1 - Amidst all of the dreary, depressing, negative news surrounding trainer Bob Baffert and his banishment from the 2022 Kentucky Derby is a potentially uplifting story concerning octogenarian Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who suddenly has become a potential player in this year’s Spring Classics, not with a colt, but with an immensely talented and vastly-improved filly named Secret Oath.
The winner of a maiden sprint at Churchill Downs on Halloween with a modest speed figure and well-beaten in the other two starts during her juvenile campaign, Secret Oath is either an Oaklawn Park freak or a serious race filly, her most recent victory earned last Saturday in the Honeybee S.-G2 with such authority that Lukas now is contemplating – and rightfully so - a start in Arkansas Derby-G1 against the boys.
Lukas, who won the Run for the Roses in 1989 with the filly Winning Colors, certainly had interest in the Rebel S.-G2 run later on that same program as the trainer of 15-1 outsider Ethereal Road, who struck the front in mid-stretch before being worn down in the closing strides by 75-1 Un Ojo. While he certainly was quite pleased with the improvement displayed by his recent maiden winner, Lukas came away way less than impressed with the Rebel itself, noting how much faster the filly finally ran in Honeybee.
Secret Oath (1:44.74) earned a 93 Beyer number. For his Rebel win, Un Ojo (1:45.69) was assigned a figure of 84. So, a decision to forego the $600,000 Fantasy S.-G2 – which would be a slam dunk for her – in favor of the Arkansas Derby on that same April 2 program - would hardly be rash.
Secret Oath is from the first crop of Arrogate, the top class racehorse and promising sire who had to be put down in June of 2020 after beginning his stud career two years earlier. Arrogate’s runners to date haven’t had much success, but Secret Oath looks very much like the real deal and gives every indication that she’ll continue to excel as the distances increase. Lukas had the foresight to nominate her to both the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, so now it’s a matter of accumulating points toward the Triple Crown’s first jewel to assure her a place in the starting gate. A win or a second place finish against the colts in Hot Springs next month would do the trick.
We’re hoping she gets the chance.
2 - Un Ojo – the name means “One Eye” in Spanish because he lost one in a paddock accident as a yearling – took full advantage of a perfect, rail-skimming trip to produce the Rebel’s shocking result that confirmed what most handicappers believed prior to the race, that this was an unusually weak renewal and most likely would not produce a Kentucky Derby favorite, or even a contender. A New York-bred gelding who had won his maiden at Delta Downs in November, the son of Laoban entered the race with a career top Beyer speed figure from five starts of just 71, which he earned when he picked up the pieces to be a distant second in the low-rated Withers S.-G3.
If nothing else, the win by Un Rojo should somewhat boost the form of that slowly run race and give backers of Withers winner Early Voting a reason for optimism. As for the also-rans in the Rebel, including the Baffert-trained and previously unbeaten Newgrange, who enjoyed a perfect stalking trip but had nothing to give when put to pressure, their connections should probably lower their sights a rung or two.
3 - Most race mares with her credentials have long been sent to the breeding shed by the time they reach six years of age, so it is a bit surprising that champion Letruska has been kept her in training at this advanced racing age. She really didn’t have to do much running to win the Royal Delta S.-G3 in her seasonable bow at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, as the noted front-runner was allowed to crawl on the lead (:24.1, :48.3) before coasting home at 10 cents on the dollar while registering a highly-respectable 96 Beyer speed figure.
The daughter of Super Saver now has won 18 of 24 career starts in a career that began in October of 2018 in Mexico City. If she remains sound and healthy, her campaign should include a half dozen or so races this year, including the Breeders’ Cup Distaff-G1 (at Keeneland), the race she finished tenth of eleven last fall when she fell victim to a suicidal early pace that cooked her along with several others who found themselves too close to the early heat.
Letruska will be bred in 2023, which means that if there are no complications, her first foal won’t make it to the track until 2026 at the earliest, when the mare will already be 10 years old. Once a broodmare gets into her teens, her racing exploits becomes secondary to her produce record, which is why most breeders rarely wait this long to get the clock started.
But, as race fans, we’re happy to enjoy her talents for another year. Her next stop most likely will be at Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Apple Blossom S.-G2 April 23.
4 - We didn’t put much time into handicapping the Saudi World Cup (three minutes?) but when we examined postrace the past performances of Emblem Road, his race record certainly made him look more competitive than your usual $229 winner.
An American-bred son of Quality Road that brought $80,000 at the OBS April sale, the 4-year-old colt had won seven of nine career starts in Saudi Arabia including his previous three in stakes company, so when he rallied wide to nail the Santa Anita-based Country Grammer, it didn’t seem like it should have been THAT much of a shock.
Even in defeat, this was a huge comeback performance, easily the race of his career, for Country Grammer in only his tenth lifetime start, his third since joining the Baffert barn, and his first since winning the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita last May. The son of Tonalist now is headed to Dubai along with Saudi World Cup third place finisher Midnight Bourbon for the Dubai World Cup March 26 where they will hook up with recent Meydan winner Hot Rod Charlie and Life Is Good, the likely favorite following his dominant performance in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in late January.
In the old days, they all would have met in the Santa Anita Handicap. Good times.
