2015 Sunland Derby & Sunland Oaks Preview

Picks & Ponderings is splitting its coverage this weekend to tackle the weekend's biggest Kentucky Derby prep races.  The Saturday program features Nicolle Neulist tackling the Spiral and Bourbonette from Turfway Park near Cincinnati.  The Sunday program, and focus of this piece, is coverage of the Sunland Derby and Sunland Oaks.  Sunland Park is the host, and it sits in New Mexico just to the west of El Paso, Texas - the same town made famous in a Marty Robbins country song. Both races serve as the purse-related features of the Sunland Park program, with both restricted to three-year-olds and both offering qualifying points for their respective race.

(Although Sunland Park is featuring a stakes-laden card, this piece analyzes only the three-year-old prep races.)

The Sunland Derby also features a gala the night before where Denver Broncos tight end Wes Welker is the keynote speaker.  Welker's tie to horse racing is his ownership of G3 Jaipur winner Undrafted.

In terms of live coverage, Horse Races Now streams Sunland Park each and every racing day.  Also, the track offers a live stream through its website.

All races in this preview are slated for Sunday March 22.  Morning line odds for the Sunland Oaks were not available at original publish time.

Updated on March 19 to include morning lines for all races and to account for the scratch of LORD NELSON, as reported by the Daily Racing Form's S. Andersen.

Sunland Park -- Race 9 -- Sunland Oaks -- One and one-sixteenth Miles on Dirt -- post time 4:35 MT

Run for the fifteenth consecutive year, the Sunland Oaks offers two hundred thousand dollars of purse funds and a 50-20-10-5 distribution of Kentucky Oaks points to the top four finishers.  Contested in its first two years at a two-turn mile and with Winstar providing sponsorship, the Sunland Oaks has yet to earn a grade but its purse has stabilized - likely guaranteed as opposed to added - at the $200K level.  In 2005 the race added a sixteenth of a mile in distance, just as its for-males counterpart did.  Only horse has won this race and gone on to win the Kentucky Oaks, Plum Pretty in 2011.  Other notable heroines include 2003 victor Island Fashion, for whom the local prep to this race is named for; 2007 winner Tough Tiz's Sis, who won Grade Ones at three at four; and 2013 heroine Midnight Lucky won this race and then later was a winner of the G1 Acorn Stakes.

Midnight Lucky romps in the 2013 Sunland Oaks.

When not writing about races, I petition the American Graded Stakes Committee to downgrade the G1 Las Virgenes based on it being two preps away from a G1 while this race is one.  Despite such petitions, Las Virgines winner CALLBACK wired the field in that Santa Anita race and looms a huge threat to do the same.  Despite the presence of stretch-out speed in this event, CALLBACK  should be quicker than the stretchouts in this event.  Second two back in the G2 Santa Ynez around one turn, she bested a next out winner earlier in the year and trumped two next out winners when graduating at the end of her two year old campaign.  On an oval that plays kindly to inside speed on big days, here's a runner with speed and post number two.  And CALLBACK is bred for going beyond a mile.  The Garcia/Baffert team of Bayern and Dortmund fame see it fit to ship this one to New Mexico and an attempt at fifty Oaks qualification points.  Beyond CALLBACK, the obvious class of the field, perhaps SCAT MEANS GO can make noise.  A Steve Asmussen castaway that landed in the barn of top local conditioner Henry Dominguez, she brings her 28% wins trainer and an off-the-pace win at two turns last out to the field.  They're both assets, the former for obvious reasons and the latter for an ability to close in a field of runners sent to the front on stretching out to two turns.  Another local, BABES CYLVER SLEW, gets a mention here. While she's a stretchout in this field, she's made three starts and hit the podium in each of them.  All have been at Sunland.  Perhaps this one gets a nice forward outside trip and, with two turn breeding (Old Fashioned - Slewgenes Humor by Distorted Humor) this one can hang around for longer than anticipated on the front end.


#2 CALLBACK (1/1)

#4 SCAT MEANS GO (12/1)


Longshot: In Baffert we trust.  Trainer Bob Baffert has won the last four runnings of this race and CALLBACK looks the part to do it again.  But the stretchout speed could turn the front end into a mess, and it sets up for #8 MAYBELLENE (3/1).  Nicely bred for two turn distances exceeding a mile (by Lookin at Lucky out of a Giant's Causeway mare).  She ran two okay races earlier in the year in the Las Virgenes and the China Doll, but at two chased checks behind Take Charge Brandi (then the division leader) and Achiever's Legacy (hit board in G1 Las Virgenes).  The figures did uptick from start one to start two at three, so another uptick is possible.  Perhaps if MAYBELLENE is taken off the pace, she can mow them down.  It's also the longer priced of the two Bob Baffert trainees, and that angle often is fruitful in Southern California.

