By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
After months of anticipation and excitement, we are nearing the end of the road to the Kentucky Derby. In approximately 60 hours, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park will have been run and the field for the Kentucky Derby will be more-or-less established. Will Ken and Sarah Ramsey have a third Derby starter in Bobby’s Kitten? Will Strong Mandate and Ride On Curlin have secured enough Derby qualification points to make the field? These questions and more will be answered on Saturday. Let’s take a quick look at the two races!
Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)
I have been hoping since before last year’s Breeders’ Cup that Bobby’s Kitten would run in a major Kentucky Derby prep race, because I believe he is one of the most talented horses in this crop. I loved the acceleration he showcased when winning the Pilgrim Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park last October, and his third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) after setting fractions of :45 3/5 and 1:09 2/5 was nothing to be ashamed of. He tuned up for the Blue Grass with an easy victory in a one-mile turf allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs, and has turned in three solid workouts since then, including a five-furlong breeze over the Keeneland Polytrack. If he can transfer his turf form to synthetic, I believe he will not only win this race, but stamp himself as a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby. My hope is that we’ll see him rate just off the lead on Saturday, as he has shown a tendency to be a bit headstrong in the past.
Two longshots I like are Pablo Del Monte and Extrasexyhippzster. The former is 2-for-2 over the Keeneland Polytrack, breaking his maiden sprinting 4 ½ furlongs during the 2013 spring meet and subsequently romping in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race during the fall meet. Since that victory, Pablo Del Monte has lost three starts on dirt and turf, but a return to Keeneland could be just what he needs to turn things around. Expect him to flash speed while breaking from post three.
As for Extrasexyhippzster, he flashed talent winning the Don Rickles Stakes and Miracle Wood Stakes during the winter, but endured a dreadful trip when eighth as a 7-1 shot in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) last time out. He has never run on synthetic, which is a major question mark, but at a morning line price of 15-1, he might be worth a look.
Selection: Bobby’s Kitten
Arkansas Derby (gr. I)
Of all the Kentucky Derby prep races held thus far, this one could be the most exciting in terms of seeing which colts pick up enough points to qualify to the Kentucky Derby. Five of the entrants—Ride On Curlin, Commissioner, Conquest Titan, Bayern, and Strong Mandate—have been highly regarded Derby candidates for a long time, yet none of them have earned enough points to make the Derby field at this time.
Making things even more interesting is the fact that Tapiture—who has already earned enough points to start in the Derby—is also entered in the Arkansas Derby, and he has already beaten Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate twice this year. Last time out, he was beaten just a neck in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) after lacking room at the top of the stretch and having to force his way in between horses to find racing room. Overall, he has been a picture of consistency since breaking his maiden in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) last fall, and beating him won’t be an easy task. If he wins, it’s bad news for the five colts in need of points.
Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate both demonstrated great potential as two-year-olds, the former finishing third in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and the latter winning the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), but while they ran well in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) and Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, they proved a cut below Tapiture on both occasions. I’m hoping to see them both attempt a change in running style, coming from off-the-pace rather than racing on the lead. Perhaps it could help them finish up a bit stronger in the homestretch.
The wild card is Bayern, who is unbeaten in two starts for trainer Bob Baffert. A son of Offlee Wild, Bayern was extremely impressive winning a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita two months ago, scoring by fifteen lengths while running his final two quarter-mile fractions in :24 flat. This is a tough spot for him to make his stakes debut, but remember, Baffert’s record at Oaklawn is extraordinary, and he won this race with another lightly-raced colt named Bodemeister two years ago. This is a tough race to handicap, but I’m going to side with Bayern in hopes that Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate both attempt to rate off the lead, leaving Bayern to capitalize on a moderate pace. Under those circumstances, I think he can steal this race in gate-to-wire fashion.
Who do you like this weekend?