Triple Crown Weekend Prep Report Card: Life Is Good … Getting Better

Last week’s grading period came and went without a Report Card on the winners of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes from Gulfstream Park, the G3 Southwest Stakes from Oaklawn and the listed John Battaglia Memorial Stakes from Turfway Park. The author got a little behind on his homework.

We’ll review those three races from Feb. 26-27 and three big 85 point Kentucky Derby preps that were run last Saturday: the G2 Gotham Stakes from Aqueduct, G2 Tampa Bay Derby from Tampa Bay Downs and G2 San Felipe Stakes from Santa Anita. The winners of those three races assured themselves a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 1.

Of the six races, I’d have to rank the San Felipe the most impactful, at least in recent history, with two of the last seven winners (Authentic in 2020 and California Chrome in 2014) having gone on to victory in the Kentucky Derby. At the other end of the spectrum is the John Battaglia Memorial which has a roster of winners that reads like a “who’s that?” Strikingly more significant than the Battaglia is the Gotham, which hasn’t produced a Kentucky Derby winner from among its winners since Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1973. There have been some very good horses since then to win the Gotham, but not so much in the last decade. Let’s face it: the best New York horses are still in Florida on the first Saturday in March.

Here’s a quick analysis of all the points races of the past two weeks, from best to worst in terms of my grading scale, which is based on my personal eyeball test, Beyer Speed Figures received, historical significance of the race and perceived quality of field.

March 6 – San Felipe Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Santa Anita

Was not that impressed with Life Is Good’s G3 Sham Stakes victory on Jan. 2 when he idled down the stretch and was threatened late by Bob Baffert stablemate Medina Spirit, but the eight-length San Felipe win was something else again. The Into Mischief colt was simply too fast for his opposition, breaking from the rail under Mike Smith, controlling a quick pace (quarter miles in :23.63, :23.20, :23.72 and :24.91 before a final sixteenth in 6.72 seconds), and drawing off impressively while a bit erratic down the stretch, eventually finishing out in the middle of the track.

Life Is Good and Mike Smith winning the San Felipe Stakes by eight lengths

The San Felipe was G2 and included stakes veterans Medina Spirit, The Great One and Roman Centurian and impressive recent maiden winner Dream Shake for Peter Eurton (receiving a 96 Beyer Speed Figure on his debut).

Life Is Good received a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, up from his 101 in the Sham, and that puts him on the top of the heap at this stage of the season. Future wager players made him 2-1 in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager’s March pool, the lowest odds for any individual horse in the March pool since the wager was inaugurated.

Grade: A

Feb. 27 – Southwest Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Oaklawn

It’s hard to find fault with Brad Cox-trained Essential Quality, who ran his record to a perfect 4-for-4 while making his 2021 debut in the twice-delayed Southwest, run on a very sloppy racetrack. Breaking from the No. 1 post, jockey Luis Saez cleverly moved him to the three path into the first turn and sat just a few lengths behind quick but distance challenged Jackie’s Warrior for a moderate six furlongs in 1:13.59. Saez moved the Tapit colt to the lead on the turn and it was quickly over as he drew off to a 4 ¼-length victory while demonstrating a paddling motion with his left front down the stretch.

Essential Quality rolled to his fourth consecutive win in the Southwest, his 2021 debut

Aside from the winner and Jackie’s Warrior (a two-time G1 winner going one turn as a 2-year-old), the only other proven commodity in the Southwest lineup was Spielberg, the Baffert runner who won the G2 Los Alamitos Futurity by a nose over The Great One, a maiden at the time who came back to beat non-winners by 14 lengths and then was crushed by Life Is Good in the San Felipe. Essential Quality received a 96 Beyer Speed Figure, one point higher than his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory.

Grade: A-

Feb. 27 – Fountain of Youth, 1 1/16 miles, Gulfstream Park

Not unlike Essential Quality in the Southwest, even-money favorite  Greatest Honour (also by Tapit) was chasing a fast one-turn horse, Drain the Clock, unsuccessfully trying to stretch his speed around two turns in the Fountain of Youth.

For most of the race, the Shug McGaughey runner did not look comfortable while racing in eighth and ninth in the 10-horse field. When Jose Ortiz guided him five wide to the outside on the far turn, he took off, gaining five lengths in the final furlong and drawing away to a 1 ½-length victory. He received an 89 Beyer Speed Figure, identical to the number he got while winning the Holy Bull Stakes four weeks earlier.

