By Gene Kershner
This year’s Kentucky Derby prep races have caused more than one horseplayer to scratch his head trying to figure out who will be the next colt to step up as the front runner. Last weekend’s upset of Uncle Mo caused the entire Vegas futures odds board to go into a tailspin. With the way things are going we could have upwards of 17 or 18 horses going off at double-digit odds come Derby day.
So what puzzle do we have to figure out this weekend? We head to Hot Springs and Lexington for the two major prep races and they couldn’t be any more different. At Oaklawn Park, the $1 million Arkansas Derby features one of the top contenders in The Factor, who will face 12 other colts for a chance to reach the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
At Keeneland Race Course, 12 hopefuls will try the polytrack in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. As usual, this race attracted several horses that race primarily on turf, to attempt to score precious graded earnings on the faux dirt. One of Post Time’s Derby hopefuls, Santiva, returns as the morning line favorite to Keeneland, where he placed second in the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity last October.
Let’s take a look at both races and see if we can make some sense out of the past performances.
3-The Factor (7-5 morning line favorite) stretches out another sixteenth of a mile after his dominating victory in the Rebel Stakes last month. Bob Baffert had him working a very fast 6 furlongs on April 10, and the horse appears to be in peak shape for this tilt. He should be out on the lead early, and expect Todd Pletcher’s 9-Dance City to be pressing him early.
There are some very strong horses that will be trying to chase down The Factor, including 1-Nehro, who lost by a neck to Pants on Fire in the Louisiana Derby, and looks to have some stamina and some decent works under his belt. 8-Alternation was fractious in the gate in the Rebel, and actually knocked a tooth out of 5-Sway Away’s mouth, and ended up as a gate scratch. He steps up in class here and is one of the big question marks in the race.
The gate issues obviously had a negative effect on Sway Away and he should be rolling late, and if the pace is really hot up front, it could set up perfectly for him to pick up the pieces late.
2-Elite Alex, who has had nothing but trouble in every race since his maiden win, puts blinkers on for trainer Tim Ritchey. Post Time is willing to give this horse one more chance, only to see what he can do with a good trip. The talent is there, but he seems to not be able to get out of his own way on the race track.
1 – The Factor 2 – Nehro 3- Sway Away 4 – Elite Alex
Blue Grass Stakes
Post Time focused on three key races for a number of the entrants in the Blue Grass. The Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park on the turf featured 4-Joe’s Blazing Aaron, who wired the field at 13-1 and held off a late charging 12-Queen’splatekitten, the Ontario-bred who we may see later this summer in the Canadian Triple Crown series and 1-Newdad who finished third.
The next race was also at Gulfstream, the $100K Hallandale Beach, where West Point Thoroughbreds’ 2-King Congie was disqualified for veering out in the stretch after running an impressive race (and costing Post Time a fat Pick 4 in doing so). 5-Brilliant Speed finished third (moved up to second on the DQ) in the race only a length behind.
Lastly, 3-Santiva and 8-Willcox Inn finished second and third, respectively, in the aforementioned Breeders’ Futurity last October at Keeneland at a mile and 1/16, both closing from way back in the back. With the short stretch at Keeneland, neither horse can afford to give up as much ground on Saturday as they did in October.
The other horse that is interesting in here is 7-Twinspired, who ran third on the polytrack at Turfway Park last month in the Grade 3 Vinery Spiral Stakes to Derby bound horses Animal Kingdom and Decisive Moment, losing by six lengths. Turfway shippers have historically performed well on the Keeneland synthetics, so we’ll keep an eye on Twinspired as post time arrives.
Post Time will be siding with Joes Blazing Aaron to set the pace and not be passed, with Queen’splatekitten and Santiva closing to round out the trifecta. I would use King Congie and Twinspired underneath in exotics in the third and fourth slots.
1 – Joes Blazing Aaron 2 – Queen’splatekitten 3 – Santiva 4 – King Congie
We’ll be heading to Finger Lakes for opening day and will provide a trip report in Monday’s blog along with a recap of the two big stakes races.
Good luck and let’s go cash some tickets!
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer, handicapper and member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.