Alpha takes Withers easily, Battle Hardened and I'll Have Another surprise

Every year there is debate between which Derby prep circuit is the toughest and producing the most legitimate contenders for the Kentucky Derby.  The debate is never fully settled until after the first Saturday in May, however the arguments and build-up beforehand are half the fun.  In recent years, the major markets of New York and Los Angeles have been on a bit of a dry spell when it comes to Derby winners.  Saturday offered a chance for each circuit to put their best foot forward, yet the results still garnered mixed feelings and trepidation. 

The Robert Lewis Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita was billed as a rematch between the 1-2 finishers of December’s CashCall Futurity (G1), but instead it was a 43-1 shot who had not raced in over 5 months that stole the show.  I’ll Have Another stalked Isn’t He Clever in the early stages of the race, bided his time along the backstretch, and blitzed to the lead at the top of the stretch to win the Bob Lewis by 2 3/4 lengths.

Well-bred Empire Way made a modest inside move in the stretch to finish 2nd, followed by Groovin’ Solo who was eventually disqualified when he caused favorite Liaison to clip heels and dump jockey Rafael Bejarano.  Luckily horse and rider were fine afterwards, but it’s worth mentioning it appeared Liaison had thrown in the towel and was not likely to be a factor regardless of the circumstances.   Rousing Sermon was upgraded to 3rd from 4th, and was running in his typical late closing fashion.  Many will still back Rousing Sermon feeling he can make a better timed move in the future, but this is the second straight race in which he’s fallen short and sometimes horses just don’t have the knack to close properly.

Sky Kingdom, a horse many believed was sitting on a breakout performance, offered nothing as did the shipper Isn’t He Clever who succumbed to better competition.

Perhaps the West Coast contingent is a step below the others, and the CashCall group in particular was overhyped.  However, maybe they were well beaten by a rising Derby prospect.  I’ll Have Another was highly regarded by trainer Doug O’Neill and supposedly training well since his injury last September in the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga.  Visually, his performance was impressive and it was not aided by particularly slow or fast fractions.  He earned a very respectable 96 Beyer speed figure and with another classy showing could stamp himself a serious threat for the Derby. 

On the East Coast, most fans were anticipating a dominating performance from Alpha in the Withers (G3), and the Godolphin owned colt did not disappoint. Beginning in his customary fashion just behind pacesetters in the early going, Alpha then responded when asked to make his move in the final turn.  With steady urging he finished over 3 lengths in front of 44-1 shot Speightscity.

Of the three Derby preps Saturday, the Withers field was undoubtedly the weakest.  Only one of Alpha’s five challengers had ever raced in graded stakes company and none had shown much in any open stakes.  Some felt Alpha could prove himself Saturday, but unfortunately a good race against classy competition is still needed.  It’s not his fault however and you can’t take away his last two dominating performances.  The colt seems to be on the right track to Louisville.

Cross-entered in both a maiden at Gulfstream Park and a more ambitious spot in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, Battle Hardened’s connections fortunately chose the latter.  With professional guidance by jockey Julien Leparoux, Battle Hardened ran just off the pace before making a well-timed four-wide surge down the lane. Behind him was Prospective, Reveron, and Ravelo’s Boy who were only separated by a nose. Any of those three could offer a stiff challenge next out in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3), especially Prospective, seeing as he came six wide and surged for place.

The Sam F. Davis also showcased disappointments.  Grade 2 winner State of Play set a not-so quick pace and failed to finish well.  He most likely is best suited for turf.  Todd Pletcher’s Ecabroni, the post time favorite, got off to an awkward start, and was never a factor eventually finishing last.

Trainer Eddie Kenneally said The Tampa Bay Derby (G3) is the next logical spot for Battle Hardened.  Barring any new additions to the Tampa circuit, it’s also logical to assume he will be the favorite to win that race and secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby.  However, the field he has faced (and most likely will face next), is suspect and will not catapult him to be among the top group of Derby prospects everyone talks about heading into May. Then again, neither was Animal Kingdom following his victory in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway last year…

Mr. Prankster romped in the WEBN Stakes at Turfway Saturday.  The John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on the same track is the next target// Creative Cause worked Saturday in workmanlike fashion, and is still pointed for the San Vicente (G2)// Triple Crown nominations were released, with the overall theme being the final number of 397 represents a 9% increase from last year.  The full list and pps below// Apparently Hansen’s tail and mane will be colored for his next race, and owner Dr. Hansen would like fans to vote on the color for the Kentucky Derby…

Withers S. (G3)
Winner: Alpha
Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin
Jockey: Ramon Dominguez
Video: YouTube
Wrap-up articles: DRF / Bloodhorse / Brisnet / TTimes

Sam F. Davis S. (G3)
Winner: Battle Hardened
Trainer: Eddie Kenneally
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Wrap-up articles: DRF / Bloodhorse / Brisnet / TTimes

Robert B. Lewis S. (G2)
Winner: I’ll Have Another
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Jockey: Mario Gutierrez
Wrap-up articles: DRF / Bloodhorse / Brisnet / TTimes

WEBN Stakes
Winner: Mr. Prankster
Trainer: Michael Maker
Jockey: John McKee
Wrap-up articles: Bloodhorse / TTimes

Hanen: A horse of a different color (Courier-Journal Hansen Blog)

Creative Cause HOL- 6F- 1.13:80- H- 6/17
Fed Biz SA- 5F- 1.00:60- H- 35/82
Vexor Goldmark- 3F- 36:80- B- 1/1
Ted's Folly FG- 4F- 49:20- B- 27/100
Currency Swap GP- 4F- 51:00- B- 39/41
Atigun OP- 5F- 1.03:20- B- 2/9

Notes and bits from web and Twitter:
“Creative Cause logged blue collar drill - 37.0, 101.20, 113.80 - working hard to shoving pressure. No target today. Went solo. Fitness based”- ClockerDH via Twitter