Welcome to the Derby Countdown, your source for anything and everything in the last days leading up to Kentucky Derby 139 on May 4 at historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Anthony Stabile, best known for picking 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide at odds of over 12-1, will break down the top contenders for this years’ Run for the Roses, exclusively on VegasInsider.com, culminating on Friday, May 3th with an extensive analysis of every runner that steps into the gate for the most exciting two minutes in sports. On both May 3rd and May 4th, Kentucky Oaks and Derby Day, you’ll be able to purchase Stabile’s Pick Packs, full of selections and plays for two of racings’ most exciting days of the year. To purchase Anthony Stabile Kentucky Derby products, CLICK HERE!
In this final edition of the Derby Countdown for 2013 (don’t forget to check back Friday for my Derby Breakdown) we’ll take a look at two that earned their way to Louisville at Gulfstream Park and the remainder of the field, who have done their best work to date in the Bluegrass State. We’ll start with the Floridians.
There’s a pretty good chance no three-year-old made more progress this past winter and spring from last year than ORB. In his debut at Saratoga won by the now-injured but super talented Violence, Orb broke as bad as a horse can and trailed for most of the way before uncorking a furious late rally to finish third by a length.
But in his next two starts, Orb didn’t come close to duplicating his debut effort, acting up terribly at the gate in his next start when he failed miserably as the prohibitive favorite before finishing fourth when he was ridden aggressively on the far turn while wide just to get involved at all. He finally broke his maiden in start number four when stretched back out to a mile but it was hardly an indication of what was to come.
Orb made his seasonal debut, sporting Lasix for the first time, in an entry level allowance contest at Gulfstream in late January. Sent off as the 2-1 second choice, Orb trailed early and appeared to be up against it as the track was favoring speed and the early fractions were pedestrian to say the least. Orb kept coming though once maneuvered to the outside and drew away in deep stretch to win fairly comfortably in his first start around two turns.
Just four weeks later, trainer Shug McGaughey brought this son of Malibu Moon back for the Fountain of Youth, a race in which he’d meet up once again with Violence, who was using the race as his return effort. Again, over a course favoring front runners, Orb made up a ton of ground, collared Violence coming off the turn then outdueled him to the wire. Unlike in his prior start, Orb did get a very fast pace to close into in the Fountain of Youth and that seemed to diminish his effort a bit in the court of public opinion.
McGaughey contemplated a run in the Wood Memorial but ultimately decided that the extra week between the Florida Derby and the Run for the Roses, combined with the fact that Orb seemed to thrive all winter in South Florida, led McGaughey to declare his colt for the marquee event of the Gulfstream meet.
Sent off as the second choice at nearly 3-1, Orb was presented with a moderate early pace in front of him, stayed wide most of the way and came running down the stretch like he had in his two prior starts to win the Florida Derby by a widening 2 ¾ lengths, stamping him as one of the favorites for the Derby and giving his trainer just his second shot at the roses since the great Easy Goer finished second in 1989.
Orb did the bulk of his training for this at his winter base, Payson Park, but still managed to put in one of the more talked about works by a Derby contender at Churchill, going a half mile under a hammerlock in :47 4/5 on 4/29 in one of the most effortless and flawless works these eyes have ever seen. Orb will be reunited with the white-hot Joel Rosario on Saturday after being ridden by John Velazquez, who decided to stay aboard Verrazano, in his last two starts.
Another colt who seemed to love the scene at in the Sunshine State this winter is the Eddie Plesa, Jr. trained ITSMYLUCKYDAY. After winning one of three starts at Monmouth Park last summer, Itsmyluckyday won a pair of minor stakes at Calder before failing to hit the board in the Delta Jackpot and a minor stakes on the turf at Gulfstream.
Less than three weeks after the turf race, Plesa brought his son of Lawyer Ron back for the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Years’ Day and was rewarded with a rousing 6 ¾ length victory. Less than four weeks later, Itsmyluckyday was back for more in the Holy Bull, where Plesa threw him into the deep end of the pool as the Holy Bull was earmarked as the return for the undefeated, Eclipse Award champion juvenile Shanghai Bobby.
Shanghai Bobby drew the rail that day and was forced to use his speed and go straight to the lead, a move that played right into the hands of Elvis Trujillo who was riding Itsmyluckyday for the first time and will be aboard again come Saturday. Itsmyluckyday confronted Shanghai Bobby on the turn and went by him fairly easily in mid-stretch to win by two lengths.
Having run three times in 43 days, Plesa backed off Itsmyluckyday and decided to wait for the Florida Derby as opposed to running back in the Fountain of Youth. Just like in the Holy Bull, Itsmyluckyday was perched in the catbird seat going down the backstretch, sitting two lengths off a sensible early pace set by the stretching out Merit Man. Itsmyluckyday made the lead at the top of the stretch but offered little opposition just yards later when Orb rolled on by.
