west because many observers believe he's only the third-best horse from California after Nyquist and Exaggerator. That may be true at shorter distances or on a wet track, but 1 1/4 miles could be the difference for the son of Eskendereya.

Circumstances were similar in 2012 when Bodemeister and Creative Cause were the most prominent California invaders, but an unheralded I'll Have Another wound up posting a 15-1 upset.

Below are clocker Gary Young's thoughts on the morning activity in Turf Talk: