Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes & Wood Memorial Recap

The final weekend of major Kentucky Derby preps produced – as hoped – three leading contenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown. Taiba came from out of the blue to win the G1 Santa Anita Derby on just his second start, Zandon finally got the break his talent deserved when finishing strongly to take the G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the G2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct turned into a thriller, with Mo Donegal getting the job done in the last three strides.

Taiba takes Santa Anita by storm

Santa Anita Derby – Grade 1

As so often happens, when a race is presumed to be between two big stars a third horse muscles in to outshine them both, and so it was in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, when the inexperienced Taiba came out of nowhere to earn 100 RTKD points and confirm his spot in the Kentucky Derby.

With just one run to his name before the gate opened, Taiba was reckoned to have no more than a puncher’s chance behind the heavyweight duo Forbidden Kingdom and Messier, but the 4-1 third-choice landed a knockout blow in style, prompting his veteran rider Mike Smith to reach for superlatives. “He showed how special he is. He belongs with anyone.”

Slight favourite Forbidden Kingdom set the fractions to the quarter-pole before Messier took over, but Taiba was quickly on his barnmate’s tail and steadily ran him down, taking control at the sixteenth-pole and driving on under a hand-ride to win going away by two and a quarter lengths, stopping the clock in 1:48 and three-fifths. Messier was ten lengths clear of third-placed Happy Jack; Forbidden Kingdom faded to finish last of the six.

“You don’t see that at this level unless you’re just exceptionally gifted,” said trainer Tim Yakteen, who recently took control of Taiba and Messier when they moved from Bob Baffert’s barn. “Obviously, this horse has that type of talent because Messier ran absolutely lights out.”

Taiba, a son of Gun Runner who runs in the Medina Spirit silks of Amr Zedan, cost $1.7 million as a two-year-old and was unraced as a juvenile, only making his debut last month. His inexperience may still be a factor at Churchill Downs but his ability is undisputed. Messier should have sufficient RTKD points to join him in the big one, but Forbidden Kingdom’s participation in the Derby must now be in doubt following this dull effort.

Luck turns at last for Zandon

Blue Grass Stakes – Grade 1

He had shown the ability but never got the rewards, but that all changed in the Keeneland Race course stretch as Zandon went back-to-front in the Blue Grass on Saturday, making his stakes breakthrough and becoming one of the leading contenders for next month’s Kentucky Derby.

The Upstart colt, short of luck on his two previous starts, had similar problems here, the 2-1 second-choice running plumb last as the trail-blazing Emmanuel towed them around the turn. “There was nothing I could do about it,” said jockey Flavien Prat. “It was just a matter of finding a gap and getting a clean run.”

Then, finally, the racing gods gave Zandon a break. A gap opened and Prat threw him through it. There was still a lot to do as the favourite Smile Happy took over the lead at the stretch call, but Zandon was eating up ground in eye-catching style. He nailed Smile Happy at the eighth-pole and ran on strongly for an authoritative win, two and a half lengths clear at the wire in a time of 1:50 and two-fifths. Smile Happy was a comfortable second-best, three and three-quarter lengths ahead of Emmanuel, who ran out of gas in mid-stretch.

“There’s no room for error when you are trying to get points to go to the Derby,” said relieved trainer Chad Brown. “Things looked grim at halfway, but he persevered. He’s a top candidate for the Derby now.”

The 100 RTKD points Zandon earned here booked his place in the Kentucky Derby, following placed efforts in the G2 Remsen and G2 Risen Star, and his strong-running style suggests the extra furlong at Churchill Downs will hold no fears. Smile Happy also punched his ticket for the Derby, but Emmanuel will have to wait and see and G1 winner Rattle N Roll – a never-dangerous sixth here – is now off the Derby trail.

Mo Donegal steals the show

Wood Memorial Stakes – Grade 2

Todd Pletcher has always had a long list of Kentucky Derby possibles, but he lacked a serious contender until Mo Donegal fought his way into the front rank with a narrow victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack on Saturday.

Stamina has always been the ace in the hole for Mo Donegal and he went all-in with it here, the 2-1 second-choice needing every yard of the stretch to get his head in front and claim the 100 RTKD points that ensure his place at Churchill Downs.

Early Voting, unbeaten in two at the Big A, broke on top and made a bold bid to go gate to wire, still two lengths clear at the eighth-pole, but Mo Donegal had found room on the rail and was in full cry under Joel Rosario, reeling in the leader with every stride. Early Voting didn’t quit but Mo Donegal overpowered him in the last few jumps, getting there by a neck, stopping the clock in 1:48.

These two were comfortably superior; Skippylongstocking dug in for third, three and a half lengths back, while the favourite Morello hit the gate at the start and never got competitive, finishing sixth.

“He was resolute and kept coming and I was thrilled to see him get there,” said Pletcher, for whom this was a record-equalling seventh success in the Wood. “He was able to wear down a horse who was loose on the lead, so I thought he ran a big race.”

Mo Donegal – who beat Saturday’s Blue Grass winner Zandon by a nose in the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct in December – is likely to appreciate the extra furlong at Churchill Downs. Early Voting, a barnmate of Zandon, has earned sufficient RTKD points but trainer Chad Brown has not fully committed his colt to the big one, with the Preakness an alternative.

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