2018 Sunland Derby and Sunland Park Oaks Preview

In addition to Fair Grounds (which we preview in a separate piece), the Derby trail and the Oaks trail both sweep through Sunland Park this weekend.

Sunday’s card at the New Mexico racetrack features a pair of points races: the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby for open company, and the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks for fillies and mares.  The races aren’t 100-point preps like the ones in Louisiana the day before, but with 50, 20, 10, and 5 points available to their top four finishers, they still award enough points to constructively guarantee their winners a spot in Kentucky come May, and should get their second-place finishers most of the way to a berth.

Morning lines for the Sunland Park Oaks were not available at original publish time.

Saturday, March 25: Sunland Park

Race 6: Sunland Park Oaks, three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 2:44pm MST

The Sunland Park Oaks will be run for the 17th time this year.  The race began its life in 2001, and has been run every year since except for 2016, when an EHV outbreak left Sunland Park in quarantine for most of the meet.  The race has been a 50-point prep for the Kentucky Oaks every year that it has been run since the Road to the Kentucky Oaks system began in 2013.

One filly has won both the Sunland Park Oaks and the Kentucky Oaks (G1).  Plum Pretty, an easy twenty-five length winner in New Mexico, overcame a poor start on Oaks day and held on by a neck to claim the lilies.  The local prep for this race, the Island Fashion Stakes, takes its name from the 2003 winner of the Sunland Park Oaks.  Though Island Fashion did not win the Kentucky Oaks, she did win the Alabama (G1) and the La Brea (G1) later that year, as well as the Santa Monica (G1) in the first start of her four-year-old year.  Other Sunland Park Oaks winners who went on to prove themselves in Grade 1 company include Tough Tiz’s Sis (2007), winner of the 2007 Lady’s Secret S. (G1) and the 2008 Ruffian Handicap (G1), and Midnight Lucky (2013), winner of the 2013 Acorn S. (G1) and 2014 Humana Distaff (G1).

Midnight Lucky holds safe from longshot Street Girl in the 2013 Sunland Park Oaks.

The Sunland Park Oaks drew a field of just five.  Speed in a short field is dangerous, and doubly so when that speed of the short field is a quality horse for the course.  That brings us to BLAMED.  BLAMED romped wire to wire in both of the local preps, the one-turn El Paso Times and the two-turn Island Fashion.  And yet?  BLAMED wasn’t lengths clear from beginning to end; instead, she set an honest pace with some pressure in both of those starts, and still had plenty in the tank to leave the rest sputtering for second.  Her best outing yet was the Island Fashion, BLAMED’s first try at two turns.  The Sunland Park Oaks will be her first stretch to a mile and a sixteenth, but being by Blame out of a Giant’s Causeway mare who won at a mile and a sixteenth, she has every right to stretch out well.  BLAMED is the horse to beat, and she looks like a good single here.

In the field of five, CHARGE BACK is the only horse who has not yet raced at Sunland, and the only one with possible upside against BLAMED.  She’s a new face, and she hails from the always-dangerous Steve Asmussen barn.  Stretching back out from a seven-furlong sprint last out to a route, she seems unlikely to outgun BLAMED early, but CHARGE BACK should be able to stay close in range.  The distance should suit, as she does have a two-turn win, breaking her maiden at a mile at Remington on debut.  She also has some two-turn pedigree, as a Take Charge Indy half-sister to Taxable, who finished second in the 2016 Fantasy Stakes.  Will this be enough to beat BLAMED?  Probably not, but it’s the best argument any of her foes have.

Among the rest?  KRAM was well beaten in both local preps, as was EXOTIC BEAUTY.  KRAM looks the better of that pair, given the improvement she lade at two turns, but there’s one semi-new face who looks even more interesting: BELLA BE READY.  She does take a class hike here, as she steps up from the maiden ranks to the Sunland Park Oaks.  But, she has improved on the move from Southern California to Sunland Park and the barn of Henry Dominguez.  It is also a positive to see Luis Contreras in the irons; though Contreras does not ride at Sunland day in and day out, he has a 18: 6-6-0 record across his visits this meet.  BELLA BE READY has tactical speed in sprints, and though she stretches to two turns for the first time, she is by More than Ready out of an Afleet Alex mare who won both sprinting and routing.  That’s enough to think she can handle the distance and the short field, and though it would take a serious move forward to beat BLAMED, it would be no surprise to see BELLA BE READY in the money.





Longshot:  We know better than to disturb the longshot writer for a five-horse field.

Race 11: Sunland Derby (G3), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:15pm MST

This year marks the 15th running of the Sunland Derby.  Inaugurated in 2003 as the WinStar Derby and run every spring except for 2016, the race is the richest Thoroughbred race of the Sunland meet, and the racetrack’s only graded Thoroughbred stakes.  The race got its current name in 2009, has held Grade 3 designation since 2010, and has offered 50 Derby points to its winner every year it has been run since the points system began in 2013.

