March opens with a bang for Kentucky Derby contenders, as four qualifiers in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series will be held on March 4. The spotlight shines on the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park, which features the return of champion Forte, and implications surround the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park.
Oaklawn Park took center stage on Feb. 25 as 11 runners went to the starting gate for the $1 million Rebel (G2) at 1 1/16 miles, and Confidence Game stepped up with a career-best performance for Keith Desormeaux. Overlooked at 18-1 with James Graham, the well-related son of Candy Ride stalked the action in fifth before making his move on the far turn, offering a bold turn of foot to seize control and open a clear advantage in upper stretch, and Confidence Game was never seriously threatened by late runners Red Route One and Reincarnate in scoring by a length.
Both of Confidence Game’s previous wins came at Churchill Downs, including an allowance win over subsequent Holy Bull (G3) victor Rocket Can in a late November allowance, but he did not run particularly fast in five juvenile appearances. His three-year-old season with a third-place effort in the Jan. 21 Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds that was easy to underestimate.
Instant Coffee and Two Phil’s (top two finishers) rated off the early action in the Lecomte, but Confidence Game rushed forward to press the pacesetter on the first turn, zipping through a second quarter-mile in 22.80 seconds. Those fractions proved impossible for other frontrunners to overcome in Fair Grounds stakes – Lecomte Day allowance winner Determinedly stopped to a walk in the stretch after similar early splits in the Risen Star (G2) and so did the pacesetter in Lecomte – but Confidence Game persevered through the destructive pace, finishing three lengths clear of fourth-placer Denington, who came back to win a well-regarded allowance on the Risen Star undercard.
Confidence Game netted a respectable 95 Brisnet Speed rating in the Rebel, and Desormeaux believes those numbers will only continue to increase this spring.
“He started off pretty immature, but as the races went on, he has improved things mentally, and physically,” said Desormeaux, who saddled Exaggerator to a win in the 2016 Preakness and a second in the Kentucky Derby. “He keeps maturing and doing things the right way. I think the sky is the limit for him.”
Confidence Game possesses valuable positional speed, leading wire-to-wire in his previous wins, and his improving form adds to the appeal. But the Rebel came in the slop, so Confidence Game will have to back up his performance on a fast track.
Southwest (G3) runner-up Red Route One offered another fine rally, closing from last on the far turn to be a clear second, but it would be nice to see him get involved a little earlier. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Gun Runner is bred for longer distances, so we’ll see if his late kick is more effective over more ground.
Reincarnate was exiting a pair of frontrunning wins, including the Sham (G3), but he broke slowly and got shuffled back to ninth during the early stages. After coming with a nice run into the stretch, the Good Magic colt was forced to take up suddenly by a tiring rival, but he quickly regained his momentum and charged to be a clear third. I like how he showed the ability to overcome adversity, and Reincarnate is candidate to move forward off the troubled performance.
Verifying and Giant Mischief came up short as the 3-2 favorite and 2-1 second choice for Brad Cox, checking in fourth and sixth, but they’ll get another chance to earn a berth to the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Mine That Bird Derby
Henry Q made his stakes debut a winning one in the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park on Feb. 28, drawing off to win by nearly 15 lengths, and the Blame colt will be a top contender in the March 26 Sunland Derby (G3) for Todd Fincher. A last-out winner over optional maiden claiming rivals at Santa Anita, Henry Q didn’t appear to beat much in the 1 1/16-mile Mine That Bird Derby, but he netted an encouraging 101 Speed rating.
Forte has won three straight Grade 1s, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). His Speed ratings weren’t overwhelming last season, but his form stands out in the 10-horse Fountain of Youth. Blazing Sevens, a rallying fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is the most accomplished rival, but he netted only an 86 rating when capturing the Champagne (G1) last fall. Rocket Can, who projects to be either the second or third choice in the wagering, received only a 93 figure when capturing the Holy Bull (G3) on Feb. 4.
Mage faces a tall challenge stretching out to two turns against stakes rivals in his second career start, but he impressed leading wire-to-wire at first asking in a seven-furlong maiden on Jan. 28 and owns the top last-out Speed rating (101). And given the lack of pace signed on in the Fountain of Youth, Mage looks like the one to catch with Javier Castellano.
Tim Yakteen has five of the 11 entrants in the San Felipe, including four transfers from Bob Baffert’s stable – National Treasure, Hejazi, Fort Bragg, and Mr Fisk. He was already training Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Practical Move, who rates as a major player Saturday, and most of the betting action will center upon his quintet of runners.
I’m interested in a pair of late runners with potential upside, El Camino Real Derby winner Chase the Chaos and last-out maiden scorer Skinner, and will include both in multi-race wagers.
The Gotham drew a fascinating field of 15, including shippers from all over the country, and 14 will go to the starting gate in the one-turn mile event. I took a long look at Lugan Knight, Slip Mahoney, Recruiter, and Transect, but wound up siding with Los Alamitos Futurity runner-up Carmel Road, who will show speed from the inside in his first start for Yakteen.
Another full field is set for the 1 1/16-mile Battaglia Memorial on Turfway’s Tapeta, and it was interesting to see Gilmore, who exits a second in the El Camino Real Derby for Baffert, show up in the entries for new conditioner Brendan Walsh. He’s a top contender from an inside post, and I’ll also mention American Speed, who will make his second start for Cox following a solid runner-up effort in his first synthetic start, the Jan. 21 Leonatus S. at Turfway.