(Joe Bravo on Avery Island in the Withers Stakes)

On Saturday, the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” — 2018 edition — kicked it up a notch with four Stakes events held all the way from New York, to Florida, to California. In the wake, I think that we have found out some possible contenders, who have been found worthy to take the next logical step; we have weeded out, perhaps, some pretenders, who have been found wanting; and we have found some horses that have certainly piqued the interest and have left us wanting to see more.

Here is our look at some of the Saturday’s winners, losers, and in-betweeners:

Winners:

  1. Catholic Boy: The first time I got to see this strapping son of More Than Ready was last November at Del Mar, when he was being prepped by trainer Jonathan Thomas for the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. I remarked and wrote then that this guy looked like a WWE wrestler at a Boy’s Scout Convention. He had “the look.” After running a troubled fourth that day on the sod at Del Mar, this guy was shipped to New York to run in the G2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. It was his first try ever on the dirt in the afternoon. And, he didn’t disappoint. After falling off the early pace-setters and settling into a nice stride, jockey Manny Franco asked his horse to pick it up. And, oh, how he did. With an impressive turn of foot, Catholic Boy roared up to the leaders, and then left them in his wake. He ran off to a 43/4-length victory in the 11/8-mile contest. So what does that have to do with Saturday? Well, you see, Catholic Boy just so happened to beat a horse that day in the Remsen by the name of Avery Island. Yep, the same horse who won the G3 Withers Stakes by an “easy as they come” 2-length margin over Firenze Fire — a horse that went into Saturday’s Stakes event with 4 wins in 6 tries, including a victory in the G1 Champagne Stakes last year. Either Avery Island has gotten a lot better — which I think the son of Street Sense has done for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin — or Catholic Boy must be some kind of real talent. Which I think he truly is, too. On Sunday, Catholic Boy took another step towards making his 2018 debut when he breezed a half mile at his home base in Tampa. he covered the distance in :49.20, which was the 19th best of 66 to go the distance today. Just a week before, Catholic Boy — who was purchased for $170,000 at the 2016 Keeneland January Sale — went 5-furlongs in 1:01 flat, which was 2nd best of 22. He is gearing up. And, we had better watch out. This guy may be the real deal.
  2. Joe Bravo: The veteran rider, who was a guest on our show just a week or so ago,  moved his tack to New Orleans to try the Fair Grounds meet this year. And, to his credit, he has never ridden any better. On Saturday, he demonstrated his skill yet again, as he was the mastermind behind Avery Island’s convincing victory in the Withers. The duo broke sharply and then settled into a nice, comfortable, gliding riding stroke down the backside before unleashing a powerful kick for home in the 11/8-mile. In the last four races, Bravo and this homebred of Godolphin Stables have won three times — with the only exception being the runner-up to Catholic Boy. Each race, though, Bravo and Avery Island seem to get better — together. Bravo won his first Grade 1 race in 1994 when he captured the Donn Handicap on Formal Gold. Since then, he has been one of the leading riders along the Jersey Shore and has made a name and reputation for being one of the best grass race riders in the world. But, to date, he has never won a Kentucky Derby. In fact, he hasn’t ever won a Triple Crown race. About a year ago, the week of the Kentucky Derby, in fact, Bravo joined forces with agent Jimmy Riccio — the same guy who handles the book for a rider by the name of Jose Ortiz, Jr. And, since they married up their business interests, both Bravo and Riccio have kicked it into high gear. Maybe, together, along with Avery Island, they can find their way to Louisville on the first Saturday in May. They got a good start on Saturday. One other note, that I find interesting, at least. In 2011, Joe Bravo won the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga on a horse named Sean Avery. Maybe he has a good thing going with horses by the name of “Avery.”
  3. Free Drop Billy: On Saturday, Free Drop Billy — who won the G1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last year — was making his first start since his disappointing and inexplicable poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Del Mar. He finished 9th that day, and was beaten nearly 30 lengths by Good Magic, who was a maiden coming into the event. So, to say that Saturday’s run in the G2 Holy Bull was important for the horse and his connections would be an understatement. And, to be honest, the guy delivered a solid second to run-away winner Audible. But the second was much more impressive for Free Drop Billy when you do a deeper dive into the event, and watch the replay. First of all, the Union Rags colt had the longest layoff of any horse in the race. And, although he was starting to pick up the times in his morning exercises, it is just tough to get ready for a G2 event off a 3-month layoff with just works. Secondly, if you examine Free Drop Billy’s past performance, he normally likes to take back off the early pace; find a spot towards the back of the pack, and then come running with a nice, long, sustained run. On Saturday, Free Drop Billy — who had just 4 published workouts since the Breeders’ Cup — looked to race a lot more keenly and sharper. In a race absolutely devoid of any speed (especially after the winner decapitated Bandito leaving the gate; but more on that later), jockey Luis Saez — riding the colt for the first time — found himself on  top of a colt that was never farther back than fourth and never far from off the pace from the beginning of the 11/16-mile event to the wire. Third, I think this horse will benefit from the race more than anyone that ran anywhere on Saturday. Trainer Dale Romans just may have his Derby horse after all.
  4. Strike Power & Gotta Go: Both of these guys showed some guts and class in the G3 Swale Stakes, going just 7 furlongs at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. The former looks like a powerful sprinter and ran like one. He was untouchable on Saturday on a speed-favoring track. The latter may have needed the race and a positive experience, especially after the debacle he encountered in the Kentucky Jockey Club in his last race. He closed well to finish second and may have needed the mental and physical “victory.” Watch to see if trainer Ian Wilkes stretches his back out for the next try. He is a trainer that takes his time, and always has a plan.

