A fifth-place finish after setting a disputed pace in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park Feb. 17 convinced trainer Cody Autrey that his speedy colt Tanzanite Cat needed a tad softer spot for the next start.
Avoiding the likes of Tapiture and Strong Mandate at Oaklawn, Autrey brought his stakes-winning son of Graeme Hall to New Mexico for the $800,000 Sunland Derby March 23, when he'll be facing a new set of problems. Trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher both have two fast-developing colts awaiting the 1 ⅛-mile test of 3-year-olds.
"When it looked like to me that maybe we were just a notch below those two horses [at Oaklawn], and sometimes, the Sunland Derby, I think might come up a tick easier," Autrey said.
"But now we have to face Baffert's two horses and Pletcher's two ship-ins. But they're kind of in the same position we are; they're maiden winners or stakes winners but they're really young horses trying it to take the next level up. So we'd rather go there and try [them] at the mile and an eighth."
Baffert is sending San Felipe Stakes runner-up Midnight Hawk, the 5-2 morning line choice, and 4-1 Chitu, the second-place finisher in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, from Southern California. Arriving from Florida for Pletcher are recent maiden winner Global Strike (8-1) and Commissioner (7-2), who was sixth while well backed in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes.
A $150,000 buy at the Ocala Breeders' Co. sale of 2-year-olds last April, Tanzanite Cat made his debut in a third-place finish at Del Mar last August for owners James and Ywachetta Driver. The Florida-bred began training for his 3-year-old season at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, where Tanzanite Cat was doing so well Autrey entered him Dec. 8 in a 5 ½-furlong maiden sprint that the bay colt won in front-running fashion by four lengths.
Shipped to Oaklawn, Tanzanite Cat jumped right into the fray, taking the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 20 by 1 1/4 lengths at 9-1 odds after battling on the lead. He was overwhelmed by Tapiture and Strong Mandate in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest a month later, but Autrey noted that Tanzanite Cat was only beaten a half-length for third.
"He had to step up in the Southwest," the trainer said. "You know, he ran fast; we didn't think he ran all that bad. And since then, he's trained really good, so we're going to see if he can step it up a little bit."
The problem for Tanzanite Cat is that his greatest asset, his speed, could be compromised while surrounded by other swift horses. Both of Baffert's entrants, Midnight Hawk and Chitu, like to be forwardly placed as does the Pletcher-trained Global Strike. Garen, from the barn of Southern California trainer Peter Miller, will also vie for the lead. Autrey isn't inclined to try to take 6-1 hope Tanzanite Cat off the pace.
"Going a mile and an eighth, hopefully the pace might be a little bit softer and he will be forwardly placed, because Sunland's kind of a speed-favoring race track from what I've seen, so there's no sense in taking him back and trying something new there," he said.
Autrey has named Norberto Arroyo Jr. to ride Tanzanite Cat, who breezed a half-mile in a bullet :48 ⅕ at Oaklawn March 15. They start from post 5 in the Sunland Derby, the 11th on a strong 12-race card with a 5:40 p.m. MDT scheduled post at Sunland Park. The race carries 85 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Derby in six weeks, with 50 points to the winner.
Baffert, who won last year's Sunland Derby with Govenor Charlie, returns with Midnight Hawk and Chitu.
The Hall of Fame conditioner has always been high on Midnight Hawk, bred by Mike Pegram, who co-owns him with Hill 'n' Dale Equine Holdings and others. The gray Midnight Lute colt began the year with a win in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park Jan. 11, and continued his development with a third-place finish when favored in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. In his most recent try March 8, he was second, 7 ½ lengths behind the sensational California Chrome, in the San Felipe.
Chitu, a $300,000 Ocala 2-year-old purchase last March who races for Tanma Corp., has been a little more under the radar for a Baffert trainee in spite of winning his first two starts. In his stakes debut in the Lewis, his first try around two turns, the Henny Hughes colt grabbed the lead from his stablemate in the stretch at odds of 9-2, but was overtaken late by the fast-closing Candy Boy. He lost by half a length.
Both Chitu, who will be guided from the outside post by Martin Garcia, and Midnight Hawk, starting from post 7 with Mike Smith aboard, worked March 17 at Santa Anita. Chitu drilled seven furlongs out of the gate in a sharp 1:24 ⅘, while Midnight Hawk was caught going five furlongs in 1:00 ⅕.
Pletcher seeks a rebound from Commissioner, who will wear blinkers for the first time in the Sunland Derby. WinStar Farm's homebred son of A.P. Indy had looked good in defeating Top Billing in an allowance Jan. 3, but was never a factor in the Fountain of Youth Feb. 22 when supported at 7-2 odds. John Velazquez ships in for the ride on Commissioner, who gets off the rail, drawing post 3.
Stonestreet Stables' homebred Global Strike defeated a maiden field at the Sunland Derby distance Feb. 22 at Gulfstream, leading at every call in spite of stumbling at the start. The son of Smart Strike scored in a game fashion by one length at odds of 3-5. Javier Castellano has the return call from gate 4.
Miller ships in with Garen, a front-running winner by 2 ¼ lengths at Santa Anita in his first try at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 17. Rockingham Ranch owns the Kentucky-bred Street Cry colt who sold for $235,000 at Barretts last May.
Bourbonize, sixth in the Southwest for trainer Kellyn Gorder, drew the rail. The Tiz Wonderful gelding won his first two starts for Bourbon Lane Stable and comes into the Sunland Derby off a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:01 ⅗ March 16 at Oaklawn.
The local contingent is led by Rebranded, winner of Sunland's Riley Allison Futurity in December and most recently second in the Mine That Bird Derby Feb. 22. The Tiznow colt, originally in the Pletcher barn, is now conditioned by sizzling trainer Justin Evans, who has a 31% strike rate at Sunland.
Privately purchased by Tony Pennington, the $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Florida buy last March will wear blinkers for the first time.
Completing the field is Lawly's Goal, second in the Allison Futurity and most recently second again in the Turf Paradise Derby Feb. 22.