By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Following a two-week break,
the Road to the Kentucky Derby resumes in a big way this weekend. A trio of
important qualifiers will take place around the globe, including the two races—the
UAE Derby (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2)—worth 100-40-20-10 points to the top
Let's take a quick look at
each race and plan out our picks:
UAE Derby (G2) at Meydan Racecourse
At first glance, #11 Pinehurst (3-1) seems like a solid
play in this 1,900-meter event. The Bob Baffert trainee dominated the
seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity (G1) last summer and recently stretched his
speed over 1,600 meters to win the Saudi Derby (G3) against a large field.
But Pinehurst was all-out to
win the Saudi Derby, hanging on by just half a length over the hard-charging #13 Sekifu. Stretching out another 300
meters in distance is a question mark for Pinehurst, who has done his best work
in sprints and one-turn races.
I believe Sekifu can turn
the tables in the UAE Derby. The Japanese raider was returning from a layoff in
the Saudi Derby, but nevertheless produced a big rally down the homestretch to
just miss catching Pinehurst.
With this sharpener under
his belt, Sekifu should be primed for an even stronger effort in the UAE Derby.
He's nominated to the Triple Crown and is campaigning as though the Kentucky
Derby is the goal, so all signs suggest Sekifu can jump forward in his second
run of the season.
Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds
#6 Epicenter is
a head away from being undefeated in three starts at Fair Grounds. The Steve
Asmussen trainee has been improving throughout the winter, and his lone defeat
came when setting a fast pace in the Lecomte S. (G3). In the latter race,
Epicenter turned back a rail challenge from race favorite and Breeders' Cup
Juvenile (G1) runner-up Pappacap, only to be caught in the final strides by
stretch-running #3 Call Me Midnight.
Epicenter bounced back from
that defeat with a powerful performance in the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star S. (G2) last
month. Racing to the front through more controlled fractions than he set in the
Lecomte, Epicenter bounced away down the homestretch to win eased up by 2 3/4
lengths over Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) winner Smile Happy and Remsen S. (G2)
This effort stamps Epicenter
as a formidable favorite in the Louisiana Derby. The race doesn't contain a ton
of speed on paper, so Epicenter should enjoy another relaxed trip on the front
end. He finished fast in the Risen Star, indicating the 1 3/16-mile distance of
the Louisiana Derby won't be an issue. And he's been training up a storm for
his biggest race to date, clocking a pair of bullet-five furlong workouts at
Fair Grounds this month.
When the dust settles, I
expect to see Epicenter in the winner's circle. Runner-up honors can go to #9 Rattle N Roll, who ran sixth in the
Fountain of Youth S. (G2) three weeks ago. The Kenny McPeek trainee was returning
from a five-month layoff and probably wasn't cranked for a peak performance. He
won the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland by 4 1/4 lengths last fall and could
certainly bounce back to that level of form in his second run of the season. A
bullet five-furlong workout in :58 4/5 last Saturday further supports this
Sunland Derby (G3) at Sunland Park
Back for the first time
since 2019, the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby (G3) has drawn a large handful of
ungraded stakes winners, but only one graded stakes winner. The class standout
is #4 Slow Down Andy, and a typical
performance should land the son of Nyquist in the winner's circle.
Slow Down Andy showed plenty
of promise as a juvenile. After finishing second in the seven-furlong Golden
State Juvenile S. behind the Grade 1-placed Finneus, Slow Down Andy stretched
out over 1 1/16 miles and posted an upset victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity
(G2), beating next-out Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner Messier by one length.
Slow Down Andy misfired when
returning from a two-month layoff in the Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds,
finishing sixth behind Epicenter, Smile Happy, Zandon, and others. But Slow
Down Andy has come back to post three sharp workouts (including a bullet six
furlongs from the Santa Anita starting gate in 1:12 2/5), and he'll face an
easier field while adding blinkers in the Sunland Derby. I'll be surprised if
Slow Down Andy comes up short.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in this action-packed weekend of worldwide graded stakes?
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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.