By Mike Farrell
We are on track for one heck of a Kentucky Derby.
We make that claim based on what has transpired in the prep races. Of course, a lot will happen between now and May 1. Injuries, illness, and poor performances in the remaining contests before Derby Day can drastically alter the lineup.
If we cross our fingers, and knock on the wooden barn door, the upcoming Derby could be a memorable showdown headlined by Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Greatest Honour, undefeated Juvenile champion Essential Quality and the freakishly talented Life Is Good. Add in a solid supporting cast that includes Mandaloun and Medina Spirit and you could have a terrific Derby.
Last Saturday brought three fascinating results that exposed some pretenders while affirming Life Is Good as the genuine article.
It was bombs-away in the first two as longshot players danced a merry jig when Weyburn took the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct at 46-1 followed in short order by Helium scoring at 15-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).
Giant Killer Jr. wins the Gotham
It was an upset for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, the son of legendary “Giant Killer” Allen Jerkens, in the Gotham. His daddy would be proud.
Weyburn, his development hampered by illness and a foot bruise, stepped from a maiden win in December at the Big A into the Triple Crown spotlight. He was dead game in the lane, refusing to yield to the relentless stretch pressure from Crowded Trade.
“He was really aggressive, and he had a lot of fight in him,” said winning rider Trevor McCarthy.
The next logical spot for Weyburn is the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct on April 3 where he might again face the Chad Brown-trained duo of Crowded Trade and Highly Motivated, the 9-10 favorite, who ran 2-3 in the Gotham.
Freedom Fighter made a wasted trip from California for the Gotham. The 2-1 second choice proved he cannot carry his speed beyond 7 furlongs and will likely be pointed to the 3-year-old sprint stakes.
Capo Kane, the winter hero at the Big A with his win in the Jerome Stakes and a game third in the Withers (G3), clearly needs softer competition.
Up, up, and away for Helium
Down on Florida’s west coast, Helium made his season debut, and first start on dirt, after posting a pair of wins on the synthetic at Woodbine. He took command with a looping sweep on the second turn and held off the late challenge from Hidden Stash.
We’ll be looking to see him confirm that decisive burst, but for now he looks like a player moving forward for trainer Mark Casse.
The victory had an old-time Monmouth Park feel with Jose C. Ferrer in the saddle for Leonard Green’s D J Stable.
The biggest bust: Candy Man Rocket, winner of the Sam F. Davis (G3) and the 8-5 favorite. He beat only one runner in the 12-horse field.
Neither Weyburn nor Helium were nominated to the Triple Crown prior to Saturday. Look for that oversight to be quickly corrected.
Back to form in the San Felipe (G2)
You couldn’t blame Bob Baffert for feeling some anxiety heading into the San Felipe after watching upsets unfold in the Gotham and Tampa Bay Derby.
On a day when form was shredding, Baffert was saddling the heaviest favorite of all in Life Is Good.
Not to worry. Baffert had the ace in the hole as the 1-2 choice was shockingly brilliant. Bounding away from the starting gate with Mike Smith aboard, the aptly named Life Is Good took off and was never challenged, leaving the competition choking in his dust.
For those who like to pick the nits, you could knock the fact that Like Is Good drifted out toward the grandstand in deep stretch, or the fact that the competition wasn’t all that tough.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Brilliant raw talent can conquer all.
“This horse is like that Muhammad Ali song. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee,” Smith said.
Stablemate Medina Spirit got second over Dream Shake who stepped up from a maiden sprint victory to prove he can handle two turns.
A light week ahead
The Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Saturday is the only major 3-year-old stakes on the immediate horizon. The race will be the season debut for Keepmeinmind, the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) following a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
Other candidates include Caddo River, the 10 ¼-length winner of the Smarty Jones Stakes; Big Lake, winner of two in a row at the Fair Grounds; Concert Tour, winner of the San Vincente (G2) for Baffert; Nova Rags; O Besos; Starrininmydreams and Super Stock.