By Ed McNamara
Like the birds, most Triple Crown hopefuls spend the winter in warmer weather. Eight of the past nine first-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby prepped in Florida or Southern California, with 2015 hero American Pharoah the exception.
Authentic (2020), Justify (2018), Nyquist (2016), California Chrome (2014) and I’ll Have Another (2012) were based at Santa Anita, as was Pharoah, who shipped twice to Oaklawn Park. The Florida snowbirds were Maximum Security (disqualified, 2019), Always Dreaming (2017) and Orb (2013), who all won the Florida Derby before heading to Churchill Downs.
The 3-year-old picture will begin to take shape Saturday with a pair of Grade 3, 1 1/16-mile stakes, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. The situation won’t begin to get serious until we get to the longer Derby preps, but it’s a start.
Neither of the Derby Future Wager 2 favorites — Life Is Good (7-1) and Essential Quality (8-1) — will be running when the weeding out of pretenders continues. The winners will stamp themselves as possible players in the classics, and many will embrace them prematurely as “my Derby horse.”
I’ve scored three times with the Derby Future Wager — Monarchos (2001), Orb (2013) and Country House (2019) — and I made my bet on Monarchos in mid-February, two weeks after he won a Gulfstream allowance. I’m not sure what gave me the confidence to do that, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach.
As for Saturday, don’t be too quick to draw conclusions. I’m not looking down the road. I’d just like to cash a few tickets as I did last weekend, when I picked the winners of the Pegasus World Cup Turf (Colonel Liam, $7) and the Pegasus World Cup (Knicks Go, $4.60). Nothing to brag about, considering both were favored, but it’s nice to be right, regardless of the reward.
Let’s see if I can do that again a few times in three races at Gulfstream and in Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis.
$100,000 Forward Gal Stakes (G3), 7 furlongs, 3-year-old fillies
It’s the time of year when Todd Pletcher showcases young horses who could become major players, and Zaajel (7) looks like a candidate. She stalked and closed powerfully to score by 7 1/4 lengths at 7 furlongs in her debut and has a great chance to be 2-for-2. Her main challengers look like Competitive Speed (3) and Lady Traveler (6), who have a serious edge in experience. Each has made four starts, which could make a difference.
Competitive Speed is 2-for-2 at Gulfstream and has won twice at 6 1/2 furlongs. Lady Traveler, trained by Shug McGaughey, ran a solid second to Brad Cox’s talented Coach in a two-turn stakes at Churchill Downs.
$100,000 Sweetest Chant Stakes (G3), mile (turf), 3-year-old fillies
Chad Brown has been quiet this year, and it’s time for him to start winning stakes on the grass. Domain Expertise (6) is on the rise after breaking her maiden wire to wire by four lengths. She also showed the ability to stalk in her debut last summer, when she surged late to fall short by half a length after doing her final three-sixteenths in 29 1/5 seconds.
I like Domain Expertise to win here, but she doesn’t have to. Pletcher’s Con Lima (4) led throughout the mile Ginger Brew over the course, and the runner-up, Honey Pants (2), also has a shot, as does Candace O (3).
$200,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Tiz the Law swept the Holy Bull and Florida Derby before taking the Belmont Stakes, the opener of the pandemic-plagued Triple Crown. There’s nobody in this race with anything close to the 2-year-old credentials he had, which could lead to a nice payoff.
Rarely do you see a graded stakes with two contenders coming off a debut win, but Pletcher’s pair of Amount (4) and Prime Factor (6) each has a legitimate chance. The colt I like best is McGaughey’s 1-for-4 Greatest Honour because he’s the best finisher and has run well twice around two turns. A longshot possibility is Sittin On Go, making his 3-year-old debut for Dale Romans. Sittin On Go (8) was far back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but in a race before that, the mile Iroquois at Churchill, he easily defeated Midnight Bourbon, recent winner of the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds.
$100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
How much you like Medina Spirit (1) depends on your opinion of Life Is Good, his Bob Baffert stablemate who beat him by a diminishing three-quarters of a length Jan. 2 in Santa Anita’s Sham Stakes at a mile.
Medina Spirit gained 3 1/4 lengths in the final quarter, which went in a rather slow 25.97 seconds. Life Is Good had it wrapped up in midstretch, and the finish was reminiscent of last year’s Haskell, in which Authentic barely held off Ny Traffic. It looked as if Life Is Good also was goofing around late, which would mean you should downgrade Medina Spirit’s late move.
Baffert and jockey Mike Smith agreed that Life Is Good lost focus late in his two-turn debut. Baffert: “I could tell that Mike was just cruising out there.” Smith: “He didn’t know what he was doing going twice around, and he got to looking at himself on the big screen in the infield.”
Interpretation: Don’t overvalue Medina Spirit’s late run. Which doesn’t mean he can’t win, and I think he probably will, and at a short price. Who could challenge him? Maybe Hot Rod Charlie (4), the 94-1 shot who finished less than a length behind 2-year-old champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Hot Rod Charlie hasn’t run since, so will he be fully cranked? Probably not. I’m not keen on any of the other six runners, so I’ll just watch the race.