By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
With just four weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, the prep races are really starting to get interesting. All told, there will be four grade I stakes races for three-year-olds this Saturday, including the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, each of which will offer a total of 170 Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top four finishers. It’s going to be a busy weekend, so let’s start handicapping!
In the weeks leading up to this race, I had more-or-less decided against backing Social Inclusion in this spot. True, the unbeaten colt has been absolutely spectacular in his two starts thus far, and the 111 Beyer speed figure he earned in his March 12th allowance victory towers over the figures earned by his ten rivals. But it seems like every year there’s a colt or two along the Derby trail that earns a huge speed figure in a minor race, then fails to live up to expectations in subsequent starts. Social Inclusion could very well be one of these one-hit wonders.
However, in the last couple of days, my opinion of Social Inclusion has changed. His old-school trainer Manny Azpurua has been thinking outside the box in preparing Social Inclusion for this race, breezing him three times in the span of eight days—four furlongs in :49 1/5 on March 22nd, three furlongs in :35 2/5 on March 26th, and four furlongs in :46 4/5 on March 29th. Believe it or not, Social Inclusion may be even sharper on Saturday than he was in his allowance victory, which is a scary proposition for his rivals. So despite my concerns, I’m starting to believe that Social Inclusion may just be something extra special, and I’m picking him to win.
In the event that Social Inclusion doesn’t live up to expectations, Samraat and Uncle Sigh looked poised to continue their dominance of Aqueduct’s Derby prep races, having already finished 1-2 in both the Withers Stakes (gr. III) and Gotham Stakes (gr. III) earlier in the meet. A valid longshot possibility is Wicked Strong, who finished a close third in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct last November. He was most recently fourth behind Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Constitution in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, in which he attempted to rally into slow fractions over a speed-favoring track. If he gets a faster pace today, and a fairer racetrack, he could be rallying strongly at the finish.
Santa Anita Derby
The Santa Anita Derby will feature a showdown among the winners of three major Kentucky Derby prep races: San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) winner California Chrome, Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) winner Candy Boy, and Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner Hoppertunity.
Certainly, much of the attention will be given to California Chrome, who earned a massive 107 Beyer speed figure while winning the San Felipe by 7 ¼ lengths last time out. A repeat of that performance would make him extremely tough to beat on Saturday, and even if he regresses a bit, he might still have a big enough edge to get the job done.
That said, I believe that Candy Boy can pull off a minor upset. I was very impressed by his performance in the February 8th Robert B. Lewis, in which he tracked decent early fractions before unleashing a strong run in the final five-sixteenths to win by a half-length over Chitu, who came back to win the Sunland Derby (gr. III) two weeks ago. On paper, California Chrome should win this, but if the San Felipe winner doesn’t bound away from the field on the far turn, I think Candy Boy can reel him in down the homestretch.
I should also take a moment to mention Hoppertunity, who showed grit and determination to out-game Tapiture in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn three weeks ago. That performance was undoubtedly strong, but it also came over a sloppy track, and was considerably better than all of Hoppertunity’s previous races. He could simply be getting good at the right time, but the switch from sloppy Oaklawn to speedy Santa Anita is a pretty big change, and I’ll be interested to see how he handles it.
Santa Anita Oaks
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner Ria Antonia and Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) winner Fashion Plate will be among the favorites, but both have questions to answer. Ria Antonia’s only top-level performance to date came with the aid of a fast pace in the Breeders’ Cup, and I’m not certain that Fashion Plate really wants to go 8.5 furlongs, especially in a race like this one, which seems to have a great deal of early speed.
As a result, I’m going to pick Arethusa. While her only win thus far came on a synthetic track, Arethusa has turned in several solid efforts on the dirt at Santa Anita, including a late-running third-place finish in the Las Virgenes last time out. Assuming the pace is reasonable, she should be closing late at a price.
There are thirteen lightly-raced fillies to choose from in this race, but in my opinion, Testa Rossi is a standout. The Chad Brown-trainee showcased a potent late kick as a juvenile, and demonstrated in the March 8th Florida Oaks (gr. III) that she may be even better this year. In that race, Testa Rossi sat closer to the early pace than usual before accelerating in breathtaking fashion down the homestretch to win by 3 ½ lengths. I rarely say this about any horse in any race, but I would be surprised if Testa Rossi doesn’t win the Ashland.
There are many other great races being run this weekend in addition to the four I described above, and I will be handicapping many of them in the comments section of this post. I hope you’ll join me!