Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Racing fans on social media are quite familiar with the immediate rush to judgment after a race, especially one on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Before the runners in the Southwest Stakes had even finished galloping out, it felt like a conviction had been handed down thanks to a unanimous decision that winner Super Steed was not a serious Derby contender nor were any of the also-rans in the race. But, I’m not so sure. … Let’s dig a little deeper into Super Steed’s chances to be a factor on the Derby trail.
Ability: Super Steed ran well in his career debut going three-quarters of a mile on Oct. 25 at Keeneland, where he rallied from off the pace to take the lead from the inside in early stretch only to lose a head decision to pacesetter Boldor.
Super Steed made an eye-catching middle-move to advance from as far back as ninth early. When he challenged Boldor entering the stretch, the winner’s jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. did not give an inch of the single path to his inside and, as a result, Super Steed was in extremely tight quarters until the final sixteenth of a mile and then could not get past Boldor late.
While he did not get the victory, Super Steed gained a ton of experience and learned several lessons on the fly while earning an 87 Equibase Speed Figure.
For his second start, trainer Larry Jones made the bold decision to challenge Super Steed against winners in a 6 ½-furlong allowance/optional claiming race on Nov. 24 rather than test him a second time in a maiden race. Sent off as the 3.10-1 second betting choice, Super Steed overcame a troubled start to deliver a smashing six-length romp on a sealed-sloppy track, defeating among 10 opponents Boldor, who finished second, 2 ½ lengths clear of the third-place finisher.
Super Steed earned a 100 Equibase Speed Figure and a 94 Brisnet figure, both indicative of a talented racehorse worth watching.
Four weeks later as the even-money favorite for the three-quarter-mile Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds, Super Steed passed a few horses late but essentially came up empty when fourth, beaten by seven lengths.
At the time, it was a head-scratching significant regression to an 85 Equibase Speed Figure and an 85 Brisnet figure. In hindsight, Super Steed’s Sugar Bowl serves as a reminder that a racehorse’s progression is not always linear and sometimes with equine athletes we don’t always know exactly what is going on during a developmental stretch in their lives where there is frequently physical and mental maturation as well as minor ailments.
Stretching out to a mile for his next start in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Super Steed dropped back to seventh early and that is where he finished as Sugar Bowl victor Gray Attempt again led from start to finish.
Despite what looked like another dull performance on the surface, Jones remained confident in Super Steed.
“You always worry after he had two subpar performances,” Jones said. “We knew that he wasn’t feeling well when we got to Louisiana [for the Sugar Bowl], but he needed experience. He wasn’t sick; he just didn’t feel good. It didn’t look like afterward that it hurt him any, so I am glad we did go ahead and do it.
“Then, over here on Smarty Jones day, it was merry-go-round racing all day long. We were hoping that it was track bias. We didn’t get beat bad. I hadn’t lost any confidence in him, but it’s one of those deals where you couldn’t sell the idea that, boy, we’re going to be tough in the Southwest.”
Jones was correct that Super Steed was a tough sell entering the Southwest as evidenced by his 62.30-1 odds in the 11-horse field.
Super Steed again encountered some trouble early as he was steadied and ducked out a bit when Cutting Humor ventured out into his path approaching the first turn, but he settled in nicely thereafter and raced comfortably in ninth along the backstretch.
When jockey Terry Thompson gave Super Steed his cue nearing the final turn, the response was instant and he swept past eight horses despite racing five wide and seized a commanding lead entering the stretch with a powerful rally.
Sham Stakes runner-up Sueno, a colt I respect, closed willingly for second but could not get closer than three-quarters of a length.
Super Steed finished the final sixteenth of a mile in 6.41, which isn’t inspiring, but some young racehorses tend to idle a bit when they open a commanding lead thinking their job is complete. What really caught my attention was how Super Steed ran past his rivals like they were running in quicksand on the turn despite closing into a fairly easy pace (half-mile in 47.63 seconds) and racing very wide.
