When Excessivelpleasure and Pat Day won the inaugural running of the Sunland Derby in 2003, few if any could have predicted that in a little more than a decade the race would see top connections from around the country shipping horses to New Mexico in preparation for a chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. But that's the case as initially the large purse (currently $800,000), and now the big Derby points (50 to the winner), elevated the status of the Sunland Derby on the road to Churchill Downs.
The 2014 version of the Sunland Derby (Post time: 7:40 p.m. Eastern; TV: TVG) features a field of nine with a pair of colts from both Todd Pletcher (Commmissioner and Global Strike) and Bob Baffert (Midnight Hawk and Chitu) making the trip to New Mexico. Additionally, Bourbonize and Tanzanite Cat shipped in from Oaklawn Park, Garen made the trip from Santa Anita, and Lawly's Goal (the lone Arizona bred entry in the field) took a short ride from Turf Paradise.
Rebranded is the "local" horse with his last two races coming over the Sunland Park strip in the Mind That Bird Derbyu and the Allison Futurity. Rebranded was in Todd Pletcher's barn last fall, making four starts at Saratoga, Belmont, Parx and Aqueduct before changing hands and moving to New Mexico.
Baffert's Midnight Hawk is the 5/2 morning line favorite and, in my view, it's really time for this colt to come up with a strong winning effort is he's to be taken seriously as a major Derby contenders. He always gives a good account of himself but in his last couple of races I've felt he's seriously flattened out in the stretch. One of the horses he finished behind in the Lewis, Chitu, is drawn to his outside.
I was pretty impressed by Chitu's second to Candy Boy in the Lewis and I'm definitely more intrigued by his possibilities going forward. His pedigree is a good mix of good old American dirt speed on top (Henny Hughes) and stamina on the bottom (Sea Gift by A.P. Indy). Sea Gift has produced six foals with three winners from four starters. Her winner have won at an average distance of 7.83 furlongs, which is nice. Additionally, her winners have displayed some nice versatility with wins over turf, dirt, and synthetic surfaces.
Commissioner's performance in the Fountain of Youth went down as one of the bigger disappointments in this year's Derby preps, but perhaps that tough victory over Top Billing back on January 3rd took a little more out of this colt than many anticipated. Whatever the reason, not only did Commissioner never get into the Fountain of Youth in the early stages, he pretty much threw in the towel before the field exited the far turn. Considering the depth of talent around him in this field, he'll need to bounce back to his best to come out on top.
I really like Chitu in this spot for several reasons: first, he has the tactical speed to get into the race in the early stages and should be able to avoid trouble from his wide draw, a combination that's quite successful in races at this distance at Sunland Park. According to the Bris Track Stats for Sunland, over the last 114 route races on dirt, 68% were won by horses on or near the lead, and wide post positions have fared well, if not better, when compared to those towards the rail. Second, I really like the way Chitu stretched out in the Lewis in his first try at two turns; if he takes a step forward from that race I think he's the clear winner of the Sunland Derby.
Below are the entries, post positions and morning line odds for the Grade 3 Sunland Derby:
|1||Bourbonize||R. Vazquez||K. Gorder||6/1|
|2||Garen||V. Espinoza||P. Miller||10/1|
|3||Commissioner||J. Velazquez||T. Pletcher||7/2|
|4||Global Strike||J. Castellano||T. Pletcher||8/1|
|5||Tanzanite Cat||N. Arroyo, Jr.||C. Autrey||6/1|
|6||Lawly's Goal||I. Rosendo||K. Eikleberry||20/1|
|7||Midnight Hawk||M. Smith||B. Baffert||5/2|
|8||Rebranded||R. Eikleberry||J. Evans||12/1|
|9||Chitu||M. Garcia||B. Baffert||4/1|