Three Derby Preps, Three Plays to Kick Off April

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

Get ready—another huge week of racing awaits! Three top-tier Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races are on the agenda, so we won't waste time with introductions. We'll just dive right in and start handicapping:

Blue Grass (G2)

I'll be the first to admit #4 Essential Quality (3-5) looks formidable as the heavy favorite in the Blue Grass. The undefeated champion two-year-old of 2020 is a two-time Grade 1 winner over the Keeneland main track, and he enters off an easy 4 1/4-length score in the Southwest (G3) at Keeneland. The Blue Grass contains virtually no speed at all on paper—literally none of the entrants have ever set the pace in a single race—so Essential Quality figures to enjoy a perfect trip stalking a slow pace, just like in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) over this track last fall.

But in terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, Essential Quality doesn't hold much of an edge over #3 Highly Motivated (3-1), who looks fast enough to set the Blue Grass pace if jockey Javier Castellano allows it. After all, Highly Motivated was an eye-catching winner of the 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland last fall, tracking fast fractions before pouncing to victory in track-record time. And while Highly Motivated was beaten in his 2021 debut, finishing third in the Gotham (G3), I believe the son of Into Mischief will take a big step forward on Saturday.

After all, Highly Motivated is conditioned by Chad Brown, who has done masterful work prepping horses like Highly Motivated to peak during the spring of their sophomore seasons. A few examples include:

  • Normandy Invasion, beaten a nose in the 2012 Remsen (G2) as a juvenile. After coming back with a slightly dull fifth-place effort as the 3-2 favorite in the 2013 Risen Star (G2), Normandy Invasion improved sharply in his second run of the season, finishing second by less than a length in the Wood Memorial (G1). Finally, Normandy Invasion ran the race of his life in the Kentucky Derby (G1), rallying prematurely to seize command in a fast-paced race before weakening slightly to finish fourth.
  • Practical Joke, whose two-year-old campaign included wins in the 2016 Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) plus a third-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). Practical Joke's sophomore debut was rather unremarkable—he was beaten 5 3/4 lengths when second in the 2017 Fountain of Youth (G2). But Practical Joke improved in the Blue Grass (G2), finishing second by less than a length, and later outran expectations (and his pedigree) to finish a game fifth in the Kentucky Derby at 27-1.
  • Good Magic, the champion two-year-old of 2017 after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). One of the greatest upsets of 2018 came when Good Magic was beaten at 7-10 in the Fountain of Youth (G2), his first start as a sophomore. But Good Magic improved significantly off that effort, winning the Blue Grass (G2) before finishing second behind Triple Crown winner Justify in the Kentucky Derby.

For these reasons, I feel inclined to take an optimistic view of Highly Motivated's defeat in the Gotham. I don't think he was cranked for a peak effort, and he also ran into significant trouble from a trip and pace perspective. After breaking a step slowly, Highly Motivated attempted to advance and secure good early position, but was forced to steady behind rivals and drop back to sixth place. Thereafter, a modest pace and quick finishing fractions made it difficult for Highly Motivated to catch up, but to his credit, he gained ground down the lane to finish just 1 3/4 lengths behind a pair of pace-tracking rivals.

There's one other stat worth mentioning, and that's the fact Brown wins at a powerful 48% rate with horses running long for the second time. If Highly Motivated improves the way I expect he will in the Blue Grass, he can give Essential Quality a run for the money at a much better price. I'm willing to bet he can spring the upset.

Santa Anita Derby (G1)

In contrast to the Blue Grass, I won't get creative with my handicapping of the Santa Anita Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won this race nine times, and he can secure a tenth victory with #7 Medina Spirit (5-2), who sandwiched runner-up efforts in the Sham (G3) and San Felipe (G2) around a gritty victory in the Robert B. Lewis (G3).

I loved the way Medina Spirit performed in the Lewis, carving out a challenging pace over a slow track before digging deep to defeat a pair of late runners (including next-out Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie) by a neck. And Medina Spirit showed this tenacity again in the San Felipe, turning back an inside challenge from #2 Dream Shake (7-2) to finish clearly second best behind runaway winner (and stablemate) Life Is Good.

Life Is Good would have been an overwhelming favorite to win the Santa Anita Derby, but an ankle chip has sent him to the sidelines. In his absence, Medina Spirit can pick up a signature victory. Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form has reported Medina Spirit underwent a minor operation following the San Felipe to correct a "slightly entrapped epiglottis," so if Medina Spirit takes a step forward in the Santa Anita Derby—as his recent workouts suggest he will—his rivals may be running for second place.

Wood Memorial (G2)

Did you know only two of the last 24 Wood Memorial winners prepped for the race at Aqueduct? Local runners have historically struggled in New York's signature Derby prep, with the majority of recent Wood Memorial winners (including the last eight in a row) shipping north from Florida.

Granted, this year's locals appear formidable in the Wood Memorial. #4 Risk Taking (5-2) is 2-for-2 racing 1 1/8 miles, most notably unleashing a big rally to win the Withers (G3) two months ago. And #8 Weyburn (9-2) and #2 Crowded Trade (4-1) were separated by a nose when finishing 1-2 in a quick renewal of the Gotham (G3).

But I have this crazy notion #7 Candy Man Rocket (12-1) can steal the show at a big price. The Bill Mott trainee was a powerful maiden winner at Gulfstream back in January, romping by 9 1/4 lengths over a deep field including next-out winners Promise Keeper and Untreated. Candy Man Rocket then proved the effort wasn't a fluke by stretching out over 1 1/16 miles to win the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.

Candy Man Rocket completely misfired in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last month, fading to finish 11th as the 8-5 favorite. Considering Sam F. Davis third-place finisher Hidden Stash was beaten just a length when second in the Tampa Bay Derby, I think it's clear the caliber of competition didn't trip up Candy Man Rocket—he just didn't run his race.

If you draw a line through this no-show effort, Candy Man Rocket fits well in the Wood Memorial field. Trainer Bill Mott won this race in 2019 with Tampa Bay Downs shipper Tacitus, and Candy Man Rocket has the tactical speed to work out a clean, forwardly placed trip in the Wood Memorial. He's far from a lock to win, but I think Candy Man Rocket will offer high enough odds to offset the risk of playing him.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Derby preps?


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!


The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the seventh straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.

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

Recent Posts

More Blogs