5 - We’re still including the Baffert-trained Messier in our rankings, at least for another week, though most experts who publish these lists are not. Keep in mind that horses from the Baffert barn cannot earn qualifying points for the Run for the Roses, but we’re assuming – perhaps falsely - that his people will find a replacement trainer for the final significant points-generating event, most likely in his case the Santa Anita Derby-G1, that take place four weeks prior to the first Saturday in May. Even with zero points prior to this race, a win or a second place finish will be sufficient to gain entrance to the Triple Crown’s first jewel.
Remember, this list is based on potential and projection, not resume.
The Main Players:
1 – Messier (B. Baffert) – According to the speed figure he earned in the Robert B. Lewis S.-G3, he is currently the fastest 3-year-old on the Triple Crown trail. He has no Derby points, but he could get them when he needs them, with a temporary trainer change the obvious last-resort solution. He posted his first workout in more than three weeks at Santa Anita Feb. 28 when looking terrific breezing a half mile in :48 3/5 in company with El Camino Real Derby winner Blackadder.
2 – Emmanuel (T. Pletcher) – A strong, powerful son of More Than Ready that has yet to be extended after two very impressive victories, he surely will get tested in his next start, the jampacked Fountain of Youth S.-G2 at Gulfstream Park March 5.
3 – Smile Happy (K. McPeek) – Lost little when suffering his first career defeat in a better-than-looked runner-up effort behind “loose-on-the-lead” Epicenter in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds. The Runhappy colt was caught in traffic and then finished with purpose against the grain after getting clear too late. He’ll have one more race – yet undisclosed – before his Derby run.
4 – White Abarrio (S. Joseph, Jr.) – His only defeat came when third to Smile Happy in the KJC S.-G2 last fall. He remained unbeaten in three starts at Gulfstream Park with his victory in the Holy Bull S.-G3 compliments of a perfect stalking trip that made his task easier than it should have been. Likely to be seen next in the Florida Derby-G1 April 2, when he’ll either verify this performance or be found out.
5 – Rattle N Roll (K. McPeek) – Concluded his juvenile campaign with a smart maiden win followed by a dominating score in the Breeders’ Futurity, both from off the pace. A sharp :58 3/5 five furlong drill at Gulfstream Park Feb. 26 indicates he should fit enough for a good effort in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 March 5.
6 - Classic Causeway (B. Lynch) – Verified the promise shown during his juvenile campaign when cutting out legit fractions and continuing with authority to win the Sam F. Davis S.-G3 in his sophomore debut. Likely to return in the Tampa Bay Derby-G2 March 12.
7 – Epicenter (S. Asmussen) - Happily accepted his role as the controlling speed in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds and made the most of the opportunity in his gate-to-wire triumph that produced a career top 98 Beyer speed figure. He has never taken a backward move in four starts, but what happens when early pressure is applied, or when he is forced to take dirt? Next stop, the Louisiana Derby-G2 March 26.
8 - Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas) - Was only moderate-to-good in a three-race campaign as a 2-year-old but is vastly improved, winning all three of her starts at Oaklawn Park in 2022, each win more impressive than the previous. Logically, she would make her next start in the Fantasy S-G3 next month, but trainer Wayne Lukas is considering taking on the colts in the Arkansas Derby-G1. She may be good enough to win it.
9 – Zozos (B. Cox) – Undefeated in two starts, a game maiden sprint win at Fair Grounds in January and then a middle distance allowance pace-stalking score by more than 10 lengths at Oaklawn Park that produced an 88 Beyer speed figure. The son of Munnings has been visually very impressive, but with no points and time running out he needs to make his next race count.
10 – Charge It (T. Pletcher) – Missed by a neck in his debut in January over a one-turn mile and then annihilated maidens at that same trip by more than eight lengths while never taking a deep breath and earning a 93 Beyer speed figure. Time is short leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but the talent is there. His next race is pivotal.
11 – Early Voting (C. Brown) – Undefeated in two starts, a maiden win and a dominating score in the nine-furlong Withers over the deeper-than-quicksand main track at Aqueduct. The number came up weak, but the runner-up returned to win the Risen Star S.-G2, so there’s hope that the race was stronger than originally rated.
12 – Zandon (C. Brown) – Won his debut sprinting, was unlucky when nosed out in the 9F Remsen S.-G2, and then was victimized by a wide trip and a lack of pace when third in the Risen Star S.-G2 in his sophomore debut. He’s a grinder but will run all day and may eventually be best suited as a Belmont Stakes-type. The Blue Grass S.-G1 is next.
13 – Mo Donegal (T. Pletcher) – Didn’t get the best of runs when rallying too late to be third in the Holy Bull S.-G3. Lacks a great turn of foot but has no distance limitations and has plenty of room to develop with additional experience. Was entered as the 5/2 morning like favorite in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 (March 5) but drew a poor post and is not certain to start.
14 – Forbidden Kingdom (R. Mandella) – If there is a colt out West that can get in front of Messier over a distance of ground, it’s him. Loved his San Vicente S.-G2 score over seven furlongs, but the question is, how far can this son of American Pharoah run? After a recent workout in which he broke off a few lengths behind a stable mate and couldn’t catch him. we have our doubts.
15 – Major General (T. Pletcher) – Two-for-two as a juvenile, including the Iroquois S.-G3 at Churchill Downs. How much progress has he made over the winter? A solid, steady workout pattern at Palm Beach Downs should have him fit enough by now, but time is running out. When and where will he make his seasonable bow?
Knocking on the Door:
16 – Call Me Midnight
17 – Simplification
18 – In Due Time
19 – Un Ojo
20 – Blackadder