Horses of interest on Kentucky Derby Day
Yesterday’s “horses of interest” would have been more accurately labeled “horses to toss,” but we’ll persevere and try again in hopes of better luck on Kentucky Derby Day.
Saturday’s six graded stakes that build up to the “Run for the Roses” have attracted contentious fields and thereby make for handicapping conundrums. Factor in another day of rain just to ratchet up the degree of difficulty.
6TH Race, the Humana Distaff (G1)
#7 Carina Mia (2-1) is two-for-two over the track, both in graded stakes – the Golden Rod (G2) in the slop as a juvenile and the 2016 Eight Belles (G2) at this seven-furlong trip. Each was an utterly dominant display. The Bill Mott comebacker gets five pounds from champion Finest City, who’s in fine form but venturing outside California for the first time. Paulassilverlining is the other obvious chance off her Madison (G1) win, and she sports a 6-3-1-1 record on an off track, but likewise spots Carina Mia as the 123-pound co-highweight.
To probe for possible value, #3 Mines and Magic (15-1) is three-for-three at Churchill, including the Dogwood over track and trip last September. And she comes off a respectable fourth in the Madison.
7TH Race, the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2)
#4 Believe in Bertie (6-1) scorched the Stall-Wilson turf at Fair Grounds this winter, setting two course records in the midst of a four-race winning spree. The Klein homebred shapes up as the controlling speed here for trainer Brad Cox, who won two graded stakes on the Oaks undercard. If she translates her New Orleans form to Churchill – and rain-softened ground is an unknown variable for her – Believe in Bertie could be gone before Roca Rojo gets involved. Miss Temple City warrants respect as the class of the field, but there is a question if she’ll be at her peak in this seasonal reappearance. Trainer Graham Motion told Racing Post that she’d “had a little setback over the winter when she got loose one day…So Saturday is sort of plan B, but she's had a couple of good workouts and is close enough to being ready to run.” As a firm-turf lover, Miss Temple City may find the conditions a bit soggy. She’s far too good to leave out, while leaving some room for vulnerability on top.
For a bigger price, #5 Mississippi Delta (10-1) is worth considering. The Mark Casse mare has finished second to Celestine in the past two editions of the Honey Fox (G2), most recently besting Linda (admittedly with a recency edge). She also handled a yielding course in the Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint.
8TH Race, the Pat Day Mile (G3)
I’ve talked myself into #9 Excitations (10-1), mainly because his only sprint loss came at the hands of Girvin, and partly because he might sit the best trip. While it’s certainly possible that the mudlark Uncontested could get loose, there is a superabundance of speed on tap. Excitations figures to draft just behind the leaders in the second flight and steal a march on the closers. He’s also a $335,000 son of Into Mischief, who keeps coming up with classy one-turn specialists.
The other potential value play I can’t get away from is #2 Bitumen (10-1), a smashing debut winner here last summer. The Eddie Kenneally pupil looked bound for big things after he followed up in the Sanford (G3) at Saratoga, but he lost his way. A warm-up third in a Keeneland allowance may have him sitting on a much better performance, and he adds blinkers. The beautifully bred son of Mineshaft is out of a half-sister to Quality Road (sire of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks [G1] heroine Abel Tasman). Speaking of breeding, Chad Brown’s You’re to Blame is out of a half-sister to Gio Ponti, and his third in the Bay Shore (G3) suggested he’s looking for a mile. I’ve liked No Dozing all along, so it would be par for the course if he jumps up now – just not entirely sure if this is his optimal trip.
9TH Race, the American Turf (G2)
Even if #4 Oscar Performance (7-2) weren’t adding Lasix, I’d forgive him for his lackluster return in the Transylvania (G3). Last summer, he didn’t do much in his Saratoga debut, then ran off the screen by 10 lengths in his second outing. I wouldn’t be bold enough to suggest a repeat of that, but suffice to say we’ll see something more like his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) form. The Kitten’s Joy colt previously hacked up on yielding ground in the Pilgrim (G3) at Belmont, so rain-softened going here may not affect him.
This is another deep race with no shortage of options, though, including #10 Good Samaritan (5-1), last seen finishing a rip-roaring third from post 11 in the Breeders’ Cup, and #9 Made You Look (6-1), famous for outworking stablemate Battalion Runner on the dirt last week (and helping remove him from Derby consideration).
10TH Race, the Churchill Downs S. (G2)
After a strong second on debut for Mott, #8 El Kabeir (6-1) may be on the verge of regaining the limelight he once had in his late juvenile/early three-year-old season. It’s a speculative shot in a field featuring Awesome Slew and Denman’s Call in career-best form, and Tom’s Ready resuming for Dallas Stewart. But El Kabeir, a son of Scat Daddy, looked pretty smart once, and it would be great to see him rediscover that latent ability. His ancient resume shows a Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) win at Churchill as well as the Jerome (G3) and Gotham (G3) on off tracks at Aqueduct.
If you’ve become a fan of Whitmore at Oaklawn, it’s logical to use #4 Apprehender (30-1), who was best of the rest in the Count Fleet (G3), in some capacity. The eight-year-old veteran has won or placed in six of eight career starts on off tracks, and new trainer Chris Richard has a 22 percent strike rate in the “first start with trainer” category.
11TH Race, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1)
With his millionaire half-brothers all excelling as they aged, #7 World Approval (6-1) has shaped similarly, putting his fine sophomore and four-year-old campaigns in an even better light. Now five, the Mark Casse charge could be poised for a banner year. He was only beaten a neck by course specialist Divisidero in the 2016 edition, and World Approval’s likely progression, combined with his effectiveness on a course with some give to it, hint he could reverse the form here.
This is another contest with plenty of likeable contenders that force tough decisions. Hall of Famer Richard Mandella has gotten #6 Bal a Bali (6-1) back to the best form he’s been in for a long time. The former Brazilian Horse of the Year shouldn’t have any ground worries, since he coped with heavy going at home. The fact he’s here, rather than staying home for the Shoemaker Mile (G1), may be significant. It’s likewise significant that he keeps Castellano aboard after they clicked so well in the Kilroe Mile (G1). The consistent #8 Beach Patrol (5-1) promises to be involved in the finish, especially with a likely forward trip with Florent Geroux. The upwardly mobile #12 Ballagh Rocks (10-1) has upset potential, if he doesn’t leave himself too much to do in the conditions.
12TH Race, the Kentucky Derby (G1)
Whenever you see – or think you see – something special in a horse, it’s a virtually indelible attraction. That sums up my rationale for #15 McCraken (5-1). Since last fall, there’s just been a certain indefinable, intangible, quality about him. Then there are the facts: his love for Churchill, his sweeping moves from off the pace, his record-setting Sam F. Davis (G3), his minor ankle strain, his lone loss in the Blue Grass (G2), and his consistently strong works in the build-up. I am happy to keep the faith.
I also expect #17 Irish War Cry (6-1) to put up a bold show, and respect #14 Classic Empire (4-1) for turning his season around on a dime.
The one concern is that the Derby trail has been so topsy-turvy, that I wonder if logic would prevail in Derby 143. Every time we appeared to gain a measure of clarity, an upset would ensue, and we’d be plunged right back into the murkiness.
But I’ve got to stick with the ones I like. As far as value plays go, that could take up another 1400 words. Bottom line is since I think so much of McCraken, #16 Tapwrit (20-1) strikes me as overpriced.