Favorites Look Strong in Saturday Derby Preps

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman

Get ready, folks! We’re about to pass the eighth pole on the road to the Kentucky Derby! Only five official prep races remain on the schedule, and three of them—all worth 100 qualification points to their winners—will be run this Saturday. Among the starters are such well-regarded contenders as Dortmund, Carpe Diem, El Kabeir, Dardevil, Prospect Park, Bolo, One Lucky Dane, Frosted, and Ocho Ocho Ocho. Clearly, with so many major names and up-and-comers all vying for valuable qualification points, the Derby trail is going to look very different come Sunday morning. So without further ado, let’s start handicapping!

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Dortmund Martin Garcia Bob Baffert 1st San Felipe Stales (gr. II) (VIDEO)
2 One Lucky Dane Rafael Bejarano Bob Baffert 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
3 Cross the Line Juan Hernandez Jerry Hollendorfer 2nd El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) (VIDEO)
4 Bolo Mike Smith Carla Gaines 3rd San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5 Prospect Park Kent Desormeaux Clifford Sise, Jr. 2nd San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6 Bad Read Sanchez Mario Gutierrez Doug O’Neill 3rd Best Pal Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

Of the three prep races being held this weekend, this is the race that seems most likely to yield an upset, simply because there are several very talented colts in this race. The heavy favorite on the morning line is Dortmund, who is unbeaten in five starts for trainer Bob Baffert. The massive colt has shown great early speed, finishing power, and determination throughout his career, winning major races using a variety of different running styles. Sometimes he sets the pace, sometimes he tracks it, and sometimes he rallies from behind. Sometimes he races outside of horses, and sometimes he races inside—it really doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to faze this colt, who turned back a pair of determined bids from Prospect Park and Bolo to win the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) last time out by a bit more than a length. The only possible chink in his armor—which I have written about extensively in the past—is that he doesn’t seem to be able to accelerate on turns very well, and this can enable rivals with a quicker turn-of-foot to get the jump on him turning for home. But thus far, Dortmund has overcome this possible disadvantage by simply out-grinding his rivals in the homestretch, maintaining a strong pace to the finish that few can match. In the San Felipe, he ran the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :30.35—that’s absolutely flying at the finish of a dirt race! As long as he gets off to a good start in the Santa Anita Derby, he should be able to secure the early lead and utilize his speed to score another gate-to-wire victory.

The colt with the best chance to pull off an upset is probably Prospect Park, who rallied strongly in the final furlong of the San Felipe to finish second, beaten just 1 ¼ lengths. Although generally viewed as a closer, Prospect Park actually possesses quite a bit of early speed, as he was only a couple of lengths behind Dortmund early on in the San Felipe. He demonstrated a similar running style two starts back in a Santa Anita allowance race, tracking the early pace on the inside before showcasing a strong turn-of-foot in the homestretch to draw off and win by over five lengths. Having drawn post five in a small field, I hope to see Prospect Park settle just a couple lengths off the lead while racing outside, then rally in the homestretch to be in the mix for victory. The nine-furlong distance should help his chances, although catching Dortmund might be difficult.

Bolo turned in an impressive effort to finish third in the San Felipe, rallying strongly in early stretch to take a brief lead from Dortmund before tiring just a bit at the finish to wind up third, beaten a neck for second place. If he hadn’t had to steady a bit behind Dortmund in deep stretch, he might have held off Prospect Park’s late surge. Given that the San Felipe was Bolo’s first start on dirt, and that he had missed some training before the race, his strong effort was very impressive. I’m not certain that he will relish the stretch-out to nine furlongs as much as Prospect Park or Dortmund, but it’s hard to deny that he has the talent to have an impact on this race. He’s turned in three solid workouts since the San Felipe, most recently breezing a half-mile in :46 4/5 on March 31st, and he looks ready to roll on Saturday.

I should also take a moment to mention Dortmund’s stablemate, One Lucky Dane. The speedy colt returned from a layoff to win a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on March 19th by nearly ten lengths, running the final quarter-mile in a rapid :24.14. Coming back on just over two weeks rest could be a challenge, and he will be facing much tougher competition today, but in any case, he should be a pace factor. Breaking from post two, I expect to see him join Dortmund on the early lead, but given that both are trained by Bob Baffert, I can’t envision them engaging in a destructive speed duel. Instead, I believe one will concede the lead to the other and allow the race to unfold at a fairly modest tempo, which should leave Dortmund with enough in the tank to hold off Prospect Park in the homestretch.

