For all intents and purposes, this is the last weekend in the Kentucky Derby prep world.
Saturday brings the final three 170-point races of the season with the running of the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and the Santa Anita Derby. Each race features the 100-40-20-10-point value, guaranteeing a spot in the Derby for the winner, with the second-place horse, depending on what they’ve done thus far, seeing a great chance to get in as well.
After Saturday, the lone prep race left is the August 16th running of the Lexington, a race with a points scale if 20-8-4-2.
The leader in the points is Epicenter with 164 points. The 20th and final position is held by Rich Strike with 20 points.
Here is a run through the three Saturday races in order of post time. All post times are P.D.T.
Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, 8th race, 1:45 p.m.): I have never been a big fan of the New York prep races, but this year there might be one I think has a shot in the Derby.
Morello (Steve Asmussen trainer, Jose Lezcano jockey, 8/5) has done all that’s been asked of him, starting three races, and winning all three. The last win came in the Gotham and was a race where the horse had a bad start. It wasn’t the toughest of the prep races, but after he righted the ship, he drew off to win by over four lengths. He likes to run just off the pace, and I would expect the same here. Another big run here and his Derby stock will rise.
Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher, Joel Rosario, 5/2): I think this horse has been a disappointment to all, given his connections. He broke in his second start, then came back to win the Remsen over the Aqueduct surface in early December. Pletcher then sent the horse to Florida – a usual move for the runners high on Pletcher’s list. It was a disappointing third in the Holy Bull after trouble at the start. He rallied and picked off some tiring horses late, but Pletcher has the horse back in New York for the last prep start. Sits 26th on the points list with 12 points. Likely will need to win or finish second to get to Kentucky.
Early Voting (Chad Brown, Jose Otiz, 5/2): A maiden score in his debut was followed by a four-length win in the Withers back in Early February. The horse has been off since then. The works for the return have been good, but not anything that jumps off the page. Going to be a pace factor, but is he ready for the race? Sits 28th in points with 10 and like Mo Donegal, needs to finish in the top two.
Barese (Michael Maker, Dylan Davis, 8/1): This is the last single digit morning-line horse in the field and is indicative as to the quality following off quickly here. Has won all three career starts, but this is by far his toughest spot and is certainly a notch below the top runners.
Blue Grass (Keeneland, 9th race, 2:10 p.m.): A deep and talented group make up the 12-horse field.
Some good runners in this group, but none that have established themselves as a legit Derby favorite. Smile Happy (Kenneth McPeak, Corey Lanerie, 9/5) is the heavy favorite, but is coming off a second where he was beaten over two-lengths by Epicenter in the Risen Star. Loves to run from off the pace, but sure how much speed he will get to chase here.
Zandon (Chad Brown, Flavian Prat, 5/2) is the second choice and is coming off a third in the Risen Star. Like Smile Happy, the connections have chosen this spot for last effort at making the Derby.
Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, 6th race, 2:30 p.m.): There will be a lot of interest in the two favorites in this one!
Messier (Tim Yakteen, John Velazquez, 1/1): This will be the first start for the horse outside of the Bob Baffert barn as he was moved to Tim Yakteen, a former assistant to Baffert. The winner of 3-of-5 starts, the last was a stunning 15-length win in the Robert Lewis at San Anita. Been off since February 6, but had put in a strong series of works, mixing in hard works with maintenance drills. The one to beat for a reason.
Forbidden Kingdom (Richard Mandella, Juan Hernandez, 6/5) just crushed the field in the San Felipe, holding a 7-length lead at one point before cruising in for the 5-plus length win. Did face and lose to Messier back in November in the Bob Hope at Del Mar by over three-lengths. Has led at the first call in all five of his starts, so figure this one gunning for the lead. I have always felt Hernandez is a better jockey with his horse on the lead so expect it here as well.
Taiba (Yakteen, Mike Smith, 4/1) is the third choice despite having only one start – an impressive MSW score for Baffert in early March. Now in Yakteen’s barn, Baffert has a history of at least one late-starting runner making an impact in the Derby scene. Collected a 103 Beyer for the debut. The other three runners in this race are all 20/1 on the morning line.
By Dennis Miller