Greatest Honour and Jose Ortiz winning the Fountain of Youth

However, he made up ground on a horse that doesn’t want to go this far, and if Greatest Honour doesn’t like getting dirt in his face with a 10-horse field at Gulfstream, what’s it going to be like at Churchill Downs with an expected 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby? It doesn’t appear as if his connections have an option to put him closer to the lead as he has yet to show any tactical speed.

Grade: B+

March 6 – Tampa Bay Derby, 1 1/16 miles, Tampa Bay Downs

Mark Casse-trained Helium first caught my eye last fall at Woodbine when he displayed a very nice turn of foot to win the listed Display Stakes going away. That race was on the Canadian track’s Tapeta synthetic surface and Helium is from the first crop of Ironicus, a Distorted Humor stallion who only won on turf during his 15-race career from ages 2 to 5. I was skeptical that he could pack the same punch on dirt.

I was also skeptical of the Tampa Bay Derby favorite, Candy Man Rocket, who was coming off a win in the G3 Sam F. Davis over the same track that I graded a C- because it looked as though the Candy Ride colt was being stretched to the limit distance wise.

Helium had shown speed in his sprint starts at Woodbine and Casse’s Plan A was for jockey Jose Ferrer to put him close to the lead. That went out the window when he broke slowly and had just two horses beat for the opening quarter mile.

Helium won for the third time in three starts, taking the Tampa Bay Derby under Jose Ferrer

Ferrer kept Helium to the far outside in the run down the backstretch and around the far turn, and Casse’s runner was battling for the lead with front-running Boca Boy, who’d led and then tired in the stretch in the Sam F. Davis. Helium put him away, then was quickly joined by third-place Sam F. Davis finisher Hidden Stash, who pressed Helium for the final furlongs but couldn’t get past, losing by three-quarters in a nice effort.

The winner’s 84 Beyer Speed Figure compared favorably to his 75 on Tapeta last October but is low among the Derby prep race winners this winter. Casse has talked about not running the horse again before the Kentucky Derby, so although Helium would enter the classic unbeaten in three starts, he’d still be a pretty big price.

Grade: C+

March 6 – Gotham Stakes, one mile, Aqueduct

Chad Brown-trained Highly Motivated was the heavy favorite here as he made his first start since winning the listed Nyquist Stakes going 6 ½ furlongs at Keeneland on the Breeders’ Cup undercard Nov. 6. He bobbled at the start, then had a nightmare trip with traffic in the early stages of this one-turn mile race. Second betting choice was Freedom Fighter, coming off a second-place finish in the G2 San Vicente at Santa Anita for Bob Baffert, losing to highly touted stablemate Concert Tour by a half-length.

Freedom Fighter broke sharply and led through moderate fractions while being dogged by 46-1 longshot Weyburn, a James Jerkens-trained colt by Pioneerof the Nile ridden by Trevor McCarthy. Weyburn put the Baffert runner away inside the quarter pole then was challenged by Chad Brown’s other runner, Crowded Trade, who, like Weyburn broke his maiden this winter at Aqueduct. Crowded Trade, a More Than Ready colt, put his nose in front inside the furlong pole but Weyburn fought back in the final yards to prevail by a nose.

Weyburn (inside) re-rallied in deep stretch to win the Gotham over Crowded Trade

The top two horses received a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, with Highly Motivated finishing third, 1 ¾ lengths back after a tough trip, and earning a 92 Beyer. As I wrote in the intro, the best of the New York Thoroughbred population head south to Florida for the winter and both Weyburn and Crowded Trade remained in New York. Highly Motivated trained for his debut at Payson Park in Florida and probably will accomplish more than the two who beat him.

Grade: C

Feb. 26 – John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Turfway Park

A workmanlike victory in his stakes debut gave the William Morey-trained Hush of a Storm 10 Kentucky Derby points in the Battaglia and he received an 86 Beyer Speed Figure for the effort.

The Creative Cause colt didn’t do anything wrong in winning the Battaglia on the synthetic Tapeta surface at the Northern Kentucky track, but there was not a lot behind him, with the exception of Gretzky the Great, who’d won the G1 Summer Stakes on turf at Woodbine last year. He’ll need more points, obviously, and the only way to earn them will be on the dirt and against much stiffer competition.

Grade: C-



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