Racing Roundtable: Who to buy and sell for the Kentucky Derby
With the fields for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1) beginning to solidify after the final major weekend of preps, TwinSpires.com editors James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson chime in this week with their early thoughts on both races.
Whose Kentucky Derby stock are you buying after Saturday's preps?
James Scully: Zandon added himself to the top tier of contenders, overcoming traffic issues with an eye-catching rally to win the Blue Grass (G1) going away by open lengths. Wood Memorial (G2) winner Mo Donegal and Santa Anita Derby (G1) victor Taiba also merit serious respect after impressive wins, but Mo Donegal must avoid a regression following a massive performance, and Taiba's inexperience (two career starts) is a potential hindrance.
Kellie Reilly: Zandon rewrote his profile in the Blue Grass by blowing past Smile Happy (who admittedly had a wide trip). He displayed poise and responsiveness to new rider Flavien Prat, maneuverability through traffic, and a rapid gear change to unleash his long, raking stride. What's especially appealing is that Zandon is no one-dimensional closer who picked up the pieces. The Blue Grass pace was moderate, and the rest of the superfecta had all been on or near the lead. Zandon was a stalker as a juvenile, so he's not beholden to any fixed running style. All of these qualities will serve him well in the Derby, where he'll have an experience edge over Santa Anita Derby star Taiba and perhaps a tactical finesse edge over Wood Memorial hero Mo Donegal.
Vance Hanson: They say you should dance with the date that brought you. Mo Donegal has been sitting atop my Kentucky Derby Top 10 list for awhile now, and I've endorsed him multiple times this year in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Off his Wood Memorial victory, it will be hard for me to jump ship come Derby Day. And there would be no reason to from a price perspective, given rivals like Epicenter, Zandon, and perhaps one or two others figure to attract more support. He will need some help in the form of pace, no question, and others with more tactical foot are more likely in theory to get better trips. But for right now, he remains my top pick.
Whose Kentucky Derby stock are you selling after Saturday's preps?
JS: Selling the stock of Arkansas Derby (G1) and Florida Derby (G1) runners. Those races were much slower than the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial. And from a win perspective, I have concerns surrounding Saturday's runner-ups — Early Voting, Messier, and Smile Happy. Early Voting and Messier figure to be involved in a projected hot pace, and Smile Happy's threshold for the 1 1/4-mile trip is suspect.
KR: Considering the strength of this past Saturday's preps as a whole, I'm tempted to say Epicenter. The Blue Grass superficially flattered him, since he'd beaten Zandon and Smile Happy in the Risen Star (G2), but Epicenter had the twin advantages of race-fitness and race dynamics then. Granted that Epicenter moved forward in the Louisiana Derby (G2), but Zandon and Smile Happy improved in the interim too, and the principals in the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby even more so. While Epicenter is still qualified to run a fine race in the Derby, he'll need to raise his game again to win.
VH: Among those expected to get significant play, I'm beginning to lose interest in Smile Happy. Although I appreciate his fondness for Churchill Downs, his brilliant turn of foot, and don't see 1 1/4 miles as a major hindrance, it just seems he's improved from two to three at a much more gradual rate than several of his contemporaries have. Trainer Kenny McPeek told Daily Racing Form after the Blue Grass that he hadn't trained Smile Happy "really hard" going into the Blue Grass, preferring to have him fresher for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (G1). Maybe so, but at this point he's looking like a potential underlay in the wagering.
Do you have an early preference for the Kentucky Oaks (G1)?
JS: Not a single preference, but Kathleen O. and Nest have major appeal. Similar to the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks is shaping up to be a deep race, and I'm leaning against Echo Zulu, Hidden Connection, Secret Oath, and others for top honors. Kathleen O. and Nest exit impressive wins, and both fillies appear capable of more on May 6. It should be a great Oaks.
KR: When Nest drubbed the Ashland (G1) field on Friday, I regarded her as the pro tem Kentucky Oaks favorite, pending Adare Manor's performance in Saturday's Santa Anita Oaks (G2). But after Adare Manor was upset by the improbable Desert Dawn, Nest is now my clear choice. The royally-bred daughter of Curlin is looking stronger with every start, and if she's as convincing as I hope at Churchill Downs, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Belmont (G1) comes under consideration.
VH: Although Kathleen O.'s performance in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) is still the standard that will require eclipsing, I've been impressed with the progress made by Nest over her last several starts. She beat her Ashland foes senseless last Friday and just figures to thrive the remainder of the season as the distances increase. Granted, she has yet to face a field anywhere close to her level of talent, but otherwise she has few apparent weaknesses.