By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The first week of March is a
giant one on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Four U.S. prep races are on the
agenda, along with a European Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier in Ireland.
Two of the most important events
are the San Felipe S. (G2) at Santa Anita and the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at
Gulfstream Park. Each has produced 13 Kentucky Derby (G1) winners through the
years, ranking them among the most important and productive Derby preps.
Let's take a quick look at
San Felipe S. (G2)
Contested over 1 1/16 miles,
the 2023 San Felipe has drawn a deep and competitive field. There are many viable
win contenders, and splitting them is bound to be difficult.
Ultimately, I have to side
with #2 National Treasure. The
well-bred son of Quality Road has knocked heads with tough competition in all
four of his starts and just needs a little luck to secure his first stakes win.
National Treasure debuted in
a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar last summer and led all the
way to score by 1 1/2 lengths. Among his beaten rivals was fellow San Felipe
entrant #3 Practical Move, future
winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2).
Off this impressive maiden
victory, National Treasure jumped up in class and distance for the American Pharoah
(G1) and finished second behind Del Mar Futurity (G1) winner Cave Rock.
National Treasure ran well in defeat, pulling 3 1/2 lengths clear of the rest
of the field, which included San Felipe entrants #7 Hejazi and #10 Skinner.
National Treasure wrapped up
his two-year-old season with a solid third-place effort in the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile (G1), beaten only by Cave Rock and three-time Grade 1 winner Forte
while finishing ahead of Champagne (G1) winner Blazing Sevens and Iroquois (G3)
hero Curly Jack.
Two months ago, National
Treasure kicked off his sophomore campaign with a deceptively strong effort in
the one-mile Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita. National Treasure spent much of the
race boxed in behind rivals and got out too late to catch up; I believe he would
have won with an unencumbered trip. But even with his trouble, National
Treasure was beaten only a length by Reincarnate (subsequently third in the
Grade 2 Rebel S.) and Newgate (next-out winner of the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis
After three straight
defeats, National Treasure isn't one of the most hyped horses on the Road to
the Kentucky Derby. But his consistently strong performances against tough
competition stamp him as the horse to beat in the San Felipe.
For the minor awards, I
would like to highlight Skinner as
a runner worth supporting. Third in the Del Mar Futurity and sixth in the
American Pharoah as a juvenile, Skinner recently returned from a four-month
layoff to trounce a one-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita by 3 1/4
lengths. The son of Curlin reached the finish line in a quick 1:36.78 and is
bred to improve with maturity for trainer John Shirreffs, so I'm optimistic
Skinner has lots of upside.
Fountain of Youth S. (G2)
If I like National Treasure
to win the San Felipe based off the elite competition he's faced, then I pretty
much have to side with #4 Forte to
win the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth.
While heavy favorites don't
have the best record of success in recent editions of the Fountain of Youth,
Forte might be talented enough to shrug off that trend and prevail in his sophomore
debut. The Todd Pletcher trainee boasts a near-perfect 4-for-5 record
highlighted by consecutive victories in the Hopeful (G1), Breeders' Futurity
(G1), and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) to wrap up his two-year-old season.
Along the way, Forte has beaten
top-notch competition. Cave Rock, National Treasure, Blazing Sevens, Curly
Jack, Instant Coffee, Red Route One... the list is impressive. And Forte's
victories have been achieved in eye-catching style. In both the Breeders'
Futurity and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he unleashed big rallies around the far
turn before sustaining them down the homestretch to earn strong Beyer and
Brisnet speed figures. His ability to accelerate around turns may come in handy
in the Fountain of Youth, which features an abbreviated run down the homestretch.
I'll admit there's some risk
in betting an accomplished juvenile at a short price in his first start off a
layoff. But I believe Forte is a special colt who can handle the challenge and
take home top honors.
Beyond Forte, I view #9 Cyclone Mischief (12-1) as a live
longshot worth supporting. True, he completely misfired as the favorite in
Gulfstream Holy Bull S. (G3) last month, finishing seventh by a wide margin
behind the victorious #8 Rocket Can (8-1).
But two starts back, Cyclone Mischief trounced Rocket Can by 5 3/4 lengths in a
one-mile allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream. A return to that level of
form can put Cyclone Mischief in the hunt for a top-two finish in the Fountain
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in this week's Kentucky Derby preps?
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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.