Twinspires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 TizShea D Manuel Franco Bill Mott 2nd Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
2 Toasting Master A. Arroyo Dale Romans 4th Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
3 Lieutenant Colonel Irad Ortiz, Jr. Chad Brown 10th Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
4 Frosted Joel Roario Kiaran McLaughlin 4th Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5 El Kabeir Charles Lopez John Terranova II 1st Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
6 Daredevil Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher 2nd Swale Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7 Tencendur Jose Ortiz George Weaver 5th Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

El Kabeir deserves a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished thus far in his career. After winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) in gate-to-wire fashion last fall, he shipped to Aqueduct and proceeded to sandwich victories in the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) and Gotham Stakes (gr. III) around a runner-up effort in the Withers Stakes (gr. III). He has also shown that he doesn’t need to have the early lead, closing from a dozen lengths behind to win the Gotham by 2 ¾ lengths. Among the local runners—which also include Tiz Shea D, Toasting Master, Lieutenant Colonel, and Tencendur—he looks like a standout.

But there are a pair of Florida shippers that could potentially steal the spotlight, the first being morning-line favorite Daredevil. The colt opened his career with a pair of impressive victories at Belmont last fall, including a romping win over Upstart, The Truth or Else, and El Kabeir in the one-mile Champagne Stakes (gr. I). Given a break after a last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Daredevil returned to action March 7th in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream and finished a strong second behind Ready for Rye, who posted a 109 Beyer speed figure while winning by 2 ¾ lengths. It was a solid comeback, especially considering that Daredevil finished ten lengths in front of the third-place horse. With a pair of nice half-mile workouts under his belt, I think that Daredevil will be ready for a big effort in his second start off the layoff while stretching out in distance. He is my selection to win.

I also have a lot of respect for Frosted, who ran first or second in his first five starts (including the Remsen Stakes last fall over the same track and distance as the Wood Memorial) before finishing fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). What was odd about his performance that day was that he looked like a certain winner turning for home—honestly, he looked like he was going to win by a dozen lengths—but at the top of the stretch, his momentum stalled, and he gave way to finish fourth. It’s hard to say for certain why he stopped so badly, but he has trained very strongly since then, and I’m willing to forgive his poor showing in the Fountain of Youth and hope that he rebounds on Saturday. I think he is a very strong candidate to round out the exacta behind Daredevil, and if Daredevil fails to fire his best shot, Frosted should be right there to pull off a mild upset.

Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Ocho Ocho Ocho S. Gonzalez Jim Cassidy 8th San Felipe Stales (gr. II) (VIDEO)
2 Gorgeous Bird Brian Hernandez, Jr. Ian Wilkes 5th Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
3 Pepper Roani Miguel Mena Mike Maker 2nd John Battaglia Memorial Stakes (VIDEO)
4 Unrivaled Robby Albarado M. Montoya 1st Allowance (VIDEO)
5 Carpe Diem John Velazquez Todd Pletcher 1st Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6 Frammento Gary Stevens Nick Zito 3rd Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7 Classy Class Junior Alvarado Kiaran McLaughlin 3rd Gotham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
8 Danzig Moon Julien Leparoux Mark Casse 4th Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)

Much like the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes is another race that has a very strong favorite on paper. That favorite is Carpe Diem, who won the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland last fall before finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He returned off a layoff to post a convincing victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) on March 7th, scoring by five lengths in the quick time of 1:43.60. We know he likes Keeneland, we know he has a lot of talent, and I expect him to show improvement in his second start of the year. Having drawn post five, he should be able to settle outside of horses while tracking the pace, and from there, I think we’re going to see him draw off for another very impressive victory.

But beyond Carpe Diem, the Blue Grass is a much harder race to handicap. Classy Class and Ocho Ocho Ocho are the co-second choices on the morning line, but both have questions to answer in this race. For Classy Class, it’s question of class—he ran well to finish third in both the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) and Withers Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, but will be facing much tougher competition today. Ocho Ocho Ocho won the first three starts of his career, including the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) last November, but finished a distant eighth in the San Felipe after running into traffic early on. I don’t believe that race is a fair measurement of his talent, but even if he rebounds to his Delta Jackpot form—his career-best effort in terms of Beyer speed figures—I think he can be beaten to the wire by horses offering better odds, especially since Ocho Ocho Ocho may be in for a tricky trip from post position one.

I’m also going to take a stand against Frammento, who rallied from fifteen lengths behind to finish third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) last time out. His late run was eye-catching, but I believe he benefitted greatly from the fast pace, tiring track conditions, and the very slow finishes by many of his rivals. Assuming the Blue Grass unfolds with a more typical pace scenario, I think Frammento will find it much harder to rally into contention on Saturday.

So who do I like to round out the exacta? My choice is Danzig Moon. The son of Malibu Moon broke his maiden by nearly five lengths at Gulfstream on February 7th, but then failed to fire when finishing fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby last time out. On paper, that performance suggests that he might not be good enough to contend against this caliber of competition, but it’s important to note that two other well-regarded runners in the Tampa Bay Derby—Ocean Knight and My Johnny Be Good—failed to fire as well, finishing nearly thirty lengths behind Carpe Diem. This suggests to me that Tampa’s sandy track may have been even trickier than usual for some horses to handle, and perhaps Danzig Moon didn’t relish the conditions. If this is true, the switch to Keeneland might be exactly what Danzig Moon needs to rebound to top form.

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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