Prep races are almost finished, with only two qualifiers remaining, and the first Saturday in May is less than four weeks away.
Three major events were offered last weekend.
Essential Quality looked the part of the Kentucky Derby favorite, running down a classy rival to prevail in the Blue Grass S. (G2) at Keeneland.
Rock Your World made the most of his lone opportunity to qualify, dominating the Santa Anita Derby (G1) wire-to-wire in his first dirt start.
Bourbonic didn’t make any sense, but 72-1 longshot closed from the clouds to stamp his ticket in the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct.
The final major qualifier, Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1), will feature unbeaten Concert Tour, who appears to be Bob Baffert’s best chance for a record seventh Kentucky Derby win this spring. The Hall of Fame trainer also has up-and-coming Hozier in the six-horse Arkansas Derby field.
Saturday’s Lexington S. (G2) at Keeneland will award points on a 20-8-4-2 basis.
Essential Quality opened his career with a couple of frontrunning wins, but the champion two-year-old male became more push-button with experience, rallying to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Southwest S. (G3).
He showed his versatility in a Blue Grass lacking pace, closely tracking Highly Motivated from the break.
The Blue Grass was a make-or-break race for Highly Motivated, who showed class as a juvenile but had yet to try two turns. Chad Brown had the Into Mischief colt poised for his best following a troubled third in the sophomore opener, the Gotham S. (G3) in early March.
Highly Motivated led nearly every step of the way, but Essential Quality would not be denied after a thrilling stretch duel, getting up in the last strides to win by a neck.
The stiff test figures to benefit the probable Kentucky Derby favorite – Essential Quality received no resistance when rolling to a 4 1/4-length decision in the Feb. 27 Southwest – and the gray colt will bring a five-for-five record to the first race of the Triple Crown.
Brad Cox trains, and Luis Saez rides the Godolphin homebred son of Tapit. Essential Quality registered a career-best 102 Brisnet Speed rating, which is presently tied for the top last-out number among Kentucky Derby contenders.
Highly Motivated secured a Kentucky Derby berth, and the talented colt is eligible to be part of the pace scenario on May 1. I’m not sure the 1 1/4-mile distance will be optimal, though.
Rombauer never made a serious impact, winding up more than five lengths back of the top pair, but offered a decent closing kick to be a clear third. The late runner sits on the bubble presently, ranked 21st on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, but a few defections are expected. Rombauer appears likely to move into the top 20, and he’ll receive more pace in the Kentucky Derby.
Santa Anita Derby
Rock Your World took it to rivals at the break, flashing to the front from his innermost post, and he left a fine impression posting a convincing wire-to-wire victory in his first dirt start.
Unraced at two, the Candy Ride colt opened his career with a pair of comfortable turf wins, including Feb. 27 Pasadena S. However, he had never been past a mile, and Rock Your World faced a significant class check in the tradition-rich prep race – the Santa Derby has produced 19 Kentucky Derby winners.
The John Sadler-trained dark bay registered an outstanding 102 Speed rating for the 4 1/4-length decision. Umberto Rispoli rides for Hronis Racing and Talla Racing.
Rock Your World may not be showing the way early in the Kentucky Derby, but he should be prominent following Saturday’s breakout performance.
Medina Spirit was beaten to the early lead, but the odds-on favorite easily held second. A Grade 3 winner, the Baffert-trained colt can’t be dismissed on Derby Day – Medina Spirit has the tactical speed to be in a prime spot turning for home at Churchill Downs.
After weakening to third in the later stages of the San Felipe S (G2), Dream Shake had little left for deep stretch in the Santa Anita Derby. He picked up 20 points for the bronze medal effort, increasing his point total to 30, and Dream Shake will need some help to make the Derby field (24th on the leaderboard).
Bourbonic provided Todd Pletcher with his sixth Wood Memorial win, and the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner also saddled runner-up Dynamic One.
The $2 Pletcher exacta returned a whopping $906.
Pletcher, who has saddled a record 55 Kentucky Derby starters, doubled his possible Kentucky Derby contingent. He also trains Florida Derby (G1) winner Known Agenda and Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) runner-up Sainthood.
Bourbonic needed three starts to graduate, dropping into a $50,000 maiden claiming race at Aqueduct in early December. The Calumet Farm homebred Bernardini colt came back to win a $50,000 optional claimer a month later, and Bourbonic was exiting a well-beaten second in a Feb. 23 allowance/optional claimer at Parx.
The winner of his last race, Market Maven, faded to eighth after setting the pace in the Wood.
“Sometimes the worst thing you can have is a hot hand in January and February,” Pletcher said. “We were hoping something would come together and we always thought he had potential to step up. It was good to see him do it.”
Given the moderate pace (:24.88, :50.18, 1:14.98, and 1:40.76), Bourbonic’s late-running theatrics were even more stunning. Kendrick Carmouche bided his time at the back of the nine-horse field most of the way, calling upon the one-run closer as they swung wide into the stretch, and Bourbonic closed dramatically to nail Dynamic One by a head on the wire.
He earned only a 93 Speed figure.
Dynamic One ran well in his first stakes attempt. The Union Rags colt broke his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths when stretching out nine furlongs in his previous outing, and he rallied sharply to take a clear lead in upper stretch of the Wood, turning back a challenge from Crowded Trade before being caught late.
Crowded Trade, who was exiting a runner-up in the Gotham, has the points to make the Kentucky Derby field, but Brown indicated the extra distance wouldn’t be in the best interests of the More Than Ready colt.
I will review the final two qualifiers, and start analyzing the Kentucky Derby picture.