The speed-figure makers were somewhat divided. He essentially matched his previous career top according to Equibase with a 99 and did match his best according to Brisnet with a 94. Timeform US gave him a solid 112 speed figure, while Daily Racing Form’s 87 Beyer Speed Figure was less impressive.
I’m not moving Super Steed way up on my Kentucky Derby rankings and I understand wanting to see him duplicate that effort before climbing aboard the bandwagon, but I would not be so quick to discount the chances of a talented colt under the tutelage of a terrific horseman in Jones.
Running style: Super Steed is a closer who prefers to drop back off the pace and make one run, but he is not a typical, late-running clunker completely devoid of speed. In his debut, he ran five-eighths of a mile in :58.68 and he was less than four lengths off an opening half-mile in :45.61 in his allowance win. Even in the Southwest, Super Steed was only 5 ¼ lengths back after the first quarter-mile and 3 ½ lengths behind through the first half-mile. So, while he is a closer who is somewhat dependent on pace and avoiding trouble once he launches his bid, he does have enough speed to help himself and his rider navigate a path to the winner’s circle.
Connections: Super Steed races for the partnership of breeder Mike Pressley and Steed Jackson. Pressley is a semi-retired automobile dealer from Henderson, Ky., while Steed, the colt’s namesake, is a physician from Evansville, Ind., according to Oaklawn Park.
Pressley also raced in partnership 2009 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes winner Payton d’Oro and Grade 2 winner Josh’s Madelyn, both trained by Larry Jones. According to Oaklawn, Pressley also owned Ruby’s Reception, who gave Jones his first career graded stakes win in the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes in 2003.
Jones has won 1,129 races through Feb. 25, including 171 stakes wins and 65 graded stakes victories.
Jones finished second in the Kentucky Derby with Hard Spun in 2007 and with ill-fated Eight Belles in 2008. Hard Spun went on to run third in the 2007 Preakness and second that year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic while earning more than $2.6 million in his career. Jones, 62, still gallops horses in the mornings despite an accident that nearly ended his life in 2014. Jones has won the Kentucky Oaks three times with Proud Spell in 2008, Believe You Can in 2012, and Lovely Maria in 2015. Jones also trained 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.
Jockey Terry Thompson has won more than 3,300 races since taking out his jockey’s license in 1992. Six of his 13 career graded stakes wins have come aboard horses trained by Jones, including the aforementioned Ruby’s Reception in the 2003 Fantasy and one of his two career Grade 1 wins with Island Sand in the 2004 Acorn Stakes. Thompson finished seventh aboard Dublin in his lone previous start in the Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Super Steed is from the fifth crop of Super Saver, a Grade 2 winner at 2 who went on to win the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Super Saver’s best runner to date was undoubtedly freaky-fast 2015 champion sprinter Runhappy, but he’s also sired Embellish the Lace, winner of the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at 1 ¼ miles; and Inside Straight, winner of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles. Other standouts sire by Super Saver include Grade 1 winner Competitive Edge.
Super Steed’s dam (mother), Totally Tucker, made 12 starts for Jones and Super Steed’s owners, Pressley and Jackson, winning twice and finishing second four times. She was a winner at one mile and 70 yards and finished fourth in the 2013 New Orleans Ladies handicap at 1 1/16 miles.
Totally Tucker is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2014 Arkansas Derby winner Danza and Majestic Harbor, who was a Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles.
Super Steed’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Champagne Royale, by French Deputy, was stakes-placed at 1 1/16 miles and also earned two of her four career wins at that distance. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), All Tanked Up, won seven of 33 starts with six of her victories coming at one mile or 1 1/16 miles.
Based on his pedigree, it seems clear that Super Steed should be well-suited to excel going around two turns and perhaps the Southwest was indicative of that. I love that each of his first three dams won going around two turns and seeing Danza and Majestic Harbor close up in this pedigree also gives me hope that he could be effective at 1 ¼ miles.
Upon closer inspection, I like Super Steed a lot better than I thought I would. I expect he’ll be a serious threat in the Rebel Stakes on March 16 and the Arkansas Derby on April 13 if his connections target either or both of those races.