Last weekend was a big one on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with three major prep races being held across the country, but if we’re perfectly honest, the results—while intriguing—came up a little disappointing.
A sloppy, sealed track led to the scratch of highly-regarded Nolo Contesto from the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, which allowed Mucho Gusto to romp home in uncontested fashion. A fast pace and disappointing run from heavy favorite Maximus Mischief turned the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park into a longshot parade won by Harvey Wallbanger, while the Withers Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct was a rough race from start to finish won by Tax in a three-way photo finish.
But with their victories, Mucho Gusto, Harvey Wallbanger, and Tax have emerged as major players on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, so let’s dig a little deeper into their profiles and examine some of the positives and negatives of their performances on Saturday….
A $50,000 yearling purchase, Harvey Wallbanger finished second in his first three starts last year, showing a tendency to hang in the homestretch after producing big rallies. But the son of Congrats broke through in his fourth and final start of the season, winning a maiden special weight at Churchill Downs by half a length, and his late-running tactics proved beneficial in the Holy Bull, in which he capitalized on a fast early pace to rally up the rail and win going away.
Harvey Wallbanger might not be the most stoutly-bred runner on the Derby trail—Congrats’ top progeny to date have generally been sprinters—but he’s won twice going 8.5 furlongs and that’s a step in the right direction. The bigger concern might be that the Holy Bull essentially fell into his lap from a pace perspective and he still didn’t run particularly fast, posting an 85 Beyer speed figure. On the plus side, he’s 2-for-2 since Brian Hernandez, Jr. took over riding duties and the Fountain of Youth was a career-best effort—maybe trainer Kenny McPeek has figured him out and continued improvement is on the horizon.
The big development here is that we learned Mucho Gusto can rate off the lead and doesn’t have to set the pace, the running style he employed in his first three starts. He was very productive as a front-runner, winning the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) and finishing second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I), but it’s tough to be a one-dimensional Kentucky Derby contender and having the ability to sit back and settle is a big positive.
Otherwise, it’s hard to gauge much from Mucho Gusto’s Robert B. Lewis victory. He was favored at 3-5 against a small field and ran to expectations, cruising to victory by 4 ¾ lengths while posting a 90 Beyer that was a slight improvement from his season-best 88 as a two-year-old. He’s probably still in the second tier of trainer Bob Baffert’s Derby contenders, but Mucho Gusto has improved with every start, has a stamina-oriented pedigree, and obviously has no trouble handling a sloppy track.
On the Beyer scale, Tax was the fastest three-year-old to race over the weekend, putting up a 96 while battling to a hard-fought triumph in the Withers Stakes (gr. III). Winning a nine-furlong Derby prep off a two-month layoff is an admirable feat, and Tax overcome a bit of adversity while rallying through a small opening on the rail in the homestretch, so at first glance it was a strong performance from last year’s Remsen Stakes (gr. II) third-place finisher.
Then again, Tax enjoyed a generally trouble-free trip while saving ground every step of the way, and I personally calculated his Beyer a bit lower at 92. Tax was also losing ground through the final sixteenth after opening up a nearly one-length lead on his rivals; jockey Junior Alvarado suggested that Tax was waiting on horses, though visually the gelding still had his ears back and appeared to be in full stride, so for handicappers it’s a tough call.
The good news is, Tax is bred like he’ll handle 1 ¼ miles just fine, and with two strong efforts going nine furlongs under his belt, his stamina is already apparent. Now he just needs to keep progressing in the right direction and demonstrate that he has the tactical speed and brilliance that has been so effective in recent renewals of the Kentucky Derby.