The rubber meets the road Saturday when a trio of critical Kentucky Derby points races are decided from coast to coast.
In New York, the historic Gr. 2 Wood Memorial ought to help sort a crowded group of contenders, including Withers winner Risk Taking and Gotham hero Weyburn. Unbeaten invader Prevalence adds intrigue.
In California, trainer Bob Baffert, marching toward a record seventh Kentucky Derby victory, sends out Robert B. Lewis winner and Santa Anita Derby favorite Medina Spirit as ‘the other next man up’ among Baffert’s deep roster of talented sophomores.
In Kentucky, Essential Quality, the consensus number one-ranked Kentucky Derby hopeful, hopes to use the Gr. 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland to springboard toward becoming just the fourth 2-year-old Champion since 1999 to win the Kentucky Derby.
When the dust settles Saturday evening, the Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby, a week away, will remain as the only major Derby prep race on the map worth a total of 170 points toward spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The Lexington at Keeneland is the final pre-Derby event scheduled with 34 total points.
Last week, Known Agenda leapfrogged a host of others toward the top of everyone’s Kentucky Derby contender list with a dominant tally in the Gr. 1 Florida Derby. Gulfstream’s Championship Meet leading trainer and jockey, Todd Pletcher and Irad Ortiz, Jr., respectively, combined talents with the son of Curlin for the Florida Derby victory at generous odds of 5-1. It was the third win in six starts for Known Agenda and his second consecutive score over the Gulfstream strip. Lasix and blinkers were added for Known Agenda’s previous score, an 11-length mile and one-eighth allowance victory, following a mediocre effort as favorite in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay.
Favored Greatest Honor had no real excuse and failed to fire for the first time in four races as his third-place Florida Derby finish ended a streak of three consecutive victories, including the Gr. 3 Holy Bull and Gr. 2 Fountain of Youth. Post-race, Hall-of-Fame trainer Shug McGaughey suggested the Tapit colt may not have enjoyed being stuck inside of other horses and that blinkers will be sampled in an upcoming workout.
Longshot Soup and Sandwich stayed on honestly for second, his only loss in three starts. Racing greenly through the stretch in his previous start, the son of Into Mischief clearly bested just two rivals for victory in a Tampa Bay allowance race. Saturday, at Gulfstream in a Gr. 1 event, he bettered all but one in the field of 11.
Below is one man’s humble horse-by-horse opinion of runners in the Gr. 2 Wood, Gr. 1 Santa Anita Derby and Gr. 2 Blue Grass, including suggested wagering strategies.
$750k – Grade 2
One Mile & One-Eighth
Post: 6:00 pm ET
Kentucky Derby Points: 100-40-20-10
#1 Brooklyn Strong Velazquez/Franco 6-1
Winner of three of four races, he hasn’t been to post since early December when he won the Gr. 2 Remsen Stakes over a ‘sloppy’ track. He’s based at Parx and has a sparkling bullet, best-of-16, five-furlong work in 59 3/5 for this. He’s a New York bred and won the Sleepy Hollow, a state-bred race, at Belmont in October. His style should put him close to the early pace saving ground on the rail. It’s asking a bit much for a gelding that broke maiden in a $40k claiming race at Delaware Park in September to win a Gr. 2 3-year-old New York stakes in March, but he’s already proven himself in the Big Apple by winning the Gr. 2 Remsen in the slop! Still, coming off a layoff since December, he’ll need to prove he’s matured as much as the rest of these. Pass
#2 Crowded Trade Brown/Cancel 4-1
With just one start under his belt—a six-furlong maiden win in late January–this son of More Than Ready stretched out to one mile last out in March and just missed winning the Gr. 3 Gotham by a nose to the more experienced #8 Wayburn. Crowded Trade broke a bit awkwardly and had to make up ground in the early going, he moved outside the leaders off the turn and appeared to have dead aim on #8 Wayburn in the stretch but wasn’t able to follow through completely. Top jock Eric Cancel returns in the saddle for multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown and this one has every right to improve. Win Candidate
#3 Bourbonic Pletcher/Carmouche 30-1
Poor efforts in his first two races—sprinting on dirt and routing on turf—demanded a class drop to a $50k maiden claiming race at Aqueduct over a ‘good’ track. That did the trick and this son of Bernardini won that race and his next at the starter $50k allowance/optional claiming level. Last out he was a well-beaten second behind #9 Market Maven at Parx in a $50k allowance/optional claimer. There’s little on paper to suggest this one can hit the board in this race. Pass
