Santa Anita Derby & Blue Grass Odds and Contenders

With the Kentucky Derby just four weeks away, the three preps on Saturday will do much to shape the look of the big race. Speed horses Forbidden Kingdom and Messier lock horns in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, while the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland brings together big hitters Smile Happy, Rattle N Roll and Zandon. At Aqueduct, four horses unbeaten at the Ozone Park circuit – Early Voting, Mo Donegal, Morello and Barese – take each other on in the G2 Wood Memorial . . . who will hang on to his perfect record at the Big A?

Santa Anita Derby

There is only a short field for the Santa Anita Derby, the showpiece at the Los Angeles track on Saturday, but it offers 100 RTKD points to the winner and is one of the most influential trials for the Kentucky Derby, with three of the last ten winners here going on to win at Churchill Downs, and last year’s runner-up Medina Spirit first past the post on the big day.

This year’s contest shapes up as a fascinating match between two very exciting colts who have met before on the California circuit. Last November, in the G3 Bob Hope at Del Mar, Messier and Forbidden Kingdom faced off in another short field and Messier was much the stronger, coming home three and a half lengths clear of Forbidden Kingdom, who had – in his customary fashion – tried to wire the field, before the winner ran right by him in mid-stretch.

Next time out Messier was himself outrun by Slow Down Andy and beaten a length in the G2 Los Alamitos Futurity, but rebounded from that with a magnificent performance in the G3 Robert B Lewis here over a mile-sixteenth, when he led at every call and cleared right away to win by 15 lengths. The horses he beat that day were minor characters, but Messier absolutely tore them to shreds, and his move from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen’s barn makes him eligible to earn Road to the Kentucky Derby points.

That goes also for barnmate Taiba, who is short on experience but longer on talent if his maiden win here on debut, by seven and a half lengths, is any guide. That was over six furlongs, though, and this is a huge jump in both class and distance, although if there is to be an upset of the big two Taiba seems the only possibility.

Since that Bob Hope defeat, Forbidden Kingdom has won twice, both through devastating displays of front-running at this track. In the G2 San Vicente over seven furlongs he sprinted two and a quarter lengths clear of subsequent Saudi Derby winner Pinehurst, and when everyone doubted his ability to stretch out to a mile-sixteenth in the G2 San Felipe, he started out sprinting and simply kept going, barrelling home by five and three-quarter lengths, eased down. Armagnac dropped right away, finishing sixth.

The extra sixteenth today isn’t likely to be an issue, and such is the speed Forbidden Kingdom has been showing that it’s hard to imagine anything taking him on for the lead. If Messier does just that, one or both of them could burn out. If Messier sits off him, Forbidden Kingdom could be impossible to catch. It’s going to be like the Pegasus World Cup all over again, Life Is Good and Knicks Go, the pace making the race.

Doug O’Neill throws two darts at the target: Happy Jack was ten and a half lengths behind Forbidden Kingdom when third in the San Felipe and last of five behind Messier in the Robert B Lewis, so has a whole world of catch-up on his plate, while barnmate Win The Day won his maiden well here over a mile but this is a different league.

Our Santa Anita Derby Top Pick:

All is in place for an exhilarating, thoroughly informative contest, in which the brilliant front-runner FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is narrowly preferred to the equally exciting Messier.

HorseJockeyHorse Racing Odds courtesy of JazzSports
Happy JackAbel Cedillo+2000
ArmagnacDrayden Van Dyke+2000
Forbidden KingdomJuan J. Hernandez+120
MessierJohn R. Velazquez+100
Win the DayUmberto Rispoli+2000
TaibaMike E. Smith+400

Blue Grass

There’s a much bigger field for the Blue Grass, the highlight of Keeneland’s Saturday card and another 100pt RTKD contest, but there isn’t quite the level of star quality present as there is at Santa Anita.

It’s full of colts who might have been expected to have already clinched a spot in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, but instead are here hunting for the crucial points to put them over the line. A good example is Smile Happy, a G2 winner at two who lost his unbeaten record in the G2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, when racing some way off the pace before coming through strongly in late stretch to claim the silver medal behind the high-class Epicenter, who made the form look very good when winning the G2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.

Half a length behind Smile Happy in third was Zandon , who came from even further back and did a lot of running in a short space of time, levelling off a little in the closing stages, underlining the promise he showed when beaten a nose – after being leaned on in a stretch duel – in the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct in December. Both colts have plenty of class and will be right in the mix if able to be closer to the action at halfway.

