By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
10:31 AM EDT, April 3, 2014
With two weekends of key prep races to go, the Kentucky Derby field is still taking shape. At this time last week, Cairo Prince was a popular choice for Derby favorite. Now? He’s a horse who finished fourth in the Florida Derby and might not accumulate enough points to qualify for the big race on May 3.
That said, here are a few horses to keep an eye on as we draw near Triple Crown season:
California Chrome – As his name suggests, this is a West Coast 3-year-old who has badly outshone the competition this year, winning his last three races, all stakes, by a combined 19 lengths. He will face the stiffest competition of his career Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby. If he wins, this horse, ridden by 2002 Preakness winner Victor Espinoza, will likely be the favorite in Kentucky.
Candy Boy – Listed No. 1 in ESPN’s Derby power rankings, this big colt, ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, will duel with California Chrome at Santa Anita on Saturday. He beat a strong field in his lone race of 2014, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, and has reportedly posted sharp workouts in recent weeks. Unlike California Chrome, however, he needs a strong performance this weekend to accumulate enough points for a guaranteed Kentucky Derby spot.
Constitution – He didn’t have the biggest reputation entering last weekend’s Florida Derby but delivered a commanding performance on a slow track. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by 2006 Preakness winner Javier Castellano, this colt didn’t break his maiden until January. But he wiped away many questions about his inexperience by surviving an early bump to win at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. He’s now guaranteed a spot near the top of Derby contender lists.
Hoppertunity – Here we have another contender who will race in the Santa Anita Derby, which has shaped into the most interesting prep of the season. This Kentucky-bred colt, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, didn’t race as a 2-year-old, which is unusual for a strong Derby candidate. But he has improved quickly and beat fellow contender Tapiture at the March 15 Rebel Stakes in Arkansas.
Intense Holiday – This is another Todd Pletcher horse and one of the most experienced racers in the bunch, with eight career starts. Observers were disappointed with his second-place finish Saturday at the Louisiana Derby. Should that performance guide expectations or was it a minor misstep for a well-tested horse? That will be the question headed into Kentucky.
Ring Weekend – This colt could become a favorite for Maryland racing fans because he’s trained by the state’s own Graham Motion. He hasn’t faced as high a level of competition as many of his fellow contenders. And that will continue with his final prep, Saturday’s Calder Derby in Miami. But if he posts a third straight win there, he’ll have his advocates in Kentucky.
Samraat – This New York horse has never lost in five starts but held his lead only narrowly in last month’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. After training in Florida, he’ll make his final prep start Saturday at the Wood Memorial, the traditional pre-Derby test for New York 3-year-olds. If he wins there, he’ll be a popular choice in Kentucky. If he loses, he’ll face plenty of doubts.
Social Inclusion – Yet another lightly tested colt who didn’t run as a 2-year-old. He has no qualifying points so his Derby candidacy will hinge entirely on his performance in Saturday’s Wood Memorial. But he has the racing world abuzz because of his dominant victories in two career starts and his owner’s decision to reject an $8 million sale offer in favor of trying for the Derby. If he wins the Wood, he’ll suddenly be the hot name in this group.
Tapiture – He lost to Hoppertunity at the Rebel and his trainer, Steve Asmussen, is under investigation in New York due to allegations of animal cruelty from PETA. But he has reportedly looked sensational in workouts for the April 12 Arkansas Derby. And if he runs a strong race there, he’ll vault near the top of many contender lists going into Kentucky. Even in defeat last month, he demonstrated his toughness by surviving ill-timed bumps.
Vicar’s in Trouble – He leads in the points race for Kentucky after holding off all challengers to win the Louisiana Derby on Saturday. With Rosie Napravnik aboard, he’s another potential favorite for Maryland fans. This Louisiana colt isn’t perceived as one of the best physical talents in the group and thus appears lower on many lists of Kentucky contenders. But everybody loves an underdog, right?
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