#4 Risk Taking Brown/I. Ortiz 5/2
Blinkers were added two races back and this son of Medaglia d’Oro is unbeaten in two mile and one-eighth races since, including a maiden win and a strong victory in the Gr. 3 Withers at Aqueduct. He was unremarkable in his first two starts, finishing seventh and sixth in a sprint and turf race, respectively. Multiple Eclipse Award winning trainer Chad Brown combines with fellow multiple Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz and they are a potent winning team (30% at Aqu). This colt has come from off the pace in his previously strong efforts. Top Win Contender
#5 Dynamic One Pletcher/J. Ortiz 12-1
Winner of a maiden race last out in his fourth try, this son of Union Rags claims a close, runner-up finish to highly regarded Greatest Honour in a second time out maiden route race. That was at Gulfstream, the first of two starts there in December and January. His maiden win came when returned to Aqueduct in March at one-mile and one-eighth. He stalked a longshot pacesetter that afternoon, took over off the turn and drew clear by more than five lengths. Perhaps, he’s seen the light? He has been favored in three of four starts and was even money in his last two. That suggests talent probably is lurking somewhere beneath the surface. Exotics
#6 Prevelance Walsh/Gaffalione 3-1
Unbeaten in two starts, this son of Medaglia d’Oro first raised eyebrows when he broke maiden at Gulfstream Park going seven furlongs in late January. Unfortunately, after the race he had a fever and lost some training time. He didn’t make his next start until mid-March when he romped home in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at just 10 cents to a dollar. It’s not clear how good this colt might eventually be. He’s sharp and has solid connections in trainer Brendan Walsh and jockey Tyler Gaffalione. Of course, this will be his first race away from Gulfstream Park, but there’s no reason to think he can’t handle the Aqueduct surface. Win Contender
#7 Candy Man Rocket Mott/Alvarado 12-1
Favored in the Gr. 2 Tampa Bay Derby last out, this son of Candy Ride laid a huge egg when finishing next to last of 12. Public support was based on back-to-back wins in previous races—one of them at Tampa in the Gr. 3 Sam F. Davis and one at Gulfstream for a maiden win. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott is willing to give this guy another shot at making it to the Kentucky Derby and the conditioner certainly knows what he’s doing. However, it’s difficult for us to back a horse that ran so poorly last out in a recent effort. We’re okay with sometimes drawing a line through a poor race but that one was too bad to excuse. Pass
#8 Wayburn Jerkens/McCarthy 9/2
This son of Pioneerof the Nile made his first 2021 start a winning one when he gamely prevailed by a nose over #2 Crowded Trade in the Gr. 3 Gotham in March at nearly 50-1 odds. He had been off since December, when he won a seven-furlong maiden race. In the Gr. 3 Gotham, he pressed the early pace going one mile, took over and held. Today’s one mile and one-eighth test will be his first around two turns. According to his connections, distance shouldn’t be an issue, but he really did lay it all on the line last out off a long layoff and it might be difficult for him to repeat that effort. Pass
#9 Market Maven Pearce/Haddock 30-1
This will be Market Maven’s first try outside the friendly confines of Parx where he has won two of four starts—a PA-bred maiden race going seven furlongs and a ‘sloppy’ mile and one-sixteenth $50k allowance/optional claiming race. This is a big step up from that competition where #3 Bourbonic was second to him, four lengths back, last out. Market Maven has speed and basically went wire-to-wire for both of his wins. He’s sharp and a big price. Pass
This race is unlike the other two major 3-year-old races on Saturday’s docket. There is no clear choice in this race. #4 Risk Taking seems most likely to win but he’s far from a cinch. #2 Crowded Trade, stablemate in the Chad Brown barn to the favorite, has upside. The new face in the lineup is #6 Prevalence, an unbeaten Florida invader who also appears to have upside. #8 Wayburn had his day in the sun last time at 46-1 and we don’t feel he can repeat that big effort right back. #5 Dynamic One from the Todd Pletcher barn is very interesting. Granted, the jump from maiden to Grade 2 stakes is huge, but this colt may be ready to move forward and get a piece of this.
