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Who to watch in Wood, Santa Anita, Blue Grass ahead of Kentucky Derby

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.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.