Sunland Park -- Race 11 -- G3 Sunland Derby -- One and one-eighth Miles on Dirt -- post time 5:40 MT

Pre-scratch analysis of this race is jointly submitted for Thorofan's "Handicapper's Corner".

For the thirteenth straight year, the $800,000 Sunland Derby serves as the centerpiece of the Sunland Park meet and the Sunland Derby Day festivities.  What started as the Winstar Derby for a half million dollars in 2003 gained a G3 rank in 2010 and now is an official Kentucky Derby points qualifying race, with the 50-20-10-5 parsing of points to the top four (fifty to the winner, and so forth).  The first two runnings of this were at a mile and a sixteenth, before a stretch out to nine furlongs in 2005. The best known winner of this race are 2005 victor Thor's Echo, who won the 2006 G1 Breeders' Cup Sprint.  2014 runner-up Midnight Hawk three weeks later was second in the 2014 G3 Illinois Derby. Yet these runners are perhaps trumped in fame by Mine That Bird, who was fourth in the 2009 Sunland Derby before shocking the world in the Derby five weeks afterward.  His efforts made Sunland rechristen one of the local preps to this race in his honor.  Mine That Bird's effort is the best any Sunland Derby finisher has done in the Kentucky Derby, with no in-the-money finisher of this Derby hitting the board in Louisville.

Kelly Leak winning the 2009 Sunland Derby. Mine That Bird, that year's Derby winner, finished fourth.

Handicapping races can be a matter of opinion.  On a recently compiled Kentucky Derby panel that I vote on, FIRING LINE was voted eighth out of the twelve runners.  I didn't include FIRING LINE on my poll.  On another poll he's ninth of ten.  Some see a horse that's been in the same realm as Dortmund - a fashionable choice in future books for the Kentucky Derby.  This space sees things differently. In FIRING LINE's most recent race, the G3 Robert B. Lewis, he ran with Dortmund for most of the intermediate stages before eventual Lewis (and later, San Felipe) winner Dortmund scampered away.  This space sees FIRING LINE as a horse that hung and that stagnated, one that couldn't succumb to the high heat of a top shelf Derby prep, and one that will find the nine furlongs of the Sunland Derby a bridge too far.  Yet with the announced scratch of LORD NELSON, FIRING LINE's path gets a lot easier and he becomes a more defensive use.  WHY TWO was the stretch-out winner last time of the Turf Paradise Derby over in Phoenix.  Sent off as the 3-10 favorite, he won led at every call and didn't disappoint.  A winner second-time out at seven furlongs at Santa Anita, WHY TWO stays away from the SoCal horses and catches a Derby prep that offers a big purse and a good shot of doing damage given Sunland's flow.  The front end could be more crowded this time, but he did come off the pace two back to get his first career win at Santa Anita.  Should the speed duel get fierce - or should all the speed get cautious, TIZNOW R J could be the one to catch.  After chasing and then getting drubbed by International Star in the New Orleans feeders to the Derby, TIZNOW R J tries to ship out in a Plan B effort to grab some points and cash.  He fought on nicely two back in the G3 Lecomte and was a stylish maiden winner earlier in the year.  Catching a field that's much easier than what he faced in the Risen Star, and a forward favoring Sunland surface, are the convincing plus points here.  FIRING LINE, despite original misgivings, now moves up in this spot.  Even though these eyes saw him appear to hang in the Lewis, he's got a cozy post and a track conducive to being forward, like he was two back in the Los Alamitos Futurity.  This race is an acid test for him and how he can handle nine furlongs.  Perhaps, like in the Lewis, he can hang around after being bested.  Gary Stevens sees fit to make the trip to New Mexico, passing up a day of mounts at Santa Anita.


#4 WHY TWO (8/1)

#5 TIZNOW R J (5/1)

#1 FIRING LINE (8/5)

Longshot: A tendency at stakes festivals is for out-of-town runners to be overbet, whether due to the casual crowd of once-a-year players that come to Sunland or from weekend warriors disenchanted with the same old same old on their home circuit.  This means #3 WHERE'S THE MOON (6/1), while quoted at 6/1, could easily float up in the wagering.  And in a race projected as a one-horse race starring FIRING LINE, WHERE'S THE MOON could be forgotten.  WHERE'S THE MOON won the local prep to this event, the Mine That Bird (remember him?) Derby and two back graduated over this oval.  A Peter Miller cast-off from Southern California, he lands in the Henry Dominguez barn at Sunland.  Dominguez hits at 28% wins for the meet.  More importantly is that this horse hasn't won on the inside on the Sunland oval, and now draws inside.  That inside draw could be to his benefit on a Sunland oval tilted to inside drawn runners on big days.  Add in a solid trainer, and this may be a local with a chance.

All videos courtesy Youtube.


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