March is quickly approaching which means two things: March Madness in NCAA college basketball and the excitement that is the “Road To the Kentucky Derby”.
Much like a coach trying to get his team to peak at tournament time, trainers are looking to “coach” their three year olds so that they accumulate enough points in their Derby preps to earn them a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. While points are awarded to the top four finishers in a prep race, just like winning your conference in basketball, winning a major Kentucky Derby G1 prep essentially stamps your ticket for the big dance.
These respective seasons traditionally are full of excitement, big performances and shocking upsets, and this year is no exception for either.
In basketball, teams are trading blows with no dominant team controlling the college basketball landscape; the same can be said about the 3-year-old colt division.
The two most recent Derby preps ended as upsets – a term aptly coined in racing – as Southwest Stakes G3 winner, My Boy Jack, paid $19.60, and Risen Star G2 winner, Bravazo, paid $44.00. For their victories, these two colts earned 10 and 50 points, respectively. This catapulted My Boy Jack into 13th place on the Derby leader board with 12 points. Bravazo has now secured his spot at the very top of the leader board with a total of 54 points.
You can also see familiar faces in both sports this year. In basketball you have your perennially highly regarded teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky. In racing there are the usual suspects hot on the trail as well, including trainers Todd Pletcher (Audible), Bob Baffert (Mckinzie) and Chad Brown (Mask).
But like any year in college basketball and in horse racing, there are the Cinderella teams, like Butler, Rhode Island, Northern Iowa and Wichita State. With no dominant stand out thus far in this years’ Derby preps, and having yet to see the seasonal debut of the division’s leaders in champion Good Magic and the highly touted Bolt D’oro, I will be looking for a bit of a Cinderella story this year.
Hall of Fame trainer D.Wayne Lukas is a legend in the sport of racing A former basketball coach, the qualities he instilled in his players then – discipline, patience, and expecting the best from his team daily – not surprisingly, he carried over to racing. Undoubtedly, these values have contributed to his legacy as one of the winning-most trainers ever in the sport of horse racing.
“Coach”, as many industry players warmly refer to him as, is no stranger to the Churchill Downs’ Winners’ Circle in the infield on the first Saturday in May. Four of his trainees have captured the garland of red roses: The filly, Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996), and Charismatic (1999). Two of these wins were in upset fashion, with Thunder Gulch paying $51.00 and Charismatic paying $64.60 to win.
Could 2018 be another Cinderella-like story for D.Wayne Lukas?
As successful as he has been, he hasn’t tasted victory in the Derby in 19 years. The 82-year-old would like nothing more than to add another Derby victory to his resume. I think this “Coach” just might have another Cinderella run in him. And at this stage, he has more than one chance to get it done.
First, there is Sporting Chance, winner of the Hopeful Stakes G1 in his two year old season. He ran a good third in his seasonal debut in the Southwest Stakes G3 at Oaklawn Park, behind My Boy Jack. While this precocious colt may have seemed like Lukas’ logical top contender earlier in the year, I’m looking to another Lukas charge to earn him that next Derby trophy.
I’m hoping the glass slipper fits for the aforementioned Bravazo.
The Calumet home-bred son of Awesome Again is looking to wake up the echoes of racing past. A win for Lukas and storied Calumet Farm would make for an exciting chapter in the history books.
Compared to Sporting Chance, Bravazo’s two year old season was steady, but not ultra-impressive. He flashed a few signs of talent last year in a second place finish in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity G1 at Keeneland, and a third place finish in the Street Sense Overnight Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Like any coach, you need a strategy, and Lukas appears to be pushing all the right buttons at the right time with this horse.
Bravazo’s three year old debut in an allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn Park in January was very strong. He incurred some trouble at the gate, getting squeezed. He overcame that early trouble and dueled all the way down the stretch to a neck victory. He showed guts and resilience in a race that provided him with learning experience.
He, of course, followed that effort up with his breakout, winning performance in the Risen Star G2, where he stretched out in distance and showed more speed. I believe this colt could be a late developer who is putting it all together at the right time.
Even some Cinderella teams have pedigree. Butler is a team full of pedigree, as is Bravazo. He’s a son of Awesome Again, out of the Cee’s Tizzy mare, Tiz O Gold. He has speed and distance on both sides of his pedigree. The ten-furlong distance of the Derby should be no problem with the strong route influence on the dam side of Relaunch and Seattle Slew. His sire’s progeny have proved they can be full of speed and distance, with the likes of Ghostzapper, Paynter, Awesome Gem, Game on Dude, and the Lukas-trained, Oxbow, just to name a few.
While the March Madness picture may still be a bit murky, the Derby picture is beginning to clear for me, and one coach has already shown me what I need to believe I have found an upset chance in the Derby.
Bravazo photo courtesy of Hodges Photography/Amanda Weir