The fact is we are getting down to the wire in the Kentucky Derby prep season and it’s ‘make it or break it’ time for every 3-year-old with hopes of dawning the red roses at Churchill Downs in one month. The $1,000,000 – Grade 2: Toyota Blue Grass Stakes drew a smaller field than many of the preps we have seen in the past. It’s possible that it has to do with many handicappers top Kentucky Derby contender McCRAKEN. He is currently a slight favorite to win the Derby over Florida Derby winner ALWAYS DREAMING. At odds of 5-1, McCRAKEN has to prove himself again at Keeneland this coming Saturday. If he wins in the fashion he has done in his past couple starts, he will most certainly be one of the top betting choices on May 6th at Churchill Downs. He is going to have to contend with a group that might not set the fastest of fractions up front. It hasn’t seemed to effect him in his past two starts, but this is the Blue Grass and he has to deal with Todd Pletcher’s TAPWRIT who was soundly defeated by McCRAKEN in the Sam F. Davis, but TAPWRIT has qualified for the Derby by winning the Tampa Bay Derby. McCRAKEN despite the high praise and large support at the betting windows, he has not qualified for the Derby to this point. He currently only has 10 Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points and will need to finish 3rd or better to comfortably be in good position heading into the Derby draw in a few weeks.
Here is a breakdown of the entire field and how I think the race will shape up… Early surprise, I don’t like McCraken to win this race. The Derby may be a different if he gets in, but I do not think that he this one shapes out for him as far as the pace situation is concerned. Let’s break it down horse by horse….
GRADE 2 – Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland, 1-1/8 mile (9 furlongs)
#1 – IT’S YOUR NICKEL (James Graham/Kenny McPeek 17% 12 starts)
Showed some moderate speed in debut at Belmont as a 2-year-old, then flattened out and faded a bit in the stretch. Second start six weeks later on turf, ran sharply on Saratoga turf and won closing well at 31-1 with Dylan Davis up. That finished his Summer and 2-year-old season all together. He shipped into New Orleans for the Winter and worked well over that surface. He broke well in his allowance start, grabbed the lead turning for home, dueled, bumped with rival, and was beaten a neck. That was until his rival was Dq’d. Not only had he won two in a row at that point, he follow it up with a dazzling come from behind win in the John Batagglia Memoral Stakes.
OUTLOOK: His pace figures are not quite as fast as some of the others in here, but his running style will always give him a chance to win if the pace up front is quick. The thing is he ran into a slow pace in the John Battaglia (:25.6,:48.6) and that wasn’t fast at all. He ended up blowing right by all of them and opening up to win by 6-1/2. In other words this one could be better than he looks on paper. He got a solid pace number last time but that deserves to be better than what they gave him. I am not sure if he has a realistic chance to win this race with the lack of pace up front, but the way he ran in the last with a lack of pace has me put him IN THE MIX.
#2 – McCRAKEN (Brian Hernandez Jr./Ian Wilkes 20% 109 Starts)
The aforementioned horse that stands near the top of most Derby watch lists has proven himself every step of the way thus far. His most recent start was the Sam F. Davis, he was as impressive as you can be. He closed from the rear of the field, swung 4wide at the quarter pole, and drove clear of pretty much every horse but TAPWRIT who failed to get going quickly enough to catch him in the end. He has improved pace wise in every start, but according to my figures he hasn’t been closing as fast as everybody thinks he has. It could just look impressive based on the field he has faced, but its a fact that the Kentucky Jockey Club was a key race, there is no doubt about that. It’s a tough call.
OUTLOOK: It’s decision time with this horse and with the small field that drew in for this race, and there are less horses to go to the lead. I am going to go against the grain in this race and pick against the undefeated beast, in fact I think there is a chance he misses the board, can you guess which horses I think it will be?
#3 – J BOYS ECHO (Robby Albarado/Dale Romans 15% 72 starts)
Won his first race in his second start at Keeneland where he returns for this race. 3-year-old by Mineshaft is bred to win at this distance and he has done very well at 8-1/2 furlongs and looked like he would do well going longer. He had an interesting trip in the Delta Downs Jackpot, he went from 4th to 7th to 4th so it wasn’t hard to see why he was 7-1 in the Withers, he ran okay in that race off of a layoff but the big jump in the Gotham. It was great improvement and Dale Romans is pushing all the right buttons with this one prior to the Derby. It’s a bit interesting that he left New York for Kentucky this early. He could have ran in the Wood but instead we see him in the Blue Grass. It could be that Romans is based in Kentucky and will have his top crew at Keeneland or it could be they are trying to prove more right now.
