Mucciolo’s Sophomore Spotlight: Wood Memorial, Blue Grass & Santa Anita Derby Previews
Wood Memorial (G2):
Eight Kentucky Derby hopefuls will go to post in Saturday’s feature at Aqueduct. I think this is a mostly wide-open event that could go a lot of directions and will focus on a few talented up-and-comers. BATTALION RUNNER is the 2-1 morning line choice for conditioner Todd Pletcher and I will give him the nod for a trainer who has mostly dominated this prep season. $700,000 son of Unbridled’s Song is perfect from a pair of outings at Gulfstream Park this campaign, posting triple-digit BRIS Late Pace numbers each time. Gray colt has good early foot, as well, and is training swiftly and steadily. Battalion Runner has been hyped by his connections since last summer and a strong win today will make the lightly-raced sophomore a top contender at Churchill Downs – he looks to have all the tools.
MO TOWN will need to redeem himself after a poor try in his seasonal debut when a distant fifth in the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds. The Tony Dutrow charge was sharp as a juvenile, capped by a fine tally in the Remsen (G2), but to make it to Louisville the bay son of Uncle Mo will need huge improvement against a solid cast. Javier Castellano picks up the mount after John Velazquez chose to stick with Battalion Runner.
CLOUD COMPUTING shows just a pair of career races, none at two, and we don’t like his profile as a serious Kentucky Derby contender. The Chad Brown charge has a lot of class, though, and his runner-up showing in the Gotham (G3) was both a very good try and a perfect prep run for this assignment. I will not discount the chances of THE Maclean’s Music colt today, but he still has a lot of catching up to do from a seasoning standpoint.
IRISH WAR CRY suffered a first set back in the Fountain of Youth (G2) most recently for conditioner Graham Motion and is the enigma of the field. Son of Curlin surely looked the part bagging his first trio of starts, utilizing a big early foot and strong closing kick, and his best effort matches up well with most in the division. However, the chestnut stopped so readily in the lane last time that he is a hard read for me. I never take a runner from this outfit for granted, though I have trouble touting him with confidence following the recent clunker.
Blue Grass (G2):
A strong field of seven will travel nine panels on the main oval at Keeneland on Saturday, led by the unbeaten McCraken. The Ian Wilkes-trained son of Ghostzapper is my preferred three-year-old on the Derby Trail at this stage and I don’t think he has to win this race to bolster my opinion of him. Bay colt was a fine scorer of the Sam F. Davis (G3) in his 2017 debut and his push-button acceleration is what separates him from many of his fellow sophomores in my view. Kentucky-bred had a bit of a hiccup in his training in early March, but has come back with four sharp morning drills readying for this with a pair of local moves to acclimate to the Lexington oval. Brian Hernandez will stay in the silks atop the powerful late runner and will unleash him in the stretch after a ground-saving trip. I will only need to see a strong closing run to keep the colt atop my Kentucky Derby list.
I thought J BOYS ECHO might be a race short entering the Gotham, but I was surely incorrect as he dominated the inner dirt event at Aqueduct. Trained by Dale Romans, the colt was a fine maiden winner on this oval last season and has a good pedigree to prosper as distances continue to increase. $485,000 son of Mineshaft was more involved early in the Gotham which caught me by surprise a little, though that tactical speed is certainly a positive for this race and going forward. I think this colt is the real deal and will prove it in the Blue Grass.
TAPWRIT has run four big races in succession since adding blinkers and gives Pletcher a major player to add to his superb prep season. $1.2 million son of Tapit was a late-running second to McCraken in the Davis and rolled home a most convincing win in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last time in a visually impressive showing. I still have question marks as to what the son of Tapit beat most recently, but there is no doubting his ability and improving ways. As with the top pick, Tapwrit needs only a good finish to cement his status as one of the leading Derby contenders.
Dual Grade 1 hero PRACTICAL JOKE was outgunned by Gunnevara when opening 2017 in the Fountain of Youth and it was a good start to his sophomore campaign. The Chad Brown pupil obviously has class and wouldn’t be a big surprise in this field with his consistent and classy ways, though I will stand firm that the son of Into Mischief is best at middle distances.
IT’S YOUR NICKEL looks to be lengths behind the big guns for trainer Kenny McPeek, but as I stated prior to his easy win at Turfway Park last time, I have a hunch that we still have not seen the best of this son of Dialed In. Dark bay colt has a pedigree and style that might make him more of a Belmont Stakes (G1) type and he would need a huge move forward to deal with this bunch today, but the colt still intrigues me and I suggest using him in the vertical exotics at a big price in a small field.
Santa Anita Derby (G1):
A baker’s dozen of sophomores will contest the marquee race at Santa Anita and your guess is as good as mine in a field with countless question marks. Grade 2 hero ILIAD has put forth a pair of very good races this campaign and might be the one to beat for conditioner Doug O’Neill. The bay son of Ghostzapper was no match for the since-injured Mastery in the Robert Lewis (G2) but did finish a clear second in a solid two-turn debut. Kentucky-bred is still a bit too “speedy” in my opinion but has a lot of ability and class and this race will tell all of us a lot about him and his chances going forward.
I didn’t totally jump off the ROYAL MO bandwagon as of yet, though the way he stopped in the lane in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn was not especially exciting to me. The John Shirreffs gets another chance in a wide-open field and his previous efforts were too good to call for me to call him a pretender just yet. If the son of Uncle Mo could overcome the dreadful 13 post slot and finish in the top two or three, he will validate my prior affection for him.
Much like ‘Mo, AMERICAN ANTHEM went into the Rebel as a good-looking prospect but despite plenty of hype, the 8-5 favorite turned in a clunker in his second graded tilt. The Sham (G3) runner-up is still so lightly raced that I would never give up on him for Bob Baffert and his pair of morning drills since that dud have been sharp. Expensive son of Bodemeister is eligible to turn it around against this field and get his reputation back as a high-quality three-year-old.
I find it interesting to see jockey Mike Smith opt for REACH THE WORLD in this field over American Anthem. Gray son of Tapit exits a nice second in a local allowance and has trained swiftly since, including a :46 3/5 bullet most recently. Kentucky-bred is out of a Galileo mare to suggest he will thrive as he gets more ground to work with and if he passes this class test, I think Reach the World will be the type to contest one or all of the legs of the Triple Crown.
BATTLE OF MIDWAY edged the aforementioned in that allowance race, but I have never been in love with the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee. Bay son of Smart Strike is out of a real nice one and has won two of three leading up to this for a top barn but he doesn’t appear to be fast enough right now. I respect the 1:11 4/5 bullet six panels in preparation of this but will stand against the $410,000 yearling purchase today.
Grade 1 victor GORMLEY has obvious ability but his fourth-place finish in the San Felipe did little to excite me and since I was never a huge fan of his, I will let him prove to me that he can settle behind runners and win.
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