Three Preps, Three Plays on Busy Derby Trail

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

The penultimate weekend of prep races on the Road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby is also the biggest and most exciting weekend, with three huge races to be held across the country at Santa Anita, Keeneland, and Aqueduct.

If you're not a fan of playing favorites, then you're in luck, because I hope to beat all three morning line choices this week. Let's dig in and take a look at each race....

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)

Game Winner is by far the most accomplished runner in this small field, but last year's champion two-year-old male is more of a mid-pack grinder than a flashy speed horse, which can put him at a disadvantage against horses with more tactical speed. That was demonstrated quite clearly in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park three weeks ago, in which Game Winner endured a wide trip and couldn't quite run down the more forwardly-placed Omaha Beach.

I've been a Game Winner fan since his debut win at Del Mar last summer, but part of me wonders if he might be reaching a form ceiling that could be tough to break through. From a Beyer and BRIS speed figure perspective, his performance in the Rebel was a slight step backward from his best form last year, and I actually thought that the Beyer figure might have been a few points too generous.

That's why I'm going to side with Game Winner's stablemate Roadster. Very little has gone right for this son of Quality Road since he broke his maiden with an eye-catching burst of acceleration at Del Mar last July. A third-place finish behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) was followed by surgery to correct a breathing issue, and once he got back in training he was briefly sidelined again with hoof issues.

Finally, Roadster returned to action in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race on March 1st at Santa Anita, and despite having just four workouts under his belt, he won decisively. It was a picture-perfect run for a horse returning from a layoff, as he was able to track modest fractions before taking command easily and accelerating the final quarter-mile in less than :24 2/5 seconds to win by 2 ½ lengths.

Roadster has drawn the rail in the Santa Anita Derby, so I expect jockey Mike Smith to put Roadster's tactical speed to good use and secure a forwardly-placed position. With Instagrand being the only other speed horse in the field, the pace should be modest, and that could give Roadster just the edge he needs to turn the tables on Game Winner.

Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II)

In a wide-open race that attracted a full field of fourteen starters, there was never really any doubt in my mind that I would pick Signalman to win.

Simply put, Signalman made a fantastic impression on me last year. He wasn't the fastest member of his foal crop, but he was as consistent as they come, and no one showed a greater ability to race in traffic than Signalman. Rally up the inside? You bet. In between horses? No hesitation. The hole is closing? Let's bull our way through! There's no opening whatsoever? Let's make one!

If Signalman were a bull in a china shop (and in terms of size he's almost as imposing as a bull), he'd be the rare specimen able to negotiate his way through narrow aisles without breaking anything, but pity the poor shoppers who might bump up against him—Signalman simply doesn't give way and is apt to bump right back. Just look what happened in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland last year, when Signalman was rallying along the inside and received a stiff bump that pushed him into the inner rail. Rather than back out of the tight position, Signalman stubbornly held his ground, preserved the opening, and re-rallied to finish second.

Signalman was impressive again in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), slicing his way through one opening after another to finish a clear third, and in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), he saved ground inside, made multiple moves, waited in traffic, split horses, and ultimately won by a neck over the future UAE Derby (UAE-II) winner Plus Que Parfait.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Signalman should be perfectly-suited to battling his way through the large field in the Blue Grass Stakes, and drawing post position three should even provide him with an opportunity to save ground. I'm also not particularly concerned about his seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) last month—he had a pretty light work tab coming into the race, lost a shoe during the running, and might not have cared for Gulfstream Park. I'm expecting a big rebound from Signalman on Saturday, and if his 5-1 morning line odds hold up, I'll be excited to play him.

Wood Memorial (gr. II)

Considering that Florida shippers have won eight of the last ten editions of the Wood Memorial, I would be tempted to lean against Tax and Haikal regardless of how I otherwise viewed their form. The fact that I'm already a little skeptical of both makes it easier to look elsewhere for the winner.

I'm against Haikal for two reasons, the main one being that he received a terrific pace setup while winning the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) last month. Reserved 14 lengths behind a blazing :44.42 half-mile fraction, Haikal came running just as the pace collapsed in the final furlong, gaining five lengths on the exhausted leaders to win by a length. With the second half-mile elapsing in :51.21 seconds, not surprisingly assigned the Gotham a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 95 on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a race that benefited late runners. Throw in the fact that Haikal will be racing around two turns for the first time on Saturday, and I think he'll be vulnerable.

I find it harder to knock Tax, who won the Withers Stakes (gr. III) over this track and distance two months ago, but I felt that the Beyer and BRIS speed figures for that race came back a bit too high, and the next four finishers behind Tax all came back to disappoint in their subsequent starts. I suspect he'll be an underlay in the wagering for win purposes, though his proven ability to handle 1 1/8 miles could be sufficient to land him a spot in the trifecta.

Instead, I'm leaning toward the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) 1-2 finishers Tacitus and Outshine, with a preference for the latter. I have nothing against Tacitus, who broke his maiden at Aqueduct in November before returning from a four-month layoff to launch a big rally in the Tampa Bay Derby and prevail by 1 ¼ lengths. That was his first start with Lasix, his first run around two turns, and his first start as a three-year-old, so it's not surprising that he took a big step forward, especially since his Grade 1-caliber pedigree suggests that he'll improve with maturity.

But the pace fractions in the Tampa Bay Derby were on the quick side (:45.85 and 1:09.57 over a track that was playing fast), so you have to give some credit to Outshine for racing much closer to the early pace and launching a wide, sustained rally to challenge for victory. Outshine was ridden by Joel Rosario that day, but John Velazquez (who was aboard for Outshine's two victories) will be back in the saddle for the Wood Memorial, a noteworthy change since Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher have teamed up to win the Wood Memorial four times since 2010.

I don't think Outshine is a clear standout in the Wood Memorial, but if his 6-1 morning line odds hold up, I do think he'll offer the best value in the race.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like this weekend?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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