Saturday’s trio of Kentucky Derby (G1) points races have features in common, so we’ll combine the analysis of the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct, Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park, and Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita in the points to ponder.
1. All three favorites have questions to answer.
Withers favorite Shotski controlled a slow pace in his 8-1 upset of the Dec. 7 Remsen (G2) at the same track and trip, and still just lasted by a half-length from the rallying Ajaaweed. Now pegged at 2-1, Shotski doesn’t figure to get the same set-up. Not that he’s necessarily dependent upon it, but the presence of other forward types removes the advantage he wielded in the Remsen.
Bob Lewis favorite Thousand Words transitioned from a debut maiden score sprinting to a two-turn points race in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), where he showed fine resolve to prevail. Hence his 4-5 morning line to keep the momentum going for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Still, the Los Alamitos Futurity isn’t the most representative race, against just three opponents in the slop, and he’ll encounter a more typical dynamic here. Also, Thousand Words likely responded to the addition of blinkers last time, and he’s not certain to make a similar move forward second time in headgear.
Holy Bull favorite Tiz the Law obviously had a tough trip when suffering his first loss in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Stuck on the inside in the slop, he didn’t get a lot of room to maneuver, even once a seam developed. The Barclay Tagg pupil was on his wrong lead and outfinished in a close third. For a colt who’d been able to work his way clear and impose his authority quickly in both his maiden and the Champagne (G1), the Kentucky Jockey Club can be chalked up to a learning experience. He’s eligible to bounce back with a smooth passage here, but he could get another sloppy track with rain in the forecast. While both pedigree and jockey Manny Franco say that Tiz the Law handles it, that remains something to consider at 3-5 on the morning line.
2. Collateral form will be tested.
As we await Independence Hall’s return in next Saturday’s Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs, his Aqueduct form is represented by Prince of Pharoahs in the Withers. The dead-heat runner-up to Independence Hall in the Jerome last out, Prince of Pharoahs finished four lengths adrift. Independence Hall has looked a class apart from his competition so far, with the proviso that hasn’t meant a great deal at this point. If a solid run from Prince of Pharoahs in the Withers would lend some substance to the Independence Hall form, a substantial loss would further the “who did he beat” critique of the otherwise exciting prospect.
Tiz the Law is aiming to become the second horse to rebound from a subpar KJC effort, after fourth-placer Enforceable roared back to take the Lecomte (G3). Another Lecomte angle surfaces in Holy Bull rival Relentless Dancer, who dead-heated for his maiden win with Silver State, the eventual Lecomte runner-up. And Holy Bull rival Mayberry Deputy was second to eventual Smarty Jones upsetter Gold Street in a maiden two back. The Smarty Jones didn’t boost the KJC form, as KJC winner Silver Prospector was only fourth in that follow-up, in a reminder that the bare results require some degree of interpretation.
Since Thousand Words fended off Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) near-misser Anneau d’Or at Los Alamitos, that Juvenile form will be subject to further scrutiny in the Lewis. It would be an exaggeration to say that Lewis longshot Zimba Warrior offers a yardstick for the Sham (G3), since he was drubbed more than nine lengths into third by Authentic. And he was previously a distant third to High Velocity in the Bob Hope (G3). But if Zimba Warrior outperforms his 15-1 morning line on Saturday, Authentic wouldn’t mind.
3. Well-bred maiden winners look to advance on the trail.
Lewis contender Tizamagician took six starts to break his maiden for Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, but the Tiznow colt was entitled to need time. Judging by his authoritative display in his latest, the 3-1 chance is arguably the leading opponent to overturn Thousand Words.
Chad Brown gives Toledo his chance in the Holy Bull despite being upset at odds-on in a Gulfstream allowance, where he was wrangled back, lost early position, and couldn’t bridge the gap with 14-1 Ete Indien (see below). A sharp Aqueduct maiden winner two back, the Juddmonte homebred has loads of upside. And for once the Into Mischief colt is not favored, listed as the 7-2 alternative to Tiz the Law.
Withers contender Max Player didn’t turn in the most stylish maiden victory at Parx, but the son of Honor Code was emphatic in the end and could be generously priced at 9-2 here. Trainer Linda Rice also has Prince of Pharoahs (8-1) in the line-up, so it’s noteworthy that Max Player is expecting more support. Portos is even shorter at 3-1, as a Tapit out of a half to Power Broker from the Todd Pletcher barn. Yet his maiden romp in the slop last out might not have taken much winning, and it’s tempting to pigeonhole him as another Marconi – himself a lumbering gray Tapit, and big-margin maiden winner at this trip, before a third in the 2018 Withers.
4. Note the turf-to-dirt angle and stretch-outs.
The Lewis has attracted two useful types auditioning to become the next War of Will – i.e., emerge as Derby contenders on the surface switch from turf to dirt. Encoder is a proven stakes commodity on the grass, as you’d expect for a son of turf champ English Channel, but he’s out of a Hard Spun mare from the family of 2009 Derby shocker Mine That Bird. Royal Act, fifth to Encoder in the Eddie Logan, has a right to take to dirt as a son of American Pharoah. Note he adds blinkers for Peter Eurton, just as Storm the Court did for his 45-1 surprise in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
The turf-to-dirt angle is present in the Holy Bull too, although in more muted form with runners experienced on both surfaces already. Ete Indien won first up in a turf sprint, and finished a belated eighth in the Bourbon (G3), before wiring the aforementioned mile allowance over Toledo. As a nearly $270,000 Arqana May purchase, and a son of the War Front stallion Summer Front, Ete Indien has superficial parallels with War of Will. Unbeaten Uncork the Bottle, who goes turf to dirt for Saffie Joseph Jr., similarly tries his first main track route. Graduating in a $16,000 claimer on the Gulfstream dirt last August, he’s taken advantage of starter allowance conditions in another dirt sprint and a turf route.
The Withers’ nearest approximation to a surface question is Vanzzy. Although a maiden winner and stakes-placed (to Mischievous Alex) on the Parx dirt, he scored a new career high in the Display on Woodbine’s Tapeta. The stretch-out factor looms larger, as the respective top two from the 7-furlong Heft at Laurel – pace player Monday Morning Qb and New Commission – take a substantial jump to 1 1/8 miles.
5. We might be talking more about a filly by Saturday night.
The biggest impact on the Derby trail might occur elsewhere on Saturday, with the highly regarded filly Taraz stretching out in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park. If the Juddmonte homebred extends her record to 3-for-3, her Kentucky Oaks (G1) points will be overshadowed by the prospect of a tilt against the boys. Trainer Brad Cox has mentioned the Rebel (G2) as a possibility, pending developments. The excitement will grow to fever pitch if Taraz turns in another show-stopper.