Conversely, Smile Happy’s barnmate (and same owner) Rattle N Roll hasn’t reproduced his strong juvenile form – G1 winner at this track – in two starts since the turn of the year, and looked a touch laboured when fourth behind Epicenter, beaten eight lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. He comes back off just a two-week break and needs to find more.

Three of these come on from last month’s G2 Tampa Bay Derby, in which Grantham ran his longshot odds to be runner-up in a blanket finish for the placings behind Classic Causeway. Fellow longshots Golden Glider and Trademark were less than a length away in fourth and fifth, although none of the three has ever won a stakes and the form may not amount to much. That opinion also applies in the case of Ethereal Road, runner-up in the G2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park, a race that has not stood up well against recent events, and Blackadder, who has at least won a stakes, if only the El Camino Real Derby on synthetics at Golden Gate Fields.

Todd Pletcher’s pair is led by Emmanuel, who didn’t live up to his tall reputation when fourth behind Simplification in the G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, beaten five and a quarter lengths. He should move up for that, his stakes debut, and certainly has more about him than barnmate Commandperformance, a four-race maiden beaten at 1-20 when five and a quarter lengths runner-up to Fenwick at Tampa Bay Downs.

Gulfstream Park maiden winner Volcanic beat subsequent G1 Florida Derby runner-up Charge It on that occasion, and next time out was third behind Classic Causeway in the G3 Sam F Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, with Golden Glider and Trademark further back. This requires a great deal more.

Our Blue Grass Betting Prediction:

The form of the Grade 2 Risen Star stands out like a beacon in this contest, and ZANDON – who blew the start – is the choice to make up the half-length he needs to turn the tables on Smile Happy.

HorseJockeyHorse Racing Odds courtesy of JazzSports
CommandperformanceIrad Ortiz. Jr+1200
FenwickPaco Lopez+2000
TrademarkRafael Bejarano+3000
Zandon Flavien Prat+225
VolcanicAdam Beschizza+2000
EmmanuelLuis Saez+450
Golden GliderRicardo Santana, Jr.+2000
Ethereal RoadLuis Contreras+2000
Rattle N RollBrian Joseph Hernandez, Jr.+800
Smile HappyCorey J. Lanerie+180
BlackadderFlorent Geroux+2000
GranthamTyler Gaffalione+2000

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct is not the easiest track to love, with its general diet of low-key racing conducted through an icy New York winter, but its annual highlight, Saturday’s Wood Memorial, has attracted four horses who simply adore the Big A.

Foremost among them is Morello, who is unbeaten in three at Aqueduct. He doesn’t need the 100 RTKD points on offer to today’s winner, because he has already signed for his place in the Kentucky Derby thanks to his victory in the G3 Gotham over a mile last month, when he drew easily clear from the turn to win by four and a half lengths, with Golden Code another length back in third.

There were concerns afterwards regarding Morello’s stamina, but his pedigree says ‘yes’ and the way he finished off his race suggests this extra furlong will be within his grasp.

It will certainly hold no fears for Mo Donegal, by far the best of Todd Pletcher’s trio, whose narrow victory in the G2 Remsen over course and distance marked him as an early candidate for Derby consideration. He was a little disappointing when third behind White Abarrio in the G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, but he lost his race with a slow start and was doing all his best work late, missing second spot by just a head. He’ll test Morello’s stamina through the stretch.

Also unbeaten at the Big A is Early Voting, who went two-for-two with a virtuoso gate-to-wire display in the G3 Withers over course and distance, eased down in the last sixteenth to score by four and a half lengths. The two-month break since that run is of no concern, trainer Chad Brown usually happy to give his horses time between races.

Then there’s the unbeaten Barese who has won two stakes here, the most recent when going a mile for the first time in February, running down the leader in the last few strides to win by a length and a quarter. This is a much stiffer test but he merits the step up.

Saffie Joseph sends two north from Florida with Skippylongstocking, an easy winner of an allowance optional claimer over this distance at Gulfstream Park, probably a better option than barnmate AP’s Secret, who was a beaten horse when meeting with interference in the G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, eventually finishing seventh.

Our Wood Memorial Top Choice:

MO DONEGAL lost his chance at the gate last time and, in this encounter of Aqueduct aficionados, is taken to bounce back to winning form over a distance that plays to his strength.

HorseJockeyHorse Racing Odds courtesy of JazzSports
Mo DonegalJoel Rosario+250
Golden CodeKendrick Carmouche+1500
Early VotingJose L. Ortiz+250
Long Term Javier Castellano+2000
MorelloJose Lezcano+160
SkippylongstockingJunior Alvarado+1500
A. P.’s SecretManuel Franco+2000
BareseDylan Davis+800

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