Kentucky Derby picture remains murky
by Dick Powell
Some impressions of last weekend’s races – you know, the ones that were supposed to clear up the Kentucky Derby (G1) picture – but first let’s start with the Carter Handicap (G1) to get an idea of how fast the Aqueduct track was playing.
GREEN GRATTO (Here’s Zealous) is a barometer horse. His performance usually measures how speed-favoring the main track is playing. Basically an all-or-nothing sprinter, he can win on the front end but usually needs help from the racetrack surface.
On Saturday, which saw many horses win on the front end at Aqueduct, Green Gratto outsprinted favored UNIFIED (Candy Ride) out of the gate and desperately held on to win the Carter, giving trainer Gaston Grant his first Grade 1 winner.
The Aqueduct main track was not fast in terms of running times but favored fast horses. The Carter was run in a pokey 1:23.35 but the front runner held on.
The next race was the Wood Memorial (G2) for three-year-olds going nine furlongs on the main track. Todd Pletcher’s BATTALION RUNNER (Unbridled’s Song) was sent off the 2-1 favorite but I thought he looked very hot before the race; track temperature for the first race was 53 degrees and there was a strong wind blowing. Not the weather you should get hot in.
At the start, Johnny Velazquez sent Battalion Runner to the lead and had it coming out of the clubhouse turn. Rajiv Maragh had a handful of horse underneath him and he sent IRISH WAR CRY (Curlin) up to challenge down the backside. Any chance of Battalion Runner being loose on an early lead were gone as the pair battled it out to the top of the stretch.
Maragh looked like he had a ton of horse and was dismissive of Battalion Runner to his inside as he peaked over both shoulders looking for competition. There was none. Battalion Runner faded in the stretch and nobody was making up any meaningful ground. Irish War Cry, beaten 21 3/4 lengths in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) but winner of his first three career starts, was back on his game and dominated by 3 1/2 lengths. Battalion Runner was a good second and CLOUD COMPUTING (Maclean’s Music) was a well-beaten third as it looked like he ran out of pedigree.
Next up was the Bluegrass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, which looked the strongest Derby prep race of the weekend. Doug O’Neill, loaded with sophomores this year including four in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), sent maiden IRAP (Tiznow) to Keeneland and he was promptly dismissed by the bettors who sent him off at 31-1.
The 8-5 favorite was MCCRAKEN (Ghostzapper), who missed the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) with an ankle injury and was trying to get back on the Derby trail. A big race might knock him out four weeks later and a poor race would negate him even going, so trainer Ian Wilkes had to walk the tightrope in preparing him for the race.
At the start, Irap and WILD SHOT (Trappe Shot) contested for the lead and McCraken raced between horses much closer to the pace. Keen from being off eight weeks, he did not have his usual late kick and slugged home third. PRACTICAL JOKE (Into Mischief) could not get by Irap and was beaten three-quarters of a length as Irap pulled off the shocker that was worth $64.60. He now has more than enough points to run in the Derby and his surprising participation will keep someone out that is on the bubble.
If you like McCraken, there’s no reason not to like him again when Wilkes will tighten the screws on him. Irap could be the real deal, he was Grade 1-placed already and O’Neill has two Derby wins on his resume.
The negative I have for the Bluegrass was Practical Joke and how he could not get by in the stretch. Even though he was second, I see the glass being half empty for his chances of moving forward.
The Santa Anita Derby (G1) had a big field of 13 go to the post and it is an impossible race to handicap after the race. GORMLEY (Malibu Moon) was already a Grade 1 winner going two turns over the track so he was not a total shock to win at 6-1 as he got a heady ride from Victor Espinoza, who will be going for his fourth Kentucky Derby win.
BATTLE OF MIDWAY (Smart Strike) was up on a fast pace early and hung on to be second, beaten a half-length. His performance is hard to gauge since it was a fast early/slow late race and he was game in his second two-turn try. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms, Battle of Midway might still have some upside in him.
ROYAL MO (Uncle Mo) was a game third from post 13 and kind of reminded me of last year’s Derby winner NYQUIST (Uncle Mo) when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) while wide every step. He was awful in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park but certainly did enough to redeem himself on Saturday.
Of the three Saturday winners, Irish War Cry earned a BRIS speed rating of 102, Irap earned a 100 and Gormley earned a 99. So far, there hasn’t been anyone that made me jump off my couch and say, “That’s my Derby horse!”
Which for me means two things: first, we have the potential of having a bunch of evenly-matched horses, and second, that the winner of the Derby might be coming in off a loss.