$2 Trifecta ($24 Total)
Second: #2 #5 #6
Third: #1 #2 #5 #6 #7
$1 Trifecta ($12 Total)
First: #2 #5 #6
Third: #1 #2 #5 #6 #7
$800k – Grade 2
One Mile & One-Eighth
Post: 6:35 pm ET
Kentucky Derby Points: 100-40-20-10
#1 Hidden Stash Oliver/Bejarano 20-1
Liked this closer’s chances in the Gr. 2 Tampa Bay Derby at 3-1 and in mid-stretch he looked a certain winner as he closed ground on longshot Helium. Unfortunately, Helium kept going and Hidden Stash was denied victory. Perhaps, a five-wide move around the turn took too much out of this son of Constitution? He’ll probably still need to come wide in here and he’s got an extra sixteenth of a mile to deal with. Jockey Bejarano has ridden the colt three times and won twice with him. He’ll probably attempt to save ground early from this rail post. There’s not much pace in the race to aid this Vickie Oliver runner but, as far as finishing in the money is concerned, he’s golden, with five out of six finishes no worse than third. He’s a big price to maybe use in exotics. Exotics At A Price
#2 Untreated Pletcher/Rosario 8-1
This son of Nyquist didn’t raise a hoof as odds-on favorite first-out going six furlongs at Gulfstream Park in early January. Off until March, he returned fresh as a sprint day to win a one mile and 40 yards maiden race at Tampa Bay under Luis Saez by nearly nine lengths. Saez, obviously, sticks with race favorite #4 Essential Quality in here and it’s interesting to note that the replacement jockey aboard this colt is the red-hot Joel Rosario. There’s nothing on paper to suggest that this colt has a chance to hit the board in this race but the presence of Rosario hints that the barn is hopeful of his chances. What’s he doing in a Gr. 2 stakes race off two starts, including a maiden win at Tampa Bay? This is Hall of Fame shoo-in Todd Pletcher picking the spot, not some 8% shoot-for-the-moon conditioner. Somewhere down the backside at Tampa the light went on for this guy and he swept to victory. Lots of upside here. We’ll go along for the ride at a price. Exotics Upside
#3 Highly Motivated Brown/Castellano 7/2
The Gr. 2 Wood Memorial will give us an idea of how strong the New York-based 3-year-old contingent is this year and this Chad Brown runner is one of the best of that group. He’s won two of four lifetime starts, one of them at Keeneland in the Nyquist Stakes at six and one-half furlongs. The son of Into Mischief has been favored in all three starts since finishing second first out at 4-1 in the mud at Saratoga. Odds-on last out in the Gr. 3 Gotham Stakes, his first route going a one-turn mile, he broke a bit slowly, steadied inside leaving the chute, angled out for the drive, changed leads late and finished ok. It was the kind of race that suggests more is in the tank. But how much more? And how will he handle two-turns? Those are tough questions to be asking in April. Exotics But Not Much Price
#4 Essential Quality Cox/Saez 3-5
After winning the BC Juvenile and being named Eclipse Award winner as North America’s top 2-year-old male, Essential Quality made his first 2021 start a winning one over Spielberg and five others in the Gr. 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. It was a dominating performance that extended his lifetime unbeaten streak to four. Jockey Luis Saez has been aboard for the last three. Trainer Cox has said that all systems are go for the champ and there’s no reason to doubt him. Two of Essential Quality’s wins have come over the Keeneland surface, including his BC Juvenile triumph, so there’s no ‘there’ there. This race doesn’t have much early speed, but this son of Tapit has been able to race close-up in most cases. It appears as if he will extend his unbeaten record to five and move toward the Kentucky Derby as possibly the race favorite.
