Fair Hill trainers and colts that spent time at the premier thoroughbred training center are making noise in the 2014 Derby preps. Both Graham Motion’s Ring Weekend and Rick Violette’s Samraat punched their ticket to Louisville in March races.
Give it up for Samraat, one hard-nosed colt. Race fans will be hard-pressed to come up with a Derby prep finish as thrilling as the one in the $500,000 Gotham Stakes run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct Racetrack. Coming from slightly off the pace the colt spotted weight to Uncle Sigh (five pounds) and In Trouble (three pounds), while jockey Jose Ortiz showed the utmost confidence hand-riding Samraat to the finish, turning back the inside challenges of Uncle Sigh and In Trouble.
Samraat improved his record to five wins in as many starts. With the victory, he earned 50 points in the Kentucky Derby qualifying system, and as of the second week of March the son of Noble Causeway led all horses with 60 points.
"He proved he is a real horse," said trainer Violette, who sends some of his horses to Bob Triola at Perfect Sky I barn at Fair Hill. "This was a good field, a deep field of horses."
There has been only one Gotham winner to go on to win the Run for the Roses, and that dates back to the mighty Secretariat in 1973. That daunting statistic didn’t faze Violette. He’s got Derby fever.
"I'd be lying if I said we weren't already thinking about it," the trainer confessed.
In his first three outings, Samraat led every step of the way as he defeated New York-bred rivals by a combined 25 lengths. He has proven more handy in a pair of graded stakes attempts, settling nicely just off the pace in both Gotham and the Grade-3 Withers Stakes where Samraat and Uncle Sigh battled determinedly through the stretch before Samraat edged away by a length at the wire.
"A couple of races before the Derby this probably toughens him, it was another stretch-long, hard duel, but Jose never hit him," the trainer said. "He's an honest racehorse and there might be a little left.”
Samraat earned a third consecutive 99 BRIS Speed rating for the neck decision in the Gotham. Violette’s Financial Mogul, fourth in the race was at Fair Hill for the month of February.
Fair Hill trainer Tony Dutrow did a bang-up job getting In Trouble ready for the Gotham. He finished a neck behind runner-up Uncle Sigh, making his first start since winning the six-furlong Futurity on September 29. The Wood Memorial on April 5 is next for the top three finishers from the Gotham.
In 2013 things on the Derby Trail couldn’t have gone any smoother for trainer Shug McGaughey. His colt Orb scored solid victories in a pair of key Derby prep races in Florida that catapulted the horse to a thrilling come from behind victory in the 139th running of the Run of the Roses.
This year, it’s a whole different story.
Top Billing, one of the most touted Kentucky Derby contenders, was knocked off the Derby Trail when he suffered a cracked cannon bone in his right front leg during a routine half-mile workout at Palm Meadows Training Center in south Florida on March 8.
“He worked fine and galloped out nicely but you could see he was not comfortable on the way back to the barn,” said McGaughey. "We took him back to the barn, x-rayed it and found it."
Four days later McGaughey’s other Derby prospect Honor Code was making his first start since winning the Grade-2 Remsen Stakes defeating Cairo Prince at Aqueduct last November. The Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm's colt was making his fourth start. He missed ten days of training due to minor bruising in his back ankles in early January while training at Payson Park. McGaughey transferred Honor Code from Payson to Gulfstream once he was ready to resume training the end of the month.
Bettors fully expected the regally-bred colt, their 1-2 favorite, to win the 1 1/16-mile $75,000 allowance race for 3-year-olds. But it was the speedy colt Social Inclusion who stole the show, whipping Honor Code by 10 lengths who was 17 1/4 lengths clear of third place-finisher We're All Set.
“I knew how the race was going to set up. (Social Inclusion) had speed and he had two 35-second works since he ran, so I knew he would go,” said McGaughey, who now operates a barn at Fair Hill. “The track was really fast. I’m disappointed he didn’t win, but we got a race into him and I don’t think Javier (Castellano) killed him by any means. We’ll see if he goes forward off of this. I think the horse that won is a very, very special horse.”
Trained by 85-year-old Manny Azpurua, Social Inclusion never let Honor Code into the race, tearing around the Gulfstream track uncontested in the track-record time of 1:40.97 under jockey Luis Contreras.
“The track had been playing pretty fast so it’s hard to catch up to the horses that go out on the lead,” said jockey Castellano. “With a small field, sometimes it’s hard with my horse’s style, he likes to come from behind. I had to use him a little bit to be tactical and he responded. I’m very fortunate with the way he did it today. It was a good performance. Unfortunately we got beat. But I like to look at the big picture – Honor Code’s season is just starting and I’m pleased with the way he came back.”
