Updated April 2, 2021 - 11:52 am
It’s “April Madness” for horse racing fans with three prestigious prep races on tap for the Kentucky Derby.
Several top contenders for the Run for the Roses on May 1 will be making their final starts Saturday in either the $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. All three races all will air live on the NBC Sports Network and TVG beginning at 2:30 p.m.
This is the final flurry of races for 3-year-olds whose connections are hoping to run in the Kentucky Derby, with next week’s $1 million Arkansas Derby the only major prep race left on the calendar. With 180 Derby points on the line in each of the three 1 1/8th-mile races, a first- or second-place finish should be enough to secure that coveted spot in the starting gate in Louisville, even if you’re starting from zero.
The Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct drew a contentious field of nine, led by 5-2 morning line favorite Risk Taking.
The Chad Brown trained son of Medaglia d’Oro has won twice at the distance, jumping up in class following his maiden score Dec. 20 to take the Grade 3 Withers Stakes on Feb. 6. He also attracts top jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. to ride.
Risk Taking makes a lot of sense, but I’m going to try to beat him with Brooklyn Strong (6-1). The son of Wicked Strong, trained by Danny Velazquez and to be ridden for the first time by Manny Franco, should get a ground-saving trip from the rail and was flattered by last weekend’s Grade 1 Florida Derby winner, Known Agenda, whom he easily beat in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at this distance and track last year.
For exotics, I’ll also use Candy Man Rocket (12-1), who broke slowly in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in his last start and finished well up the track. The Bill Mott-trained colt looks like the quickest horse in the field and moves back to the outer portion in the starting gate, a position from which he cruised in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. He might not want to run this far, but I expect him to be on or near the lead in the upper stretch.
The Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes drew the day’s star attraction among its nine entrants. Essential Quality, 4-for-4 and last year’s 2-year-old champion after winning the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is the 3-5 morning line choice.
The defining characteristic in this year’s Blue Grass is an apparent lack of speed, which should play to Essential Quality’s advantage, since he usually races fairly close to the pace.
Two other horses also intrigue me: the Todd Pletcher-trained Untreated (10-1) and Keepmeinmind (8-1).
The former is taking a huge step up in class off a maiden score at Tampa Bay, but lands top rider Joel Rosario for the attempt. Rosario could have ridden serious contenders at either Aqueduct or Santa Anita on Saturday, so the fact he ends up here is interesting, to say the least.
Keepmeinmind, on the other hand, didn’t do much running in his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but was a top 2-year-old last year for trainer Robertino Diodoro and is eligible to improve in his second start off a layoff. Being a closer won’t help in this paceless field, however.
The Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby is the frosting on this particular layer cake, with Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit the 5-2 morning line favorite.
Medina Spirit, pinch-hitting for absent stablemate Life Is Good after that colt suffered a leg injury, has shown himself to be a tough customer with a game neck victory in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and runner-up effort to Life Is Good in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes.
He’s a deserving favorite in the 10-horse field but hardly appears invincible — no matter who’s saddling him.
I like Rock Your World (4-1) to post a mild upset, given the John Sadler trainee has a sterling dirt pedigree even though he won his first two starts on the lawn. He’s also been working lights out on the main track. Umberto Rispoli has the call.
Ellis Starr’s Wood Memorial analysis
Weyburn was disregarded by bettors at 46-1 one month ago in the Gotham Stakes but proved to be an exceptionally tough competitor when winning by a nose. After attending the pace only a half-length behind the leader for the first half-mile, Weyburn engaged for the lead for the rest of the race, first battling head and head with Freedom Fighter then battling nose and nose the last eighth of a mile with Crowded Trade. That effort leads me to believe he will not regress and will move forward to run even better in the Wood Memorial. Considering Weyburn earned a career-best 105 Equibase Speed Figure, tied for best in the field with Crowded Trade, it would take significant improvement by any other runner except Crowded Trade to run faster than Weyburn, who should demonstrate logical improvement in his second start following three months off. As such, Weyburn gets slight preference among two horses I feel stand out against the rest in terms of their probability to win this race.
Crowded Trade has no knocks, having won in his career debut at the end of January before stepping into stakes company in the Gotham Stakes last month and giving it his all. Third place Gotham finisher Highly Motivated is looking for different scenery this weekend and will run in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. With no other horse having run as fast as either Crowded Trade (or Weyburn), this lightly raced colt making his third career start has significant improving he can do and must be considered a strong contender to win. As to his breeding to run this 9 furlong trip, that should not be an issue for this son of More Than Ready as the sire’s Catholic Boy won graded stakes at distances up to 1 1/4 miles. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by red hot Eric Cancel, Crowded Trade has every right to turn the tables on Weyburn in their second meeting and move on to the Kentucky Derby in fine form.
Prevalence, like Crowded Trade, has only run twice, and likewise his second race was a one-turn mile in which he ran impressively. After winning his debut by eight lengths in handy fashion with a 99 figure, Prevalence won his second start just as easily by three lengths with a 98 figure but likely could have gone faster. Perhaps more importantly, after he crossed the finish line it was noted by the astute chart caller for Equibase that Prevalence was “urged past the wire for an eighth of a mile or so past the finish.” This is significant, as it shows a plan beforehand between jockey Tyler Gaffalione (who rides in the Wood) and trainer Brendan Walsh (who trained top 3-year-old Maxfield last year) to give the colt experience at running the distance of his next race. Being a son of Medaglia d’Oro, who sired tremendous stakes winners like Songbird and Wonder Gadot, if Prevalence got the foundation for this race as intended, improving enough to win the Wood Memorial is not out of the question.
In case readers are wondering, the reason I’m not considering Risk Taking a win contender has to do with the fact he comes back from two months off after winning the Withers Stakes in February. Although the 102 figure earned in that race may be competitive with the top horses in the Wood if he improves on it, the fact that he skipped the Gotham and most of his opponents ran more recently gives me pause.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Bourbonic (88), Brooklyn Strong (99), Candy Man Rocket (90), Dynamic One (87) and Market Maven (94).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.