Strictly One to Beat.
#5 Rombauer McCarthy/Geroux 15-1
This son of Twirling Candy came alive over a synthetic surface in winning the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. He made a furious late charge to get up by a neck. Before that he had one notable try out of three stakes races. He finished second in the Gr. 1 American Pharoah. Following that he was fifth, beaten over six lengths, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race common to others in this field. His only other victory came first time out in a maiden mile turf race at Del Mar. This colt has talent but with his only wins coming on turf and synthetic surfaces, we’ll limit his use to the bottom of exotics. It is noteworthy that trainer McCarthy, who vacillated between the Wood, Santa Anita Derby and here, has engaged top jock Florent Geroux for the mount. Bottom Exotics Only
#6 Leblon Lobo/Jimenez 30-1
He’s won one race in five starts and doesn’t stack up with the rest on paper. He appears to be a long-fused runner that will appreciate added real estate. He broke maiden in his fourth start, the first time he went one mile and one-sixteenth. Last out, going one mile and one-sixteenth in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park, he steadied early in the race, rode the rail down the backside while being steadied repeatedly, was behind horses off the turn and never really was asked late. It was a troubled trip, for sure. Don’t know if he’s good enough to hang with this crew, but he’s a big price and may be running at the end. He appears to have enough speed to be mid-pack early. He’s a real reach on paper but we like that last race. Maybe the mud moved him up? He’ll be in our exotic mix at a huge price. Bottom Exotics
#7 Hush of a Storm Morey/Gonzalez 15-1
His only dirt race going seven furlongs at Churchill downs for a $150k maiden claiming price was a disaster as he circled the field in eighth place out of 12 starters. Then he found Turfway Park and a synthetic surface. That made all the difference to him. He won his next three starts, including the Battaglia and was one of the ones to beat in last Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks. Trainer Bill Morey scratched this Creative Cause colt from the race and points him here. No doubt the move is to see if, now that he’s on his game, he can handle dirt and gain starting gate points toward the Kentucky Derby. We’re guessing he’s not quite as good on dirt as he is on synthetic. Pass
#8 Sittin On Go Romans/Lanerie 30-1
This son of Brody’s Cause won the first two races of his career as a 2-year-old, including the Gr. 3 Iroquois at Churchill, and hasn’t been close since. He would be a major surprise in any Kentucky Derby points earning position. Pass
#9 Keepmeinmind Diodoro/Cohen 8-1
This deep closer added blinkers three starts back in the BC Juvenile and the addition proved helpful as he was third in that race, behind #4 Essential Quality and Gr. 2 Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie. On the heels of that score, he returned in late November to win the Gr. 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. He finished no worse than third in four of five lifetime starts. Trouble is that his worst finish came in his last race, his first of 2021, when he was sixth of eight behind Concert Tour in the Gr. 2 Rebel Stakes. His closing style puts him behind the eight-ball to begin with and there’s not much speed in this race. Those are two strikes against him. He has shown an affinity for the track, so that’s a plus, but that last race really sticks in our craw. He was wide most of the way, made a brief move on the turn and didn’t follow through in the lane. Maybe he needed the race? Maybe he didn’t like the track? Or, maybe he hasn’t matured along with his classmates? All things considered we’ll pass on him. Pass.
