The Major Derby Preps Begin

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

Get ready, everyone—another fantastic day of racing is on schedule for this Saturday! A total of eleven graded stakes races are on the agenda, including seven at Gulfstream Park, led by the $400,000 Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). At Fair Grounds, another four graded stakes races are to be held, including the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II). These top-notch Kentucky Derby prep races mark the start of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, and will offer a total of 85 Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top four finishers. This is where the Road to the Derby really begins, so let’s start handicapping!

Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Juan and Bina Javier Castellano Gustavo Delgado 4th Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
2 Bluegrass Singer Paco Lopez Marcua Vitali 3rd Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
3 Frammento John Velazquez Nick Zito 6th Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
4 Gorgeous Bird Joel Rosario Ian Wilkes 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
5 Itsaknockout Luis Saez Todd Pletcher 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
6 Frosted Irad Ortiz, Jr. Kiaran McLaughlin 2nd Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7 Upstart Jose Ortiz Richard Violette, Jr. 1st Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
8 Danny Boy Corey Lanerie Dale Romans 8th Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) (VIDEO)

To me, this race looks like a four-horse battle between undefeated allowance winner Itsaknockout and Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) 1-2-3 finishers Upstart, Frosted, and Bluegrass Singer. Of the quartet, Upstart looks like a standout on paper and is likely to be heavily favored off his decisive victory in the Holy Bull. In that race, Upstart raced wide throughout while tracking the early pace, then moved up through a strong third quarter-mile fraction to take command from Bluegrass Singer and draw off in the stretch to win by 5 ½ lengths. His final time of 1:43.61 translated to an exceptional Beyer speed figure of 106, by far the highest number in the Holy Bull field, and Upstart figures to work out a similar trip on Saturday while breaking from post seven. Anything near a repeat of his Holy Bull effort should win this race.

Although no match for Upstart in the Holy Bull, Frosted ran well after a tricky inside trip to finish second with a solid late rally. Drawing post six should enable him to work out a better trip this time around, and the addition of blinkers should help him be more forwardly placed than in the Holy Bull, where he was boxed in along the rail early before shifting out for racing room in the homestretch. Still, I find it hard to envision him turning the tables on Upstart, and it’s possible that racing closer to the early pace could be a negative, weakening his stretch punch while simultaneously helping to set the race up for Upstart.

It’s also important to note that on the day of the Holy Bull, the main track at Gulfstream was rather slow and tiring, and did not seem to be playing in favor of front-runners as it typically does—circumstances that probably helped Frosted in rallying to finish second. Keeping this in mind, I believe that Bluegrass Singer could be sitting on a big effort this Saturday. In the Holy Bull, Bluegrass Singer led the way through fractions of :24.52 and :48.82—fractions that were quicker than they appear at first glance because of the way the track was playing—and then threw down a rapid :23.67-second third quarter when challenged by Upstart, which surely left him a bit weary in the homestretch. Even still, he lost second to Frosted by just 2 ¼ lengths, and assuming the track plays more favorably toward speed on Saturday, I envision Bluegrass Singer securing the early lead from post two and maintaining his advantage for a long while. Obviously, defeating Upstart will be a challenge, but I believe Bluegrass Singer is fully capable of rounding out the exacta at an excellent price, and if he goes off at 8-1 or so, I think he’s worth playing to win in case Upstart regresses off his giant effort in the Holy Bull.

As for Itsaknockout, this Todd Pletcher-trained son of Lemon Drop Kid flashed excellent tactical speed while breaking his maiden going seven furlongs and romping to victory in a one-mile allowance race, and has also showed the ability to rate off the lead, coming from three lengths back to win in both races. But while his speed figures are respectable, and his pace-tracking style seems well-suited to this race, I’m having trouble overlooking the fact that the horses he has beaten have not been running well in subsequent races. For example, G Five—who finished 5 ¼ lengths behind Itsaknockout when third in the one-mile allowance race—returned to finish last by nearly sixty lengths in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III), and Yourdreamsormine—who finished a close third in Itsaknockout’s maiden race—was beaten 31 ½ lengths in his next start before dropping into a $100,000 maiden claiming race, which he lost by 6 ½ lengths. Therefore, although Itsaknockout’s form appears flashy on paper, I think he is vulnerable on Saturday and might finish out of the exotics at a fairly short price.

