Evidence of the recent snowstorm to cripple the East Coast was on display at the Big A for the running of the Grade 3 Withers Stakes with snow still lining the track. The Withers winner receives Derby points and this race has produced some longevity on the road to Kentucky for the past winners, such as Far From Over and Samraat. Ironically, young jockey Manuel Franco won this race last year aboard Far From Over and repeated again this year with Sunny Ridge. This horse was coming off two strong second place finishes in two Grade 3 stakes races. Those losses were to Exaggerator and Greenpointcrusader. Not bad company. The overly bet, and morning line favorite, Flexibility, could only get up for fourth in the Withers. But, he deserved the credit for being the favorite considering his past performances in three graded stakes races. Flexibility finished second to Mohaymen in the Remsen and the Nashua stakes. Sunny Ridge etched his name on the Derby point list and focus soon switched from the snow at Aqueduct to the sunshine at Gulfstream Park.
More coveted Derby points were on the line in the Holly Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. The sunshine provided a beautiful day for the card of 12 races at Gulfstream, including five stake races and the pinnacle race on the card the Holy Bull, and Holy Moly Mohaymen! If you haven’t heard of this undefeated 3-year old son of Tapit before the Holy Bull, you’ll be hearing a lot about him from now until May! In the post parade, the handsome gray walked onto the racetrack with confidence and focus; his neck coiled and his head down. He seemed to not even notice the crowd, nor the spectacle of being in a post parade. Even when the horse in front of him freaked out and started jumping all over the place, Mohaymen remained unflappable, keeping his head down and never flinched. He has the epitome of a game face on the track. For a young horse, he exhibits maturity beyond his years. Even when he steps into the gate, he is confident. When the gate popped, Mohaymen was off a step slow, but it didn’t seem to throw off his game at all. In fact, sometimes these young horses need time to figure out the track and learn a little bit each time. Mohaymen’s jockey from the start of this race, when the horse came off a step slow, knew exactly how to handle it. Jockey Junior Alvarado has been on Mohaymen in all four of his races, and they are undefeated in all four. Junior took Mohaymen in between horses on the first turn and Mohaymen simply slid through without a concern at all of getting pinched. This horse is the real deal. He broke away from the field to stamp his name in big, bold, undeniable letters on the Derby points list. The aforementioned Greenpointcrusader and Conquest Big E were also in this race, and already on the Derby list, but they had nothing on Mohaymen. Neither of them has the graded stakes experience nor the maturity to pass “Holy Mo” today. Even the gallop back by Mohaymen was impressive, ears up and alert. This was the only time this horse acknowledged his surroundings. He is an extremely focused horse and very professional when it comes to doing his job. His Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin indicated after the race, that they would wait for the Fountain of Youth and on to the Florida Derby to gather up higher Derby points. And, for the record, both Greenpointcrusader and Conquest Big E have been on the same dirt as Nyquist and were no factors there either.
Speaking of West Coast Derby contenders like Nyquist, Sunshine Millions Days at Santa Anita did not disappoint. In fact, another Derby contender emerged in a race where Derby points were not awarded. But, the connections of the California Cup Derby winner Smokey Image will soon be looking for races to gather up points because Smokey Image is definitely a Derby contender. Smokey Image beat the field of seven by 10 lengths in a time of 1:43.49 seconds. Previous winners of the Cal Cup include the one-and-only California Chrome. California Chrome went on to be the Kentucky Derby winner. In the Cal Cup, California Chrome clocked a 1:43.22. Similarities continue between California Chrome and Smokey Image, although Smokey Image is not as muscular as California Chrome, they still share the same color of coat, and, the same jockey, Victor Espinoza. He knows a thing or two about winning a Derby, a Triple Crown and well, pretty much everything. Victor may have contemplated retirement this year, but when he sat on the back of Smokey Image and crushed the field by 10 lengths, I hope the similarities to previous champions echoed in his head and he reconsiders. Again, the “luckiest Mexican in the World” finds himself on the back of another probably Derby contender. It’s good to be Victor.
I know it’s early, but my top three on the Derby watch so far are Nyquist, Mohaymen and Smokey Image. We may not have a Triple Crown winner in the bunch, but if they all stay healthy we may have a very competitive Run for the Roses.