A Longley look at the Derby: Mixed results in prep races shake up leaderboard

March 29, 2019

By: Rob Longley for Woodbine.com

TORONTO, March 29, 2019 – If it was the first Saturday in May that was approaching rather than the last weekend of March, what a competitive Kentucky Derby we would have for the 145th running of the historic race.

Even though prep season is well past the midway point, go ahead and try to peg a definitive front-runner at this point.

After War of Will’s troubled and injury riddled disappointment in last week’s Louisiana Derby, the Mark Casse trainee is no longer at the top of the list (more on WOW below.)

Two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert still might be the man to beat but with a pair of colts who were undefeated as two-year-olds – Improbable and Game Winner – both losing in their sophomore debuts (albeit impressively) they no longer stand unblemished.

And from East to West in the U.S. there are several contenders emerging at the time of year where these still developing colts can make huge leaps forward in one two-turn race.

Which takes us to Hallandale, Florida for Saturday’s running of the $1 million Florida Derby, the Sunshine State’s key prep for the Churchill Downs showcase and a spot where Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott hopes to cement contender status for Hidden Scroll.

The colt, who impressed with a 14 1/2-length maiden score in his career debut two starts back before finishing second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his next outing, has been established as the 6-5 morning-line favourite.

Given that he had a challenging trip and had to contend with a swift pace in that stakes debut, Mott was undaunted by the loss. In fact, Hidden Scroll may have gotten more out of that near miss than with a win.

“He’s got a really good hind quarter on him. He’s not a big heavy horse in front, which is to his advantage,” Mott said of the qualities that he believes might make Hidden Scroll a star. “He’s really a streamlined horse. He’s got a good hip, a lot of power, yet not so heavy that it’s going to work against him.”

Among those he’ll have to take down in the 11-horse Florida Derby is Code of Honor, the Shug McGaughey trainee who vaulted onto the Triple Crown scene with the win in the Fountain of Youth.

Based on results in recent years, the Florida Derby has cemented itself as a major Kentucky Derby key race. Fifteen horses that won the Florida Derby went on to win the Kentucky Derby, including three in the past 10 years – Always Dreaming (2017), Nyquist (2016) and Orb (2013).

WHAT ABOUT WOW?

War of Will’s effort at the Fairgrounds was as good as over before it even started.

A bad step from behind mere jumps from the starting gate took Casse’s 6-5 favourite out of contention immediately and ultimately resulted in a ninth-place finish.

Afterwards, Casse and vets concluded WOW suffered what is hoped to be a minor ligament issue, one the veteran trainer hopes will be merely a minor setback.

On Friday, Casse was ready to move forward based on the results of some follow up tests.

“I’m happy to report that WOW went through extensive testing yesterday which included X-ray’s & ultrasound,” Casse wrote on his official Twitter account. “He was cleared to start his training regimen which began today.”

Still, the challenges are many now. As we’ve seen year after year, rare is the horse, no matter how talented, who can recover from even the slightest blip in a training schedule.

Given War of Will’s impressive frame and his clear talent Casse is as optimistic as he can be. The good news is, there’s plenty of time to recover. The less optimistic view is that there won’t be a bounce back opportunity until they race for the garland of roses under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

FINISH LINES

Godolphin filly Divine Image tops the field for this week’s faraway prep, the $2.5 million UAE Derby. With 100 Derby points on the line to the victor, a win would get her in the field for the opening jewel of the Triple Crown … Not to be ignored from War of Will’s disappointment in New Orleans was the impressive win from By My Standards, the 22-1 upset winner of the Louisiana Derby. “The light went on,” trainer Bret Calhoun said of a colt that had been flat in his previous starts and won for just the second time in five career races.

DERBY TOP FIVE

1 . Game Winner, trainer Bob Baffert
Showed us enough in his runner-up finish in his division of the Rebel Stakes to keep the two-year-old champ in the forefront of the contenders list. Baffert has pegged the Santa Anita Derby as his next start, a well-worn route for the silver-haired trainer on his way to the Kentucky Derby.

2. Omaha Beach, trainer Richard Mandella
Since he beat the champ, the Beach has to be taken seriously and he certainly looked fit and talented in his Rebel win. Next up for Mandella is the Arkansas Derby on April 13.

3. Improbable, trainer Bob Baffert
Like his stablemate, this colt’s unbeaten streak was vanquished at Oaklawn but he also showed plenty in his runner-up effort in the Rebel. Baffert will separate his two stars, however, sending him to the Arkansas Derby for his final Derby prep.

4. Code of Honor, trainer Shug McGaughey
While Bill Mott’s Hidden Scroll is getting the morning-line love for the Florida Derby, we still remain impressed with this guy’s Fountain of Youth win. He gets the chance to duplicate it on Saturday.

5. War of Will, trainer Mark Casse
With obvious excuses for his ninth-place effort in the Louisiana Derby, we’ll keep WOW on our list. To remain, however, Casse will have to get him on the work tab soon.

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Follow Rob Longley’s weekly column on Woodbine.com chronicling the path to the Kentucky Derby, set for Saturday, May 4 at Churchill Downs. Be sure to join us in celebrating the first jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown at Woodbine’s annual exclusive Derby Day Party featuring fabulous food, fashion and entertainment. Tickets are now on sale at Ticketmaster.ca.
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