September 25, 2022

First look at horses on the bubble for 2018 Kentucky Derby

Now that the Kentucky Derby (G1) scoring races are over, and all the points have been tabulated, the field has crystallized. We now know the top 19 on the final leaderboard plus the European Road invitee (Gronkowski), making for the capacity field of 20. Thus we also know those contenders just shy of the threshold – the “bubble horses” – on watch for defections.

Within minutes of the list being disseminated last night, there was already one in the main body of the field to bow out due to injury: Sunland Derby (G3) hero Runaway Ghost, who reportedly exited his Saturday breeze with a shin fracture.

Churchill Downs’ Darren Rogers then published the updated final list, with Firenze Fire the beneficiary of Runaway Ghost’s misfortune and just making the cut at 39 points:

The stretch run of the last scoring race, Saturday evening’s Arkansas Derby (G1), was pivotal in the points chase. Although the daylight winner Magnum Moon, and runner-up Quip, were already assured of Kentucky Derby berths thanks to previous victories, the next three – Solomini, Combatant, and Tenfold – were in an all-out slog.

Solomini had just been bumped out of the top 19 a couple of hours earlier Saturday when My Boy Jack captured the Lexington (G3) to secure his Derby berth. As Solomini was making hard work in the pursuing pack, he appeared in danger of finishing fifth, until finally churning on to reach the wire a head in front of Combatant who was in turn a neck up on Tenfold. Those 20 points for third were decisive, putting Solomini in the Derby field and leaving Combatant on the outside looking in.

Here’s the list of the first nine bubble horses at the moment, led by Combatant:

Unlike last year, when a few of the top 20 were on the fence and giving bubble horses greater hope, this year’s cast is intent on running in Derby 144.

Quip sounded like a possible exception Saturday night. Right after his hard-trying second in the Arkansas Derby, WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden was non-committal about whether he’d advance.

“I don’t know,” Walden told Oaklawn publicity.

But after the dust settled, by Sunday morning Quip had the green light to go for the roses, as reported by Daily Racing Form’s Mary Rampellini.

Although you can argue Quip’s earned his chance, a look at the chessboard from WinStar’s perspective makes the initial hesitation understandable. After all, they’re already co-owners of early favorite Justify and streaking Audible, breeder and co-owner of Noble Indy, and breeder of Mick Ruis’ Bolt d’Oro. Do they need another homebred, now campaigned in partnership, to fly the flag? Or rather save him for the Preakness (G1)?

My curiosity last night was whether WinStar might have an additional strategic goal in mind, one involving a horse further down on the bubble list. Robert Baker and William Mack’s Sporting Chance, stuck in number 26, is by WinStar stallion Tiznow. Quip is by a WinStar stallion too (Distorted Humor) but Sporting Chance was a high-profile two-year-old who won the Hopeful (G1). Despite his low position, Sporting Chance may yet have a faint ray of hope. Bear with me as we proceed methodically in order.

Note that the first four bubble horses are all trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Combatant presumably would take the opportunity if he draws in. As a closer who hasn’t gotten the best of set-ups throughout the Oaklawn preps, Combatant could benefit from the big field, genuine pace conditions of the Derby. Or at any rate, he’d be a sensible type to try his luck.

His next three stablemates, however, may not be as determined to contest the Derby. Snapper Sinclair, currently 22nd, just missed in the Risen Star (G2) but was a well-beaten third in the Lecomte (G3) and most recently a wide-trip fifth in the Louisiana Derby (G2). While no one could begrudge such a genuine performer taking the opportunity if it materializes, it’s worth emphasizing this is a City Zip colt out of a Yes It’s True mare who’s pretty decent on turf too. Why not revert to that surface, or turn back in trip on the main track? Snapper Sinclair has options in other Derby weekend stakes that may be more profitable for him. For whatever it’s worth, owner Jeffrey Bloom also co-owns Kentucky Oaks (G1) favorite Midnight Bisou, so he’s already got a major chance of glory on Derby Eve.

Reride, number 23, could have remained on the Sunland path after beating Runaway Ghost in the Mine That Bird Derby. But his connections opted to ship for the UAE Derby (G2), where he was a remote third to Mendelssohn and three lengths behind the Oaks-bound filly Rayya. An American-based horse wouldn’t go halfway around the world five weeks before the Kentucky Derby if he were deemed a prime contender, not even to chase a $2 million purse. Might they reconsider if he got in? Perhaps, but his owner/breeder, Ron Winchell’s Winchell Thoroughbreds, already has Combatant (co-owned with Willis Horton).

Dream Baby Dream, parked in 24th, was runner-up in the Sunland Derby but couldn’t help his cause when seventh, at odds of 38-1, in the Arkansas Derby. Barring Derby fever on the part of Dream Baby Dream Racing Stable, you’ve got to think that Asmussen wouldn’t be in a hurry to pitch him into even deeper waters.

Now we’re up to 25th, Bob Baffert’s Restoring Hope, whose points came via a third in his Wood Memorial (G2) stakes debut. Baffert had been mulling where to place the recent maiden winner before giving him a shot in the Wood, partly influenced by the shuffling of the deck after McKinzie’s injury. So my hunch is that the Hall of Famer, who’s got Justify and Solomini, needed to see a lot more from Restoring Hope at Aqueduct to pursue the Kentucky Derby. Owners Gary and Mary West have exercised patience with their three-year-old prospects in the past, West Coast being a case in point, so it would be no surprise if they take a more conservative path here.

If my guesses about Snapper Sinclair, Reride, Dream Baby Dream, and Restoring Hope are correct – and it is all speculation because they’re still officially in the mix – then Sporting Chance may be a little closer than his position in number 26 implies. He’s this low thanks to his waywardness in the Blue Grass (G2), necessitating his disqualification from third to fourth. That demotion cut his Blue Grass points in half, leaving him with a total of 12. Had he finished third without bothering Free Drop Billy, Sporting Chance would have had 22 points, and ranked second to Combatant on the bubble list (his greater earnings in non-restricted stakes would have put him above Snapper Sinclair’s 22 points).

It would be something if the horses between him and Combatant end up being removed from consideration, and Sporting Chance found himself in the same spot as though he’d never been disqualified. Wouldn’t Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, already in with Bravazo, jump at the chance to be double-handed in pursuit of a fifth Kentucky Derby trophy?

With 20 days to go until Derby Day, and given the unfortunate tendency for setbacks to crop up, chances are that one spot or two will become available. And as many as four also-eligibles can enter the Kentucky Derby in hopes of a last-minute opportunity.

Until then, we entertain ourselves by reading the tea leaves and gaming out scenarios for the bubble horses.