Handicapping a Trio of Dirt Derbys

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

The biggest race taking place in North America this week is the $750,000 Belmont Derby (G1) for three-year-old racings 1 1/4 miles on turf. But there are also three other Derbys on the weekend agenda, all slated to take place on dirt.

I don't have any strong opinions in the Belmont Derby, but I'm confident in my selections for the Indiana Derby (G3), Iowa Derby, and Los Alamitos Derby. Let's give these dirt Derbys some attention and handicap all three races:

Indiana Derby (G3) at Horseshoe Indianapolis

Nine horses are set to race 1 1/16 miles in the Indiana Derby, but one looms as a possible standout. Morning line favorite #5 Verifying (8-5) appears to have found the perfect spot to secure his first stakes win.

Verifying has long shown flashes of talent against quality competition. He won his debut at Saratoga last summer and followed up with a second-place finish in the Champagne (G1). But he's been even sharper in recent starts, sandwiching close runner-up finishes in the Blue Grass (G1) and Matt Winn (G3) around a 16th-place effort in the Kentucky Derby (G1).

I'll draw a line through Verifying's Derby misfire since he got burned up setting a destructive pace. His Blue Grass effort was rock-solid, as he lost by only a neck to Tampa Bay Derby (G3) winner and future Belmont (G1) third-place finisher Tapit Trice while pulling 5 3/4 lengths clear of Champagne winner and subsequent Preakness (G1) runner-up Blazing Sevens.

Verifying ran similarly well in the Matt Winn, leading in midstretch before fighting on to finish half a length behind Disarm, the talented Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up and Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher. Verifying's reward was a career-best 103 Brisnet Speed rating, topping the 102 he posted in the Blue Grass.

Verifying does his best work when tracking the pace, and since the Indiana Derby field includes a tried-and-true pacesetter in the form of Hawthorne Derby winner #3 Act a Fool (6-1), Verifying figures to receive his ideal trip. He'll be a short price no doubt, but Verifying looks tough to beat in the Indiana Derby and is a viable single for bettors playing multi-race wagers.

Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows

No fewer than 14 horses have entered the 1 1/16-mile Iowa Derby, setting the stage for an action-packed race. Working out a clean trip is going to be important in this large field, which is packed with horses of every running style.

There are many viable contenders, some at excellent prices, but I have to favor #6 Bo Cruz (9-2). The gray colt showed lots of promise during the winter at Fair Grounds, wiring a one-mile and 70-yard maiden special weight by 12 1/4 lengths before employing identical tactics to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer by three lengths.

These flashy victories yielded improving Brisnet Speed ratings of 91 and 97, and Bo Cruz stepped forward again when jumping up in class for the 1 1/8-mile Matt Winn S. (G3) at Ellis Park. After carving out the pace over a sloppy track, Bo Cruz weakened in the final furlong to finish third behind Disarm and Verifying, earning a 98 Brisnet Speed rating.

None of the other Iowa Derby entrants have posted a Brisnet Speed rating higher than 96, so Bo Cruz is the field's fastest horse on paper. His pacesetting speed should ensure that he works out a clean trip, and dropping into an ungraded stakes might be all he needs to bounce back with a winning run.

Los Alamitos Derby at Los Alamitos

The Los Alamitos Derby boasts an impressive roster of winners. Since taking on its current configuration in 2014, the 1 1/8-mile race has been won by champions Shared Belief, Accelerate, West Coast, and Game Winner.

The expected favorite for the 2023 edition is #3 Skinner, a stretch-running colt who finished third in the San Felipe S. (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. In the latter race, Skinner was only beaten half a length despite racing much wider than the ground-saving winner.

But Skinner missed a scheduled start in the Kentucky Derby due to an elevated temperature, and he subsequently scratched from the June 4 Affirmed S. after failing to train satisfactorily. Skinner has bounced back with sharp recent workouts, but now he's entering the Los Alamitos Derby off an unexpectedly long layoff, and he's meeting a field containing little in the way of pace on paper.

That's why I'm going to oppose Skinner with #2 Reincarnate, a Bob Baffert trainee who brings strong tactical speed to the table. Last time out, Reincarnate pressed a destructive pace in the Kentucky Derby before fading to finish 13th, the highest finishing position of the three pacesetters.

Both of Reincarnate's victories have come in front-running fashion. He wired a one-mile maiden special weight at Del Mar last fall, then led essentially all the way through fast fractions to win Santa Anita's Sham S. (G3) over next-out Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner Newgate and future Preakness S. (G1) winner National Treasure.

The lack of pace in the Los Alamitos Derby field should allow Reincarnate to secure the early lead and run one of his best races. The last six editions of the Los Alamitos Derby (and seven of the last eight) have been won by Baffert, and Reincarnate enters off a pair of fast six-furlong workouts, so the stage is set for victory under red-hot jockey Juan Hernandez. It's worth noting Hernandez rode Reincarnate to victory in the Sham and is reuniting with the gray colt for the first time since then.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the three dirt Derbys?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contest 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.

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