Commentary

Colts have eye on Run for Roses

There is life beyond the Breeders' Cup for Kentucky Derby hopefuls

Updated: November 29, 2013, 11:09 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Not a single horse from last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile ran in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, on the way to the Triple Crown, the nine Juvenile starters either got lost in traffic or ran out of gas, or maybe talent, and so they missed the party altogether.

Retrospect suggests that maybe the Juvenile wasn't the place to look for future Triple Crown contenders anyway. After the curtain came down on the Breeders' Cup, six youngsters that would go on to run in the Kentucky Derby, including Preakness winner Oxbow and Travers winner Will Take Charge, raced in three end-of-the-season stakes.

Last year, three factors converged to reduce the predictive significance of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

And those same stakes remain the place to look for next season's Triple Crown players. The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs and the Remsen at Aqueduct will be run Saturday, and the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 14.

Of all the nation's races for 2-year-olds, the Juvenile has been the most predictive of future success. Ersatz punditry breathlessly points out that among Juvenile winners only Street Sense also has won the Kentucky Derby. But look more deeply. Five Kentucky Derby winners raced in the Juvenile: Spend A Buck, Alysheba, Sea Hero, Street Sense and Mine That Bird. Moreover, horses that ran in the Juvenile have progressed as 3-year-olds to win 22 Triple Crown races, and their cohort includes such standouts as Easy Goer, Tabasco Cat, Timber Country, Point Given, Afleet Alex and Lookin At Lucky.

But last year, three factors converged to reduce the predictive significance of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. First, a Juvenile win just wasn't as hefty with importance as it once was. The new points system for determining Kentucky Derby starters meant the Juvenile winner no longer had a reservation in the gate at Churchill Downs. And then there was the Breeders' Cup ban on Lasix in juvenile races; that, as well as Santa Anita's speed biased surface, could have discouraged Juvenile participation, or at least might have left some horsemen questioning the risk-reward ratio. And so the result was a thin field that produced no starters in a Triple Crown race.

Although the same factors remained in place this season, I won't suggest the air has become dusty with the Juvenile's moldering importance, not yet anyway. At least this recent Juvenile, with its 13 starters, had a large field, and it seemed stronger, deeper in talent, than last year's. New Year's Day, Havana, and Strong Mandate look promising; Tap It Rich, Bond Holder, and Mexikoma look intriguing. I'll be surprised if one or two don't make their way to the Triple Crown.

Still, for previewing next year's stars and Triple Crown possibilities, the most significant races are yet to be run. Yes, I'm aware it's November and the turkeys are cowering under the porch, the season is late and so are the bills, but these upcoming races could trump anything you've seen so far. Two of the more exciting prospects are to meet in the Remsen, Cairo Prince, who's 2-1 in the morning line, and Honor Code, who's the 9-5 favorite in the field of nine.

Cairo Prince, to this eye, looks like he has it all. But does he have it all in sufficient quantity? The unbeaten son of Pioneerof The Nile has an encouraging pedigree, tactical speed and considerable talent, and it was all on display in his stakes debut. Over a dull but officially "fast" Aqueduct surface, he took control of the Nashua Stakes by running the third quarter-mile in 24.90 seconds, and then he cruised home, winning by more than two lengths.

In a move that indicates not only how talented he might be but also how highly he's regarded by those who know him best, he recently worked five-eighths of a mile in the company of an accomplished elder, Woodward Stakes winner Alpha. They completed the distance in 1:01.08, which counts as a good move on the training track at Belmont. (The official watch actually had Alpha at 1:01.07.)

"Cairo Prince might have won the photo by a head," said their trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin; he apparently saw the finish a little differently from the official clocker. "He looked good doing it. He's done everything right so far."

But Honor Code isn't just the Remsen favorite. He's already the favorite in the early wagering in Las Vegas on the Kentucky Derby and the individual favorite, at 15-1, in Churchill Downs' first Future pool, which opened Wednesday.

The big son of A.P. Indy has glistened with classic potential since the first time he stepped onto the track. Already he's a head-turner and a jaw-dropper of preeminent standing in the goggle-eyed community. In his debut at Saratoga, he walked out of the gate and trailed by 22 1/2 lengths after a half-mile -- it was very sporting of him. And then, like a popped champagne cork, he exploded through an opening along the rail and ran the final three-eighths of a mile in -- you might want to sit down for this -- about 33 seconds. Yes, after sleepwalking through much of the race, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile as quickly as the quickest of sprinters, as extraordinary as that seems -- nothing without an engine could have gone faster -- and won by more than four lengths.

In the Champagne Stakes, he again came out of the gate as if he forgot his umbrella and was entertaining some idea of retrieving it, and again he trailed the field. In the turn, as if finally focusing on the task at hand, he began to rally four-wide, and then, angling out to the middle of the track in the stretch, he rallied strongly to finish second, a neck behind Havana.

He won't include geometry among his favorite subjects, and he's obviously still figuring out what his obligations are when the latches of the starting gate open, but his potential looms over the 2014 Triple Crown like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. He skipped the Breeders' Cup because his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, had his eye on the future and the Classics. And in the Remsen, where Honor Code will stretch out to 1 ⅛ miles and race around two turns for the first time, he'll get the opportunity to do what he was born to do. He is, quite simply, one of the most exciting horses in the country.

Almost Famous could join the vanguard of Triple Crown possibilities with a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Also among those entered in the Remsen is Noble Moon (6-1), who rallied to be third in the Nashua after being eliminated at the start, and the horse that finished just behind him that day, Intense Holiday. Intriguing possibilities are Wicked Strong (8-1), a flashy maiden winner, and Matuszak (15-1), who had a troubled trip while fifth most recently at Churchill Downs.

And at Churchill on Saturday, Almost Famous could join the vanguard of Triple Crown possibilities with a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Almost Famous is almost unbeaten. He has won two of his three races, including a recent allowance affair, where he romped while racing in blinkers for the first time. He looked, well, almost like a Derby candidate that day.

"He's made right, and he's got all the credentials to be a good horse," said jockey Corey Lanerie, who rode Almost Famous in that recent allowance score at Churchill. "His disposition is good, and he's got a lot of class about him."

Tapiture and Dobra Historia are intriguing possibilities, too. Although still a maiden, Tapiture never has finished worse than third, and he has kept some good company, such as Strong Mandate. Tapiture has been training very sharply in preparation for Saturday, according to his trainer, Steve Asmussen. And Dobra Historia missed the break in his last outing, but still he rallied effectively to finish second to Almost Famous.

And in a couple weeks at Hollywood, in the CashCall Futurity, Shared Belief and Tap It Rich will have their day. Tap It Rich looked like a monster in his debut, rallying from far back to win easily, but then he became intoxicated with his own speed and was rank in the Breeders' Cup. A recent slow workout might be a positive sign, indicating he has learned to put his natural speed on ice.

But Shared Belief, who has won his two races by a total of nearly 15 lengths, is the dream-maker. He's one whose promise and potential make you think there's a future redolent with roses. In the Hollywood Prevue, he stalked the pace, dragged jockey Corey Nakatani to the lead, and then won in a style that suggested this was just a preview indeed of what he and his Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, have in mind for the next year.

And that's what these races are all about, next year's what-ifs, and just-maybes, and grand possibilities. This racing season concludes this weekend with the Cigar Mile in New York and the Clark Handicap at Churchill, but at the same time the next season begins. Or rather it begins to begin. And if the Remsen, the Kentucky Jockey Club, and the CashCall are indicative of what's ahead, this next season will be a party to attend.

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