Sole Volante is off to the Belmont Stakes. His stablemate, Ete Indien, heads to the Haskell Stakes. And Honor A.P. stays home for the Santa Anita Derby. These three Kentucky Derby contenders illustrate how many different paths have emerged on the Derby Trail during the COVID-19 era.

Honor A.P. Derby Trail
As one of the sleeper Kentucky Derby picks, Honor A.P. illustrates how many different paths exist on this year’s Derby Trail. His trainer, John Shirreffs, opted to bypass the Belmont Stakes for his home-track, Santa Anita Park, where Honor A.P. has a first and a second in two starts. (Image: Santa Anita Park)

Even in a normal year, there isn’t one set path to the Churchill Downs starting gate on Derby Saturday. The various winter and spring prep races, such as the Santa Anita Derby in California, the Wood Memorial in New York, the Florida and Arkansas Derbies, the Blue Grass in Kentucky, and smaller races illustrate that. Trainers typically opt for geographic desirability in choosing Derby preps.

Unless you’re Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and you’re blessed with an abundance of 3-year-olds that require expert-level Tetris skills to schedule. Baffert typically avoids pitting his 3-year-olds against each other for as long as possible. He ships horses from his California base to Arkansas for the Arkansas Derby all the time. He did it with American Pharoah in a normal year like 2015, and he did it with Charlatan and Nadal in an abnormal year like 2020.

Baffert targeted both Charlatan and Nadal for the June 20 Belmont. New York-based Tiz the Law, your current Derby co-favorite with Nadal at 4/1, awaits them.

Baffert Faces Options and Paths Even He Never Expected

Even Baffert and his murderer’s row of 3-year-olds finds himself in the same boat as his fellow, less-blessed trainers this year. When presented with a September Derby and a trail that defined the phrase “work in progress,” owners and trainers find themselves with choices they never conceived.

Take Honor A.P. Trained by respected Southern California-based trainer John Shirreffs, Honor A.P. had both the Santa Anita Derby and Belmont Stakes on his itinerary. One overseas book listed Honor A.P. at 16/1 to win the Belmont. But when the New York Racing Association (NYRA) tabbed June 20 for this year’s Belmont, Shirreffs crossed Belmont Park off his travel itinerary.

Instead, he’ll stay home for a race that offers two-thirds the Derby qualifying points (100-40-20-10) as the Belmont (150-60-30-15). Shirreffs’ decision keeps Honor A.P. on a track where he owns a first and a second in two starts. And he bypasses a Triple Crown race happening not far from his Long Island roots in favor of a rematch with the third member of Baffert’s terrific 3-year-old triple threat, Authentic.

Supporting the Home Track

“Because we’re here at Santa Anita, I think you have to support the track you stable at,” Shirreffs told VsIN, adding that he’s sad the traditionally 1 ½-mile Belmont was shortened to 1 1/8 miles.

The Santa Anita Derby is June 6, two weeks before the Belmont and three time zones away.

Speaking of three time zones away, that’s where we find Sole Volante and Ete Indien. The two Patrick Biancone-trained horses spent April taking it easy at Palm Meadows in Florida. Biancone worked the two graded-stakes winners out together twice in May, the last time over a half-mile on turf May 17.

Sole Volante last ran in March, surging from 11th to second behind upset winner King Guillermo in the Tampa Bay Derby. That performance came one start after the gelded son of Karakontie won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Biancone said he has no problem with Sole Volante running any Triple Crown distance, even 1 ½ miles.

Turn Sole Volante Loose at Any Distance

“In a normal year, I would have been delighted to run a mile and a half instead of a mile and an eighth. On the other hand, coming off a layoff, I think it was a good move by [the] NYRA,” Biancone told Gulfstream Park. “The mile and a quarter at Belmont is a bad race – you start on the turn. They had no choice but to make it a mile and an eighth. The mile and an eighth is perfect. I think the mile and a half is too challenging for everyone.”

Sole Volante-Belmont
Sole Volante, seen here winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes in January, heads to the Belmont Stakes for his first race since March 7. (Image: SV Photography)

As for Ete Indien, we last saw him setting the pace in the Florida Derby before settling for third. The front-running son of Summer Front destroyed the Fountain of Youth field in his previous start, winning by 8 ½ lengths. Biancone targeted the July 18 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, normally the first major 3-year-old race coming out of the Triple Crown season.

Instead, it’s a major stop on the Derby Trail, offering 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points. Biancone can afford to wait with Ete Indien, since he currently sits sixth with 74 Derby points. With 30 points, Sole Volante is a less-secure 17th.

“I’ll wait for the Haskell with him,” Biancone told Gulfstream Park about Ete Indien. “But maybe he will have a race before then. I don’t know yet.”