Saturday, from coast-to-coast, they’re going to run a trio of venerable stakes races—the 80th Santa Anita Derby, the 93rd Wood Memorial and 93rd Blue Grass. Unfortunately, when billed as mere Triple Crown preps these gems suffer unfairly. Do yourself a favor and don’t think of them as opening acts. Warm ups. Sideline stretches. They are so much more than that and have been for decades. Don’t lump them among 32 other Road to the Derby pit stops. They are more than just opportunities to earn a Golden Ticket into the Louisville starting gate. To think otherwise is foolish and dismissive. Like burying the lead. Hiding MJ on the bench. Adding Wagyu beef to leftover stew.
Back in December, the American Graded Stakes Committee, a group in charge of ranking North American races in order of importance based on statistical analysis and by sticking a collective ‘wet finger in the air,’ downgraded the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status. As if to immediately thumb imaginary noses at the Committee’s decision, both Wood and Blue Grass fields Saturday are about as strong as possible. That’s due partly to the wide-open nature of this year’s 3-year-old crop, and because McCraken, one of the early Derby favorites, was forced to detour from his original route. Still. Wood and Blue Grass matter a lot this year.
And the Santa Anita Derby? As they might say in La La Land, ‘it’s bitchin.’ And not because the Hollywood production features A-list stars. Nope. This cast overflows with virtual unknowns. 13 of them seeking stardom. It’s the racetrack version of American Idol. And that means things could get incredibly interesting. You may have heard something or other about entrants American Anthem and Gormley. They shared top billing in the Sham. And, as you may or may not recall, Royal Mo starred in the Robert Lewis Stakes. Iliad and Term of Art had supporting roles in the San Felipe behind headliner Mastery, who’s currently unavailable. And that’s it, really. No Bob Baffert-trained superstar this year…so far. The Santa Anita Derby, traditionally one of the great races at The Great Race Place, includes mostly ‘wannabes.’ And that’s OK. It’s fun when a star is born and Saturday’s Derby at Santa Anita could offer such an opportunity.
At the other end of the spectrum, McCraken, an unbeaten, untied and un-scored upon, 4-for-4, legitimate top-drawer celebrity tops the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. He again will butt heads with Tapwrit, winner of 3 of 5 starts, including the Tampa Bay Derby. Race before that McCraken got the better of Tapwrit in the Sam Davis, also at Tampa. McCraken then needed time to recover from a minor owie. How he comes back Saturday will have major implications on everyone’s odds to win in Louisville.
There are additional multiple winners in the Blue Grass lineup, but anyone else posing for a picture after this race besides McCraken or Tapwrit would be a surprise. It’s Your Nickel has won 3 of 4, but one was via disqualification and the John Battaglia Stakes at Turfway is on synthetics. J Boys Echo exploded to win the Gotham at Aqueduct, but it was such a big performance that it’s doubtful he’ll be able to repeat it so soon. Practical Joke has won 3 of 5—the first three starts of his career. He was a well back third in the BC Juvy—no disgrace—but his 3-year-old debut was a bit flat behind Fountain of Youth star Gunnevera.
The Wood Memorial field probably could double as poster boy for the entire 2017 Triple Crown prep season. It’s a wide-open affair starring multiple Todd Pletcher entries! Eight go. And any one of about five could win it and no one would bat an eye. That’s how things have gone this year among a group of 3-year-olds struggling to find reliable leadership.
In the Wood, Irish War Cry represents the ‘now you see ‘em, now you don’t’ aspect of the 2017 soph season. Classic Empire, McCraken, Gunnevera and Irish War Cry alternately rushed to the top of Derby lists, only to immediately descend in the rankings due to injury or poor performance. The latter was this writer’s Derby favorite from when he romped in the Holy Bull until he failed miserably and inexplicably in the Fountain of Youth.
Mo Town has something to prove. At two, he fabulously broke maiden in Belmont mud and then took the mile and one-eighth Remsen. That latter race, however, is beginning to look as empty as a shot glass at closing time.
Battalion Runner hails from the potent Todd Pletcher outfit and a repeat of his sparkling seven-furlong maiden win would be good enough for victory. The trainer’s running two in here (also Bonus Points), because he always runs at least two, everywhere. Unfortunately, he might need to hire extra help to saddle starters in the Kentucky Derby. Estimates suggest possibly seven of them! Because only one of those can win, if any, the also-rans will play havoc with Pletcher’s already meager ‘first Saturday in May’ win percentage. So what! Knocking Pletcher’s career based on his Derby winning percentage is a bit like criticizing Miss Universe because she has flat feet.
Young Chad Brown, hardware winner as the nation’s leading trainer last year, saddles Cloud Computing. He’s a lightly raced colt. Perhaps, too lightly raced to win the Kentucky Derby, no matter how good he might look in the Wood. This will be just his third career start and only two horses since 1918 have won roses with four or fewer starts—Big Brown and Animal Kingdom!
If you’ve got the appetite to back a longshot in the Wood, Stretch’s Stone could be your dish. He’s performed solely against fellow New York-breds, but a little improvement puts him in the picture at a big price.
Enjoy the Santa Anita Derby, Wood and Blue Grass. Make a wager or two, too. But, please, don’t view this weekend’s stakes races as mere steppingstones to the Kentucky Derby. They’re much more than that and have been for a long time.