In this instalment of our coverage of the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, we look at the latest colts to gain ranking points and put themselves in the big-race picture, as well as taking another pass over recent developments in the Bob Baffert betamethasone saga, which at time of writing means that Kentucky Derby favourite Corniche remains ineligible for the great race at Churchill Downs next May.
Smile stakes his claim
The recent renewals of the Remsen and the Kentucky Jockey Club, both important milestones on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, have brought changes at the top of the futures book as some horses come into focus and others drift out.
The biggest impact was made by Smile Happy, now unbeaten in two following his impressive success in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs over a mile-sixteenth. His odds were cut to 15-1 third-favourite, after the Runhappy colt stepped straight out of maiden company to deliver a dominant performance under the twin spires, clearing away through the stretch to beat Classic Causeway (40-1) by three and a quarter lengths in a solid time.
Smile Happy’s rise to prominence gives trainer Kenny McPeek three leading candidates for the ‘Run for the Roses’, as he also has Grade 1 winner Rattle N Roll and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Tiz The Bomb near the top of the Derby market. Smile Happy is now set for a short break before being prepared for the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park on January 29, another ten-point race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings.
Last weekend’s Grade 2 Remsen over a mile-eighth at Aqueduct added two names to the list of contenders, as Mo Donegal and Zandon fought out a thrilling stretch duel that got a little rough in the closing stages, although the stewards took no action. Mo Donegal – a son of Uncle Mo and now a 20-1 shot in the futures book – took his record to two-for-three when edging home by a nose, with the pair almost ten lengths clear of the third horse. His trainer Todd Pletcher also has Commandperformance and Major General in Derby consideration.
Given the narrowness of the winning margin, it’s a little surprising that Zandon, a son of Upstart with a one-for-two record, is twice the price of his Aqueduct conqueror at 45-1 in the futures book. With less experience and arguably suffering from interference, Zandon ran an eyecatching race and his next outing – which has not yet been determined – is eagerly awaited. His trainer Chad Brown can also count on Derby second-favourite Jack Christopher as the competition warms up through the winter.
Further down the oddsmakers’ lists, there was a very promising performance from Sir London (75-1) at Los Alamitos. The Simon Callaghan-trained Malibu Moon colt, a $700,000 purchase earlier this year, got off the mark at the third time of asking with a gate-to-wire demolition of his four rivals, crossing the line ten lengths clear in a mile maiden. He has some way to go before announcing himself as a true contender, but he’s certainly headed in the right direction.
The next point of call on the Road is the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity, over a mile-sixteenth at the eponymous California track on Saturday, in which Grade 3 winner Messier (20-1) and Grade 1 scorer Pinehurst (35-1) are expected to be major fancies for trainer Bob Baffert. Which leads us neatly on to . . .
Baffert and the betamethasone
There can’t be anyone who doesn’t know the story of how Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby and tested positive for the anti-inflammatory corticosteroid betamethasone, triggering an ugly saga of blame, suspensions and ongoing uncertainty.
Very unfortunately, poor Medina Spirit died after a workout at Santa Anita on Monday, likely from a heart attack. His name will continue to be dragged through the courts and committee rooms, as there has been no confirmation regarding whether he will be disqualified from his Derby victory.
Something that might bring that decision forward was last week’s announcement that a test of the colt’s post-race urine sample has indicated the source of the betamethasone. An attorney working for Bob Baffert released a statement that confirmed the drug did not come from an injection but, as Baffert had previously declared, from an anti-fungal cream marketed as Otomax and generally used to treat ear infections in dogs.
Betamethasone may be legally used on horses, but it must clear the system before race-day. From the statement, it may be inferred that Medina Spirit’s positive test was down to sloppy stable management rather than malicious intent to dope the horse, and Baffert will hope that this finding will be sufficient mitigation to avoid the colt’s disqualification.
This depends very much on whether the regulators consider the definitive presence of the drug to be more important than the source of its presence; when all is taken into account, Medina Spirit inescapably tested positive for a banned substance on race-day. Watch this space.
The outcome of the ‘disqualification decision’ may have an influence on the suspensions under which Baffert currently operates. He is not permitted to run horses at New York tracks – a hearing on the subject is reportedly due to take place on January 24 – and is barred from racing at Churchill Downs through the 2023 spring meeting at the Louisville venue.
This means that Baffert’s two-year-olds are ineligible for next year’s Kentucky Derby. There are only two ways to make them eligible: move them to a different trainer, or wait to see if Baffert’s suspension is lifted in time for them to gain sufficient RTKD points to enable their participation on the first Saturday in May.
The position is made more pressing because Baffert trains 6-1 Derby favourite Corniche, who is unbeaten in three races, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last time out, and is expected to win the Eclipse Award for champion two-year-old colt. Right now, Corniche cannot run in the Derby, and neither can his stablemates Messier (20-1), Pinehurst (35-1), Rockefeller (45-1), Winning Map (65-1), Murray (75-1) and several others at three-figure future-book odds.
If Medina Spirit’s Derby victory is sanctioned, it may persuade NYRA and Churchill Downs Inc. to lift Baffert’s suspensions. But until the situation is progressed – and the clock is ticking towards early April, when the last major trials for the ‘Run for the Roses’ are scheduled – the hard fact is that the Derby favourite Corniche is not in contention for the Derby.
6-1 Corniche 10-1 Jack Christopher 15-1 Smile Happy 20-1 Messier, Mo Donegal, Pappacap, Rattle N Roll, Tiz The Bomb 22-1 Gunite 25-1 Commandperformance 35-1 Giant Game, Pinehurst 40-1 Classic Causeway, Echo Zulu, Major General, Spin Wheel 45-1 Rockefeller, Zandon 50-1 bar
Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings
12 Pappacap 10 Jack Christopher, Major General, Mo Donegal, Rattle N Roll, Smile Happy 6 Classic Causeway, Commandperformance 4 Double Thunder, Giant Game, Tough To Tame, Zandon 2 Midnight Chrome, Oviatt Class, Red Knobs, White Abarrio, Wit 1 American Sanctuary, Ben Diesel, Bourbon Heist, Mr Jefferson, My Prankster