If he is not the top 3-year-old in California, he is the top one missing from the Kentucky Derby early nominations list. Mr. Hot Stuff's convincing maiden win Sunday in his fifth start catapulted the full brother to Colonel John onto the Derby trail, even if the first deadline for Derby nominations has come and gone.
"When you're into February, and you're still a maiden . . ." trainer Eoin Harty said, figuring it was pointless to nominate. After all, Mr. Hot Stuff had lost his first four starts, and his career-high Beyer Speed Figure was a mere 72. Not exactly Derby material.
But 3-year-olds can improve overnight.
"The light switch went on, finally," Harty said.
Mr. Hot Stuff rallied from last to first Saturday, drawing away by 1 1/4 lengths and earning a 95 Beyer after running the mile in a quick 1:35.82. By comparison, The Pamplemousse earned a 96 Beyer winning the San Rafael Stakes in 1:35.31. Mr. Hot Stuff and The Pamplemousse are headed for a showdown Feb. 28 in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes.
A strategy shift led to the turnaround by Mr. Hot Stuff. "The difference was in the race before when Corey [Nakatani] took him back and let him finish," Harty said, adding that the Jan. 17 third-place finish changed him. "You could see the difference at the barn."
A moody colt usually found hiding at the back of his stall, Mr. Hot Stuff underwent a personality shift.
"He became confident, and would stand at the front of the stall," Harty said.
It appeared he wanted to run again, and Harty wheeled him back just two weeks later.
A former run-off, Mr. Hot Stuff performed Sunday like a seasoned pro. He dropped the bit into the first turn, rating comfortably at the back until Nakatani asked him coming off the far turn. Mr. Hot Stuff poured it on with a final quarter-mile in about 23.30 seconds.
WinStar Farm owns Mr. Hot Stuff, whose pedigree and running style suggests he wants farther than a mile. Late nominations for the Kentucky Derby close in March.