Five Derby prospects to watch
The moment Game Winner crossed the wire first in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill, the early Kentucky Derby favorite was clearly established. Lengths the best, overcoming a wide trip and midstretch bumping, he showed off all the tools that suggest that, health permitting, he will be a force on the first Saturday in May.
The Derby, however, remains almost six months away – plenty of time for another 2-year-old to rise in prominence and potentially challenge him, or for a setback to derail Game Winner or another prominent contender or two. So who might those leading foes be? Below are five 2-year-olds I most like at this early stage for the run for the roses, along with their current Derby odds, as listed Thursday on the Bovada race book website, which listed Game Winner at 8-1.
Instagrand, 16-1: It was this colt, and not Game Winner, that most West Coast observers expected would win the Del Mar Futurity in early September. Perfect in two starts at that point, with each victory coming by more than 10 lengths, the race seemed his for the taking. Well, that is, until owner Larry Best of OXO Equine unconventionally decided to pull the plug on the colt’s 2-year-old season with the intention of having a fresh horse for 2018.
A $1.2 million purchase in March at Fasig-Tipton, he always performed as if he was worth every dollar of that rich price. A son of Into Mischief, he is by more of a sprinter/miler type of sire, while his female-side pedigree has a mixture of influences. His dam, Assets of War (by Lawyer Ron), scored her only win sprinting but did place at a route.
Improbable, 20-1: He is quite similar to Instagrand in that he is 2 for 2 and by a sire whose progeny are typically most successful in short to middle-distance races – in this case, by City Zip. He gets stamina from the female side of his family, being out of the A.P. Indy mare Rare Event.
In winning the Street Sense on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard at Churchill Downs, in which he sped a mile in 1:35.61, good for a 93 Beyer Speed Figure, he left little doubt that he is a colt with a future. Moreover, nothing about his strong finishing style would suggest distance limitations.
A two-turn test is on deck next, with Baffert mentioning the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 8 as a logical next step.
Vekoma, 25-1: No 2-year-old in the country has run faster on a Beyer Speed Figure scale than this colt, a son of Candy Ride who won the one-mile Nashua on Nov. 4 at Aqueduct with a 99 Beyer. A horse with positional speed but not a need-the-lead type, he laid just off the pace, surged to take command at the head of the lane, and pulled away for a 1 3/4-length triumph.
Left in his wake, 8 3/4 lengths behind him in third, was Call Paul, the Saratoga Special winner who had previously been third, beaten six lengths, in the Grade 1 Champagne.
Less enthusiastically as it applies to the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby, his dam, Mona de Momma, was a sprinter, scoring her greatest victory in the Grade 1, seven-furlong Humana Distaff over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs in 2010. In light of that history, I’m eager to see if this colt can stretch out successfully to two turns, something Mona de Momma failed to do when last of five in the Grade 2 Santa Maria in February 2011.
Also of note, he has a paddling action, particularly with his left front leg – though it has not stopped him from racking up a pair of decisive victories. Sometimes horses with inefficient action can struggle to stay sound.
Network Effect, 33-1: Although no match for Vekoma in the Nashua, staying around two lengths behind him from the turn to the finish, his runner-up effort was still encouraging. It earned him a 95 Beyer, a number still higher than the career-best figures of Instagrand and Improbable.
A relatively modest buy for $95,000 at OBS in April, he has a mixture of dirt and turf blood in his pedigree. His sire, Mark Valeski, was a graded winner at both 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles on dirt, while his dam, Sandy Key Gal, did her best racing on turf from five furlongs to a mile.
Knicks Go, 20-1: I paid him scant attention in the Breeders’ Futurity, a race he won at 70-1, or even in the BC Juvenile, when he was a gritty second at 40-1, but my days of doubting him are over. This speedy colt has developed rapidly in recent months, improving dramatically at a route, and he left a favorable impression by determinedly sticking stick with Game Winner until the eighth pole after pressing a hot pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Trainer Ben Colebrook said in the days after the Juvenile that this horse was possible for the Kentucky Jockey Club on Nov. 24 at Churchill, a race for which Juvenile third-place finisher Signalman also is being considered. Knicks Go will reportedly spend the winter at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Bob-Baffert trained Improbable impressed in winning the one-mile Street Sense Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard at Churchill Downs.