From where we sit, there aren’t many ways to go in here. #4 Essential Quality passes the ‘eye’ and ‘paper’ test. He’ll be an extremely short price to win and he will be used on top in an overwhelming majority of exotic wagers. Our advice is to ‘stay loose and bet a deuce’ in here. Well, maybe a bit more than just a ‘deuce.’ #1 Hidden Stash and #2 Untreated have longshot chances to finish in the exotics underneath #4 Essential Quality. #6 Leblon is a bomb with long-range and big price capability. #3 Highly Motivated could hit the exotics but is too short a price to combine with the favorite in any legs except, perhaps, in the bottoms of tris and supers.
$1.00 Superfecta ($40 Total)
Second: #1 #2
Third: #1 #2 #3 #5 #6 #9
Fourth: #1 #2 #3 #5 #6 #9
Santa Anita Derby
$750k – Grade 1
One Mile & One-Eighth
Post: 7:15 pm ET
Kentucky Derby Points: 100-40-20-10
#1 Roman Centurian Callaghan/Hernandez
Second to favored #7 Medina Sprit by a neck in the Gr. 3 Robert B. Lewis and a nose in front of eventual Gr. 2 Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, Roman Centurian actually fits in here. Unfortunately, he didn’t fire in the Gr. 2 San Felipe Stakes and finished fourth, several lengths behind runner-up #7Medina Spirit and third-place finisher #2 Dream Shake. He showed no early speed from the seven post and passed a few tired runners. Can he bounce back to his Lewis performance level or did that race do him in for a while? We prefer to see a forward move from this son of Empire Maker before backing him. Move from outside to inside should help a bit. Pass
#2 Dream Shake Eurton/Pratt
At 20-1 odds, he dominated a loaded Santa Anita maiden sprint race in February and then was tossed to the wolves in the mile and one-sixteenth Gr. 2 San Felipe next out. He didn’t run badly, as he was lapped on #7 Medina Spirit through the lane until he understandably tired, to be third, two lengths out of second, behind former Kentucky Derby Future Book favorite Life is Good. He has been working well for his return to the races. It’s always a difficult call with this type after just two races. Will his San Felipe experience move him forward? Or, will that demanding effort in only his second start set him back? Top jock Flavien Pratt helps his chances. Exotics
#3 Rock Your World Sadler/Rispoli
He has looked fantastic in two 2021 turf scores at Santa Anita. Connections figure he’s sharp, talented and unbeaten…why not take a shot in the local Gr. 1 $750k Derby? In turf starts, he’s been close to the early pace and then been able to explode through the lane at six furlongs and at one mile. We’re generally not a fan of horses switching surfaces after showing ability over a certain layout. ‘Horses for courses’ mantra applies. Also, very few horses are as good on one surface as they are on another. Rock Your World is excellent on turf. He’ll have to show us he’s excellent on dirt, too. Pass
#4 Parnelli Shirreffs/Maldonado
Second in three starts before breaking maiden going one mile at Del Mar, this son of Quality Road was a well-beaten third in the Gr. 3 Sham and then a poor fifth in the Robert B. Lewis. He really needs to turn around his recent stuff to have any say in here. Pass
#5 Back Ring Luck Sadler/Baze
Expect this new arrival to SoCal to show some early pace in this race. He won a $62,500 allowance/optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park last out in early March. He closed out his 2-year-old season with a $30k maiden claiming victory at Churchill Downs in November and was claimed. Before that he had a second and a third at the $30k maiden claiming level. He would be a major surprise in the money in this race. Pass
#6 Ottothelegend Asmussen/Gutierrez
This son of Uncle Mo invades from starts at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. The latter effort was a winning one in a mile and one-sixteenth maiden race in March. It’s asking a lot for him to ship to SoCal and display the same strong closing style that proved effective in Hot Springs. Pass
#7 Medina Spirit Baffert/Velazquez
