Bill Mott has not been synonymous with the Kentucky Derby but the Hall of Fame trainer aims to change the narrative this year. Tacitus established himself as one to watch with a stakes-record setting win in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), ensuring a Kentucky Derby berth with the 50-point prize, and promising stablemates Country House and Hidden Scroll can stamp their tickets in the final round of prep races.
A three-time Eclipse Award winner, Mott gained the reputation as a turf trainer but seven of his 10 Breeders’ Cup wins have come on the main track. His dirt stars include Hall of Famer Cigar and future Hall of Famer Royal Delta; Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Drosselmeyer; champions Ajina and Escena; and current multiple Grade 1 winner Elate. Mott, who ranks seventh all-time with 4,900 wins (through March 12), excels with all types of horses but has previously lacked the stock for a serious Kentucky Derby bid, with Hofburg’s seventh at 27-1 odds last year representing the best finish from eight attempts.
Mott is now in a prime position with less than eight weeks remaining until the 145th Kentucky Derby and a lot of folks will be rooting for the well-respected veteran.
Last weekend also featured the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park and plenty of anticipation surrounds the next stop in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, Saturday’s Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park. Top-ranked contenders Game Winner and Improbable will make their three-year-old debut for Bob Baffert in separate divisions of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel.
Tampa Bay Derby
Tacitus made his first start since breaking his maiden at Aqueduct last November. By three-time North American leading sire Tapit, the gray colt is the first foal out of Close Hatches, the 2014 champion older female and an earner of more than $2.7 million. He’s bred to run long and Mott didn’t waste any time trying a sprint, debuting his pupil in a 1 1/16-mile race at Belmont last October. Tacitus graduated the second time out and returned from a 119-day layoff Saturday.
Jose Ortiz was up on the Juddmonte Farms homebred and Tacitus traveled wide from post 10 into the first turn of the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, rating in midpack. Similar to last Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream, the pace was hot in (:22.79, :45.85 and 1:09.57). Tacitus began to make slight headway upon reaching the far turn but wasn’t advancing rapidly and came under a ride before the completion of the bend.
He responded to Ortiz’s urgings with a solid turn of foot, splitting horses as he accelerated into stretch, and rallied past a pack of horses to win going away by 1 ¼ lengths. Tacitus was the only member of the field without a previous race this year and doesn’t appear to be a polished product by any means. It’s easy to envision further improvement and I came away encouraged by his first start against winners.
Off as the 8-1 fifth choice, Tacitus stopped the teletimer in 1:41.90, bettering the 1:42.36 mark set by eventual Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in the 2017 Tampa Bay Derby. He registered a 95 BRIS Speed rating, which compares favorably to other prep races so far this year, and netted a triple-digit Late Pace figure (100).
Tacitus had been outworked by stablemate Hidden Scroll at Payson Park in late February and while that rival still has much to prove from a mental standpoint, both horses clearly have upside. And I like what I’ve seen from Risen Star (G2) runner-up Country House, who will make his final prep in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) on March 23. Baffert still owns the best hand presently, but Mott will continue to be a major player in the build-up to this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Outshine enjoyed a nice stalking trip in third and loomed a serious threat turning for home. He came up a little short when it counted but easily saved second. Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher, Outshine tried two turns after a comfortable allowance tally at Gulfstream, his first start since an unplaced effort in the Tremont last year on Belmont Stakes week. The Malibu Moon colt is bred for longer distances but will need to show more in the stretch next time.
Win Win Win looked poised to blow by rivals when rallying wide into the stretch but woefully lacked the necessary finishing kick, barely edging weakening pacesetter Zenden for third. After setting a new track record in the seven-furlong Pasco at Tampa, the Hat Track colt disappointed in his first route attempt and may be better-suited to one-turn distances at this stage of his career.
Utilizing late-running theatrics, Haikal stretched his win streak to three in the one-mile Gotham. Kiaran McLaughlin trains the Shadwell Stable homebred and Rajiv Maragh has been up for all three victories at Aqueduct this winter.
