2 Derby Prep Picks to Start 2023

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

The Road to the Kentucky Derby resumes this weekend with two early-season prep races: Saturday's $150,000 Jerome S. at Aqueduct and Sunday's $100,000 Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita.

Let's dive in and handicap both races:

Jerome S. at Aqueduct

Eight horses have assembled to contest the one-mile Jerome S., the second of five Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers taking place at Aqueduct between December and April.

The first leg of the series was the Dec. 3 Remsen S. (G2) contested over 1 1/8 miles, and while the victorious Dubyuhnell has opted to skip the Jerome, the Remsen form is nevertheless represented by game runner-up #6 Arctic Arrogance.

Any way you slice it, Arctic Arrogance is a formidable Jerome favorite. He ran his heart out in the Remsen, setting the pace over a sloppy track before battling on to finish half a length away from victory. The Remsen was a fast race, and Arctic Arrogance pulled 11 1/4 lengths clear of third-place finisher Tuskegee Airmen, a previously undefeated stakes winner.

Arctic Arrogance's Remsen run wasn't a fluke. Two starts back, he led virtually all the way to win the one-mile Sleepy Hollow S. at Aqueduct by 4 1/2 lengths. Cutting back to one mile (and dropping down in class from a Grade 2) should make Arctic Arrogance tough to catch in the Jerome.

The only problem, and it might not be a huge problem, is the fact the Jerome is absolutely stuffed with speed on paper.  #2 Circling the Drain, #3 Valenzan Day, #5 Andiamo a Firenze, and #8 Narciso Dali have all done their best work while setting or pressing the pace, so Arctic Arrogance risks getting caught up in a duel for early supremacy.

Perhaps this can tilt the scales in favor of #1 Neural Network, who showed tractability in his debut sprinting seven furlongs against New York-bred rivals at Aqueduct. Neural Network raced wide and settled as many as 2 1/2 lengths off the pace before finishing fast down the homestretch (final furlong in :12.60) to trounce his pursuers by five lengths. This effort was flattered when third-place finisher Drake's Passage returned to win his next start over the same track and class level.

Neural Network is trained by Chad Brown, who has been known to debut very good horses at Aqueduct. Preakness S. (G1) winners Cloud Computing and Early Voting both got started at Aqueduct, as did Brown's Kentucky Derby (G1) starters Shagaf and My Man Sam. With the exception of the Wood Memorial, Brown has won each of Aqueduct's Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers at least once, so it's common for Brown to saddle live contenders in these winter prep races.

I'm optimistic Neural Network has a lot of upside, and he figures to work out a favorable trip in this speed-laden field. He's my pick to spring a surprise against Arctic Arrogance.

Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Sham eight times, including the last three editions. Odds are Baffert will pick up a ninth victory on Sunday, considering he trains four of the six entrants in this one-mile race.

The favorite will almost assuredly be Baffert's #2 National Treasure, and for obvious reasons. National Treasure ran well in a couple of starts on the Road to the Kentucky Derby last fall, finishing second in the American Pharoah (G1) and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). Only two horses have defeated National Treasure: Cave Rock and Forte, both multi-Grade 1 winners and likely Eclipse Award finalists.

But I'm going to think a little outside the box and back #3 Speed Boat Beach instead. The Florida-bred colt has compiled a decent record on turf, sandwiching victories in the five-furlong Speakeasy S. and the one-mile Cecil B. DeMille S. (G3) around a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1).

But as a son of Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Bayern out of a mare by Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, Speed Boat Beach is bred to shine on dirt. Even better, he broke his maiden in resounding fashion on dirt, wiring a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar in the track-record time of 1:01.86. Finishing second that day was Hejazi, who came back to run third (3 1/2 lengths behind National Treasure) in the American Pharoah.

Returning to dirt may trigger a career-best performance from Speed Boat Beach, so I believe he can upset his more heralded stablemate National Treasure.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in this week's Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers?


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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.

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