Second in the Gr. 2 San Felipe behind former Kentucky Derby Future Book favorite and stablemate Life is Good, this son of Protonico was purchased for just $35k. That’s a pittance when compared to some of the price tags associated with other major 3-year-old contenders. Off that race and considering three other performances where he’s been no worse than second, with two wins, he’s the one to beat. Both of his losses came at the hooves of Life is Good and he’s not in this race while recovering from surgery. Medina Spirit’s got enough speed to be close early and he’s shown a determined, grinding style that served him well when denying #1 Roman Centurian and eventual Gr. 2 Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie in the Gr. 3 Robert B. Lewis. Since that race he had a slight throat procedure that figures to help him breathe adequately. A better breathing Medina Spirit is not good news for his challengers. Beat him to win it. Most Likely Winner
#8 Law Professor McCarthy/Desormeaux
An impressive two-turn, mile maiden tally on the heels of a poor first-out effort in a loaded maiden sprint won by #2 Dream Shake encourages connections to take a shot with this son of Constitution in the Santa Anita Derby. While the maiden score was impressive—he was wide the whole way—this is a huge step up in competition. He’s sharp, fit and trained by a talented conditioner. He deserves some respect at a price. Exotics
#9 The Great One O’Neill/Cedillo
It took this son of Nyquist a while to get going before he demolished a Santa Anita mile maiden field by 14 lengths in his first start of 2021. He followed that up with a weak outing in the Gr2 San Felipe Stakes behind Life is Good, #7 Medina Spirit, #2 Dream Shake and #1 Roman Centurian. He was lapped on #7 Medina Spirit most of the way early but couldn’t keep up late. As a 2-year-old, he started by finishing sixth in a turf sprint stakes at Santa Anita. Two fourth-place finishes in one-mile races, one dirt and one turf, were followed by a start in the Gr. 2 Los Alamitos Futurity at one mile and one-sixteenth where he lost by a nose to Spielberg. He has shown speed in most of his races and is most effective when he’s involved early but he’ll need to show more ‘stick’ this time out. Pass
#10 Defunded Baffert/Smith
This son of Dialed In is the ‘other’ Baffert in the race. SoCal racing fans know to always beware of the ‘other Baffert.’ A sparkling maiden score while sprinting second time out suggests that the future is bright. He raced mid-pack before closing the gap off the turn when he was bumped solidly while splitting horses. He actually lost action for a moment under Joel Rosario, then found his best stride and flew home under a hand ride. The win came off a layoff since August and a third-place finish in his maiden voyage as favorite. Stretching out from six furlongs to one mile and one-eighth and a stepping up from a maiden victory to a Grade 1 stakes race are indications that this guy has impressed connections. A bullet 1:12 4/5 six-furlong work March 24 encouraged them, as well. This guy has lots of ability. He’s dangerous in here and he’s the ‘other Baffert’ with ‘Money Mike’ Smith up. Don’t know if he’s seasoned enough to handle his stablemate and post #10 doesn’t help, but he’s worth a look. Win Candidate
#7 Medina Spirit is clearly the one to beat. He’s got the best ‘paper,’ a nearly unbeatable trainer, and a Hall of Fame jockey. He’s got enough pace to be close early and he’s shown ‘stick’ at the finish. He’s also had a throat procedure designed to help him breathe. #10 Defunded has nowhere near the experience one would think necessary to win this race. OK. So, what’s he doing in here? King of the 3-year-olds Bob Baffert already has the race favorite and top 10-ranked Kentucky Derby candidate in #7 Medina Spirit. Why hurry this colt along? Our guess is that this guy has real talent and that he’s faced some obstacles getting here. However, if he can finish among the top three, he’s got a spot in the Kentucky Derby for owners Pegram, Watson or Weitman, some of Baffert’s most loyal supporters. #2 Dream Shake has talent, but he’ll need to hang on much better than he did last out and he won’t be much of price with top jock Flavien Pratt.
$10 Exacta ($20 Total)
Second: #2, #8, #10
$5 Exacta ($10 Total)
Second: #2, #7, #8