First the loss and the disappointment and then the injury and the turnoff -- Honor Code took the Unfulfilled Ambition exit off the highway leading to Churchill Downs. He's no longer on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Sunday, his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, announced that Honor Code, because of a "slight tear" of a suspensory ligament, was no longer a candidate for the first and rosiest event in the Triple Crown. And so, of course, he also leaves the ESPN.com Power Rankings, to be replaced by Bayern, who returns at No. 10.
Literally from the start, since his debut in August at Saratoga, where he sensationally rallied from last to win by nearly five lengths, Honor Code had been one of the favorites, first in popular regard and then in serious expectation, for the 140th Kentucky Derby. A grand looking colt by Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, Honor Code had it all.
And, of course, he still does. That's the good news. McGaughey said Honor Code will get 60 days off and then be re-evaluated. So he could return later this year, possibly at Saratoga or Belmont.
A racehorse gets only one swing, one opportunity, one afternoon in early May when he might, if he's blessed by talent and ordained by luck, join the cavalcade of great Kentucky Derby winners. It hardly seems fair, but that's it. Everybody in horse racing understands that the Kentucky Derby is the apex, the sport's only summit recognized by popular culture. And any horse that wins the Derby arrives at a special place, draped in immutable honors.
Honor Code won't even have his chance to get there, but the feeling here is that he still has the potential to become one of the best horses of his generation. And he's in the hands of a patient horseman who'll give him the opportunity to become just that.
Aside from Honor Code's exit, the Power Rankings underwent little change this week. But for two reasons it's notable that Chitu, the squat sprinter-looking speedster from the Bob Baffert barn, won the Sunland Derby, with his stablemate Midnight Hawk second.
First, it's notable because Chitu gave an outstanding performance. Although he looks like a sprinter, he has the determination and grit of a stayer, and he ran the 1 ⅛ miles at Sunland Park in 1:47.88, which was an outstanding time for the day. Chitu could be an under-the-radar Derby candidate, dismissed by many because his path to Kentucky ran through New Mexico. But this guy's a runner. And after he won at Sunland Park, he galloped out strongly beyond the wire, suggesting that beneath this sprinter's exterior there's a classic possibility.
Second, the outcome of the Sunland Derby is notable because Chitu's only loss in his four-race career was to Candy Boy. When Candy Boy won the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, Chitu finished a half-length back in second, with Midnight Hawk third. And so while the Sunland Derby became Chitu's on-ramp for his journey to Kentucky, it also flattered Candy Boy greatly.
Changes in the Power Rankings are virtually inevitable this week, with the running of derbies in Louisiana and Florida. The Florida Derby is expected to have only a small field, with Wildcat Red, General A Rod, Spot, Constitution and probably Cairo Prince meeting at Gulfsteam Park. And at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Intense Holiday, Vicar's In Trouble, Albano, Louies Flower, Rise Up and Commanding Curve are expected to line up for the Louisiana Derby.
1. Cairo Prince
Cairo Prince worked an easy half-mile Saturday in 50.90 seconds. Since winning the Holy Bull Stakes by nearly six lengths, he has trained steadily and well, much to the satisfaction of his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, who summed it all up by saying, "He's happy; we're happy." McLaughlin has Cairo Prince aimed at Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, but he's keeping his options open. Rain is in the forecast for Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Hallandale, Fla., and so, in case of a muddy or sloppy track, Cairo Prince has a reservation on an April 2 flight to New York, where he could run in the Wood Memorial.
2. Candy Boy
Candy Boy's stock rose last week, even though he didn't race. Not that this helps his Derby chances in any way, but it validates, if any validation were needed, his talent: Chitu and Midnight Hawk, who chased Candy Boy home in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, finished one-two in a very fast Sunland Derby in New Mexico. As for Candy Boy, he worked three-quarters of a mile Saturday at Santa Anita in 1:12.80. His trainer described it as "very nice," and his regular jockey, Gary Stevens, called it "solid." Candy Boy is to make his next start April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby, where he'll need to pick up some qualifying points if he's to ensure himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.
