Louisville – Circa July 2019: Churchill Downs, Home to the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby is one of the Crown Jewels of horse racing and professional sports III
For all intents and purposes, this is the final weekend of prep races for the May 6 Kentucky Derby, with showdowns in Kentucky (Blue Grass Stakes, G1), New York (Wood Memorial Stakes, G2), and Southern California (Santa Anita Derby, G1). All are at 1 1/8 miles, and all offer big purses and 100 points toward entry in the Run for the Roses. Run first or second Saturday, and you are as good as in for a trip to Louisville.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the two best candidates for the Derby so far, Forte and Angel of Empire, ran impressive races last weekend. Forte’s come-from-off-the-pace score in the Florida Derby (G1) was by far the most impressive prep effort to date this year, and Angel of Empire’s Arkansas Derby (G1), put an exclamation point on his earlier score in Fair Grounds’ Risen Star Stakes (G2).
Make no mistake, those two are 1-2 on everybody’s top Derby lists. It will take extraordinary efforts this weekend to crash the party at the top. That being said, there are three good races and three good chances to make some coin. Let’s go.
Blue Grass Stakes
Always considered a tiptop prep for the Run for the Roses with its space on the calendar, big purse ($1 million), and proximity to Churchill Downs, the Blue Grass is always one to watch. I would say this year’s running is not vintage, as only three runners in the field are graded stakes winners.
The heavy favorite is Tapit Trice, Todd Pletcher’s other big Derby hopeful and winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last time out, closing like a rocket after trailing by more than five lengths at the head of the stretch. The gray/roan has certainly come to hand at 3, as prior to his win at Tampa Bay Downs, he crushed allowance optional claiming foes at Gulfstream by eight lengths.
A star in the making? Perhaps.
However, Ed DeRosa, working for Horse Racing Nation, tweeted an interesting stat about two-turn racing at Keeneland earlier in the week.
“In 1 1/8 mile races on dirt at Keeneland the past five years with at least 10 starters, the rail is 0-for-16. Posts 10-11 are 6-for-28!”
Of course, Tapit Trice drew post 1.
On paper, the colt that cost $1.3 million as a yearling is the most likely winner, but there are a pair of others in here that merit some attention.
While most of the field appears to be a cut below the top line of 3-year-olds this season, Blazing Sevens (post 8 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up) showed little in his lone outing this year, beaten 26 lengths by Forte in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2). Last year, on the other side, he won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at the Belmont at Aqueduct stand. Sandwiched around that stellar effort were races where he finished behind Forte, which now we can forgive somewhat as Forte was head and shoulders above the rest.
Blazing Sevens is a son of Good Magic, whose first crop of foals are 3 and are heating up all over the country. He is trained by Chad Brown, who trained Good Magic to win the 2018 Blue Grass and sent out last year’s winner, Zandon.
The other graded stakes winner in the Blue Grass is Raise Cain, winner of the one-mile Gotham Stakes (G3) in New York last time out. The two who finished behind him, Slip Mahoney and General Banker, return in the Wood Memorial Stakes at the Big A. Prior efforts for Raise Cain were fair, so he’ll have to really advance here to make a splash.
If there is to be an outsider in the Blue Grass, one must always keep an eye on Lexington, Ky., native Ken McPeek. He has three runners here, and the one I’ll place a few bucks on as a backup is Hayes Strike. He’s already made nine starts and comes off a win in Maryland in the March 18 Private Terms Stakes. Not a speedball, he’ll be coming from off the pace here. He’s bred and owned by historic Dixiana Farms, whose racing manager is Steve Cauthen. As an 18-year-old back in 1978, Cauthen was the pilot of Triple Crown winner Affirmed. He’s an able horseman, so don’t think he’d be tossing this horse in this spot without thinking he has a legitimate shot.
Without Forte or Angel of Empire, none of the races have the “big horse” in it, including the Wood. Perhaps the next big runner is here, but it will have to jump up with something very, very impressive.
While the favorite drew the rail in the Blue Grass, the favorite in the Wood Memorial drew the outside post 13. Brad Cox-trained Hit Show is the one here, and the son of Candy Ride was a 5 ½-length winner of the Feb. 11 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct. The fact he’s that far out and that short of a price speaks to the perceived level of competition in New York this weekend.
Back in October, Hit Show showed brilliance breaking his maiden at first asking at Keeneland, then was dusted by eventual stars Confidence Game and Rocket Can at Churchill Downs before winning an allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn. If nothing else, he’s shown he can travel. He’ll have to travel farthest post 13.
I’m not particularly enamored here by any one runner, but two who raise an eyebrow are the New York-bred Arctic Arrogance (post 7, 6-1) and Crupi (post 9, 12-1).
Arctic Arrogance is no ordinary New York-bred. He is by Kentucky-based sire Frosted out of an Uncle Mo mare and is trained by longtime New York stalwart Linda Rice. After proving his meddle against state-breds, he ran second, beaten a half-length in the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes to close out his juvenile year, then was a close second again in the Jerome Stakes. In the Withers, he was second behind Hit Show. A confirmed front-runner, he has the potential to get loose here.
Crupi is a horse I’ve been watching since his debut last August. He’s trained by Pletcher and is named for the late legendary horseman James J. Crupi. I don’t think they would have used his name if they didn’t think the colt had talent. He’s faced the best of the best, and while he hasn’t finished first yet, he hasn’t embarrassed himself. One day he’ll have his breakthrough. Let’s try a few bucks across the board here at 12-1.
Santa Anita Derby
Meanwhile, at Santa Anita, it is apparent that the Tim Yakteen-trained Practical Move is the real deal. The son of top miler Practical Joke was clearly the best in the March 4 San Felipe Stakes and faces many of the same a month later in Southern California. Practical Move also proved he was a top 2-year-old, dusting his rivals in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) in mid-December. Since the San Felipe, he has been kept busy with a string of works including a: 59 1/5 move in late March and a nice 1:01 1/5 tuneup April 2.
Yakteen, of course, has taken over the horses trained by Bob Baffert while the Hall of Fame trainer rides a two-year ban following the disqualification of Medina Spirit for a drug overage after the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Practical Move, however, is a horse he has trained since the beginning.
Trainer Richard Mandella has always been considered a top horseman, and his runners often are backed accordingly. His Geaux Rocket Ride will take plenty of action here off his runner-up effort to Practical Move in the San Felipe. But like many this time of year, the bay colt will have to show a good deal of improvement in order to be able to overtake the top dog.
Japan-based horses, once a novelty, have now proved themselves internationally in Dubai, Europe, and during the 2021 Breeders’ Cup, so there is plenty of intrigue with Mandarian Hero. A son of U.S. champion 2-year-old Shanghai Bobby, he’s among the best of his group in Japan, but it is a tall order to make the jump halfway across the globe first time out. A true wild card here, but he’ll have to show me before I’ll back with any conviction.