Qualification for the Kentucky Derby is based on points earned by the top four finishers in designated prep races. At least 20 to 25 points are expected to be needed to earn one of the 20 spots in 2014 the Run for the Roses on May 3. Honor Code, sitting on 14 points, will need to finish 1-2-3 in his final Derby prep. The race will be the Florida Derby (March 29) or the Wood Memorial (April 5). Both races offer 100-50-20-10 points for the top four finishers.
Surgery for Top Billing
As for Top Billing, he was shipped to Kentucky and was operated on by Dr. Larry Bramlage. The surgery to repair Top Billing’s cracked cannon bone went very well, according to McGaughey and the prognosis for his recovery is good. The trainer had been pointing the 3-year old son of Curlin to the Grade- 1 Florida Derby on March 29. He races for William S. Farish and E.J. Hudson, Jr.
“Everything went perfectly,” McGaughey said. “They put in a plate and screws. He’ll likely stay up there and recuperate at WinStar Farm. If all goes well, we can have him back in training in about four months.”
Add Top Billing’s name to a growing list of top-flight 3-year olds who look like no shows for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. The 2013 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner New Years Day was retired in December after sustaining a non-displaced chip on the left hind sesamoid. The 2013 Champagne Stakes winner Havana is still out with a quarter crack. Another highly touted prospect, Bayern was scratched with a bruised inside quarter from the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 8.
Foot and leg issues are like no other issues. They tend to linger. In mid-March trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confirmed that 2-year-old champion male Shared Belief will not be targeting the Kentucky Derby. The California colt has been sidelined with a quarter-crack on his right front foot and has not turned in a workout since January 3. Unbeaten in three starts (two stakes wins) the California colt has earned $451,200. He had zero Derby points.
Graham Motion has no such concerns. His chestnut gelding Ring Weekend bolted to the early lead and never looked back in the Grade-2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8. He paid $30 to win and earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
By the half-mile Ring Weekend had opened about eight lengths on the field of nine others, and was still clear by about 5 1/2 lengths turning for home after three quarters in 1:11.14. The son of Tapit triumphed in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby in a sparkling 1:43.71 on a fast track, less than one second off the track record. He earned a 94 Speed Figure.
“Coming out of the inside post I had to get him to start well, but when I got to the first turn it was like he got mad at me for not letting him run," said jockey Daniel Centeno. "He wasn't rank, he was just full of himself and I had to give him his head. I knew I was clear of the field and I didn't want to get run down. I was able to get him to relax and save something for the stretch. He was looking around getting into the stretch and I was getting concerned, but when he switched leads he just took off again."
St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds' Ring Weekend tried for his maiden victory four times before finally getting the job done from post 10 in a 1 1/16-mile Gulfstream test one race prior to the Tampa Bay.
"I wouldn't say my confidence was high, but I really thought he was legit," related the Fair Hill trainer. "I took him to Saratoga to try to break his maiden, that's how much I liked him. I think gelding him got his mind on the game. I just left the ride to Daniel, I knew he could take advantage of the post position because the inside was good today and to just make sure he broke well and put him where he is comfortable.
"I think the others kind of left him alone because they possibly didn't consider him a legit horse and he got away with it. When the jockey looks behind him that much, you feel like he has a lot left. I could never have anticipated him winning like that."
The Tampa Bay Derby has produced the Kentucky Derby winner twice in recent years-- Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010). Nine of the last 10 winners of the race have gone on to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Two races prior to the Tampa Bay Derby, Motion won the Grade-3 Hillsborough Stakes with Cloud Scapes. Motion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby and 2013 Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom.
The Trunk Money
Finally there is The Trunk Money. Trained by Larry Jones and owned by Rick Porter, the speedy gray colt is perfect from two starts. He made his debut over six furlongs at Fair Grounds on January 31 where he out-dueled Glacken Too, ending up a neck better at the wire. In an entry-level optional claimer on February 28, The Trunk Monkey broke somewhat awkwardly but was soon righted by Rosie Napravnik to track the pace from the outside. After an opening quarter of 23.40, The Trunk Monkey reeled off his next two furlongs in 22.75 and drew clear winning by 6 1/2 lengths.
By second-crop stallion Old Fashioned (also owned by Porter), a son of Unbridled's Song, The Trunk Monkey is getting a late start on the Derby Trail and will need a 1-2-3 finish in the final round of Derby preps to make it Louisville.