Pletcher Poised for Big Day in Derby Preps

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 Kentucky Derby.

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 ground-saving trip.

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 subsequent attempts.

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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs