When it comes to the Kentucky Derby and all the prep races leading up to it, the majority of sports fans recognize races such as the Wood Memorial, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby. There are a couple of lesser known races from lesser known race tracks that provide a good path for three year old horses and give them the ability to put themselves on the main stage with a win.
The Grade 3 Sunland Derby offers a whopping $800,000 purse which the winner takes home an important $400,000 of graded stakes earnings. The only way to qualify for the Kentucky Derby is by being in the top 20 lifetime graded stakes earnings. Many top trainers from across the country use this race as a means to get their horse a win, the much needed graded stakes earnings and a trip to Louisville without having to put their horse in a race that doesn’t feature several top contenders.
This year’s field drew a couple of graded stakes winners and a couple of listed stakes winners.
Sunland Park – Sunland Derby (G3) – $800,000 – 1 1/8 miles – Dirt
1. Castaway (KY) – Rafael Bejarano – 122 – Bob Baffert
2. Ender Knievel (KY) – John Velazquez – 122 – Todd Pletcher
3. Stirred Up (VA) – Martin Garcia – 122 – Bob Baffert
4. Isn’t He Clever (KY) – Luis Contreras – 122 – Henry Dominguez
5. No Spin (KY) – Channing Hill – 122 – Tim Ice
6. Daddy Nose Best (KY) – Julien Leparoux – 122 – Steven Asmussen
7. Tequila Factor (KY) – Miguel Hernandez – 122 – C. Wilson
8. Justanoldsong (KY) – Ry Eikleberry – 122 – David Wolochuk
Baffert brings two colts to New Mexico including Grade 3 Southwest Stakes winner Castaway. Oddly enough, he is sired by 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. It took six tries before he broke his maiden at Santa Anita. He was shipped to Oaklawn Park in February and ran away with the first half of the Southwest Stakes. There were two parts of the Southwest Stakes this year due to an abundance of horses entered for the race. So it took six races to break his maiden, but all of a sudden he has back to back wins under his belt. He is the one to beat come Sunday afternoon. Rafael Bejarano will accompany the horse and ride him once again.
The other Baffert colt is the Virginia bred Stirred Up. He comes into the race breaking his maiden third time out at Santa Anita going 1 1/16 miles. A Lemon Drop Kid colt who has been training very well leading up to this race. The barn is really high on this colt and could be a force come Sunday. Martin Garcia gets the mount.
Baffert could use one or both of these horses to be his 2012 version of Prayer for Relief. Baffert steered Prayer for Relief away from the mainstream races and won the Iowa Derby (G3), West Virginia Derby (G2) and Super Derby (G2). Accumulating $901,500 in those three races. I’d say that was a smart move.
The other graded stakes winner in the field is the Steven Asmussen trained Daddy Nose Best. His last race was a narrow win in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. It took four tries last summer for him to break his maiden, doing so at Saratoga going 1 1/16 miles on the turf. He went North of the border and finished 3rd in the Summer Stakes (G3) at Woodbine. He then ran a respectable 6th beaten less than 4 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He got back to the winner’s circle in an Allowance at Churchill Downs. His last race as a two year old was a 5th place effort in the Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita. His last start was the El Camino Real Derby where he defeated Lucky Chappy (IRE) by a nose at Golden Gate. The positive is he has won at 1 1/8 miles distance. The negative is he has yet to win on dirt. He won on turf twice and the El Camino was on the all weather surface. The Sunland Derby could be the perfect spot for him to complete the trifecta and have a win on all three racing surfaces. Julien Leparoux will once again ride.
The first of the two listed stakes winners is Isn’t He Clever. Another son of a Kentucky Derby winner, Smarty Jones. He won his debut at Zia Park in September, then followed it up with an Allowance score. He then shipped to Remington Park and ran 2nd in the Clever Trevor Stakes. He came back to Sunland Park and won the Riley Allison Futurity. The travels continued as the barn shipped him to Southern California for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2). He ran 4th beaten 7 1/2 lengths. His last race was a successful one as he won the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. He has home track advantage and that could play a part in this race. He knows the surroundings and the surface well. He is training well too as he posted a bullet earlier this week going 5 furlongs in 59.40.
The other listed stakes winner is Tequila Factor. Another well travelled colt who has covered most areas of the United States already. It took three tries before breaking his maiden at Arlington Park on the all weather surface. He shipped to Louisiana Downs shortly after and won the Sunny’s Halo Stakes on the turf. After finishing 4th in the Sunday Silence Stakes on the turf, he was shipped to Texas where he won the El Joven Stakes at Retama Park on turf as well. He took a big leap and ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs and ran a distant 14th. Since then, he has been settled in the Southwest where he finished 4th in the Riley Allison Futurity, 5th in the Borderland Derby and most recently 1st in the Tempe Handicap at Turf Paradise on March 17. With just 8 days between races and all the travel over the last few months, it seems this horse could be destined to tire out.
The duo of Todd Pletcher and John Velasquez will make the trip out west with their Distorted Humor colt Ender Knieval. After unsuccessful maiden races at Keeneland, Churchill Downs and first time out at Gulfstream Park, he finally won in convincing fashion by 7 3/4 lengths on February 5 as the even money favorite. He has yet to go further than a mile and he is a front runner. I don’t expect the additional 1/8 mile to affect him too much. If given breathing room on the front end, he could have the opportunity to go gate to wire.
Castaway currently sits in 15th on the overall graded stakes earnings list with $150,000 from the Southwest victory. He is in the driver’s seat and a win would solidify his spot in the Kentucky Derby. The same can be said for Daddy Nose Best, who sits in 17th with his $120,000 from the El Camino Real Derby win. Anything is possible with this type of race though. Last year, it was Twice the Appeal at 25/1 odds and Endorsement won the year before at odds of 11/1.