3. California Chrome
Saturday, California Chrome had his first workout since his scintillating victory in the San Felipe Stakes, going a half-mile at Los Alamitos in 47.40 seconds. And his veteran trainer, Art Sherman, announced last week that the speedy Cal-bred would indeed make his next start in the Santa Anita Derby. Sherman had considered training California Chrome up to the Kentucky Derby.
Tapiture has been admirable in every way. He has improved consistently and steadily, taking his performances to a high level, and in addition to flashing his talent, he has demonstrated both versatility and determination. He's very solid. And there's reason to think he'll continue to improve: He's a late foal, and his actual third birthday is May 3, Derby Day.
Samraat worked a mile Saturday in 1:45.15 at Palm Meadows, and that's part of his routine, slow mile works. A week before he won the Gotham, he worked a mile at Palm Meadows in 1:45. And a week before he won the Withers, he worked a mile in 1:46.40 at Palm Meadows. And with those tenacious victories, the King of Queens showed he belongs with the best of his generation. He'll return to New York for the Wood.
6. Intense Holiday
Intense Holiday worked an easy half-mile in 49.40 seconds Saturday at Palm Meadows in Florida in preparation for Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. As Jack Wolf, whose Starlight racing owns the colt, recently said, Intense Holiday has improved significantly this year, especially since winning the Risen Star. And when he returns to New Orleans he'll again race over a surface he likes and benefit once again from the long stretch.
Hoppertunity has come far in a short time. He began the year as an unraced maiden, and three months later, with his hard-fought victory in the Rebel Stakes, he became one of the leaders on the road to Kentucky. He's much more professional than his four races of experience might suggest; still, not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Kentucky Derby winner who was unraced as a 2-year-old. Hoppertunity will get his final preparation in either the Santa Anita or Arkansas Derby.
8. Social Inclusion
Superhorse or fraud? -- the question will remain until at least his next start. He looked like he could be the next superhorse when he beat Honor Code by 10 lengths in the second start of his career, his first around two turns, and set a Gulfstream record. Then again, it was Gulfstream Park, where records fall like necklines at the Academy Awards and where speed dominates like Joe Louis in the 1940s. After the win, a sale was rumored; it's still rumored. Nobody wants to pay superhorse money for anything less than a superhorse. Anyway, he worked an easy half-mile (49.34 seconds) Saturday or an easy three-eighths (36.0 seconds), depending on whether you accept the perspective of his owner, Ronald Sanchez, or the official clocker. Either way, he's to have a couple more workouts before traveling from Florida to New York for the Wood Memorial.
9. Wildcat Red
He worked three-eighths of a mile Saturday in 34.42 seconds, which was the bullet, or fastest move at the distance, for the morning. That would seem to leave little doubt about what the strategy will be for Saturday's Florida Derby: go to the lead. That's his game, and the speed-biased Gulfstream is his track. In fact, the Fountain of Youth winner never has raced anywhere else. Constitution might be able to push him early, and, of course, General A Rod can apply pace pressure, but Wildcat Red could prove hard to beat Saturday if the surface continues to be like a doting grandmother when it comes to the speedsters, her grandkids. The real test will come when Wildcat Red leaves Gulfstream.
He hasn't raced since his 15-length romp on Feb. 13. A foot issue caused him to miss the San Felipe, as well as some training, but he has gone back to the track, and he indeed returned to the work tab Thursday, zipping a half-mile at Santa Anita in 47.40 seconds. Afterwards, his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, indicated Bayern would return to competition in either the Santa Anita or Arkansas Derby. Both races will be difficult, and Bayern needs a good outcome to come up with some qualifying points. Like Tapiture, Bayern won't actually turn 3 until May 3. And, if he makes it there, like Hoppertunity and Social Inclusion, Bayern will attempt to become the first Derby winner since 1882 that didn't race as a 2-year-old.
Also receiving votes: Honor Code (13), General A Rod (12), Ring Weekend (12), Chitu (11), Strong Mandate (11), Vicar's In Trouble (5), Constitution (8), Giovanni Boldini (7), We Miss Artie (7), Conquest Titan (6), Albano (5), Midnight Hawk (4), Rise Up (4), Uncle Sigh (4), Bobby's Kitten (3), Commissioner (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.