Nysos, Locked Look Strong in Derby Qualifiers

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

A quartet of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers are taking place across the country this weekend, including two that have produced a bevy of Kentucky Derby (G1) winners through the years: the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park and the $300,000 San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita.

Let's take a look at both races:

Fountain of Youth (G2)

The 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth has drawn two accomplished Road to the Kentucky Derby alumni: #5 Dornoch and #8 Locked. Both bring strong credentials to the table.

Dornoch took his time coming to hand at age two, but ended 2023 with back-to-back victories. First he wired a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Keeneland, drawing off to dominate by 6 1/2 lengths. Then he led essentially all the way to win Aqueduct's 1 1/8-mile Remsen (G2) by a nose over next-out Risen Star (G2) winner Sierra Leone, with future Jerome S. winner Drum Roll Please another 4 3/4 lengths back in third place.

But it's important to note Dornoch benefited from a strongly speed-favoring track in the Remsen. The track profile compromised late runners like Sierra Leone and Drum Roll Please, so the Remsen outcome might have been different over a fair track. I'm inclined to view Dornoch as vulnerable in his first run of 2024.

Locked could potentially be vulnerable as well, since he missed a scheduled start in last month's Sam F. Davis (G3) due to a temperature. The Fountain of Youth is Plan B for Locked, but I'm optimistic he has the talent to overcome that obstacle.

In four starts last season, Locked showed immense promise against strong competition. He debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga, and despite a troubled start he rallied gamely from far behind to finish third by 3 1/2 lengths against future Ed Brown S. winner Just Steel, who has finished second in the Smarty Jones S. and Southwest (G3) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Locked's second start came in a one-mile maiden special weight at Saratoga, in which he pressed a decent pace before finishing remarkably fast (final two furlongs in :11.99 and :11.95) to crush the above-mentioned Drum Roll Please by 7 1/4 lengths. Then came the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Futurity (G1) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby at Keeneland, in which Locked overcame a wide trip to run down the previously undefeated two-time stakes winner The Wine Steward by half a length. Just Steel, Iroquois (G3) winner West Saratoga, and recent Rebel (G2) third-place finisher Northern Flame were among the other beaten runners in the Breeders' Futurity.

Locked wrapped up 2024 with a good third-place finish in a fast edition of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita. Breaking from post four, Locked appeared to struggle with kickback while racing behind rivals and didn't find his best stride until steered outside in the homestretch. At that point, Locked leveled off and gained a lot of ground to finish third, beaten only half a length for second place by Grade 1 winner and next-out San Vicente (G2) hero Muth.

Drawing an outside post in the Fountain of Youth should allow Locked to stay in the clear and avoid kickback, setting the stage for victory. He might have to work for it, but I believe Locked's finishing kick will carry him across the finish line in first place on Saturday.

#1 Speak Easy is going to be popular in the betting after debuting with victory in a fast seven-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park. The son of Constitution looks like a promising up-and-comer for trainer Todd Pletcher, but he's stepping up in class and distance and risks a tricky trip while breaking from the rail. He enjoyed an outside pressing trip in his debut but will almost certainly find himself racing inside rivals in the Fountain of Youth, perhaps while setting a pressured pace. Such a scenario would likely lend an advantage to Locked.

Beyond the favorites, #9 Dancing Groom looks like a live longshot capable of outrunning expectations. A very slow pace compromised his chances when finishing fifth in Gulfstream's Holy Bull (G3) to kick off 2024, but Dancing Groom showed flashes of talent last year, most notably finishing third in the one-mile Champagne (G1) at Aqueduct. If the Fountain of Youth pace is quicker than in the Holy Bull, I can see a path to Dancing Groom cracking the top three or four in his second run of the season.

San Felipe (G2)

There are no certainties in horse racing, but #3 Nysos looks like an almost certain winner of the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. The undefeated colt has won all three of his starts by a minimum of 7 1/2 lengths, which is the margin by which he crushed last month's one-mile Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita. With a trio of triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings under his belt, Nysos looks ready to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record-extending ninth victory in the San Felipe.

Three of the remaining four San Felipe entrants were defeated by Nysos in the Robert B. Lewis and appear unlikely to turn the tables. The lone newcomer to the field is #5 Imagination, an up-and-coming Baffert trainee who finished second by a neck in a fast $100,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile at Santa Anita. The son of Into Mischief has kept good company in all four of his starts and has every chance to snatch runner-up honors in his stakes debut.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in this week's 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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