Unlike most other Derby runners, Itsmyluckyday will not have a work at Churchill prior to the Derby and didn’t even ship until about a week before the race. He worked three times at Calder, including a one mile move in 1:43 1/5 on 4/18.
Over in horse country, the Ken McPeek trained JAVA’S WAR leads the contingent, though he has done most of his best work in races run over synthetic tracks and turf. As a two-year-old, Java’s War won two of his three starts on turf, then finished up the year with a solid third place finish over the Polytrack at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Futurity and an off the board finish after breaking slowly and racing wide in the KJC at Churchill.
Coming off a three and a half month layoff, Java’s War had the misfortune of tackling Verrazano in his sophomore debut but acquitted himself nicely, finishing second beaten three lengths in the Tampa Bay Derby. Switched back to the Keeneland Polytrack for his last start in the Blue Grass, Java’s War broke horribly and appeared to lose all chance just strides out of the gate.
But just like it’s been since they switched from conventional dirt to the synthetic course, the closers thrived in the Blue Grass and Java’s War, under Julien Leparoux, managed to overcome the bad start to close fastest of all while seven wide to get up in the final couple of strides.
A son of War Pass, Java’s War worked five furlongs in 1:02 on 4/27 at Churchill and his connections are hoping that the added distance of the Derby combined with the long stretch past the famous Twin Spires will help their colt this Saturday.
Kentucky’s other major prep for the Derby is the Spiral at Turfway Park, a race that produced 2011 Derby upsetter Animal Kingdom. It figured to produce a starter or two this year as well, namely Uncaptured. I doubt anyone, save his connections, thought it would be BLACK ONYX.
Black Onyx finished second in his debut before breaking his maiden at second asking with both races coming in off the turf races in New York. After finishing fourth in an entry level allowance contest at Gulfstream, the son of Rock Hard Ten was transferred to his current trainer, Kelly Breen.
Black Onyx rolled in his first start for Breen and with Joe Bravo riding, on the turf at Gulfstream before shipping to Turfway for the Spiral. Despite racing wide in the Spiral, Black Onyx put in a bold five wide run and managed to hold off the aforementioned Uncaptured to win comfortably. Breen immediately said Black Onyx was Derby bound.
Though he last raced six weeks ago, Black Onyx has breezed just twice at Churchill, going five panels in 1”00 3/5 on 4/13 and a half mile in :48 3/5 on 4/27.
Earlier in Derby week it appeared as if a full field of 20 was unlikely as a number of defections brought the field to 19. That lasted about 20 minutes before Mike Maker announced FEAR THE KITTEN would enter. The very next day, the connections of GIANT FINISH trumped Fear the Kitten with points and made the field themselves, leaving Fear the Kitten as also eligible.
Trained by Tony Dutrow, Giant Finish was third in the Spiral and is two for five in his career, with both wins coming against fellow New York breds. Jose Espinoza rides the son of Frost Giant.
Should someone scratch out of the race by 9AM on Friday, May 3rd, Fear the Kitten, a son of Kitten’s Joy who’d be ridden by Alan Garcia, would draw into the field. After winning the first two starts of his career, including a maiden claimer, Fear the Kitten has raced graded stakes completion exclusively. He was off the board in the KJC, Spiral and Blue Grass but did finish third in the LeComte at the Fair Grounds and second in the Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
Mike DempseyMike covers the New York racing circuit (Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga) year round as well as Keeneland, Churchill Downs, the Triple Crown, and the Breeders' Cup. The 2015 Triple Crown saw Mike correctly predict American Pharoah to win both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Mike nailed the Exacta and Trifecta in the Belmont Stakes. Mike had a solid 2014 Triple Crown race season, correctly picking the winning horse in 2 of 3 races. He selected I'll Have another to win The Preakness, and nailed Union Rags to win the Belmont Stakes as his top pick. Mike also had past succes in the Kentucky Derby, winning with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and rode his top picks, Super Saver and Street Sense, to the finish line in 2010 and 2007 respectively. No handicapper in the industry works harder to bring you analysis that produces profits at the track! Mike's Reports include his selections, detailed analysis, a fair odds line, and wagering recommendations for the entire card. Join Mike daily with top picks from Belmont or Keeneland. You can also get his Weekend Best Plays Report in his Multi-Track package or sit at the track with him for 30 Days with his Monthly Horse Package!
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Jerry SessaJerry "Shots" Sessa has been involved in horse racing for over 30 years. He now brings his meticulous handicapping style to VegasInsider.com. When Jerry posts picks you are getting his best bets...when you win, he wins. Jerry opened the 2016 Triple Crown season by hitting his Derby Day best bet, Nyquist. He also nailed the Derby exacta for a $30.60 payout. On 4/16/16 at Keeneland, Jerry hit an $819 exacta that led to a $38k Trifecta & a $300k Super.
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