Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps on Saturday

Profile Picture: Ted Black

Ted Black

April 9th, 2016

Immediately after Nyquist drew clear from Mohaymen to capture the Grade I Florida Derby last Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, many pundits and horse players stamped the unbeaten Doug O'Neill trainee as the obvious favorite for the Kentucky Derby next month. But serious racegoers know that there are three major Derby preps at three different ovals, all of which are supported by preps for the Kentucky Oaks.

Aqueduct Race Track will offer a trio of graded stakes for three-year-olds on Saturday, although much of the focus will be on the Grade I, $1 million Wood Memorial, New York's final stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby. The track will also present the Grade III, $300,000 Gazelle for three-year-old fillies pointing to the Oaks and the Grade III, $300,000 Bay Shore, a seven-furlong sprint for three-year-old colts and geldings perhaps relegated to one-turn sprints in the future.

Headlining the Wood Memorial is Shagaf, an undefeated colt trained by Chad Brown. But unlike his unbeaten contemporary Nyquist and previously unbeaten Mohaymen, Shagaf is hardly getting a lot of attention nationally. His win in the Grade III Gotham Stakes over the inner track was methodical, but hardly impressive. He has yet to face any serious competition and his rivals in the Wood have hardly turned any heads this spring.

Nevertheless, those not willing to concede the Wood to Shagaf have a handful of legitimate upset options. Adventist was third in both the Gotham and the Withers after winning at first asking. Flexibility won the Jerome then was fourth as the odds-on choice in the Withers and has a right to rebound here. Matt King Coal has won his last two Balmore ships in from Santa Anita off a maiden score and Outwork heads north after a solid second in the Tampa Bay Derby.

The Gazelle two races earlier also appears somewhat secondary on the grand scale. Claire de Lune has won her last two and appears to be improving with each start. Lewis Bay won the Grade II Demoiselle over the track last fall then was second, beaten seven lengths by the undefeated Cathryn Sophia in the Davonna Dale at Gulfstream Park. Mo d'Armour has won her last two, including the Busher Stakes over the inner track. Dreams To Reality was second in the Busher at 14-1. Flora Dora won the Busanda then was fourth in the Busher. Behrnik's Bank won her first two starts at Penn National by a combined 31 lengths in freakish fashion, but settled for second in a New York Stallion Stakes.

At Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky, that track will offer a pair of serious preps, one each for the Oaks and the Derby. Midway through the card the track will host the Grade I, $400,000 Ashland Stakes for three-year-old fillies and the compact field came up tough.

Cathryn Sophia has won all four of her career starts in emphatic style and arrives riding a three-race win streak that includes a pair of Grade II scores at Gulfstream Park. This Maryland-bred filly has been nothing less than sensational in all four of her starts to date and will likely go postward as the odds-on favorite despite facing a pair of graded stakes winners making their seasonal debuts.

Rachel's Valentina won the Grade I Spinaway last summer at Saratoga and then finished second to Songbird in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies. She makes her seasonal debut off a series of solid workouts, but gets a serious test in her sophomore bow. Carina Mia won the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs in her freshman finale and also makes her three-year-old debut in the Ashland. Both Rachel's Valentina and Carina Mia will have to be very good to beat Cathryn Sophia on Saturday off the bench, but they are both likely using the race as a prep for the Kentucky Oaks.

Then two races later in the Grade I, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes, Zulu will likely go postward as the favorite for Pletcher. Second to Mohaymen in his most recent outing, Zulu might have received high praise for that performance until last weekend when Mohaymen was thumped by Nyquist in the Florida Derby. Zulu has yet to win a stakes and his credentials appear less imposing with every glance.

Broady's Cause won the Grade I Breeders Futurity and then finished third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile over this track but opened his sophomore campaign with a listless, seventh-place effort as the 2-1 choice in the Tampa Bay Derby. Neverhtheless, Broady's Cause has every right to improve off that effort and returns to a track where he has already performed superbly. Laoban - who is still a maiden - was second to Shagaf in the Gotham, while My Man Sam was second to the improving Matt King Coal at Aqueduct last out.

Then further west at Santa Anita Race Track, the Southern California track's Oaks and Derby preps both appears legit. In fact, some would argue that the best horse of either gender is competing in the Oaks.

Songbird has won all six of her lifetime starts and banked roughly $1.75 million for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and many believe this three-year-old filly, who will again be the odds-on choice in the Santa Anita Oaks, is better than the boys. Songbird has won all six of her starts handily, including a pair of Graded stakes tallies this year. She draws the rail for the Oaks and will be in ideal position throughout even if jockey Mike Smith does not send her to the front immediately out of the gate.

But looking to upend Songbird are two intriguing fillies. Forever Darling showed little in her previous outing but she returns to a strip where she has won both of her starts. The same can be said of Bellamentary, who arrives off consecutive victories in maiden special weight and allowance events. Like Forever Darling, Bellamentary gets a serious acid test in a Grade I against the best member of her gender and generation, but upsets are part of the game.

Then in the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Derby, the track's last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, a trio of talented sophomores will vie for favoritism and perhaps for the winner's share. But look for all three to find a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Danzing Candy has won three straight since an eighth-place finish in his career debut at Del Mar - sound familiar - and is cleatly peaking at the right time for trainer Cliff Sise. Mor Spirit had his modest win streak snapped by Danzing Candy in the San Felipe last out, but this Baffert trainee has every right to turn the tables. Exaggerator has been second once and third once in two graded stakes outings this year for trainer Keith Desormeaux, but he exited the Breeders Cup Juvenile last fall to capture the Delta Jackpot.

At each of the three tracks tomorrow, the results of the three Derby and Oaks preps have to be viewed on the grand scale. On big days, most main track surfaces are often considerably faster and more speed favoring than normal, so study all of the results prior to the preps before making any genuine conclusions about the results of those preps. Also keep in mind that horses that fail at short prices in the preps for any reason often get overlooked in the Derby and the Oaks and can reward generous prices to those willing to give the beaten choice a second chance.