I would also like to briefly mention Juan and Bina, who finished fourth at nearly 82-1 in the Holy Bull after being rank early in the race. Although he rallied from behind in the Holy Bull, Juan and Bina does possess a great deal of tactical speed, and having drawn the rail, I would expect him to be more forwardly placed on Saturday. If new jockey Javier Castellano can keep him settled down, Juan and Bina should be able to save ground throughout and possibly steal another piece of the superfecta at a nice price.

Risen Star Stakes (gr. II)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 St. Joe Bay Florent Geroux Peter Miller 2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
2 Tiznow R J Robby Albarado Steve Asmussen 3rd LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
3 Bluff Kerwin Clark Larry Jones 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
4 J S Bach Rafael Bejarano Todd Pletcher 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
5 Imperia Mike Smith Kiaran McLaughlin 2nd Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6 War Story Kent Desormeaux Tom Amoss 2nd LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
7 Hero of Humor Antioco Murgia Gennadi Dorochenko 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
8 Keen Ice James Graham Dale Romans 5th Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
9 Big Big Easy Richard Eramia Steve Asmussen 5th Jean Lafitte Stakes (VIDEO)
10 International Star Miguel Mena Mike Maker 1st LeComte Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

Any analysis of this race must begin with the highly-regarded Imperia, who will be making his first start since rallying to be beaten a head in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs. The long Fair Grounds homestretch should prove well-suited to his late run, but I do question whether he is truly as effective on dirt as he is on turf. His most brilliant performance—a victory in the Pilgrim Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont—came on turf, and his strong effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club came over the main track at Churchill Downs, which is known to play favorably toward turf horses. Add this to the fact that Imperia will be making his first start off a layoff, and I think he could be vulnerable to an upset this Saturday.

Other colts that will be well-considered in the wagering include the stretch-running colts International Star and War Story, the 1-2 finishers in the LeComte Stakes (gr. III). However, I believe their efforts in the LeComte were enhanced by the fast pace of the race, and taking into account the many talented newcomers that have been entered in the Risen Star, I think they can be beaten for the top spot by a horse offering better value.

There are a couple of longer-priced runners that I really like in this race, the first being the 5-1 shot Tiznow R J. The speedy Steve Asmussen-trained colt tracked quick fractions of :23.66 and :47.07 in the LeComte before tiring slightly in the homestretch to finish third, beaten just a head for second. In a race where the pace favored the closer, Tiznow R J’s effort was impressive, and I think he can take another step forward on Saturday, especially if he can avoid getting sucked into another fast pace.

However, the colt I like best is Bluff, a Larry Jones-trained son of Tapit that broke his maiden in impressive fashion last time out going a mile and seventy yards at Fair Grounds. In that race, Bluff tracked the early pace through fractions of :23.87 and :47.62, then moved up impressively to take command on the far turn before drawing off strongly in the homestretch to win by 5 ¾ lengths while eased up late. Since then, he has turned in a pair of exceptional five furlong workouts at Fair Grounds, including a :59 4/5 breeze on February 16th, and has drawn very well in post position three. From there, I envision him stalking Tiznow R J, J S Bach, and Hero of Humor through the early stages before shifting out to take command in an effort similar to his maiden victory. I’ll make him my selection to win, and best of all, he’s 12-1 on the morning line!

Who do you like this Saturday?


In order to aid in keeping track of all the Kentucky Derby prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Also, here is the link to the complete entries and current standings for our "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing!

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