Racing Roundtable: Derby and Oaks prep review and Dubai World Cup

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TwinSpires Staff

March 28th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson review the leading events of the past weekend from Dubai, New Orleans, Kentucky, and elsewhere in this week's Racing Roundtable.

How would you rank the weekend's four Kentucky Derby (G1) preps?

James Scully: I'll start with the Louisiana Derby (G2), as unbeaten Kingsbarns has something going for him following a wire-to-wire victory. The Todd Pletcher-trained Uncle Mo colt doesn't need the lead, winning his first two from just off the pace, but Kingsbarns displayed fine gate speed to make a clear advantage in his stakes debut Saturday. And that versatility looks beneficial considering the now-sidelined Arabian Knight had been the only horse to win a Kentucky Derby qualifier wire-to-wire since Jan. 2.

Two Phil's tuned up with a sharp score over Turfway Park's Tapeta in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), elevating his Kentucky Derby stock in the process. The UAE Derby (G2) is poised to produce three Japanese contestants, but it's difficult to get excited about international runners making their first U.S. start in the Kentucky Derby. Sunland Derby (G3) winner Wild On Ice will be up against it next time.

Kellie Reilly: The Louisiana Derby should be the most significant since it showcased the strongest field, in terms of overall depth, and produced at least two proper Kentucky Derby threats. Kingsbarns carved out a dream trip for himself, but as his first two starts demonstrated, he's got poise and tactical versatility. In other words, he can make his own luck. Runner-up Disarm, the only one to make a show of it from off the pace, has long looked like a smart prospect himself, and even the subpar favorite, Instant Coffee, could bounce back.

I'd rate the UAE Derby next because Derma Sotogake pulled a similar coup, after never having led in his prior starts. Winners at Meydan haven't backed it up at Churchill, and his margin over Dura Erede and Continuar was likely exaggerated by the circumstances. Still, the Japanese cannot be underestimated.

In the Jeff Ruby Steaks, Two Phil's was sensational, but he moved up markedly on the Tapeta. He hasn't finished his races like that on a fast dirt track. A rainy Derby Day, however, would help him a lot. The weakest of the four preps was the Sunland Park Derby, both on paper and how it panned out, with the $72.80 Wild on Ice orchestrating a more than 20-length form turnaround.

Vance Hanson: I'd put the Sunland Park Derby as the least meaningful of the quartet, followed by the UAE Derby, which hasn't yet made a significant impact on the result of a Kentucky Derby itself since its inauguration in 2000.

Two Phil's' win in the Jeff Ruby appeared one of the more convincing performances so far during the prep season, but is it really a surprise that a son of Hard Spun distinguished himself over a synthetic surface? I'd upgrade his chances on Derby Day itself if the track is off, but believe his fast dirt form from Fair Grounds over the winter leaves him with some to find still.

That leaves us with Louisiana Derby winner Kingsbarns, who passed the eye test and appears as if he can be a long-term player in the division. However, I'm still suspect about his Kentucky Derby hopes, given he's had only three starts (with no juvenile foundation) and worked out an ideal front-end trip in a totally paceless race at Fair Grounds. I'm open to having my mind changed about him, depending on the final composition of the Derby field, but I'm taking a cautious view of all of the weekend's prep winners. I was perhaps most taken by Louisiana Derby runner-up Disarm, who will need to improve a bit more to contend at Churchill Downs, but who figures to be sitting on a peak performance in the third start of his form cycle.

What does the Kentucky Oaks (G1) picture look like now?

JS: The Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) failed to provide clarity, as favored Hoosier Philly weakened badly to fourth and Rachel Alexandra (G2) winner Pretty Mischievous finished a non-threatening second. Southlawn, who earned her first stakes win with a rallying 3 1/4-length score at Fair Grounds, rates as an up-and-coming filly for Norm Casse, and Botanical can't be dismissed following her fourth straight win in the Bourbonette Oaks. But look for more developments the next two weekends as top Kentucky Oaks contenders Occult, Punchbowl, and Wet Paint have their final preps.

KR: The three-year-old filly division is still in desperate search of a leader, and at this point, anyone could jump up in the final few preps. Southlawn put herself into the discussion with an emphatic victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and she's a different filly since her corrective throat procedure (as reported by Daily Racing Form). Yet in a continuation of the pattern throughout the Oaks preps, her time yielded a modest 88 Brisnet Speed rating. Botanical has blossomed all winter at Turfway Park, culminating in the Bourbonette Oaks, and her pedigree points to dirt ability. Still, the fact that Brad Cox hasn't tried her on dirt leaves at least a scruple going into the Kentucky Oaks. At Sunland, Flying Connection was fast with pressure early and weary late, suggesting that she doesn't want 1 1/8 miles at Churchill. Her dam was a brilliant sprinter, and I think her top form is likely to come around one turn too.

VH: Still messy. A new, legitimate Oaks contender emerged when Southlawn won for fun in the Fair Grounds Oaks. I'm still not taken with the clockings that group down in New Orleans have been putting up, though the division as a whole hasn't been especially fast. Pretty Mischievous regressed some off of her Rachel Alexandra win and is capable of better, though she might still prove an underlay in the Kentucky Oaks itself. Botanical has stylishly won all winter at Turfway, albeit against lesser company, and her ability on dirt remains unknown. Thankfully, there are a couple more weeks of Oaks preps left to come, but in my mind the division remains rather muddled.

Thoughts from Dubai World Cup night?

JS: Japanese horses made quite the impact, recording wins in three major events, including Ushba Tesoro's last-to-first triumph in the Dubai World Cup (G1), and Equinox's dynamic wire-to-wire romp in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) yielded a thrill. I also enjoyed watching Frankie Dettori guide Lord North to a third consecutive win in the Dubai Turf (G1).

KR: Japan had another blockbuster showing at an international festival, as has become customary, with Derma Sotogake just the warm-up act. Horse of the Year Equinox took his exceptional game on the road in the Dubai Sheema Classic, obliterating Mishriff's course record in nonchalant fashion. Let's hope that connections stick to the idea of pursuing the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). Ushba Tesoro confirmed himself as a real dirt heavyweight in the Dubai World Cup. While the ferocious pace played to his strengths, he's no clunk-up type. He'd be a fascinating player in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), which is definitely on the agenda for Emblem Road. Last year's Saudi Cup (G1) shocker was a flying, if troubled, third in the World Cup, and with a clearer passage, he would have been nearer to the winner.

Japan was arguably unlucky not to have four winners on the night. Danon Beluga, too far back and in traffic, exploded into second in the Dubai Turf. But his misfortune was the backdrop to the sentimental story of the evening, with Frankie Dettori steering Lord North to an historic three-peat.

VH: Will join the chorus regarding Japanese superstar Equinox, and I thought Westover ran a fine race to be second in the Sheema Classic despite not being in the winner's class. He has the potential to be a strong player in Europe's leading middle-distance events this season. With so little U.S. participation, I found the World Cup race itself underwhelming. With most of the world's focus on grass racing, the World Cup's appeal is arguably only as strong and deep as the U.S. contingent, so this year's renewal is unlikely to be remembered as one of its best.