By Gene Kershner
It's that time of the year when we evaluate the current Kentucky Derby contenders Buffalo-style by applying just the right sauce in judging whether each colt is hot, medium or mild on this year's Derby trail.
There are three races remaining in the 50-20-10-5 leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, including this weekend's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. After next weekend's races at Turfway Park and Sunland Park, the final seven races of the Series will offer the top four finishers 100-40-20-10 points, respectively.
Several horses have already fallen off the trail most notably, Top Billing, third place finisher in the Fountain of Youth. Bayern, a top contender from Southern California scratched out of last weekend's San Felipe due to a quarter bruise and it is uncertain whether he will compete in the Santa Anita Derby or at Oaklawn. Shared Belief, owned in part by Jim Rome's Jungle Racing, hasn't recorded a workout since January and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confirmed yesterday that he is off the Derby trail due to foot ailments.
Keeping with our mid-March tradition of looking at the current leaders in the chase for the first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, let's check out the 3-year-old colts that are creating a buzz on the Derby trail. In concert with prior years, the colts will be sorted Buffalo-style: Hot, Medium and Mild.
Hot. Two horses that are gaining steam as the hot horses have had good fortune in New York and Florida, at the Big A and Gulfstream Park, respectively.
Samraat, the son of Noble Causeway out of an Indian Charlie dam, looks to have earned his way into the Derby via his recent win in the Grade 2 Gotham where he defeated rival Uncle Sigh (24 points, t-7th) for the second straight time. Look for him next in the Wood Memorial in early April at Aqueduct. He appears to have the pedigree to capture the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter and has impressed so far in reaching the top of the points standings with 60 points.
Heading down the coastline to sunny Florida, the Holy Bull winner, Cairo Prince appears to be the best of the Gulfstream colts after Top Billing's defection due to injury. He will take on the top two finishers in the Fountain of Youth in two weeks in the Florida Derby. The son of Pioneerof the Nile, the second place finisher to long shot Mine That Bird in the 2009 Derby, still needs valuable Derby points. He sits in 14th place with 14 points for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has never saddled a Derby winner.
Medium. Our medium horses are those colts quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not mesmerizing performances in the Derby prep races to date.
A horse that meets our "medium" category had the perfect trip in winning last weekend's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. California Chrome (50 pts, 5th place), sired by Lucky Pulpit, grabbed the rail and pulled away from contenders Midnight Hawk and Kristo to win easily. His grand sire Pulpit won the Blue Grass and the Fountain of Youth in 1997, finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, so there is some indicators in his bloodlines, although he has his doubters out there due to his damline. A much anticipated matchup with Robert B. Lewis winner Candy Boy awaits him in the Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 5.
We'll see our other medium colt this weekend, who could vault into "hot" territory with a win in the Rebel. Tapiture has earned points in each of his last three races, garnering 22 points in winning the Kentucky Jockey Club and Southwest Stakes and finishing third in the Iroquois. A top four finish should get him enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses. He shares the same grand sire as California Chrome, but was sired by Tapit, winner of the 2004 Wood Memorial, who finished a disappointing 9th in the Derby that same year.
Mild. The horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional spices and seasoning.
Staying completely under the radar is a horse who will be challenging Taptiture this weekend at Oaklawn in the Rebel. Strong Mandate, trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas who stormed back onto the Triple Crown scene last year with Oxbow, is a horse with huge upside if he stays healthy. With only 6 points currently he'll need strong performances in either the Rebel or the Arkansas Derby to get into the gate on the First Saturday in May. Sired by the great Tiznow, a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic champion, he has the staying power to be there on Derby day as long as he qualifies.
Rounding out our mild category is Starlight Racing's Intense Holiday trained by the omnipresent Todd Pletcher. After a ho-hum third place finish behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull, he captured my attention with a win in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds vaulting him to top portion of the leaderboard, where he currently sits in second with 53 points. The son of Harlan's Holiday, a 7th place finisher in the 2002 Derby, should show up next in the Louisiana Derby in two weeks.
Suicide. If I had to tag a horse in this category it would be Wildcat Red, who backed up his Hutcheson win by winning the Fountain of Youth going gate-to-wire in blazing fractions holding off General a Rod. With a sprinter's pedigree, he may be your leader around the clubhouse turn at Churchill Downs in May setting the early pace. The 50 points he earned at Gulfstream should be enough to qualify for the big race.
Let's grab some bleu cheese, your favorite sauce and settle in for some great Derby preps over the next few weeks.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.