At face value, the second choice in an eight-horse field winning a Kentucky Derby prep race is not a particularly surprising result. However, given the circumstances surrounding Hot Rod Charlie’s victory in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, coupled with the news that the presumptive favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Life Is Good, has been sidelined with an injury and will miss the Triple Crown, the result becomes considerably more surprising – and considerably more important.
Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Doug O’Neill, Hot Rod Charlie secured 100 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby when winning the Louisiana Derby. With 11 points already to his name prior to Saturday’s race, the son of 2013 Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow finds himself alone at the top of the Kentucky Derby points standings, at least for the time being. Hot Rod Charlie’s victory came in front-running fashion, as jockey Joel Rosario positioned the three-year-old colt on the lead from the moment the gates opened, leading the field of three-year-olds around the New Orleans oval every step of the 1 3/16-mile journey. Being on or near the early lead is always an advantageous running style when racing on dirt, but especially so in the stampede that is the Kentucky Derby; for that reason, combined with his record to date, Hot Rod Charlie presents an intriguing case as a 2021 Derby contender.
Post-time favorite Mandaloun delivered an uncharacteristically poor performance, never looking comfortable at any point throughout the race, ultimately finishing a soundly defeated sixth. Given the success trainer Brad Cox has had over the past couple of years and the profile and credentials that Mandaloun possessed entering the Louisiana Derby, the sixth-place finish was easily the most stunning element of Saturday’s race. Mandaloun has had success at Churchill Downs (site of the Kentucky Derby) in the past and owns enough points to secure himself a spot in the starting gate the first Saturday in May, so despite the lackluster performance in New Orleans, it seems very reasonable that we will be seeing him again in Louisville.
Below are some observations to consider following the 2021 Louisiana Derby:
Hot Rod Charlie’s victory Saturday in New Orleans only continues to flatter the form of the Southern California-based three-year-olds. In late January, Hot Rod Charlie finished third in a three-horse photo finish at Santa Anita Park in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes; the winner and second-place finishers that day, Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian, returned to finish second and fourth behind Life Is Good in the San Felipe Stakes earlier this month. It is also worth noting the horse who finished fourth in the Robert B. Lewis, Spielberg, exited that race to finish second in last month’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park behind Two-Year-Old Champion Essential Quality; Spielberg is scheduled to return to the races in this Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park for trainer Bob Baffert.
Midnight Bourbon acquitted himself nicely Saturday, finishing a solid second behind Hot Rod Charlie. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Midnight Bourbon has the look of a grinder, the type of horse who does not do anything flashy but will continue to fight. It is fair to question whether he is good enough to be considered a true win contender in this year’s Kentucky Derby, but he has paired up career-best Beyer Speed Figures of 96 in each of his two most recent starts. This could be interpreted as a sign the colt is prepared to take a step forward and run a new career-top in his next start, which would certainly make him intriguing at what should be a square price in the Derby.
O Besos may need some help to get into the Kentucky Derby field, as his 25 qualifying points likely will put him on the bubble. Should he get in, the son of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb should be considered a prime candidate to rally late at what is sure to be a huge price based on his stretch-run on Saturday. Horses like O Besos are always going to be at the mercy of pace and trip, but, if the stars align, there is no reason he cannot finish with a flurry in Louisville and fill out exactas, trifectas or superfectas – assuming he gets into the race.
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The addition of blinkers for Proxy did not do the trick, as the Michael Stidham trainee continued to show signs of greenness and immaturity. Yes, he was slammed between runners at the start of the race, an unfortunate incident that did not help his chances. However, given his apparent lack of focus down the backstretch, it is silly to suggest the contact at the start is what cost him a chance at victory. It feels as though Proxy has a great deal of natural ability, he just needs to learn to deliver a complete performance from start to finish; this may not be a reasonable expectation before the Kentucky Derby is run, but there is no reason to think he may not still be one of the best three-year-olds of his generation. Perhaps with experience and time he will fulfill his potential; a race over the summer like the Travers Stakes at Saratoga would be a spot to keep an eye on.
It is difficult to come up with apparent reasons for the dull effort put forth by Mandaloun on Saturday. While it may be a stretch, Mandaloun appeared to have the ground break from beneath him at the very start of the race, causing him to bobble ever so slightly before gathering himself up. Is this what caused the poor performance? It is probably unlikely, but it is far from impossible. If one is still a believer in this horse, the good news is his odds in the Kentucky Derby will be much greater than they would have been had he delivered in the Louisiana Derby.
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