Derby Prep Picks and a Goal for 2021

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

If you're eager to watch newly-turned 3-year-olds vie for victory in Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races, you won't have to wait long. New Year's Day brings the $150,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, while Saturday is highlighted by the $100,000 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita.

My goal for 2021, as ambitious as it might be, is to pick 50% winners on Unlocking Winners. I don't really expect to reach this lofty target, but it never hurts to aim high, right? I picked 43% winners back in 2016, so maybe 50% isn't out of reach.

With my 50% goal in mind, I'll tackle this week's two Derby preps and aim to pick at least one of the two winners. Hopefully both!

Jerome Stakes

Just five horses have turned out to contest the historic Jerome Stakes, which reigned as a Grade 1 event from 1984 through 1994. The race dates back to 1866, and the roster of winners includes such renowned runners as Coaltown (1948), Hill Prince (1950), Tom Fool (1952), Bold Ruler (1957), and Kelso (1960), plus Kentucky Derby winners Aristides (1875), Carry Back (1961), Chateaugay (1963), and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000).

The morning line favorite to prevail in the 2021 Jerome is #2 Swill (7-5), a Brad Cox trainee shipping in from Kentucky. After finishing second and fifth in his first two starts on the New York circuit, Swill displayed improved tactical speed to wire a 7-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs, scoring by three lengths over next-out winner Santa Cruiser. Subsequently, Swill ran an even race to finish fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill, his first start around two turns.

Swill picks up hot jockey Kendrick Carmouche for the Jerome and will be a popular play while dropping in class and distance. But is he a lock to win? I'm not so sure. Swill is a son of Munnings out of a mare by Into Mischief, which is a pedigree geared sharply toward speed; even a one-turn mile might be pushing the limits of Swill's stamina.

It's also interesting to note Cox doesn't usually run his most formidable horses in listed stakes races at Aqueduct. According to statistics from DRF Formulator, Cox has gone 0-for-19 in such events over the last five years, though that record does include seven runner-up finishes.

Swill is certainly capable of winning the Jerome, but I'm more inclined to shoot for a mild upset with #4 Eagle Orb (9-5). A son of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Eagle Orb won his debut at Saratoga, but faltered when second in the Funny Cide Stakes and fifth in the Bertram F. Bongard Stakes, likely prompting some to designate him as an early-maturing, one-hit wonder.

But Eagle Orb turned things around when adding blinkers for the 1-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes at Belmont Park. After carving out solid fractions of :23.63, :47.17, and 1:11.86, Eagle Orb settled for second place behind the stretch-running Brooklyn Strong, who subsequently emerged as a Kentucky Derby contender with a victory in the Remsen (G2). Sleepy Hollow fourth-place finisher #3 Hold the Salsa (4-1) further flattered the form of the race by returning to win the New York Stallion Series Stakes.

Eagle Orb himself used the Sleepy Hollow as a springboard to victory in the 6-furlong Notebook Stakes at Aqueduct, where he rallied smartly from behind a slow pace to score by 2 3/4 lengths. He'll stretch back out in distance on Friday while retaining the blinkers that triggered his career renaissance, so I'm optimistic Eagle Orb will reach the winner's circle again at a slightly better price than Swill.

Sham (G3)

I wish I could come up with a creative play for the Sham, but I'm afraid morning line favorite #5 Life Is Good (2-5) is simply too formidable. Unless he runs off uncontrollably through blazing early fractions, it's hard to imagine anyone defeating the son of hot sire Into Mischief.

Need a reason to play Life Is Good in the Sham? I've got eight of them:

  • Life Is Good sold for $525,000 as a yearling and races for the high-profile partnership of China Horse Club (CHC Inc.) and WinStar Farm.
  • Life Is Good is conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Sham a record six times.
  • Life Is Good absolutely obliterated his debut sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar, carving out fractions of :21.80 and :44.84 before pulling clear under the lightest of hand rides to win by 9 1/2 lengths.
  • Life Is Good's winning time of 1:15.50 translated to impressive speed figures of 91 (Beyer) and 100 (Brisnet), easily the fastest numbers in the Sham field.
  • Wipe the Slate, who finished second in Life Is Good's debut, returned to win his next start by 3 1/4 lengths.
  • Life Is Good has been training up a storm in preparation for the Sham, most recently clocking 6 furlongs in a bullet 1:10 3/5 at Del Mar.
  • Life Is Good retains the services of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
  • Life Is Good has drawn post five, setting the stage for a clean and unencumbered trip.

There won't be much value in betting Life Is Good to win, but if we can crush the exotics, there's still a chance to make some money. For second place, I'm keen to support #3 Parnelli (5-2), a John Shirreffs trainee who has already held his own against Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up Hot Rod Charlie and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Spielberg.

Sold for $500,000 as a yearling, Parnelli recently broke his maiden in convincing fashion at Del Mar, tracking the pace before pouncing to victory by 5 3/4 lengths. The son of Quality Road won for fun under a vigorous hand ride and can take another step forward in the Sham.

The second Baffert-trained debut winner #1 Medina Spirit (6-1) is a logical choice to round out the top three while stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs to a mile. If you want to play the superfecta, I might steer you toward Parnelli's beautifully-bred stablemate #2 Waspirant (15-1), a son of Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Union Rags out of Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (G1) winner Life Is Sweet.

But #4 Uncle Boogie (12-1) seems just as likely as Waspirant to finish fourth, so playing a straight trifecta (Life Is Good over Parnelli over Medina Spirit) might be the better way to go.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the first Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races of 2021?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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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