Updated April 5, 2018 - 6:40 pm
The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby in a mere 29 days is shaping up to be a real barn-burner.
If we didn’t see the Kentucky Derby winner last week in Audible or Mendelssohn, then we will almost certainly get an early peek Saturday when three major prep races — the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby — will bring out most of the remaining top guns for the Run for the Roses.
The #RJhorseracing handicappers, fresh off a sweep of last week’s featured races, are tackling all three. But before we see whom they like, let’s review the Kentucky Derby points standings and how they might impact Saturday’s races:
The biggest change from years past is that there likely will be only 17 stalls in the Derby starting gate available to U.S.-based horses this year. That’s the result of an expanded “foreign roads” program that is expected to see Mendelssohn, winner of last weekend’s UAE Derby, Gronkowski, the British-based New England Patriot namesake, and possibly the Japanese runner Ruggero line up in Louisville on May 5.
That has increased the number of points needed to make the starting gate — currently looking to be right around 40 — and means that for horses on the cusp this is a make-or-break weekend. Either bring your A-game or plan on watching the race on TV.
That means handicappers need to decide not just who the best horse is in a given race, but who needs to win now. The savvy trainers with points in the bank are going to keep their eyes on the Kentucky Derby and won’t want their horses putting everything on the line Saturday.
On to the races, all graded stakes for 3-year-olds run at 1 1/8 miles.
#RJhorseracing feature races
The #RJhorseracing handicapping corps is all over Enticed, the 6-5 morning line favorite for the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. They see his main competition as the Bob Baffert-trained Restoring Hope (4-1), with Firenze Fire (6-1) and Old Time Revival (6-1) tied for third.
I’ll go with Restoring Hope to spring the minor upset, given Enticed doesn’t need to run his best.
The best betting race of the day is the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, which drew an overflow field. The ’cappers went with the chalk — defending Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ Good Magic (2-1), figuring he will rebound from his disappointing 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Flameaway ( 6-1) edged Free Drop Billy (5-1) for second.
I like Kanthaka (10-1), who put in a good effort against the best colts on the West Coast in the San Felipe Stakes and should get a decent pace to close into. I’ll box him in exactas with Good Magic and the improving Blended Citizen (15-1).
Speaking of the big guns on the West Coast, the crew again likes the favorite, the brilliant Baffert-trained Justify (4-5), to best Bolt d’Oro (6-5) and Instilled Regard (5-1).
“Justify is the real deal,” wrote Dean Wright, a colonel in the handicapping corps. “Looking for another multilength win over Bolt D’Oro and Instilled Regard.”
They’ll get no argument from me on this one. Justify looks read to roll, and he needs a win or second to get to Louisville. Bolt d’Oro can afford to wait for the big dance.
Join us next week for the final round of Derby preps and for continuing handicapping puzzles thereafter. Just drop me an email or hit me on Twitter and tell me you’d like to get involved.
Ellis Starr’s Santa Anita Derby analysis
After two third place finishes in sprints in January and February, Core Beliefs stretched out to two turns and improved tremendously, drawing off by three lengths with a 109 Equibase Speed Figure. This was on par with the 108 figure Justify earned winning a two-turn race three days later. Core Beliefs was sired by Quality Road, whose progeny have proven themselves at top levels just as the sire did. Although the 109 figure Core Beliefs earned last month is well short of the 118 figure Bolt d’Oro earned in the San Felipe, the colt has potential to improve markedly off the effort in his second route and he will have to do just that because he needs to finish first or second to get the points required to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Except for an exceptionally wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall when finishing third, Bolt d’Oro has made no mistakes, winning all four of his other races. The 118 he earned in last month’s San Felipe Stakes, in which he battled McKenzie through the stretch, was exceptional. With 64 points on the “Road to the Derby” leaderboard, a spot in the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby is virtually assured so Bolt d’Oro may only need a good effort to keep fit to move on to the big dance next month. However, in his current form, even his “B” level race may be good enough to win.
Justify has been impressive in both his races to date. Like Core Beliefs, this will be the second two-turn start for Justify and improvement off his 108 figure last out can be expected. Justify was sired by Scat Daddy, who may have three horses in the starting gate in Louisville next month if Justify finishes first or second to gain his first points on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” leaderboard. The other two Scat Daddy colts include Flameaway and the most impressive winner of the U.A.E. Derby last weekend, Mendelssohn. Certainly, if the hype surrounding how big, strong and fast Justify may be is warranted, he will win the Santa Anita Derby and create a lot of buzz in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products. You can also read his analysis of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial on his blog.
Top 25 in Kentucky Derby points standings
Rank, Horse, Points
1. Audible, 110
2. Noble Indy, 110
3. Mendelssohn, 100
4. Bolt d’Oro, 64
5. Enticed, 63
6. Bravazo, 54
7. Promises Fulfilled, 52
8. Magnum Moon, 50
9. Runaway Ghost, 50
10. Quip, 50
11. Lone Sailor, 42
12, Rayya, 40*
13. McKinzie, 40*
14. Hofburg, 40
15. Good Magic, 34
16. Solomini, 34
17. My Boy Jack, 32
18. Flameaway, 29
19. Firenze Fire, 29
20. Free Drop Billy, 24
21. Catholic Boy, 24*
22. Snapper Sinclair, 22
23. Combatant, 22
24. Blended Citizen, 22
25. Reride, 20
* Not expected to run in Derby