The Road to the KY Derby: What I learned in November
By Louie Rabaut, Horse Racing Happy Hour
The road to Kentucky Derby 150 (some sort of trademark) is well underway – and while it’s far too early to get too excited about any particular colt – I think there have been enough high level Derby Trail races to try and draw some conclusions.
Breeder’s Cup Juvenile – 11/3/2023 – Santa Anita Park | 1 1/16 M, 1:41.90
Fierceness pulled away impressively in the stretch under jockey John Velazquez to win the BC Juvenile for trainer Todd Pletcher. He paid $35 to win – so he wasn’t exactly the betting favorite as he romped to a 6+ length victory. But we’ve seen this story before: Repole Stables, Pletcher, a jockey of the quality of Johnny V.
The breeding says he’ll be fine as he gets back into it in the spring: his dad City Of Light won the Oaklawn Handicap at a mile and an eighth, and closed his career with back-to-back wins in the BC Dirt Mile and Pegasus World Cup – another win at a mile and an eighth. The mile win was over a one-turn mile at Churchill, and the last over two turns at Gulfstream. He had some distance versatility, so I expect the same for Fierceness.
Kentucky Jockey Club – 11/25/23 – Churchill Downs 1:44.31 | 1 1/16 M, 1:44.31
Honor Marie waited his turn and then pulled away impressively to win this year’s rendition of the KY Jockey Club.
This race is clearly a quality step below the BC Juvenile, but it’s worth noting the 2021 version of this race produced a trio of nice horses: Smile Happy, Classic Causeway, and White Abarrio (in order of finish, for clarity’s sake). Smile Happy went on to win the Grade 2 Alysheba this year; Classic Causeway won the G3 Sam F. Davis and G2 Tampa Bay Derby on dirt as a three year-old, and followed it up with a win in the G1 Belmont Derby Invitational on turf. He hasn’t won since, but that’s a solid set of wins as a three year-old. White Abarrio has now won three Grade 1s, most recently the BC Classic. Hell, two better steps in the Cigar Mile, and he’s a four-time G1 winner.
Last year’s edition was far less meaningful long-term: Instant Coffee, Curly Jack, and Hayes Strike don’t exactly get the blood going. It’s worth pointing out that the final time of last year’s KJC was a molasses-timed 1:45.25; this year is nearly a full second faster. It’s not BC Juvenile fast, but these horses also didn’t qualify and/or make the trip to Breeder’s Cup. The Smile Happy win was in a 1:43.94, only a touch faster than this year’s final time.
Could Honor Marie, Real Men Violin, and Stretch Ride be a trio like the 2021 rendition? Time will tell; my sense is – no. Nothing about today’s race inspires that kind of confidence, at least not in my eyes. A reminder, however: last year’s winner, Instant Coffee, won a graded stakes early this year – the G3 Lecomte at FGNOLA. Look for Honor Marie to pick off a race or two in the spring, even as others develop and pass him.
Fierceness is – for me – the most intriguing runner of this year’s two year-old route dirt races. All the connections, the breeding… it’s all there. I think he’s well-positioned to take a major step forward in the spring.
Louie’s Kentucky Derby 150 Top 5 for 11/25/2023:
Contender Jockey Trainer Sire
- Fierceness J Velazquez/ Pletcher/ City of Light
- Nash F Geroux/ Cox/ Medaglia D’Oro
- Knightbridge J Graham/ Mott/ Nyquist
- Muth JJ Hernandez/ Baffert/ Good Magic
- Locked J Ortiz/ Pletcher/ Gun Runner
Timberlake (Geroux/Cox/Into Mischief)
Liberal Arts (Torres/Medina/Arrogate)