3 Picks for 3 Kentucky Derby Preps

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

The Road to the Kentucky Derby reaches its climax on Saturday with the running of the $1 million Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland, the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) at Santa Anita, and the $750,000 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct.

After analyzing the entries, I'm keen to support one favorite, one second choice, and one longshot. Here's how I see the races unfolding:

Blue Grass (G1)

#1 Tapit Trice (5-2) is a logical favorite to win the Blue Grass (G1). The Todd Pletcher trainee unleashed a giant homestretch rally in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) last month, going from 4 1/4 lengths behind at the eighth pole to two lengths in front at the finish line.

But Tapit Trice was slow to get going in the Tampa Bay Derby and seemed to be struggling around the far turn. I wound if he'll be vulnerable to a wide and/or traffic-filled trip while breaking from the rail against a large field in the Blue Grass.

I'm going to try to beat Tapit Trice with #3 Verifying (3-1), a beautifully bred colt I've liked since his winning debut at Saratoga last summer. Subsequently runner-up in the Champagne (G1) and sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Verifying kicked off 2023 on a high note, smashing next-out winners Gun Pilot and Two Eagles River by 5 1/4 lengths in a one-mile allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn.

Unfortunately, Verifying failed to build on his momentum in the Rebel (G2), finishing fourth over a sloppy track. But Verifying ran into meaningful traffic around the far turn and down the homestretch, so I'm willing to forgive his less-than-stellar showing.

There isn't much speed in the Blue Grass field, so Verifying—who has set or tracked the pace in four of his five starts—figures to receive a picture-perfect trip close to the lead. He enters off quick workouts for high-percentage trainer Brad Cox and looks ready to outrun expectations.

Santa Anita Derby (G1)

#5 Practical Move (8-5) has improved by leaps and bounds since the end of last year, to the point where he ranks among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. In December, he skimmed the rail to win the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) by 3 1/4 lengths. Then he returned from a 2 1/2-month break to win the San Felipe (G2) with identical tactics by 2 1/2 lengths.

Practical Move's San Felipe triumph yielded a flashy 100 Beyer speed figure, stamping the son of Practical Joke as the horse to beat in the Santa Anita Derby. He enters off fast workouts and has two or three speed horses drawn to his inside, so if jockey Ramon Vazquez wants to seek another ground-saving trip, that option should be open.

Practical Move has already defeated #3 Geaux Rocket Ride (3-1) and #7 Skinner (4-1) in the San Felipe. And while Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) third-place finisher #6 National Treasure (3-1) is a talented foe, he missed the San Felipe with a hoof issue and hasn't run in three months. Unless Japanese raider #8 Mandarin Hero (8-1) fires a big shot in his U.S. debut, Practical Move should have the Santa Anita Derby field measured, and I expect him to prevail on Saturday.

Wood Memorial (G2)

There are many viable win contenders in the Wood Memorial. #13 Hit Show (5-2) was tons the best in the Withers (G3) over this track and distance two months ago, drawing off down the homestretch to win by 5 1/2 lengths. #5 Slip Mahoney (6-1) finished a good second in the one-mile Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct last month and has the pedigree to thrive in his two-turn debut. And the Todd Pletcher trainee #1 Dreamlike (7-2) figures to draw support after finishing second in a fast maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park.

But I prefer the chances of Dreamlike's stablemate #11 Classic Catch (10-1). The son of champion juvenile Classic Empire is 2-for-2 racing 1 1/8 miles, breaking his maiden at Aqueduct last fall by 2 1/2 lengths over #9 Crupi (12-1) before adding a $75,000 allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream Park to his tally.

Classic Catch's Gulfstream victory came by two lengths over Mr. Ripple, who exceeded expectations when fourth in the Florida Derby (G1) last week. Pletcher has won seven of the last 12 editions of the Wood Memorial, and Florida shippers have won 10 of the last 12 renewals, so there are a lot of positives in Classic Catch's favor.

The one major knock against Classic Catch is his modest Beyer and Brisnet speed figures. But it's worth noting all three of his route races have featured slow paces unconducive to recording fast final times. If the Wood Memorial unfolds at a quicker tempo, I believe Classic Catch can more forward and snatch victory at double-digit odds.

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


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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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