Racing Roundtable: Developments on the road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks

April 11th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson discuss developments on the final major weekend of Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1) preps in this edition of the Racing Roundtable.

Which Derby contender(s) are you buying from Saturday's preps?

James Scully: The top two from the Blue Grass (G1), Tapit Trice and Verifying. Tapit Trice broke better than he did in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3), and he didn't leave himself plenty to do in the stretch of the Blue Grass, wearing down a game Verifying to prevail by a neck. The progressing colt will bring a formidable late kick to the Kentucky Derby. Verifying showed good speed tracking the pace in second, seizing the lead on the far turn, and his ability to make his own trip may prove valuable in a Kentucky Derby field that is shaping up to lack pace.

Kellie Reilly: Although Practical Move just lasted in the Santa Anita Derby, desperately hanging on from Japan's NAR-based Mandarin Hero, his effort was better than it looks. He raced a couple of lengths nearer to the torrid opening quarter of :22.30, and the half-mile of :46.30 was a lot faster than the comparable split in his convincing win in the San Felipe (G2) (:47.12). Practical Move also made an earlier move to ensure running room on the rail. The combination of circumstances worked against him, and played more to the strengths of Mandarin Hero and deep-closing Skinner (who is knocking on the door), but he still won. A more typical race flow in the Kentucky Derby would suit Practical Move.

In the Blue Grass, Tapit Trice answered some outstanding questions from Tampa, although he'd need similarly clear sailing at Churchill Downs. Without the luxury of uninterrupted momentum in the Blue Grass, he doesn't catch Verifying, who could be sneaky off this prep loss. Verifying hadn't run since his traffic-ridden fourth in the Feb. 25 Rebel (G2); he arguably didn't get much fitness-wise there, and I'd be tempted to see the Blue Grass as his first real race since his Jan. 14 allowance romp.

Vance Hanson: I'm buying the top two finishers from the Santa Anita Derby, Practical Move and (especially) Mandarin Hero. I'm not sure if Practical Move is going to relish an extra furlong in the Kentucky Derby, but his fine tactical foot allows him to get well situated in the early stages of racing. Although the beneficiary of perfect trips in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby, he could prove very effective at Churchill if not asked to deliver his best too early.

If a colt like Mandarin Hero, who had zero experience running in the U.S., can run like that and just miss in one of the fastest Derby preps of the season, he's undoubtedly a serious player going forward. The main issue is that his current point total of 40 has him on the outside looking in with 3 1/2 weeks to go, which is unfortunate because he stands a much better chance of donning the roses than several others with more points who are more greatly exposed.

Were any of the weekend's Oaks preps informative?

JS: In a negative sense. The Kentucky Oaks prospects of Occult and Wonder Wheel took a serious hit, finishing off the board at short odds in the Gazelle (G2) at Aqueduct and Ashland (G1) at Keeneland. Both races were won by fillies at 20-1 or higher. And with Santa Anita Oaks (G2) winner Faiza bypassing the Kentucky Oaks, none of her competition out west appears capable of making an impact at Churchill Downs.

KR: The Oaks preps boosted the form of Wet Paint, who had readily beaten eventual Ashland winner Defining Purpose as well as Gazelle near-misser Gambling Girl at Oaklawn Park. Yet the outcome of the Ashland could have been much different if Punchbowl had used her tactical speed, instead of getting bottled up on the inside in a tactical race. Punchbowl did well to finish as close as she did in a frustrating second. Even worse, her 40 points won't be enough to get into the Oaks unless there are several defections. The close third in the Ashland, Julia Shining, likewise needs help with 46 points. That's unfortunate since she responded well to first-time blinkers, like big sister Malathaat. The Santa Anita Oaks (G2) established that there's not much depth out West behind Faiza, who's ineligible for the Kentucky Oaks because trainer Bob Baffert is suspended by Churchill Downs Inc.

VH: The Oaks preps were informative to the extent that they confirmed that this crop of three-year-old fillies appears noticeably slower than recent generations. I was hesitant in this space last week to agree that Wet Paint would be the likely Oaks favorite, but now there is no doubt about it. However, even she doesn't appear an absolute standout against this group, and will have to find a little luck to weave her way through a lot of traffic to succeed at Churchill. 

What else caught your eye?

JS: Mo Stash ran into a buzzsaw when opening 2023 in the March 11 Columbia S. at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing second to Talk of the Nation, but the son of second-year sire Mo Town rebounded sharply in Friday's Transylvania (G3) at Keeneland, leading wire-to-wire for a one-length decision. Fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), Mo Stash may be a serious player in the three-year-old turf division for trainer Vicki Oliver. Champion female sprinter Goodnight Olive, last seen romping in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at Keeneland, offered an outstanding turn of foot to seize command and comfortably win her return in the Madison (G1). And Caravel backed up her 42-1 upset in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1), and displayed her affinity for a fight, when battling to a head win in her seasonal opener, the Shakertown (G1).

KR: Japanese champion Liberty Island likely has the Fillies' Triple Crown at her mercy after an incredible late rally in the first classic, the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1), over a metric mile. She had captured the imagination more than the two-year-old colts last season, and this reappearance only confirms her star quality. Near the rear of the 18-filly field upon straightening at Hanshin, Liberty Island uncorked a final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in :32.9 to get up by three-quarters of a length. The daughter of Duramente and Australian champion Yankee Rose should appreciate the step up to about 1 1/2 miles for the next jewel, the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) at Tokyo May 21.

VH: Surprisingly, several notable fillies are currently on the outside looking in at making the field of 14 for the Kentucky Oaks. If there were absolutely no defections between now and May 5, fillies like champion juvenile Wonder Wheel, Julia Shining, and Punchbowl would not get to start. In the case of Wonder Wheel and Julia Shining, few would have expected that development at the beginning of the season. The beneficiary of their potential exclusion could be the $300,000 Black-Eyed Susan (G2) at Pimlico on May 19, which is also run at 1 1/8 miles. Toss in a possible appearance by the undefeated California filly Faiza, who has purposely been left off the Oaks trail, and this edition of the Black-Eyed Susan could be one of the most interesting in many years.