OUTLOOK: This one has the ability to be closer to the pace and could be dangerous in this spot if he is one of the only ones tracking within a close proximity. He is a dangerous contender, he has a very fast last pace number and if he runs back to his Gotham performance, if the information I have is accurate, HE BELONGS IN THE PICTURE
#4 – TAPWRIT (Jose L. Ortiz/Todd Pletcher 29% 45 starts)
Well I have written and gotten into TAPWRIT with a lot of you over this Derby prep season and it’s getting to the point where we need to make a clear decision on this horse. Where does he rank among the Pletcher armada? Is he the top horse? He surely has proven that he is one worth paying very close attention to and we have to decide if he deserves being on our tickets in a month. He can rate off the pace. He has shown a very quick turn of foot. We need to evaluate how he compares with others outside of the group we saw down at Tampa, and we will get to answer a few of those questions this Saturday, but the big questions will come when we find out the Derby 20 of 2017.
OUTLOOK: It’s hard to go against this horse. I have been on his side all Spring long and I have loved what I have seen from him when it comes time to get the legs moving in the final two furlongs. The question lies with how early they can make a move and try to avoid the onslaught of good closers in this race. It’s a very talented group. And depending on how hard Wild Shot and Irap go, this one should benefit. I LIKE HIS CHANCES
#5 – WILD SHOT (Corey Lanerie/George Arnold II 6% 17 starts)
Showed great speed in his second start maiden breaking win at Churchill Downs in September. He broke his maiden on my birthday, does that mean I should bet him? Possibly. In the Breeders’ Futurity, he showed great early speed, but could not sustain the effort in his first attempt at two turns. He battled gamely to hold on for third. In the G2 – Kentucky Jockey Club he tracked behind the pace, led briefly and then was caught late unable to hold off his rival.
The 3-year-old season are where the major question marks come with WILD SHOT. The Sam F. Davis was another race where he led, but then failed to sustain a winning bid getting passed by rivals McCraken, Tapwrit, and State of Honor. They took a different approach in the Tampa Bay Derby and came from well off the pace. Robby took him 3wide on the far turn and closed mildly on the outside to get up for 3rd.
OUTLOOK: It’s make it or break it time for Wild Shot. I do like the pedigree on this horse and I also think that the lack of pace in the race lends it to Wild Shot returning to his front end running style which should benefit him. He will be alone on the lead unless Irap decides to go. I can’t see Tapwrit pushing through for a piece of the pace, so it’s on Lanerie. If he can get him to settle with a couple lengths to spare heading for home, a change of leads and a nice finishing kick could get it done. I think he deserves MAJOR LONG SHOT CONSIDERATION.
#6 – IRAP (Julien Leparoux/Doug O’neil)
I don’t remember when Julien was in Cali if O’Neil ever used him as a rider, but I don’t think he did. I am not sure why the new connections, but Mario Gutierrez could not get this one in the winners circle. He only tried three times in the MSW level, the rest were graded stakes and the Mine That Bird Derby. Even so, this one has put up some good numbers and is in a spot where he should be ready to pop his best effort.
OUTLOOK: Irap is a very interesting long shot option again because of the lack of speed in the race. He has not put up nearly the consistent numbers that WILD SHOT has so it’s hard to think that he could withstand a speed battle if one ensues. I am more inclined with Julien up that they decide to take back and track from the outside. I see it as WILD SHOT on the front end and then TAPWRIT and IRAP following close by.
#7 – PRACTICAL JOKE (Joel Rosario/Chad Brown 13% 15 starts)
Before this one ran his first race as a 2-year-old I had heard he was the real deal. Then he was bet to early favoritism as I expected in his debut and looked impressive after having to overcome some bumping at the start and going 4wide on the turn. He has shown some very good closing pace figures in the G1 Hopeful Stakes.
OUTLOOK: If you like closers in the race than PRACTICAL JOKE makes some serious sense, but then you are forced to debate where he falls among McCRAKEN and TAPWRIT. It’s very logical to assume that McCRAKEN is the horse to beat if the pace breaks down up front, but the pace figures say that in fact PRACTICAL JOKE is the horse to beat in this race if the pace breaks down up front and a deep closer wins. I am more inclined to think TAPWRIT gets the trip, but I do like PRACTICAL JOKE. He deserves MAJOR CONSIDERATION.
MY FINISHING ORDER:
#3 – J BOYS ECHO – Should get a perfect stalking trip and likely will get the jump on the big closers. He will have to contend with TAPWRIT in the end.
#4 – TAPWRIT – The reason why he is on top. One word: Pletcher (One Liner, Malagacy, Always Dreaming, Patch, Master Plan and on and on and on)
#7 – PRACTICAL JOKE – Best proven closer
#2 – McCRAKEN – I need him to prove it one more time. Prove he is 100% after the injury.
#1 – IT’S YOUR NICKEL – I think he just runs in for a piece of this in the end. It could be 3rd-5th
#5 – WILD SHOT – Speed and fade
#6 – IRAP – Maiden for a reason and I think he either goes gate to wire and wins it and shocks the world or finishes dead last. Dead last is more likely.