Derby Day is now less than two months away. There were 3 major prep races this past weekend: the one mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, the mile and a sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby, and the San Felipe at Santa Anita Park at the same distance. In addition, the Fountain of Youth was run at Gulfstream Park one week prior. Those races produced two long shot winners, a couple of predictable outcomes, and a slight shake-up to this edition of the Elite Eight.
# 8 – Justify is one of several new additions to this set of rankings. If he is to become the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner, he will have to overcome the dreaded Apollo curse (no horse has won the Derby without having started as a 2yo since Apollo accomplished the feat in 1882). The son of Scat Daddy debuted as a 1-2 favorite against 4 other maidens going 7 furlongs on February 18th. He won by 9 1/2 lengths, as easy as a horse can run. The highly touted colt returned to the races on Sunday at Santa Anita and made another effortless trip to the winners’ circle in a one mile, first level allowance event as the 1-20 (that’s right, 5 cents on the dollar) favorite. While he has not beaten much, this horse has been magnificent with every step he has taken since joining the Bob Baffert barn. He will now get one shot to earn enough points to qualify for a trip to Louisville on the first Saturday in May. He will need to either win or finish second in one of the final prep races to make the field. Baffert ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah in 2015. If any trainer is capable of breaking the Apollo curse, he is the best bet.
# 7 – Enticed, winner of the KY Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs as a 2yo, bounced back from a dull 4th place effort in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream to take the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in impressive fashion on Saturday. While the race was only a mile, the son of Medaglia D’ Oro defeated two grade 1 winners in the process (Firenze Fire and Free Drop Billy) and did it handily. If he can back that performance up with another solid effort in the Wood Memorial, he will be a top contender going back to Churchill Downs.
# 6 – Promises Fulfilled lit up the tote board in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth stakes going gate-to-wire at odds of 18-1 and defeating Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2yo Good Magic in the process. The son of Preakness winner Shackleford is now 3 for 4 lifetime, with his only loss coming in a 3rd place effort behind Enticed in the KY Jockey Club. While the race set up perfectly for him and he was able to set moderate fractions, he is definitely a horse on the improve. Trainer Dale Romans is oozing confidence in the horse and currently has him pointed to run back in the Florida Derby.
# 5 – Good Magic ran a very uncharacteristic and flat 3rd in the aforementioned Fountain of Youth. Perhaps he was not fully cranked for the effort as it was his first start since the Breeders’ Cup. Chad Brown has said all along that he is aiming to have the horse peak on Derby day, not the middle of March. The son of Curlin still has his championship credentials to stand on, and will remain on this list at least until his next start. Early indications are that his final prep may come in the Bluegrass at Keeneland.
# 4 – Audible continues to train forwardly towards the Florida Derby. He has now put in 3 solid works at Palm Beach Downs since his most impressive victory in the Holy Bull.
# 3 – Solomini has logged 4 straight bullet works since the last edition of the Elite Eight. The most recent of which was a five furlong drill in :59 flat, the swiftest of 61 works at the distance over Santa Anita’s main oval on Saturday. We will find out just how far he has moved forward at Oaklawn Park on Saturday in the Rebel Stakes.
# 2 – McKinzie crossed the wire first in the San Felipe on Saturday, but in an ironic reversal of fortune was disqualified and placed second for veering out in deep stretch and interfering with the runner-up, Bolt D’ Oro, who was just half a head shy at the wire. In fairness, it did not look like the interference affected the placing. Bolt D’ Oro was not knocked off stride and it did not appear as if he was ever going to go past McKinzie, as he had the entire length of the stretch to do it and could not. This race was huge for McKinzie as he proved he can come out on top in a dog fight. He also ran as if the Derby distance will not be an issue. It seems so far as if Baffert will point his 3rd member of the Elite Eight toward a rematch with Bolt D’ Oro in the Santa Anita Derby.
# 1 – Bolt D’Oro retains his status as the leader of this crop despite finishing runner-up on the wire in the San Felipe. This was his first race since the Breeders’ Cup whereas McKinzie had two races during that time period and was no doubt the more fit horse on Saturday. Trainer Mick Ruis claimed he only had his charge 80% ready, and while that is likely an exaggeration, it would not be any surprise to see this colt make huge strides forward following that sensational battle.