He graduated at six furlongs in mid-December and entered the one-turn Gotham off a neck win in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield on February 9. Haikal dropped nearly 15 lengths behind as Much Better sped forward and established an eye-opening half-mile in :44.42 and still trailed by nearly 10 lengths with a quarter-mile remaining.
Mind Control, Instagrand and Much Better had separated themselves from the rest of the field by the stretch drive and appeared likely to compose the trifecta with a furlong remaining, but they grew extremely weary in the latter stages. Haikal rallied dramatically on the far outside to get up in the final strides, drawing off by a length under the wire, and received a commendable 102 BRIS Speed rating.
Haikal has progressed nicely and will stretch out for the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G1) on April 6, but I’m viewing him more of a closing sprinter/miler type until proven otherwise. He’s certainly built to thrive at one-turn distances and the son of Daaher counts Grade 1-winning sprinter Takaful as a half-brother.
Instagrand did not disgrace himself finishing third, and is eligible to move forward significantly off his first start since mid-August, but the Kentucky Derby doesn’t appear to be a viable option for the future sprinter.
Jeff Ruby Steaks
Somelikeithotbrown picked up 20 points for a front-running victory on Turfway Park’s Polytrack, prevailing by 3 ¼ lengths over 45-1 outsider Dynamic Racer, and Mike Maker said the New York-bred son of Big Brown will switch to dirt for his final prep (most likely the Blue Grass [G2] on April 6).
Tough to expect much next time. The Skychai Racing and Sand Dollar Stable-owned colt opened this year with a facile tally in the February 15 John Battaglia Memorial but hasn’t run fast in either Polytrack start (88 and 91 Speed ratings). He received a dismal 60 BRIS Late Pace rating in the Jeff Ruby after requiring 14.21 seconds to complete the final furlong.
A close third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), Somelikeithotbrown proved to be a high-class performer on the sod last season and will ultimately point toward New York’s Turf Trinity showcase this summer, a new series for three-year-old turf horses worth a combined $5.25 million.
Oaklawn received 19 entries for the Rebel, including eight based in Southern California and six from the Steve Asmussen stable, and each division will be worth $750,000. Since the race was originally scheduled to feature a $1 million purse, qualifying points are now three-quarters of the initial value. That means a scale of 37.5-15-7.5-3.75 points to the respective top four finishers in each division.
Unbeaten Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner Improbable will be an odds-on favorite versus eight rivals in the first division. His challengers include Galilean, who will step up to face open company following a pair of runaway wins over California-bred stakes foes; and stakes victor Long Range Toddy, who rallied for second in the Smarty Jones and third in the Southwest (G3) earlier in the meet. I give Extra Hope the best chance for an upset. Longer distances may pose an obstacle but 8 ½ furlongs looks like a perfect fit for the Shanghai Bobby colt following a sharp allowance win at Santa Anita.
Game Winner will meet nine opponents in the second division including Omaha Beach, who appears to be coming to hand for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella following an impressive nine-length maiden win. Mandella also has Extra Hope in the first division.
Scully’s Kentucky Derby Top 10
1 IMPROBABLE: Unbeaten G1 winner returns in 1st division of Rebel
2 GAME WINNER: Champion 2yo tops 2nd division of Rebel
3 COUNTRY HOUSE: Risen Star runner-up brings late kick to Louisiana Derby
4 WAR OF WILL: Lecomte and Risen Star hero the one to beat in Louisiana Derby
5 CODE OF HONOR: Rebounded when trying two turns in Fountain of Youth
6 BOURBON WAR: Came flying late for second in Fountain of Youth
7 HIDDEN SCROLL: Will try to settle in Florida Derby with new jock Castellano
8 TACITUS: Opened year with late-running Tampa Bay Derby upset
9 ROADSTER: One to watch for Baffert off sharp allowance tally
10 GUNMETAL GRAY: His late kick could prove effective at some point