August 16, 2022

Three points to ponder: 2022 Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Jeff Ruby Steaks

Cyberknife looks to sharpen up in the Arkansas Derby (Coady Photography)

Saturday’s trio of Kentucky Derby (G1) qualifiers, each worth a windfall of points on the 100-40-20-10 scale, will sharpen the picture to varying degrees.

The Florida Derby (G1) tests the hopes of a few high-profile contenders, while the Arkansas Derby (G1) is the proving ground for up-and-comers. The Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) over Turfway Park’s Tapeta figures to be less informative for the Run for the Roses, but of value for the turfy set.

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Multiple angles make for a fascinating Florida Derby.

So much is going on at Gulfstream Park that it resembles the old Ptolemaic universe of wheels-within-wheels – two key rematches, a trainer audible, a flashy maiden winner, and a retrieval mission.

Simplification’s talking point coming out of his valiant second in the Holy Bull (G3) was that, with a clean start, he could have challenged the perfect-trip winner, White Abarrio. The idea took on greater substance after Simplification came back to capture the Fountain of Youth (G2). Yet it remained theoretical since White Abarrio wasn’t there. Now the two get to settle the score on the track.

Yet White Abarrio is himself in a similar revenge-seeking position vis-à-vis Classic Causeway. In last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), White Abarrio didn’t have the clearest passage when third, one spot behind Classic Causeway. But the two weren’t on course for a rematch here until Classic Causeway’s trainer, Brian Lynch, called an audible.

The original plan, following his Sam F. Davis (G3)/Tampa Bay Derby (G2) double, was for Classic Causeway to run in next Saturday’s Blue Grass (G1). I generally look askance at last-minute changes like this. The Giant’s Causeway colt is liable to have a more taxing final prep in this spot, with a potentially complex pace dynamic from post 2. At Keeneand, he likely would have been the controlling speed.

Maiden romper Charge It promises to make his presence felt from the start, judging by his fine performances over this track. As a blueblood from the barn of six-time Florida Derby winner Todd Pletcher, the Tapit colt has obvious appeal. The caveat is that he’s making his stakes and two-turn debut simultaneously. That’s not the profile of Pletcher’s victorious sextet, all of whom had routing experience going into the 1 1/8-mile prize.

It’s easy to forget that Pappacap is still around. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up ran a commendable third in the Lecomte (G3), only to throw in an inexplicable clunker when re-opposing Epicenter in the Risen Star (G2). Hall of Fame horseman Mark Casse has long thought that Pappacap was a top-class operator, so he gives him another shot at the Derby. Burning up the worktab at the Casse Training Center, the son of Gun Runner could return to his useful form.

2. Is Secret Oath the best new shooter in the Arkansas Derby?

Imposing filly Secret Oath is the most impressive contender at Oaklawn Park, especially if your metrics are Brisnet Speed ratings. She’s got style too, as demonstrated by her nimble response to a brief traffic hold-up in the Honeybee (G3). I was among those arguing for her to take on the boys in the Arkansas Derby, and she adds star power to a race in need of one.

At the same time, there are other new shooters with claims against the fairly blue-collar bunch coming out of the Rebel (G2). All three have upside, suggesting that they can’t be judged by what they’ve accomplished so far.

Cyberknife has finally advanced in his on-the-job training for Brad Cox. The Gun Runner colt was authoritative in a Fair Grounds allowance on the Risen Star undercard, posing a counterfactual about what might have happened had he tried the main event. We the People has won both of his starts at Oaklawn in the manner of a smart colt, and he projects a favorable trip. Doppelganger, one of the transfers from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen, couldn’t lay a glove on Forbidden Kingdom in the San Felipe (G2) but still registered a 95 Speed figure. Although somebody had to be second that day, Doppelganger can move forward from that two-turn debut, and Yakteen is 38% in the “blinkers off” category.

3. Is Tiz the Bomb a vulnerable Jeff Ruby favorite?

Tiz the Bomb is the class act in the Jeff Ruby, but he was workmanlike in his previous start over the track, the John Battaglia Memorial. My first reaction was that he might prefer turf. Granted, he might have needed the Battaglia, since his Holy Bull was basically a non-event once he got disgusted by the dirt. Still, Tiz the Bomb has to do better to beat a better group here. Even familiar foe Stolen Base could conjure up more in first-time blinkers, and there’s not that much between them.

On a line through Stolen Base, Red Run offers intrigue. The Steve Asmussen pupil had been exposed on dirt, but he rolled in the Texas Turf Mile, where Stolen Base was a closing third. Cabo Spirit smacks of a 12-1 overlay, given his turf prowess on the competitive Southern California circuit. Tawny Port, 2-for-2 at Turfway, is entitled to turn the page on his fifth in the Risen Star. He wouldn’t be the first to jump up from the Risen Star, as sixth Slow Down Andy just rebounded in the Sunland Park Derby (G3), and the aforementioned Pappacap will try to make it a trend in the Florida Derby.

Blackadder was aiming to become the first El Camino Real Derby hero to double up at Turfway since Event of the Year (1998). But now he’s scratching to await the Blue Grass, allowing Pletcher’s Swing Shift to draw in as the also-eligible.

None of the Jeff Ruby runners looks like crashing the Derby winner’s circle, a continuation of the trend in the track’s synthetic era. The outliers are Turfway heroes Animal Kingdom (the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner) and Hard Spun (the 2007 Derby runner-up). And Tiz the Bomb is under consideration for an ambitious crack at another Derby – the Epsom Derby (G1).