A Look at the 2021 Kentucky Derby Hopefuls
With eight weeks to go until the first Saturday in May, Southern California is once again gearing up for the Kentucky Derby.
There will be no waiting until Labor Day for America’s biggest horse race this time. No, it is back in its usual spot on the racing calendar, and several horses are being pointed to the spring classic.
Of course, the Southland is a perennial bastion of talented three-year-olds, and this season is no exception. Several sophomores are in the hunt for a Derby berth in early March. Anything can happen in the next two months, but right now quite a few colts are building their case to be part of the lineup in Louisville.
How do they stack up at this point in the prep season? Let’s look at a few of them.
The Story So Far: This Bob Baffert charge is 2-for-2 as we wrap up the winter. Both starts have come over Santa Anita's main track, where Concert Tour beat maiden special weight company on debut before stepping up to win the Grade II San Vicente Stakes.
What's Next: Baffert announced this past weekend that Concert Tour will be entered in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park next Saturday. A colt who has clearly shown promise in his budding career, Concert Tour will get a spot in the Derby if he wins. A second or lower will require another prep race.
The question now is distance. Concert Tour has yet to attempt a route, but he is bred for 1 1/4 miles. His sire is 2007 Derby champ Street Sense, and he is a descendant of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled.
Employing different running styles in each outing, Concert Tour has won from taking the early lead and with a stalking trip. Having that repertoire is always beneficial come the first Saturday in May.
Depending on how the schedule shakes out for Concert Tour, a spot in Louisville could happen in the Rebel.
The Story So Far: Introduced to the public at Del Mar last summer, the son of Violence took the lead from the outset and never looked back in a five furlong maiden special weight race on the dirt. After being on the shelf for six months, he rebounded to take second in the San Vicente behind stablemate Concert Tour, and was fourth in the Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
What's Next: With Life Is Good and possibly Medina Spirit slated for the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert will seek to put Freedom Fighter in a race to maximize his chances to accumulate sufficient Derby points. Since he already has experience over Aqueduct’s main surface, the Wood Memorial could be next.
That said, Freedom Fighter must prove whether he can handle going a mile or longer. He can count Medaglia d'Oro as part of the family tree, so there is some distance pedigree.
A win or second in his next prep is needed for Freedom Fighter getting a ticket to the Derby. But even if he gets in, will there be sufficient improvement to take on Life Is Good or another rival?
The Great One
The Story So Far: It took a few starts for this Nyquist colt to earn his diploma. Before his 14 length romp at Santa Anita in January, The Great One had three off the board finishes before taking second in the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity to Spielberg (who beat him in their first encounter at Del Mar).
His follow up to the big win came in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, where he finished fifth after initially being in close pursuit of the leader.
What’s Next?: Since he is a son of Nyquist, it seems like The Great One is bred for the Derby. Still, it’s tough to get a read on him. He beat a small field to graduate, and has lost to Life Is Good, Medina Spirit, and Spielberg.
What does this mean? It’s not certain what The Great One’s next start will consist of, or whether he stays on the Derby trail. He seems to prefer not being on the lead, but rather staying close and making a move. He has led early before getting overtaken a couple of times, so that does not seem to be his preferred running method.
The Great One can always improve, but if he stays in the hunt for a Derby berth, he will likely ship. It’s possible he could go in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, but he will need no less than second place, and he has yet to beat Life Is Good. And if Medina Spirit shows up there, he will have to turn the tables on him as well.
Right now, the Great One is not on the level of some of his fellow sophomores.
Hot Rod Charlie
The Story So Far: After coming up winless at Del Mar, the son of Oxbow graduated at Santa Anita’s autumn meet before running a surprise second in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In his most recent start, Hot Rod Charlie was part of a good stretch battle in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis, getting third in the contest.
What’s Next? Hot Rod Charlie’s follow up to the Lewis will be the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 20. With only 10 points to his credit, he needs a second or better to have enough points for Churchill Downs, assuming he does not have another prep race.
It is a wise move on O’Neill’s part to send Hot Rod Charlie to another state to maximize his Derby chances. He showed some fight in the Lewis, so he does have some battle testing, which is important for the first Saturday in May. Plus, this will offer a look as to how Hot Rod Charlie will take to shipping.
He has some classic pedigree in him, being a son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow, and is related to Awesome Again, Seattle Slew, and Northern Dancer.
Doug O’Neill can saddle a Derby winner, and Hot Rod Charlie might like going a mile and a quarter. Improvement can be had, and it will be interesting to see how he performs in the Louisiana Derby.
Life Is Good
The Story So Far: No one has been able to stop this son of Into Mischief in three starts. He demolished maiden special weight company by 9 3/4 lengths at Del Mar’s summer meet, took the Grade III Sham Stakes by 3/4 of a length, and easily handled everyone in the San Felipe Stakes by 8 lengths. He has led at every point of call, too.
