The final major pieces for the Kentucky Derby fell into place Saturday, but when the smoke cleared nothing really happened to change an outlook that was crafted in mesmerizing fashion a week ago.
More than ever, following after Dance With Fate's win in the Blue Grass and Danza's stunning upset in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome looks like the horse to beat -- and if anything, the Arkansas Derby may have made his task even easier.
Of Saturday's two Grade 1 stakes, the Arkansas Derby merited the most attention because it featured two horses in vastly different positions, both with the potential to create trouble for California Chrome, the probable favorite in the opening leg of the Triple Crown after his dazzling romp last week at Santa Anita.
Tapiture came into the Arkansas Derby with a spot in the Run for the Roses secure because of wins in the Kentucky Jockey Club and Southwest Stakes that helped him amass 42 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series. For him, the mile-and-an eighth test at Oaklawn Park offered a chance to rebound from a runner-up finish to Hoppertunity in the Rebel in which he had a bumpy trip in the stretch and redefined himself as major player at Churchill Downs.
For Bayern, the Arkansas Derby carried even more significance. The 3-year-old son of Offlee Wild trained by Bob Baffert was nothing short of brilliant in his first two starts, winning by 15 lengths most recently in a Santa Anita allowance race. Yet for all his potential and talent, Bayern needed a top two finish to collect enough points to crack the expected field of 20.
Turns out neither got what they wanted as victory went to an unheralded 41-1 shot named for actor Tony Danza.
Tapiture made a promising, 4-wide move on the final turn but then hung in the stretch in a manner that does not bode well for his chances of handling a mile- and-a-quarter distance three weeks from now. He finished fourth, beaten 7 ¼ lengths, and while victory in a final prep race is not a prerequisite for glory in the Run for the Roses, it was hardly an inspiring effort at a time when 3-year-olds are supposed to be peaking.
Bayern lived up to his press clipping by setting the early pace and leading until the top of the stretch when Danza shot past him along the rail and drew off to a 4 ¾-length victory (yes, Danza was the boss, you 1980's TV sit com buffs).
The fact that Bayern weakened in the stretch wasn't all that surprising. It was, after all, just his third career start. But what poured a few packets of salt in the wound of the defeat was that in the final strides, Ride On Curlin surged past him and took second by a half-length.
A third place finished netted Bayern 20 points and leaves him in 26th place in a chase for 20 spots. A rash of defections could open the door for him, but at this point, with just one minor prep (next Saturday's Lexington Stakes with just 10-4-2-1 points) left, the Preakness seems a more likely spot for his next start -- and that's welcomed news for California Chrome's connections.
While Bayern may not have the seasoning to win the Kentucky Derby, his presence in the starting gate on the first Saturday of May would only add more juice to the early fractions
But that all changed when Ride On Curlin, who would have wrapped up a spot even if he finished third, edged past him to grab the 40 points that could have punched Bayern's ticket to Louisville.
In a way, it was a similar situation to the final yards of the Wood Memorial a week ago. Like Bayern, the speedy Social Inclusion, made his stakes debut last week and needed a top two finish to collect either 100 (which went to the winner) or 40 points (runner-up) and clinch a spot in the Derby.
Social Inclusion also led turning for home, but in the last jump, Samraat pushed his nose past him to take second. He, too, has 20 points, leaving him on the outside looking in and making the prospect of life on the front end much easier for California Chrome.
Both may haunt the California-bred at the Preakness, but for now, that half-length and nose could have a more dramatic impact on the Derby than Danza and Ride On Curlin will.
Danza made just his fourth career start in the Arkansas Derby and it wouldn't be a surprise if such an inexperienced runner regresses in the Run for the Roses after a career-best effort. Ride On Curlin has now finished second or third in four graded stakes and while he's been consistent, he shapes up as a better bet in the Derby's superfecta than the win pool.
As a result, though contested on a synthetic, Polytrack surface, the Blue Grass at Keeneland may have showcased the day's best Derby prospect in Dance With Fate. The son of Two Step Salsa displayed a nice turn of late speed in rallying from 11th after three quarters of a mile and taking charge in the stretch to draw off to a 1 ¾-length victory in a style that indicated the added furlong in the Derby might not bother him.
Though his best efforts have come on a synthetic surface (he was also second in both the El Camino Real Derby and Del Mar Futurity), he was a promising second at two on dirt in the Grade 1 Front Runner, Santa Anita's stepping stone prep for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Dance With Fate was never a factor in the Breeders' Cup, finishing eighth, but if he heads to Churchill -- and trainer Peter Eurton was hedging on that after the Blue Grass -- he could emerge as a serious stretch threat for California Chrome.
With Bayern and Social Inclusion in the field, perhaps that task would be simpler for him. But for now, barring any major upheaval, he and the other late runners might be on their own against the Golden State sensation who has won his last two stakes by a combined margin of more than 12 lengths.
It was only a week ago that California Chrome sparkled so brightly in the Santa Anita Derby that it raised doubts about anyone having enough talent and ability to catch him in the Derby. Two more preps later, that notion seems even more logical.
Next stop, Churchill Downs.