3 Derby Prep Picks to Kick Off April

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

Five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby (G1), the prep race action is heating up in a big way. A trio of pivotal qualifiers worth 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers will take place on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park, and Turfway Park.

Let's explore the entries and plan our picks:

Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park

Just how talented is the filly #6 Secret Oath (5-2), who looms as the morning line favorite to win the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby? There's no way to know yet, because no one has come close to beating her in three starts at Oaklawn this winter.

I loved Secret Oath's performance in the Feb. 26 Honeybee S. (G3). After settling off the pace in fifth place, Secret Oath advanced up the inside and found herself boxed in behind the leaders. She had to wait in traffic and even steady while trying to find a way through, but once an opening appeared along the inside, Secret Oath shot through and powered away to win by 7 1/2 lengths.

Secret Oath's performance was visually impressive, but it was also fast on the clock. She completed the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:44.74, nearly a second faster than #5 Un Ojo (6-1) required to win the Rebel S. (G2) later in the afternoon. And the fact Secret Oath had to wait before unleashing her winning bid suggests she might have run even faster with an unencumbered journey.

I'm excited to see what Secret Oath can accomplish in the Arkansas Derby. Brisnet Speed ratings rank Secret Oath as the fastest horse in the field, so don't be surprised if she rallies to victory.

Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park

There are many viable contenders to choose from in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, and narrowing them down is difficult. #3 Simplification (3-1) was as impressive as could be in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at Gulfstream last month, launching a sweeping outside rally to win by 3 1/2 lengths. But #7 White Abarrio (3-1) defeated Simplification by 4 1/2 lengths in the Holy Bull S. (G3) two months ago, albeit on a day when Simplification endured a troubled trip. And what about recent Tampa Bay Derby (G2) hero #2 Classic Causeway (7-2), who finished 2 3/4 lengths clear of White Abarrio when second in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) at Churchill Downs last fall?

You could choose any of the proven graded stakes winners and feel confident in your chances. But I'm going to take an admittedly risky shot outside the box and favor #6 Charge It (7-2) instead.

I loved Charge It's maiden victory racing one mile at Gulfstream on Feb. 12. The son of Tapit was quick into stride from the outside post, clearing the field through fractions of :24.24, :47.47, and 1:11.45. Considering the run-up distance for one-mile races at Gulfstream is very short, the pace was arguably a bit quicker than it appears at first glance.

In any case, Charge It was full of run down the homestretch. Under a hand ride from jockey Luis Saez, Charge It cranked out the penultimate furlong in :11.80 and the final furlong in :12.30 to win by 8 1/2 lengths, completing the race in a snappy 1:35.55.

From a pedigree perspective, Charge It is bred to be a star. His dam is I'll Take Charge, a daughter of three-time Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady and a half-sister to such notable names as Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy, champion three-year-old male Will Take Charge, Beholder Mile S. (G1) winner As Time Goes By, and Charming. The latter just happens to be the dam of champion two-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi and three-time Grade 1 winner Omaha Beach.

Suffice to say, Charge It is bred to excel racing around two turns, so he's eligible to run even better while stretching out over 1 1/8 miles in the Florida Derby. The fact trainer Todd Pletcher has won five of the last eight editions of the Florida Derby adds to the appeal.

Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park

I can't argue with anyone who wants to support #7 Tiz the Bomb (2-1) in this 1 1/8-mile Tapeta test. What's not to like? Tiz the Bomb enjoyed a strong juvenile campaign, winning two stakes before placing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), and he showed an affinity for Turfway when battling to a neck triumph in the John Battaglia Memorial S. one month ago.

The only problem is, the Jeff Ruby has drawn a large and competitive field, and Tiz the Bomb's 2-1 morning line odds aren't especially enticing. He's surely the horse to beat, but I see appeal in playing one of the many other talented runners offering superior prices.

Ultimately, I'm keen to support #5 Tawny Port (5-1). Conditioned by two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, Tawny Port opened his career with a pair of stretch-running victories at Turfway. After smashing a one-mile maiden special weight by 6 1/2 lengths, Tawny Port nabbed a $50,000 allowance optional claimer over the same distance by a neck.

Tawny Port tried to translate his Tapeta success to dirt in the Feb. 19 Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds, and he didn't run badly by any means, passing a few horses late to finish fifth. The only runners to beat Tawny Port were next-out Louisiana Derby (G2) 1-3 finishers Epicenter and Pioneer of Medina, Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) winner Smile Happy, and Remsen S. (G2) runner-up Zandon.

The caliber of competition is arguably easier in the Jeff Ruby, and returning to Turfway should trigger a strong showing from Tawny Port. At 6-1, I'm willing to bet he can outkick Tiz the Bomb down the homestretch.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in this week's Kentucky Derby prep races?


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! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs