The Tampa Bay Downs road to the Kentucky Derby kicks off with the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Saturday. The race, offering 10 Derby qualifying points to the winner, features the two-turn debut of one of leading Kentucky Derby prospect Independence Hall.
The major question for INDEPENDENCE HALL (#4) on Saturday is whether we will be treated to witnessing some further hint of the brilliance that he displayed when destroying the field in the Grade 3 Nashua last November. He earned a 101 Beyer for the performance and a 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure, the highest numbers posted by any members of this crop. Examining that performance in retrospect, it’s difficult to knock its legitimacy. Horses that finished behind Independence Hall have returned to validate the speed figure, and the final time of 1:34 3/5 seconds for a mile was undeniably fast.
Yet Independence Hall himself was unable to produce a similar effort in his only subsequent start, regressing by 17 points on the TimeformUS Speed Figure scale when he won the Jerome by four lengths last month. Perhaps of greater concern than the actual performance were his pre-race antics. He acted up in the paddock prior to the race, refusing to respond to his handlers while clearly distressed around the other horses. While he calmed down a bit out on the track, he again displayed his unruly behavior at the gate, breaking over a length behind the field and getting rank soon after. Due to the small field size and long run down the Aqueduct backstretch, Jose Ortiz was able to steer him into the clear and allow him to run up to contest the pace that day. Yet he might not be so fortunate if he breaks slowly on Saturday heading directly into the clubhouse turn.
Given those excuses, it’s understandable that Independence Hall would have run a little slower in the Jerome. I still have faith that he can get back on track if trainer Mike Trombetta is able to work through his issues. After all, he broke from the gate more professionally in both of his first two starts, so it’s not as if there’s an obvious negative pattern here. The stretch-out to two turns is of less concern to me. We’ve seen the progeny of Constitution negotiate route distances, and his dam has produced a multitude of routers, including nine-furlong Spiral winner Black Onyx, so the stamina is there.
Assuming he gets away from the barrier cleanly, Independence Hall figures to work out a good trip up close to the pace. The Pace Projector is predicting that he will be on the lead alongside Premier Star (#6), but I expect the latter runner to go on and set the pace while Jose Ortiz maneuvers the favorite into a stalking position. It will also be interesting to see what if any speed we see from Chapalu (#8), who can be quite headstrong early in his races.
Many will consider the fellow undefeated colt Premier Star to be the main threat to the favorite. He’s won both of his starts with ease, and was flattered out of his debut when the runner-up Caracaro returned to break his maiden impressively with a 106 TimeformUS Speed Figure. However, Premier Star was meeting an uncompetitive field last time and has yet to face a true test. To further illustrate the strength of Independence Hall, the horse that was second to Premier Star last time finished 44 lengths back in the Nashua. A potential pace advantage would work in this horse’s favor, but he still has to handle two turns for the first time. According to DRF Formulator, trainer Jorge Navarro is 6 for 22 (27%) with first time routers on dirt over the past five years, but the ROI is just $1.46.
Among the more logical alternatives to the favorite, I prefer Ajaaweed (#1). This son of Curlin has progressed nicely with each career start, putting forth his best effort yet when closing relentlessly to be a narrow second in the Grade 2 Remsen last fall. The winner had everything go his way that day, as he was allowed to set a moderate pace over a track that was playing kindly to speed. Ajaaweed did well to make up so much ground in the lane, even after going wide on the turns. However, that race was contested over 1 1/8 miles, and I’m a little concerned that this colt requires those longer distances to be at his best given his one-paced, grinding style. I would expect him to come charging with a late run, but he’s more likely to garner a minor award as long as Independence Hall shows up.
I’m less enthusiastic about other potential options like Sole Volante (#2). He ran a decent race in the Mucho Macho Man last time, but he was still unable to fully capitalize on a favorable pace setup. I remain convinced that he’s ultimately going to be better on turf.
If I were going to throw a longshot into the mix it would be No Getting Over Me (#5). I highly doubt this horse is good enough to win, but he could pick up some pieces and inject value into the exotics if I’m right about a couple of the aforementioned contenders. This son of He’s Had Enough relished two turns in his debut and may not have been totally comfortable with sprint distances in his last two starts. If he can build upon that initial start, I could see him garnering a minor award.
Exacta: 4 with 1,5
Trifecta: 4 with 1,5 with ALL
Trifecta: 4 with 2,6 with 1,5