Heading into April weekends we love seeing stories with headlines such as “Preps to Clear Derby Picture” because: a) the features always focus on the obvious, over-worn angles, and b) the results often prove them to be incredibly wrong.
It played out in spades April 8 at Keeneland, Aqueduct, and Santa Anita. We anticipate more of the same next weekend with the last of the big-point races, Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby (G1). What makes this year’s group of 3-year-olds so entertaining is that they have been consistently inconsistent.
The biggest bait-and-switch of the day came in Lexington where the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) offered seven figures and a local springboard to the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). Any handicapper worth his or her salt hosting a top 10 or Derby Dozen listing had three of the race’s major players—McCraken, J Boys Echo, and Tapwrit—among their top contenders. They did finish in that order—albeit third, fourth, and fifth.
In the first time this century that the Blue Grass had been lowered to a grade 2, Keeneland officials brought together the best prep field of the season…and a maiden won. No ordinary maiden, Reddam Racing’s Irap is well-bred and had been racing against the best of his division but was a non-winner nonetheless.
At Aqueduct, Irish War Cry rebounded off a seventh-place drubbing as the 11-10 favorite in Gulfstream’s Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) to win the Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2).
The Santa Anita Derby (G1) has been the go-to event for the Kentucky Derby winner of late, but the race’s usual short field was expanded to 13 following the undoing of top runners such as Mastery, who was injured after winning the March 11 San Felipe Stakes (G2). Jerry and Ann Moss’ Gormley, a well-beaten fourth at 2-1 in the San Felipe, bounced back to win the Santa Anita Derby at 6-1, but even with a quick opening half-mile, a final eighth in :13 3/5 is hardly the stuff to get excited about Derby week at Churchill Downs.
Perhaps Irap’s previous start, a well-beaten fourth behind Hence in the Sunland Derby (G3), was better than it looked. It wouldn’t be the first time a horse emerged from New Mexico’s dusty Sunland Park to land the roses in Louisville.
Perhaps Classic Empire, clearly the best of his generation just a few short months ago following the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), still has legs that can carry him to Louisville after a start in Arkansas.
Perhaps Brad Grady’s “steady” Girvin, winner of the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), can go back-to-back-to-back.
One thing is for certain: Regardless of what happens between now and about 7 p.m. May 6, we know the Derby will deliver a terrific story. It always does. Once unwound, it will be a tale of a horse that had many hands and helpers along the way, a few hiccups, a twist of fate, a brush with disaster, a few stars aligning, and a shot at destiny. We can’t wait.
We also can’t wait to see the May 5 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1). Much different than the Derby division, the fillies have proved honest with two major players headed toward a showdown. Bob Cummings and Annette Bacola’s homebred Farrell ruled the roost in New Orleans over the winter and Al and Arlene London’s homebred Miss Sky Warrior took the Big A’s Gazelle Stakes (G2) by 13 lengths. Add to that Paradise Woods’ crushing win in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1). Should the trio come with their best games at Churchill Downs, the race figures to be one even those of us among the credentialed media would pay to see.