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
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.
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
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
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
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.