To use the college basketball analogy, three of the four top seeds appear to be set for the Kentucky Derby. Tiz The Law from the East. Honor A. P. from the West. Art Collector from the Midwest. They all look locked in.
“It’s sort of obvious,” five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “That’s what it is right now.”
Bettors agree. In Nevada futures, Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law is the consensus favorite (9-4 at Circa Sports, 9-4 at William Hill). There are not too many who would dispute that. Not even rival trainers.
“I remember (jockey) Mike Smith told me early on that he watched Tiz The Law running at Gulfstream,” Honor A. P.’s trainer John Shirreffs said. “He said, ‘That’s a really nice 3-year-old.’ I think he’s only proven that over and over again.”
[See - HRN's latest list of Kentucky Derby 2020 probable starters]
First-place Santa Anita Derby (G1) finisher Honor A. P. (11-2, 5-1), possibly odds-on for Saturday’s $100,000 Shared Belief Stakes, is next in the futures markets. Then comes Blue Grass (G2) winner Art Collector (13-2, 8-1), the likely favorite Aug. 9 for the $200,000 Ellis Park Derby.
And then? To take the basketball seeding comparison one step further, who is the best from the conference that may as well be known as the Big Bob? It could be Haskell (G1) winner Authentic (15-2, 8-1). It could be $3.65 million colt Cézanne – if he upsets Honor A. P. at Del Mar in his stakes debut.
Or it could be Uncle Chuck (8-1, 25-1). In fact, if he were to knock off Tiz The Law on Aug. 8 in the $1 million Travers (G1) at Saratoga, a strong case could be made for him to be the overall No. 1.
“A lot of things can happen,” Baffert said. “The Derby is still in September. It’s too far for me to think.”
That is not the case for trainer Patrick Biancone. As far as he is concerned, the conversation about the best 3-year-old racing right now starts and ends with Tiz The Law.
“The Derby picture is very simple,” Biancone said. “You have one horse in the country. And all the rest? They’re not as good as him. If you ask me about the 3-year-olds he is head and shoulders in front of everybody else. It’s a very easy picture.”
Biancone had his opinion driven home between early spring, when his colt Été Indien lost to Tiz The Law by five lengths in the Florida Derby (G1), and the first day of summer, when his gelding Sole Volante finished 15¾ lengths up the track in the Belmont.
If he holds serve and wins the Travers, and if he stays fit until Sept. 5, Tiz The Law will certainly be the betting favorite not only in the futures but also in the pari-mutuels on race day at Churchill Downs. It would not be unreasonable to think that he could be the shortest-priced post-time Derby horse since Point Given was 9-5 in 2001.
“We’re on a nice roll,” Tiz The Law’s lead owner Jack Knowlton said. “We won a classic, we won two other Grade 1s, and we won three out of three this year. So four out of four going (from the Travers) into the Derby would be great.”
But what if Tiz The Law loses in the Travers – and not to Uncle Chuck? Honor A. P. could step into the favorite’s role, as long as he wins Saturday. And not by a little but by a lot.
“When you watch a horse race you like to see how they are handling the competition,” Shirreffs said. “Are they really comfortable? How are they looking around? How do they look when they’re finishing?”
That is precisely where Art Collector’s owner Bruce Lunsford weighs in. He believes there is no horse better than his when it comes to a closing kick. His late-blooming colt demonstrated that with three first-place finishes at Churchill Downs, although the first one last fall was erased by a disqualification.
“I’ve got three races there,” Lunsford said. “In all of them he’s showing a great finish at the end. I think it’s hard to win the Derby if you don’t have a great finish the last quarter of a mile.”
Trainer Michael McCarthy does not have a dog in this fight. For that matter he may not have a horse in this Derby. Rushie has the points to get there, but McCarthy has been mulling whether to supplement him after third-place finishes in his last two races to Honor A. P. and Art Collector.
Nevertheless, McCarthy has an informed opinion. He believes it really is a race to the Derby between the big three and a Baffert.
“You know that’s kind of the way it is,” he said. “But there are always four or five horses every Derby that people are talking about. Honor A. P. looks like he’s a horse that would like a mile-and-a-quarter. Art Collector continues to impress me. But Tiz The Law is the best of them right now. I would start with him and work my way back.”
Not that this is a guarantee that the list of potential Derby winners will be boiled down to a definite four. Shirreffs wrote a counterintuitive lesson 15 years ago when Giacomo won for him at 50-1.
“I think there have been a lot of bridge jumpers,” he said. “I hear it’s only this horse or it’s only that horse. Then guys plunk all their money down on it, and then the horse gets beat or doesn’t show up.”
Does that mean that Tiz The Law should not be a heavy favorite?
“I wouldn’t say it that way,” Shirreffs said. “I’m saying that anything can happen in a race.”