The $900,000 Sunland Derby, established in 2003 as the WinStar Derby, took a while to be recognized as a legitimate Kentucky Derby (GI) prep race and, while no winner of the race has triumphed under the Twin Spires, Mine That Bird won the roses in 2009 after finishing fourth in Sunland Park’s richest and most recognized stakes race and Firing Line was second to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 after winning the race.
Last year Calumet Farm’s Hence was the winner in New Mexico before finishing 11th in the Run for the Roses and then winning the Iowa Derby (GIII). Also in last year’s race was fan favorite, one-eyed runner Patch and the ill-fated multiple stakes winner Irap. And aside from Firing Line, perhaps the most well-known runner to come out of the race is Thor’s Echo, who won the Sunland Derby in 2003 before continuing his career mostly around one turn, winning the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI) and the Eclipse Award as that year’s top sprinter.
This year a full field of 12 will line up and face the starter before racing nine furlongs in search of the 50 Kentucky Derby points awarded to the winner, which will be very close to enough to make the Derby starting gate.
The weather in Sunland Park, NM, on Sunday is expected to be mostly cloudy but warm, with highs in the low- to mid-80s. Rain isn’t in the forecast, so expect a fast track by the race’s 5:15 CT post time, which will go off as the day’s 11th.
The lukewarm early favorite, All Out Blitz, will lead the field to post in his first start since a third-place finish to Kanthaka and Nero in the San Vicente Stakes (GII) at Santa Antia six weeks ago. This Simon Callaghan-trained son of Concord Point’s claim to fame, though, is his solid second-place finish to Grade 1 winner McKinzie in the one-mile Sham Stakes (GIII) back in early January, where he earned a huge 99 Brisnet speed figure. He’s been training well, including a nice bullet five furlongs last week and while the post isn’t ideal for a frontrunner, he will no doubt be gunning to the front under Martin Garcia, who is back from New York and riding the Kaleem Shah homebred for the first time since his fifth-place debut last October.
WinStar Farm and China Horse Club’s very expensive ($750,000 yearling) and well-bred New York Central (Tapit—Fashion Cat) makes his stakes debut for Steve Asmussen, who saddled the winner of this race last year and in 2012 (Daddy Nose Best.) He looked great winning a muddy allowance race at Oaklawn last month and has improved with each start. He’s surely bred to handle the distance and is in capable hands, and having Asmussen’s go-to jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. aboard won’t hurt. His numbers are solid and he should get his preferred trip just behind the pace. If he can handle the jump in competition he’ll be tough.
Hollywood Star is one of two for trainer Dale Romans and the son of top sire Malibu Moon and the Grade 1-winning Hollywood Story (by Wild Rush) enters trying to turn things around after two unsuccessful forays into graded stakes company in his last two. He probably needed his last, which was a fourth-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) at Tampa six weeks ago after a length break following a pretty decent sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) back on Nov. 5. He’s bred well and has shown talent in two second-place graded stakes finishes as a juvenile and he’ll certainly get the pace to run at from his preferred early position way back. He has numbers and has been training well at Gulfstream Park, so he may be rounding into form at the right time.
California Derby winner Choo Choo ships in for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer after finishing fifth behind the talented filly Paved in the El Camino Real Derby last month. He’s posted some strong figures over his seven-race career and has been training well all winter at Santa Anita. While he seems to have a synthetic/turf-type pedigree and has raced almost exclusively over those surfaces he hasn’t picked the toughest spot to return to dirt. If he runs to his last, even though it was an off-the-board finish, he’s dangerous for a win here under two-time Derby-winning jockey Mario Gutierrez.
Alecia, Burns and Ciaglia Racing’s Dark Vader hasn’t raced since a well-beaten third in the Bob Lewis Stakes (GII) Stakes nearly seven weeks ago. His maiden score was impressive and he’s been training exceptionally well for Pete Eurton since, and it doesn’t hurt to have veteran and Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Steward Elliott back aboard. He’ll probably stalk the pacesetters in the early going and hope they run out of gas as they turn for home.
Runaway Ghost is a stakes winner over this track and is the best local hope for a win. He earned a huge 100 speed figure for his second-place finish in the Mine That Bird Derby last out as a prep for this race. He’s only finished worse than second once in his career for owner/breeder Joe Peacock and he’s done well for trainer Todd Fincher since shipping from California late last year. He’s bred for the strechout and will be part of the early pace scenario since he’s a legitimate stalker, and he may be a bit of a sleeper in a field loaded with big-money shippers.
Peace looked good breaking his maiden around two turns back in late December, but has fallen flat in two graded stakes since. He has some awesome connections in owners Spendthrift Farm and Town and Country Farm, as well as Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, but if he wants to continue on the road to the Kentucky Derby he’ll need to show the talent they all believe he has.
Dream Baby Dream doesn’t win too often, but he is nothing if not consistent and has earned some solid numbers in the speed, pace and class departments. He has four third-place finishes, including his last three in allowance/optional claiming company, and if he can show even a little improvement, Asmussen’s “other” runner may be the one to get the conditioner his third win in this event. He picks up blinkers, so will probably closer to the early pace, and picks up local top jockey Alfredo Juarez Jr. for the effort.
Well-bred Shane Zain ships in off a poor showing in his first start against winners (behind New York Central) after breaking his maiden at Oaklawn Park two back. Trainer Doug O’Neill has won the Derby twice so he knows how to get them ready, but overall this well-bred son of Medaglia D’Oro has shown he’s a cut below the best here.
Seven Trumpets is Romans’ other runner and after running second to grade 1 winner Firenze Fire in a very slow Jerome Stakes (to be fair, the Aqueduct track was very heavy that day) he came back with a poor showing to finish a well-beaten seventh in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) a month ago. He’s kind of a confusing type in that he’s show promise against good horses, but has also flopped against good horses. He’s probably a good candidate for a paddock inspection.
Pennsylvania-bred Prince Lucky makes his first start for Todd Pletcher after the Daniel McConnell homebred raced five times in the care of Larry Jones, posting three wins. He was well-beaten in his last, a seventh-place finish in the LeComte Stakes in January at Fair Grounds in his first graded stakes start. Maybe Pletcher can work his Derby Trail magic and it bodes well John Velazquez will be in town to ride, but he has to improve a lot against tougher company to be a factor.
Fortified Effort is a decent Arizona-based stakes runner and makes his graded debut here. He’s talented and consistent, but this task may be too tough considering the competition.