The Kentucky Derby trail will be busy from coast-to-coast on Saturday afternoon with three major prep races for the 143rd Run for the Roses on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
In New York, the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial (5:52 p.m. EDT) at Aqueduct will kick things off, followed by the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes (6:17 p.m. EDT) at Keeneland and concluding with the $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby (6:30 p.m. EDT) at Santa Anita Park.
All three races are will be contested at 1 1/8-miles and will offer the top four finishers 100-40-20-10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby on the First Saturday in May.
A field of eight 3-year-old colts will run on the Big A’s main dirt track after moving from the winterized inner track. Another Todd Pletcher trained horse is in the mix and has assumed the favorite’s role in the Big A’s signature race of the spring meeting.
Battalion Runner (2-1) will face graded company for the first time, coming off an impressive win in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Many thought he was the stronger of Pletcher’s duo entered in last weekend’s Florida Derby that was won impressively by his barn mate, Always Dreaming. Pletcher scratched Battalion Runner and pointed him to the Wood in an attempt to qualify for the Derby.
A first or second-place finish in any of the three Derby preps should be enough to obtain a gate in Louisville, so this is his one shot to qualify for the Derby.
His main competition will come from the Chad Brown-trained Cloud Computing (5-2), a lightly raced son of Maclean’s Music out of an A.P. Indy mare, who finished second behind J Boys Echo in the local prep for the Wood. J Boys Echo shipped to Lexington to run in the Blue Grass. Irad Ortiz, Jr. will ride Cloud Computing for the first time, as Manny Franco rode the sophomore colt in his first two races.
Irish War Cry (7-2) will look to bounce back from a terrible effort in the Fountain of Youth for trainer Graham Motion. He shipped back to Motion’s home base training center in Fair Hill, Md. after the dismal seventh-place finish in Florida. He’ll hope to return to his winning ways, the loss snapped a three-race winning streak, which included the Grade 2 Holy Bull.
Motion hopes the son of Curlin settles in the Wood before making his big run, something he didn’t do in the Fountain of Youth. He compared his colt to his only Derby winner, Animal Kingdom on a call with the national racing media earlier in the week.
”Irish War Cry is very athletic, he would be a much leaner more athletic type than Animal Kingdom was at this stage of the game,” said Motion. “Animal Kingdom was a very stout, very stocky 3-year-old. This horse is much sleeker; he’s kind of a narrower horse. Having said that he’s beautifully put together,” said Motion.
The Wood looks to be a very competitive race; we’ll give the nod to Cloud Computing over the Pletcher horse and am looking for Irish War Cry to bounce back from his last effort in Florida.
Post Time Outlook – 1- Cloud Computing 2 – Battalion Runner; 3 – Irish War Cry; 4 – Mo Town
Blue Grass Stakes
Of the three races, this one has the smallest field (seven), but appears to be the deepest and may fashion the fastest horses of the three Saturday preps.
With a win in the Blue Grass, morning line favorite McCraken (7-5) will be the likely favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Last weekend he posted the lowest odds in the final Derby Futures Pool at 5-1. He missed the Tampa Bay Derby after winning the local prep due to a minor ankle strain. The Blue Grass will be his second race of the year.
Trainer Ian Wilkes is not necessarily looking for a win, but a solid effort is in his sights. “I’d love to win the Bluegrass, that’s such a prestigious race but I want to get the right kind of race in this horse, where he gets something out of this, moving in the right direction because he is, just like everyone, our goal is the next race,” said Wilkes.
The son of Ghostzapper has plenty of challengers, including the aforementioned J Boys Echo (4-1), winner of the Gotham, Tapwrit (5-2), another Pletcher stalwart and Practical Joke (7-2) runner-up in the Fountain of Youth.
J Boys Echo is trained by last year’s winning Blue Grass trainer Dale Romans, who decided to skip the Wood and head to Kentucky with the son of Mineshaft. He has a win on the Keeneland oval during his 2-year-old season, always an edge when handicapping a big race.
The Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit comes off an impressive performance and Pletcher has been red-hot on the Derby trail this year. The Tapit colt will have Jose Ortiz in the saddle and comes into the race third off the layoff, another positive handicapping angle.
Chad Brown’s biggest Derby hope, Practical Joke skipped the Florida Derby to take on this talented field with Joel Rosario aboard. Ortiz hopped off Practical Joke to ride Tapwrit, so read into that what you may.
The Gotham is my key race for the first two preps and I’m going with J Boys Echo to turn back McCraken and Tapwrit in the stretch.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – J Boys Echo; 2 – McCraken; 3 – Tapwrit; 4 – Practical Joke
Santa Anita Derby
The Santa Anita Derby drew a big field of 13 horses including three Bob Baffert horses. It’s a wide open race in which the Doug O’Neill trained Iliad (7-2) is your morning line favorite. A full handicap of the Santa Anita can be found online.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Battle of Midway; 2 – Reach the World; 3 – Kimbear; 4 – Iliad
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.