This Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis has attracted an unusually strong field for a January Derby prep, matching horses with notable 2-year-old accomplishments against some lightly-raced runners with impressive speed figures. Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill have each entered a pair of contenders.
Baffert has the likely favorite in #1 Medina Spirit, and I have no argument that this is the horse to beat. He obviously didn’t play his full hand in that debut at Los Alamitos back in December, because he returned with a vastly improved effort last time in the Sham. Sent off at a big price in the face of his highly-regarded stablemate Life Is Good, Medina Spirit gave that rival all that he could handle, chasing him around the track before taking a serious run at him in the final sixteenth of a mile. Some believe that Life Is Good was just easing up and playing around. I don’t subscribe to that theory, as Medina Spirit has trained well out of that race and looks better suited to added distance. He’s the horse to beat, but I’m just a little leery of taking a relatively short price on anyone in this competitive field.
I certainly prefer Medina Spirit to Baffert’s other runner #8 Spielberg, whose recent form has plateaued. He did get the job done last time in a weak edition of the Los Alamitos Futurity, but he was desperate to get up for the victory over a horse who was still a maiden at the time.
Doug O’Neill sends out the uncoupled pair of #4 Hot Rod Charlie and #7 Wipe the Slate. Hot Rod Charlie is the more accomplished runner, having most recently finished a strong second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He earned a competitive 113 TimeformUS Speed Figure for that performance, which seems totally legitimate given his trip. He has to prove that the sudden improvement he showed in that race was no fluke, but he’ll be a major threat here if he repeats that effort.
Wipe the Slate most recently won his maiden going seven furlongs after finishing second to the aforementioned Life Is Good in his career debut. He finished off that maiden victory with good energy and has a right to get into the mix here if he continues progressing.
Yet I’m most interested in a different last-out maiden winner. Like Wipe the Slate, #5 Roman Centurian lost to Life Is Good in that Nov. 22 maiden event at Del Mar. Yet he seemed like one that didn’t want any part of sprinting. He stretched out to this distance in his second start and appeared to relish the added ground. He lagged behind early but launched a powerful rally on the far turn, catapulting past the field by the time he reached the eighth pole before galloping out strongly through and after the wire. He obviously has to improve on that 106 TimeformUS Speed Figure if he’s to upset this field, but I thought he beat a strong group of runners in that maiden score. He’s still a bit raw but seems to be figuring out the game with each start, and he will benefit from any pace that develops on the front end. At anything around or above his morning-line price of 8-1, he strikes me as the best value play in this field.
Exacta Key Box: 5 with 1,4,7,8
Trifecta: 1,5 with 1,5 with 2,4,7,8