Kentucky Derby Update: Tempo time

Race horses with jockeys on the home straight. Shaving effect.

Kentucky Derby Update: Tempo time

This weekend, we get to focus on March Madness in all its glory, as there are no points races on the trail to the Kentucky Derby. Intentional or not, the lull in the action gives anxious Kentucky fans in the bluegrass a break to focus on basketball, not the big oval.

From here on out, the prep races get bigger purses and more points—100 to the winner, 40 for second, 30, 20, and 10—for a spot in the starting gate on May 6 at Churchill Downs. As track announcer Tom Durkin used to say as the horses neared the final bend, “The tempo begins to quicken now …”

Starting with March 25, horse racing fans can look forward to the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3; on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park), followed by the March 26 Sunland Derby (G3; a 50-point affair in New Mexico). April Fools’ Day ushers in April with the Grade 1 Florida and Arkansas Derbies; then April 8, the Super Saturday of preps: Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes (G1), Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial Stakes (G2), and Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Points system or not, if a horse doesn’t finish in the top three in one of these races, he’s not likely to win the Derby anyway.

Expect the best of the best to emerge victorious. The time for big long shots to emerge has passed for the most part.

Speaking of the best, Forte, last year’s champion juvenile and runaway winner in his three-year-old bow March 4 in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), appears to have the goods. If he’s not at the top of pundits’ Derby Top 10 or Derby Dozen lists, those pundits are just stabbing.

The Todd Pletcher-trained colt faced one of the better Derby prep fields of the year in the Fountain of Youth and ran off by 4½ lengths at 50 cents on the dollar. He’s likely to return in the Florida Derby, and we won’t be playing against him.

He has an interesting stablemate in Tapit Trice who won last weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby (G3). It’s not exactly on the main highway to the Derby, as it is traditionally a race filled with Gulfstream leftovers and top-tier three-year-olds at the “B” Tampa Bay Downs. Aside from winning, it was the way he did it that impressed us.

On a speed-favoring track, Tapit Trice seemed up against it as he broke last and was ninth of 12 after six furlongs of the 1 1/16 miles. Once given a clear run, he put in an impressive late burst to pass tiring foes and hit the wire looking strong.

Most impressively, Daily Racing Form’s David Aragona tweeted Tapit Trice’s splits for his last three furlongs. According to Gmax, his splits were:

: 12.73 (5.5 furlongs to 6.5f)

: 12.63 (6.5 f to 7.5 f)

: 12.32 (7.5 to 8.5 f)

He got faster with each eighth of a mile, something racing fans do not often see, especially from a young colt making just his fourth career start. Horses that can do extraordinary things are worth remembering. Most recently, Smarty Jones, I’ll Have Another, and Maximum Security (disqualified from first) had standout inner fraction performances in one of their prep races on their way to finishing first in the Derby. As the Kentucky Derby approaches, that topic will be discussed extensively.

It’s worth noting that Tapit Trice will likely have to prove himself against stiffer competition in the Wood or Blue Grass. Even if he stumbles there, he’ll get his shot at the Derby and might be a worthy opponent for Todd Pletcher’s “other” runner in Forte if he continues to move forward.

Both Forte and Tapit Trice are imposing-looking horses at different levels of their development. Tapit Trice has only four runs under his belt and started his racing career last November. Forte started May 27 at Belmont Park, ran twice at Saratoga, and twice at Keeneland before Tapit Trice’s debut. Forte has a much stronger foundation, but both have plenty of upside moving forward.

Over the last decade, southern California has been the place Derby winners trained, from Doug O’Neill’s pair of I’ll Have Another and Nyquist to several horses trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert, banned from participating in the Derby, still had a handful of hopeful horses a month ago that have since been transferred to trainer Tim Yakteen. The star of his program, Arabian Knight, is now out of consideration for the Run for the Roses. Reincarnate had a rough trip in the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn and will get another chance in southern California or the Arkansas Derby. A bounce-back would put him back in the frame at Churchill Downs.

For now, let’s watch some college hoops.

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