The last major weekend of Kentucky Derby prep races are scheduled for this afternoon with valuable qualifying points on the line for the 144th Run for the Roses on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
In New York, the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial (5:55 p.m.) at Aqueduct will kick things off, followed by the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes (6:23 p.m.) at Keeneland and concluding with the most anticipated race, the $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby (6:30 p.m.).
All three races will be contested at 1∂-miles and will offer the top four finishers 100-40-20-10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby on the First Saturday in May.
Wood Memorial: A field of nine 3-year-old colts will run over the Big A’s dirt track in a race that was downgraded two years ago from Grade 1 status.
Godolphin’s big Derby threat, Enticed (6-5), looks to back up his big performance in last month’s Grade 3 Gotham with a win in the meet’s signature race. His point total of 63 has assured him a gate in Louisville, so the race is not a must-win situation for the son of Medaglia d’Oro.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Enticed’s dam was one of the trainer’s favorite fillies.
“He is a real classy horse because we trained his mother, It’s Tricky,” McLaughlin said in a Tuesday teleconference. “She was an outstanding mare, one of the best fillies we ever trained. And he’s a homebred for Sheikh Mohammed. It’s exciting and he is very talented, does everything right, and we’re all set for Saturday.”
His main competition will come from the Bob Baffert-trained Restoring Hope (4-1), a lightly raced son of Giant’s Causeway out of a Tapit mare that ships in from Santa Anita off a maiden breaking win, enhanced by an equipment change. With Solomini headed to the Arkansas Derby, and Justify staying home, Baffert placed this horse in New York for his Derby try.
Baffert took the blinkers off in his maiden-breaker and he has been working well in the mornings. His pedigree says he can go long and by default he ends up in the Wood. The Baffert factor has him as the surprising second choice, but deeper waters are ahead.
Todd Pletcher always has a say in the Wood outcome and this one is no different. Vino Rosso (9-2, 7 points) is the third choice, and the son of Curlin hopes to improve off his Gotham effort to qualify for a spot in Louisville.
Old Time Revival (6-1, 20 points) finished second in the Gotham at 35-1 odds but will not fool anyone this time. Jeremy Rose, of Afleet Alex fame, retains the mount for Kenneth Decker.
Post Time Outlook: 1- Enticed 2 – Old Time Revival; 3 – Vino Rosso; 4 – Restoring Hope
Blue Grass Stakes: Of the three races, this one has the largest field and appears the most wide open.
With cold weather in the forecast, the Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip bailed for Hot Springs and next weekend’s Arkansas Derby.
The race has Canada’s hope, Flameaway (6-1, 30 points), winner of the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and trained by perennial Woodbine training champ Mark Casse. The son of Scat Daddy is attempting to be the first Canadian-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby since Northern Dancer in 1964.
When asked what it would mean to enter such rarified Canadian air, Casse was quick on the retort. “I mean, it would be everything, right? It would be my career all tied up in one,” Casse said “I mean I owe so much of our success to Toronto, to Woodbine, to Canada, to kind of be able to do it and do it with a Canadian-bred would be the ultimate satisfaction I guess.”
Good Magic (2-1, 34 points) is the morning-line favorite and will look to rebound after a disappointing third in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner likely needs only a fourth-place finish to earn a gate in the Derby.
The Chad Brown trainee has worked sharply since the Fountain of Youth and may have needed a race before rounding into form.
Three longer shots with a shot in here are Sporting Chance (10-1) for D. Wayne Lukas, Kanthaka (10-1, going two turns for the second time), and Marconi (15-1), who draws top Euro rider Ryan Moore to ride.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Good Magic; 2 – Sporting Chance; 3 – Kanthaka; 4 – Marconi
Santa Anita Derby: This will be the most anticipated race of the day. Justify versus Bolt d’Oro. It was supposed to be the rematch between McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro, but a hind injury sidelined McKinzie, Justify’s Arkansas travel plans were cancelled and Baffert decided to keep him home.
Bolt d’Oro (6-5, 64 points) is in the catbird seat, not needing a win after his victory via disqualification over McKinzie in the San Felipe. Trainer Mick Ruis is aware that the target is on his horse’s back, but not the pressure to win.
“I think we’ll have a little bit left for Kentucky if God willing, if we make it there,” Ruis said. “He came back great from the San Felipe, we just don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We hope he runs a nice race on Saturday. I think he can still run a real hard race, and we’re going to be good, as long as he comes back sound for Kentucky Derby day.”
On the other hand, Justify (4-5, 0 points) needs a first- or second-place finish for a shot at the Derby. All his chips have been pushed to the center of the table and he’s facing maybe the best horse in training in Bolt d’Oro. His resume includes two magnificent performances against lesser foes, winning by a combined 16 lengths, and most racing pundits feel he is the real deal.
Ruis compared Justify to another former Baffert trainee.
“I look at that horse train and look at that horse work and it is like, wow. I remember back when American Pharoah won before he was going to the Derby. I told my son, ‘You know I’ve never seen a horse move more fluidly than America Pharoah.’ And sure enough he went on to win the Triple Crown, and you look at Justify, boy, he is about as smooth as you want in a horse.”
Count me in as a believer.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Justify; 2 – Bolt d’Oro; 3 – Instilled Regard; 4 – Core Beliefs
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.