Kellie Reilly picks the Wood, Blue Grass & Santa Anita Derby for Kentucky Derby Dream Bet

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April 9th, 2016

With three Kentucky Derby (G1) preps on the line, Saturday is the pivotal day for the $25,000 Kentucky Derby Dream Bet. If you were fortunate enough to get off to a fast start in the first two races of the Final Round last Saturday, now is the time to consolidate your gains. If you’re playing catch-up, this is the day, because only two races are on tap in next Saturday’s finale.

I’m among those who hope to keep the momentum going from last week. While many also had Nyquist in the Florida Derby (G1), it was a lot tougher to come up with the 23-1 Oscar Nominated in the Spiral (G3).

Thankfully, I landed on Oscar Nominated. It’s always a morale boost when you laboriously try to connect the dots, see a potential play that fits, and actually have it verify on the track. The only problem is its relative rarity.

For that reason, I’m convinced that my opinions this Saturday will be uniformly bad. Follow at our own risk!

As described in last week’s Florida Derby and Spiral picks, the Final Round races entail $15 win/place bets, and you’re seeking to maximize your total winnings. That plays a role in whether you think it’s worth betting a favorite, or if you find a more attractive price play who can reap mutuel rewards.

I think there are legitimate value plays in the first two preps. The third, however, shapes up as pretty formful on paper.

The Wood Memorial (G1) could turn into the Chad Brown show, if highly regarded Shagaf lives up to 2-1 favoritism – or if his suddenly forgotten stablemate Flexibility (#5, 8-1) bounces back. Shagaf is entitled to keep progressing, and the well-bred son of Bernardini should thrive as the distances increase. Yet it’s largely because of his big reputation that he’s one-fourth of Flexibility’s price. The bare record so far doesn’t necessarily back that up.

In this “what have you done for me lately” game, Flexibility is being penalized for running the only disappointing race of his life in the Withers (G3) last time out. But he’d run four straight good races prior to that – a debut maiden score despite evident greenness over a 6 1/2-furlong trip that looked short for him, followed by two bang-up seconds to Mohaymen in the Nashua (G2) and Remsen (G2) (at this track and trip), and a breakout romp in the Jerome (G3). No wonder he tops the field in BRIS Prime Power.

Brown believes that the Withers was a bridge too far after that sequence. In any event, the Withers didn’t set up well for Flexibility at all. As the 122-pound highweight, he was rank trying to lead early before being eased back, the extremely slow pace turned it into a near merry-go-round, and he was barging with Adventist for much of the stretch. If there’s a positive in that messy fourth, it’s that Flexibility never quit, but kept persevering.

With Matt King Coal and Outwork in the picture, the Wood should unfold a lot more like the Jerome, where Flexibility sat behind the speed and rolled. Deliberately freshened in advance of the Wood, Flexibility projects a good trip from post 5. He loses Irad Ortiz Jr. to Shagaf, but reunites with Manny Franco, who’s clicked with him in the past.

The Blue Grass (G1) stands to offer an even hotter pace, which makes Zulu’s addition of blinkers all the more quizzical. As the winner of his first two, and an honorable runner-up to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth (G2), Zulu hasn’t struck me as the type who’d need (or benefit from) headgear. He’s been forwardly placed in each of his races, and with blinkers, he could be too much into the bit early in a race that has proper speed signed on already.

If the speedballs do their thing, the biggest beneficiaries could be the Dale Romans duo of Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine (#3, 12-1). At this point in their trajectories, I prefer Cherry Wine.

Perhaps I’m overreacting to “Brody’s” flop at Tampa, and guilty of the same “what have you done for me lately” thinking I criticized on behalf of Flexibility. But since my ill-advised support for him in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), it’s dawned on me how dodgy that Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) form has been for everyone not named Nyquist. Watch Brody’s Cause, the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) winner, make me look foolish back at the Keeneland track he obviously favors.

Cherry Wine took a lot longer than Brody’s Cause to get the hang of things, but at least he’s been going in the right direction of late – and he’s never run a bad race going two turns on dirt. From the first crop of Romans’ turf star (and 2010 Kentucky Derby third) Paddy O’Prado, Cherry Wine showed a nifty set of gears to demolish an entry-level allowance at Gulfstream. That would have booked his ticket to the Fountain of Youth, if he hadn’t gotten sick. He regrouped for the Rebel (G2), where he drew a horrible post (13) and closed from last for fourth. Cherry Wine will get a more favorable pace scenario here, and he’s already had more luck by getting post 3.

Romans was mulling shipping to the Wood if he didn’t draw well here. Determined to get Cherry Wine his Derby points, Romans was satisfied that this is the right spot. For whatever it’s worth, Corey Lanerie (who had been aboard Brody’s Cause) sticks with Cherry Wine. And in light of Lanerie’s mortifying ride on Mo Tom in the Louisiana Derby (G2), doesn’t a comeback here look like just the sort of redemption the racing fates like?

The Santa Anita Derby (G1) looms as a virtual summit between Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit (#4, 8-5). Exaggerator remains the plausible spoiler – if he can get a more patient ride, and if the mud-lover gets an off track – but that BC Juvenile form may be a millstone here as well.

If you think that this race shapes up as a replay of the San Felipe (G2), then Danzing Candy is eligible to hold sway on the front end again. I infamously went with the other new shooter that day, Smokey Image, who ran too bad to be true (watch him come back with a vengeance now that I’m steering clear). But on Saturday, Danzing Candy faces a more challenging scenario: other wicked speed, over the added ground of 1 1/8 miles, while coming back off a career-best.

Mor Spirit didn’t have a realistic chance of trying to catch a loose-on-the-lead Danzing Candy in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. Nor did he look pretty trying to gain traction under a ride on the far turn. But once Hall of Famer Gary Stevens angled him to the outside in midstretch, he made good-looking headway for second. The extra yardage can only help the son of Eskendereya, who has yet to finish worse than second in his life, and whose BRIS Speed ratings have steadily increased. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has him in tune right now, as indicated by his :47, breezing, half-mile on Monday. Only one horse worked a faster half-mile at Santa Anita that morning, and her name is Songbird.