 

In-Betweeners:

  1. Javier Castellano: The Hall of Fame rider truly is the definition of “In Between,” right now. After his impressive performance on top of Audible in the Holy Bull, Castellano now finds himself the No. 1 pilot on three — and perhaps many more — contenders on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. As you probably know by now, if you have not been locked up in a tack room at Turfway Park, Castellano has been named the new rider for Bolt d’Oro, the highly acclaimed son of Medaglia d’Oro and the horse that many anointed early on as the next “Super Horse.” Just about a week ago, owner/trainer Mick Runs announced that he would be replacing Corey Nakatani on the colt with Castellano, and that they would be making their initial appearance together very soon. In addition, Castellano has the regular ride on Jerry Hollendorfer’s colt, Instilled Regard, who jumped up the scales with his impressive 33/4-length victory in the G3 LeComte Stakes at the Fair Grounds back on Jan. 13.  Now, this? Audible? Well, these things have a way of working out, for better or worse, and it certainly is a good issue to have, as of Feb. 4, but owners and trainers get a bit more impatient these days than in year’s past, and they probably will want a firm commitment sooner rather than latter. Good luck with that JJ. It may be a tough decision.
  2. Audible: Coming out of Saturday’s races, this New York-bred son of Into Mischief has suddenly become the “Wow” horse and the “Now” horse in the early going of this year’s Triple Crown season. And, why not? He launched an immediate attack — in more ways than one — in the G2 Holy Bull, and was powerful from the starting gate all the way to the wire. At no time, really, did he look in trouble or without another gear to utilize in his first try at a race longer than a mile. At the end, he had dispelled any thoughts of someone catching him, pulling away farther and farther with each stride. But…Yep, there is a but here…Coming out of the gate, the horse and rider veered sharply to the right and slammed body first into Bandito, a colt trained by Dale Romans and owned by Calumet Farm. A horse that certainly appeared from his past performances to want the lead. Bandito was knocked completely off stride and out of contention. Audible, none the worse for wear, straightened immediately and set sail. To be honest, Stewards discount the start of nearly every race as if they simply do not matter. And, for all practical purposes, this offender was trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by a Hall of Famer. An inquiry was out of the question. But the start should have been reviewed. Nevertheless, the only other true speed horse left in the race — after the scratch of Mississippi — left Audible to forge out to a nice stalking position behind Master Manipulator, who did not have a chance, and set rather modest fractions against a field of horses that are normally not used to pressing the pace.  In other words, it was the perfect trip; the perfect scenario; the perfect storm. Audible may leap-frog to the top of many people’s charts after Saturday, but he will have to do much more to convince me. A New York-bred? Derby contender? Come on now.
  3. Once On Whiskey: Undoubtedly, the most impressive runner on the West Coast Saturday was the first time starter, Once On Whiskey — who comes from the barn of Bob Baffert. This guy was in a MSW event going just 6 furlongs. And, he never really had a chance, since his stablemate, Curley’s Rocket, shot off just like one and easily put away the highly touted Core Beliefs and won going away. There is no doubt that Curley’s Rocket is a super talent, but he may be a sprinter cloaked in a man’s body. The one that caught the eye was Once On Whiskey, who feel completely out of sight and contention until midway through the stretch run. And, the son of Bodemeister put on a run that was truly eye-popping and worth watching. Obviously, this one did not start as a 2YO and will be working against that long-held tradition that a horse must start as a juvenile to have a shot at winning the Derby. But this one will probably stretch out soon. And, you had better keep an eye out. Impressive.

Losers:

  1. Peace: We will not spend much time on these guys. While they may be turn things around and be very nice horses, their performances on Saturday left a lot to be desired. Especially when you are trying to make an impression and a giant stride forward. The leader of this group is Peace, who went into the G3 Robert B. Lewis as one of the most talked about horses on the Santa Anita grounds. After all, this one lost a narrow decision to Mourinho (winner of the Southwest Stakes), and had edged Instilled Regard (winner of the LeComte Stakes) on debut and had lost a narrow neck to Shivermetimbers in his next outing, before winning his MSW race here on Dec. 30 going 11/16 miles for the first time. Getting blinkers for the first time and HOF rider Mike Smith for the second, big things were expected on Saturday. Little was given. He ran fifth, but was beaten over 8 lengths and never looked comfortable, serious, in contention or interested. My guess is that trainer Richard Mandella will shuck the blinkers for his next race, whenever that is.
  2. Shivermetimbers: Another supposed contender for the Robert B. Lewis, after he ran fourth to McKinzie in the G3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 6, was a no-show, too, for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. He ran 7th. Goodbye.
  3. Firenze Fire: First of all, this Florida-bred son of Poseidon’s Warrior, is a very nice horse. Tries hard. Pushes and guts things out nearly every time. In 7 starts now, he has 4 wins and a second. But he just doesn’t have the look or the final kick to go the classic distances. At least, not right now. Would love to have him and own a classy guy like this. But he looks to be a nice miler. A really nice miler.
  4. Bal Harbour / Mask: Bal Harbor shipped up to NY to try his luck in the Withers after a solid second behind Mask in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park back on Jan. 6. Never a contender on Saturday. Makes one wonder about the winner of the Mucho Macho Man, too. Especially now that Mask has missed some training since that win and now looks to be missing a race or two.