That was clearly the case Sunday at Sunland Park and Casino, where Daddy Nose Best took advantage of a wicked speed duel before rallying down the center of the track and winning the $800,000 Sunland Derby under jockey Julien Leparoux.
Daddy Nose Best, coming off a strong effort at Golden Gate Fields in his most recent start, has now won two races in a row and has clearly stamped himself as a leading contender for the May 5 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky-bred son of Scat Daddy, trained by Steve Asmussen and owned by Mary and Robert Zollars, increased his lifetime graded earnings to over $545,000, which places him in the top tier of starters for the Run For The Roses, in which runners are determined by graded stakes earnings.
Daddy Nose Best, sent off at odds of 3.6-to-1, took advantage of peculiar race-riding tactics by two of the race favorites.
Castaway, the post-time favorite for trainer Bob Baffert under jockey Rafael Bejarano, and Ender Knievel, ridden by John Velasquez for trainer Todd Pletcher, stormed out to their own private duel, opening up as much as 6 lengths on the field down the backstretch, charging through opening fractions of 22.48 seconds for the first quarter mile and 46.24 seconds for the opening half-mile.
The two runners were collared in approaching the far turn by Isn't He Clever, who was looking for his third straight win at Sunland Park for trainer Henry Dominguez.
Isn't He Clever got to the lead on the far turn and appeared to open up a sizable advantage at the head of the lane under Luis Contreras, but refused to switch leads when asked for more run down the stretch.
Daddy Nose Best, who found his best stride as the field turned for home, wore down Isn't He Clever inside the final 1/16th of a mile before prevailing by three-quarters of a length. Daddy Nose Best ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 48.59 seconds, the second-fastest clocking of the Sunland Derby since it was run at this distance.
Isn't He Clever was more than 7 lengths clear of Stirred Up, the third-place finisher, also trained by Baffert. Ender Kneivel wound up finishing fifth, beaten 13 lengths by the winner, while favored Castaway retreated to seventh, beaten 25 lengths.
Though no Sunland Derby winner has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, Daddy Nose Best may fit the profile.
With still six weeks to go before the Derby, the race already appears to have a number of speed-type runners, with both Alpha and Hansen among those who have speed and will likely make for a lively pace at the distance of 1.25 miles in the Derby.
"He's already got the experience of having won twice at this distance," Asmussen said after the race. "He had to work hard to get past (Isn't He Clever), but the pace of the race helped out."
Two horses have used the Sunland Derby to a springboard to success in the Triple Crown series.
In 2009, Mine That Bird posted one of the biggest upsets in racing history when he parlayed his fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby into a longshot score in the Kentucky Derby.
Last year's third-place finisher in the Sunland Derby, Ruler On Ice, came back and posted an upset score in the Belmont Stakes.
Will Daddy Nose Best be draped with roses on the first Saturday in May?
"We came here with the intention of finding out if he could do it," Asmussen reitrated after the race.
The answer was a resounding one indeed.
Just prior to the Sunland Derby, trainer Bob Baffert made it two wins in a row in the Sunland Park Oaks, when Princess Arabella confirmed her status as the 1-to-5 post-time favorite with an easy victory under jockey Martin Garcia.
Princess Arabella, undefeated in three starts, raced on the front end throughout the 1 1/16-mile journey, dealt with some pressure down the backstretch, put away Glinda The Good, her stiffest challenge around the far turn after running 6 furlongs in 1:57 before opening up late to a confident, 8-length win.
Baffert won this race last year with Plum Pretty, who parlayed that score with a win in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. Baffert also won this race in 2009 with Gabby's Golden Gal and in 2007 with Tough Tiz's Sis.
Princess Arabella, who clocked in with a final time of 1:43.52, will likely be headed to Churchill Downs, according to assistant trainer Jim Barnes.
"We're going to take it one race at a time," Barnes said. "That's a decision (Baffert) will make fairly soon."
The victory increases Princess Arabella's lifetime earnings to $268,400 for her owners, the Peachtree Stables. .