One Eclipse Award winner has won this race, though not in the same year as his crown: Thor’s Echo (2005) found his best at one turn the following year, and on the strength of wins in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and the DeFrancis Dash (G1) was named the champion sprinter of 2006.  Just one winner of the Sunland Derby has finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby: Firing Line (2015) romped by 14 1/4 lengths at Sunland, and in his next start, he finished second on the first Saturday in May, beaten just a length by eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.  Oddly enough, a couple of fourth-place finishers in the Sunland Derby have become stars.  Mine that Bird, fourth behind Kelly Leak in 2009, skimmed the rail and pulled a 50/1 upset in the Kentucky Derby in his next start.  Irap, still a maiden when he finished fourth behind Hence in last year’s Sunland Derby, broke his maiden next out in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2), and also went on to win the Ohio Derby (G3) and the Indiana Derby (G3).

Firing Line outclasses the field in the 2015 Sunland Derby.

Unlike its fillies’ complement, 2018 Sunland Derby drew a big field: twelve runners to vie for a princely purse and a berth on the first Saturday in May.

When trainer Richard Mandella goes through with a move that isn’t particularly conservative, his horse has a reason to be there, and you ignore them at your own peril.  (Remember Beholder facing the boys in the Pacific Classic?  Paradise Woods going first-time route in the Santa Anita Oaks?)  And, so it is with #5 PEACE, who Mandella sends to the Sunland Derby just two weeks removed from the San Felipe (G2).  Yes, he was well beaten in the San Felipe, but he faces no McKinzies here, no Bolt d’Oros…no Kamchatkas, even.  Though the Sunland Derby is unlikely to lead to a colossal pace collapse, there is an honest pace likely with ALL OUT BLITZ (who will likely be forced to send from the rail), SHANE ZAIN, SEVEN TRUMPETS, and RUNAWAY GHOST all showing at least some penchant to go.  PEACE has some tactical versatility, and particularly if Drayden Van Dyke can get him to sit just a bit closer to the pace than he did last out, he should be able to make a well-timed late run from a good spot.

NEW YORK CENTRAL is one of two from the Steve Asmussen barn; he also sends out DREAM BABY DREAM.  NEW YORK CENTRAL makes his first foray into stakes company, and based on his form, this looks a reasonable time and place to do it.  His allowance races suggest he is fast enough to be a contender here, and he may yet improve third off a break.  Though he won last out after a protracted speed duel, his previous efforts showed that he can run well from off the pace.  His jockey, Asmussen regular Ricardo Santana, has ridden NEW YORK CENTRAL both ways.  This gives him tactical options; with as much speed as there is in this race, expect him to stalk.  The stretch to a mile and an eighth has a right to suit him, too: NEW YORK CENTRAL is by Tapit, and although his dam is by Forest Wildcat, that mare is a half-sister to crack nine-furlong horse Peace Rules.

The Dale Romans barn has a lot of Derby prospects this year, but few who are following cohesive trails.  They all seem to turn up here, there, and everywhere: and two turn up at Sunland.  This space has no interest in SEVEN TRUMPETS, a forward sort who could not hold off Firenze Fire in the Jerome two back while on an easy lead.  However, SEVEN TRUMPETS and the rest of the speed brigade could set up quite nicely for the Romans A in here, HOLLYWOOD STAR.  The son of Malibu Moon makes the second start of his sophomore season, after a well-beaten fourth behind Flameaway in the Sam F. Davis.  That was enough to make a prep away from Tampa smart this time around, so he ends up here.  He does lure rider Robby Albarado out west to ride him; Albarado rode HOLLYWOOD STAR to all of his best outings last year at two, so their reunification here bodes well.  And, his running style suits the projected setup; he is a midpack to closing type with solid late pace.


#5 PEACE (12/1)



Longshot:  #10 DREAM BABY DREAM (10/1) is the Asmussen B here; he deserves a look, as well.  He has been falling just short in allowance company at Oaklawn, and has tables to turn on stablemate NEW YORK CENTRAL from that last start.  But?  Here he adds blinkers.  Asmussen is a solid 17% winner with runners going first-time blinkers, and those may help DREAM BABY DREAM stay focused when the rubber meets the road late.  It’s also a positive to see Alfredo Juarez take the call; Juarez is a Sunland regular winning at a 23% clip, and has hit the board with all four Asmussen mounts he has taken in the last two months.  His late-running style suits the likely flow of the race well, and DREAM BABY DREAM should be bearing down once the speed tires, at appealing odds.


You can take “Picks & Ponderings” with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Racecourse. And you can get “Picks and Ponderings” in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking “Create Subscription.” It’s a FREE service, and you’ll never get any unwanted spam.

Filed under: horse racing, Sunland Park

Leave a comment