By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Saturday is shaping up to be
an epic day of racing across the country. No fewer than 15 graded stakes are
slated to take place at Aqueduct, Keeneland, and Santa Anita, including a trio
of important Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers.
Let's examine the three
Derby preps and plan out our picks:
Blue Grass S. (G1) at Keeneland
The most competitive Derby
prep this week is surely the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. A dozen runners have been
entered, and you can make a case for several to visit the winner's circle.
Certainly there's appeal to
supporting horses like #10 Smile Happy (9-5)
and #4 Zandon (5-2), who ran second
and third in a strong renewal of the Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds to kick
off 2022. They're both eligible for improvement in their second runs of the
season, and both have knocked heads with tough competition on the Road to the
But Florida shippers have a
strong record of success in the Blue Grass, so I'm willing to take a shot
against the favorites with trainer Todd Pletcher's #6 Emmanuel (9-2). After wiring maiden and allowances races at Gulfstream
and Tampa Bay Downs, Emmanuel endured a tough trip in the Grade 2 Fountain of
Youth. Shuffled back early and caught extremely wide around both turns,
Emmanuel gamely tried to rally around the final bend, but flattened out down
the homestretch to finish fourth by 5 1/4 lengths. According to data from
Trakus, Emmanuel ran 4 3/4 lengths farther than the winner, so it's not a
stretch to conclude Emmanuel could have challenged for victory with a
Assuming Emmanuel breaks
cleanly in the Blue Grass, he can return to forwardly placed tactics, save a
lot more ground on the turns, and spring a Blue Grass surprise.
Santa Anita Derby (G1) at Santa Anita
On paper, the Santa Anita
Derby looms as a two-horse matchup between #3
Forbidden Kingdom (6-5) and #4
Messier (1-1). Both enter off blowout Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races
wins at Santa Anita. Forbidden Kingdom unleashed a blinding display of early
speed to wire the San Felipe S. (G2) by 5 3/4 lengths, while Messier cruised
home under a hand ride to dominate the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) by 15 lengths.
Forbidden Kingdom's terrific
speed is a serious weapon, but he was decelerating meaningfully down the
homestretch of the San Felipe, and it's possible he'll ultimately prove best as
a sprinter or miler. It's not unheard of for such runners to exceed
expectations in their first start around two turns, only to falter in
Even if Forbidden Kingdom sees
out the Santa Anita Derby's 1 1/8-mile distance just fine, Messier may prove capable
of running him down. The stoutly bred son of Empire Maker has already beaten
Forbidden Kingdom once before, rallying to edge the speedster by 3 1/2 lengths
in Del Mar's seven-furlong Bob Hope S. (G3) last fall.
I'll side with Messier to
win the Santa Anita Derby, and for second place, I'll strongly consider #5 Win the Day (20-1). After starting
his career with a couple of losing efforts on turf, Win the Day unleashed a big
rally to win a one-mile maiden special weight over the Santa Anita main track
by 5 1/2 lengths. Win the Day still has upside for two-time Santa Anita
Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill and is capable of picking up the pieces if
Forbidden Kingdom falters late.
Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct
There are many viable
contenders to choose from in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial. #3 Early Voting (5-2) was an impressive gate-to-wire winner of the
Withers S. (G3) over this track and distance two months ago, while #5 Morello (8-5) brought his career record
to a perfect 3-for-3 with a pace-pressing 4 1/2-length score in the one-mile
Gotham S. (G3) at Aqueduct last month.
But I'll try to beat Early
Voting and Morello with Todd Pletcher's #1
Mo Donegal (5-2). The son of Uncle Mo unleashed a strong performance in the
1 1/8-mile Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct last fall, closing ground into pedestrian
fractions to defeat Zandon by a nose. The slow early/fast late race shape was
so extreme that Mo Donegal posted a 117 Brisnet Late Pace rating.
Mo Donegal kicked off 2022
with a deceptively strong third-place finish in the Holy Bull S. (G3) at
Gulfstream Park. The son of Uncle Mo overcame a slow start to rally and finish
third behind next-out Florida Derby (G1) winner White Abarrio and subsequent
Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner Simplification.
Mo Donegal was entered to
race in the Fountain of Youth, but came down with a minor illness and withdrew.
Missing a scheduled race is rarely ideal, but Mo Donegal has bounced back with
a couple of bullet five-furlong workouts at Palm Beach Downs, suggesting he'll
be fit and ready for a strong showing in the Wood Memorial. The track and
distance should suit Mo Donegal, and Pletcher has won the Wood Memorial six
times since 2010, so I'm expecting a big run from Mo Donegal.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in this week's Road to the 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.