What’s Next: The Santa Anita Derby on April 3. Life Is Good will not only be the morning line favorite, but the post time favorite. In terms of points, the San Felipe gave him more than enough to be solidly in the field, going by previous Kentucky Derby point totals. Thus, the Santa Anita Derby is not a must win.
As for the stretch run in the San Felipe, Jay Privman of Daily Racing Form reported on Twitter that Mike Smith noticed the colt looked at the video board in the stretch, and that it doesn’t happen during workouts when the board is off. It’s clear that if he improves, he will be even better.
You have to go back a bit in the pedigree, but Life Is Good is related to A.P. Indy and Seattle Slew, both of whom are no strangers to ten furlongs. And also part of the family tree is Raise a Native, who has been prominent in many a Kentucky Derby winner’s lineage.
As it stands now, Life Is Good is Southern California’s top sophomore.
The Story So Far: The Bob Baffert colt has alternated between first and second in his initial four outings. After winning on debut at Los Alamitos, he followed stablemate Life Is Good around Santa Anita’s main oval in the Sham. Victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes came next, and he came up with a nice second in the San Felipe behind Life Is Good once more.
What’s Next: Medina Spirit had arguably the most underrated performance on Big ‘Cap Day. He got the better end of a scrap for second in the San Felipe, and earned his placing. The trouble is that he had nothing for Life Is Good. But there is clear talent here, and Medina Spirit has shown tactical speed, which can help on Derby Day.
He sits at 34 points, so a second or better in his next start will be enough to lock him in the Derby field. The question, however, is where he will race. Bob Baffert talked about this the day after the San Felipe, and Medina Spirit could go in the Santa Anita Derby. He also might race in the Blue Grass or the Wood Memorial, and the Arkansas Derby could be in play, too.
And the bloodline? Like his aforementioned stablemate, Medina Spirit counts A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew and Secretariat among his relatives, and 1990 Kentucky Derby champ Unbridled is in there, too.
Medina Spirit is a nice horse, but he has yet to beat Life Is Good, and that is a question he will be asked again sooner or later if he stays on the Derby trail.
The Story So Far: A debut winner going a mile on Del Mar’s turf course, Rombauer had terrible luck in the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf but still didn’t lose by much after a sixth place finish. His main track debut produced a second in the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes, followed by a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to complete his freshman campaign.
For his three-year-old bow, Rombauer came from off the pace to win the 1 1/8 mile El Camino Real Derby, a Grade III offering at Golden Gate Fields.
What’s Next: That is to be determined, but what we do know is that Rombauer likes to rally. It seems like ten furlongs is up his alley, and he has 2003 Pacific Classic champion Candy Ride as a grandsire, so it is possible he could get the distance.
More points are needed, however. The El Camino Real Derby win netted Rombauer 10 points, and past history shows that 50 points will be plenty to get in. Therefore, no less than second place next time out is necessary.
But if Rombauer is part of the Derby lineup, a fast pace will be his best friend. And there is a possibility he might have to go wide in the stretch, which he has done before. Will he have enough in the tank? And can he avoid trouble? One thing about him, though. He is battle tested, and the Del Mar Juvenile Turf is proof of that.
The Story So Far: There was class from the beginning, with Spielberg placing in a pair of graded stakes before breaking his maiden at the conclusion of the Santa Anita autumn meet. An off the board result followed in the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar, but then Spielberg came up with a Grade II victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
In two starts as a sophomore, Spielberg has a fourth in the Robert B. Lewis and a second in Oaklawn’s Grade III Southwest Stakes.
What’s Next: Spielberg has 17 points for the Kentucky Derby. If he is going to Louisville, he will need a first or second in his next race. That being said, the Santa Anita Derby can be ruled out since Life Is Good will be entered there. Baffert mentioned this past weekend that the Arkansas Derby or Wood Memorial is possible. If neither of those happen, maybe the Blue Grass?
Spielberg lost to a couple of stablemates in the Lewis, so that already puts him a step behind. But there are positives. He did take to an off track in the Southwest, and rain is always possible in the Kentucky Derby. And he does have Smart Strike, 1964 Kentucky Derby champion Northern Dancer and Native Dancer among his ancestors.
Spielberg could get the distance, and is a nice horse. You don’t win or place in multiple stakes without having some degree of talent. But as it stands now, he cannot be considered one of the top Derby horses.
It is an exciting time in Southern California racing, and one of its three-year-olds could stand as Kentucky Derby champion on May 1.
If so, who will it be?
Published by Support California Horse Racing on March 8, 2021.