The Week In Review: Opposites Attracting Attention

Saturday’s two 100-point preps for the GI Kentucky Derby yielded a pair of colts who are polar opposites in many ways. Yet the stock is on the rise for both Two Phil’s (Hard Spun) and Kingsbarns (Uncle Mo), as their respective scores in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks and GII Louisiana Derby are attracting attention while stamping both as legitimate mid-tier threats on the Triple Crown totem pole.

Two Phil’s ($150,000 KEESEP) has appeal as a 4-for-8 blue-collar closer/stalker whose strengths are versatility and adaptability. He’s won sprinting and routing over fast dirt, the Churchill Downs slop, and now the Tapeta surface at Turfway, where he uncorked an eye-opening 101 Beyer Speed Figure. His racing resume includes wins well off the traditional Derby path at tracks like Colonial and Canterbury, and he’ll train up to the first Saturday in May at Hawthorne for connections (jockey Jareth Loveberry, trainer Larry Rivelli, and co-owners Patricia’s Hope LLC and Phillip Sagan) who have no Derby experience among them.

The far pricier Kingsbarns ($250,000 FTSAUG; $800,000 FTFMAR) is evolving into a businesslike front-running force who’s never lost in three starts for connections (jockey Flavien Prat, trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Spendthrift Farm) who have ample experience at racing’s elite events. To illustrate how deep Pletcher’s sophomore stable is this season, the undefeated Kingsbarns isn’t even considered the Hall-of-Fame conditioner’s top chance at a third Derby win–the colt is currently pegged third-best, behind ‘TDN Rising Stars’ Forte (Violence) and Tapit Trice (Tapit).

Underdog allure…

If you parse the past-performance block of Two Phil’s, he’s only run two races that are off-the-board toss outs, and he had credible excuses for both.

He checked out of contention in his June 23 debut at five furlongs. Then, after roughing up the competition in Virginia and Minnesota, he took a 68-1 dive into the deep end of the Grade I pool, finishing seventh in the key-race Breeders’ Futurity S. at Keeneland Oct. 8 behind eventual divisional champ Forte. But he got pinballed at the break in that race, then was crowded and bore out on the first turn before settling well and putting together a better-than-it-looks middle move that he sustained into upper stretch.

Disregarding the severity of that troubled trip, bettors let Two Phil’s go off at 7-1 in the GIII Street Sense S. at Churchill, and he won going away by 5 1/4 lengths over a sealed track. He initially earned a 75 Beyer for that effort, but that number has subsequently been upgraded to a 79.

After starting his 2023 campaign with a second in the GII Lecomte S. and a third in the GII Risen Star S., Rivelli opted to try Two Phil’s over Tapeta, based in part on a dynamite two-minute lick the colt once unleashed when training over a synthetic track. It was an experiment that the trainer said pre-race he would take the blame for if Two Phil’s “absolutely hates the surface” under race conditions. But Rivelli also noted the Jeff Ruby seemed like “the easiest spot for the money” (not to mention its coveted qualifying points for the Derby).

Loveberry, who has been aboard Two Phil’s for every start except the colt’s debut, nearly missed the mount at Turfway because he suffered a hairline fracture to his fibula in a gate accident Mar. 2 at Fair Grounds. Yet he returned to action two weeks later and was able to retain the ride on Saturday.

Hard Spun, the sire of Two Phil’s, won the version of Turfway’s premier stakes in 2007 when the race was known as the GII Lane’s End S. and run over Polytrack. That win propelled him to 2-3-4 finishes in the three Triple Crown races and a second-place try later that season in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. Through that campaign, which came against a fairly deep crop, Hard Spun-like Two Phil’s is aspiring to now-became known as a reliable, determined runner who could handle any type of distance or surface he was tasked with.

Off as the 2.8-1 second choice in the Jeff Ruby, Two Phil’s broke alertly and immediately responded to a snug rating hold by Loveberry. The colt cornered three wide into the first bend, was content to be parked outside while sixth down the backstretch, then took the overland route four deep through the far turn, shadowing the move of the 1.7-1 fave Major Dude (Bolt d’Oro), a Pletcher trainee.

The two chalks accosted the pacemaker at the head of the homestretch, then the outermost Two Phil’s made short work of wresting command from Major Dude. No one else was firing down the lane, and Two Phil’s churned for the wire largely under his own power, stopping the timer at 1:49.03 for the nine furlongs.

Two Phil’s | Coady

Meanwhile, In New Orleans…

Some 800 miles south and 25 minutes later, Kingsbarns stepped into the Fair Grounds starting gate for the Louisiana Derby as the 9-2 second choice. Bettors were chipping away at his 6-1 morning-line price because Kingsbarns projected to control the tempo, and after leading at every call through very moderate fractions (:24.71, 49.50, 1:14.69, 1:39.13) and light pressure from the competition, Prat said post-win that he knew dictating the pace would be his best shot.

“We thought there was not a whole lot of speed in the race,” Prat said. “[Pletcher] told me that the horse was pretty straightforward, and if we ended up on the lead he was fine with that. He jumped well, I was able to get myself into a comfortable spot, and from there he did the job.”

Kingsbarns got a 95 Beyer. His final time of 1:57.33 for the 1 3/16 miles, though, rates as the slowest clocking in four years since the Louisiana Derby got elongated from nine furlongs. In fact, the time was nearly a full second off the previous slowest clocking of 1:56.47.

In addition, the Fair Grounds main track was decidedly speed-favoring on Saturday. Of 11 dirt races, four were won in wire-to-wire fashion, six by pressers just off the lead, and just one by a midpack stalker. Deep closers got shut out.

Still, the prospect of an undefeated colt aiming for the first Saturday in May always creates some buzz-even if the historical hurdle is high.

From 1900 to the present, nine horses have attempted the Derby with exactly 3-for-3 records. Justify (2018), Big Brown (2008) and the filly Regret (1915) were the only ones to sail home triumphantly under the twin spires at 4-for-4.

Curlin, third in 2007, was the only other one to hit the board in the Derby. The others who tried but ran out of the money were Helium and Rock Your World (both in 2021), Materiality (2015), Showing Up (2006), and Thunderer–a full brother to Regret–in 1916.

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