Anyone who was surprised by the results of the latest round of Kentucky Derby prep races this past weekend really shouldn't be all that taken aback. If there has been one constant throughout this run-up to the Triple Crown, it's that the unexpected — more often than not — is what has prevailed week after week.
After the bombshell results of last weekend, when juvenile champion Uncle Mo went down in defeat and the Santa Anita Derby lost its two favorites due to injury, Saturday's Grade I Arkansas Derby was the last-ditch chance for a leading contender to cement his hype — that contender being Rebel Stakes winner The Factor.
Instead of stamping himself as a Derby favorite, The Factor faded to seventh, and local favorite Archarcharch edged Nehro for the victory.
The knock on The Factor coming in was that he was a one-dimensional speedster, but he had a chance to make a statement about his ability when the son of War Front was forced to rate off the pace behind J P's Gusto.
Though trainer Bob Baffert said the colt might have displaced his palate during the race, the decided lack of run from The Factor in the lane makes you think he might be better off entering the Met Mile down the road than dealing with the Kentucky Derby.
Although Archarcharch went off at odds of 25-1, hindsight shows he probably deserved more respect.
Aside from finishing a distant fourth in the Smarty Jones, the dark bay colt hadn't been off the board in his five prior starts. Also, his third-place effort in the Grade II Rebel Stakes was more impressive than it initially looked; he was right next to Alternation in the gate when the latter flipped over and riled him up.
The fact that the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes produced a shocking winner in Brilliant Speed also cannot be considered a total stunner.
Ever since Keeneland switched to Polytrack, the results of the Blue Grass have been unpredictable. The shortest-priced winner since 2007 was Dominican at odds of 8-1.
Santiva and Wilkinson, the two graded-stakes winners on dirt in the field, both ran up the track. And so, once again, we are faced with trying to evaluate a winner who will head to Churchill Downs with solid turf and synthetic form but serious questions about his ability to handle the main track.
1. Dialed In: Worked 4 furlongs in :49.90 at Palm Meadows Training Center last Tuesday, his first move since capturing the Florida Derby. Trainer Nick Zito reportedly is only planning one more work for the son of Mineshaft prior to the Derby, and there is certainly no arguing with how he's managed him thus far.
2. Uncle Mo: Blood tests revealed the reigning juvenile champion to be suffering from a GI tract infection, welcome news of sorts to trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole, who wanted to find a concrete reason behind his third-place run in the Wood Memorial. Whether he'll get over this ailment and move forward off the Wood is up for debate, but Pletcher says the colt's exceptional previous body of work also sets him up for more criticism. "The Florida Derby winner runs a 91 Beyer speed figure, and that's fine, but Uncle Mo runs a 92 (in the Wood), and it's not okay," Pletcher said last week. Uncle Mo is set to arrive at Churchill Downs Monday morning.
3. Archarcharch: Does have prior experience at Churchill Downs, finishing second in a maiden race there Nov. 27. "He's doing great," Pat Tanner, assistant to trainer Jinks Fires, said on Sunday. "He's like he was never in a horse race yesterday."
4. Mucho Macho Man: Absolutely sizzled in his final work at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, covering 7 furlongs in 1:233⁄5 and galloping out a mile in 1:383⁄5. "I wanted to get him a little tired. He's not that tired. He's just bopping around," trainer Kathy Ritvo said. He is also scheduled to arrive at Churchill early Monday morning.
5. Toby's Corner: Came home the way you want a Derby contender to finish, covering the final eighth of a mile in less than 12 seconds in his Wood Memorial win. Though trainer Graham Motion isn't known for being a major presence on the Triple Crown trail, Toby's Corner couldn't have a better pure horseman on his side to set him up for the biggest run of his life.
6. Nehro: Was closing like a champ in the final strides of the Arkansas Derby, and it wouldn't be the least bit shocking if he garners as much backing off that loss as the winner. Remember how well last year's Arkansas Derby runner-up performed on the first Saturday in May after getting beat by a Jon Court-ridden mount? Exactly.
7. Soldat: Disappointing as his Florida Derby outing was, it's hard to toss a horse who has as much experience as the son of War Front does. He's already had three races at 11⁄8 miles, and we know he can handle an off track if the rain shows up. With the way the 3-year-old picture keeps changing by the second, there is no reason to not give him another shot at this point.
8. Pants On Fire: Suddenly, all that early speed that looked as if it would be present in the Kentucky Derby might not show up, thus enhancing the chances for this son of Jump Start.
9. Midnight Interlude: Really hasn't done a whole lot wrong in his four career starts, but the big knocks against him are the questionable form of the California horses this year and the fact that he did not make a start as a 2-year-old. Of course, no horse in modern times has won the Derby without making a juvenile start. The last 3-year-old to pull off the feat was Apollo in 1882.
10. Jaycito: Needs a good effort in the Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes more from a conditioning standpoint than anything else because he has had only one prior start this year.
11. Shackleford: Like Soldat, the son of Forestry also has had three races at 11⁄8 miles, and he is another who could benefit by the hit some of the confirmed front-runners have taken in recent weeks.
12. Santiva: The fact that he has made the transition from synthetic to dirt successfully before is what is keeping him on here after his ninth-place run in the Blue Grass Stakes. Although he had run well on the Polytrack last season, you wonder whether his connections wouldn't have been better off keeping him on dirt — which he clearly relished — rather than falling victim to the fluky nature of the Blue Grass.
The next dozen: Stay Thirsty, Brilliant Speed, Twice the Appeal, Comma to the Top, Master of Hounds, Twinspired, Animal Kingdom, The Factor, Mr. Commons, Decisive Moment, Anthony's Cross, Sway Away