by Jon White
April 1, 2021
Three biggies with Kentucky Derby ramifications will be run this weekend. They are the Grade I Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
The first four finishers in these three 1 1/8-mile races will collect Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 basis. The 147th running of the Grade I, $3 million Kentucky Derby will be held at Churchill Downs on May 1.
Before getting to my picks for the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Wood, let’s review my selections for last Saturday’s Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.
I had the right approach to take a stand against the favorite in both of those races. Unfortunately, I did not go with the right horse in my attempt to beat the chalk.
Greatest Honour was backed down to 4-5 favoritism in the Florida Derby. I picked Spielberg first and Known Agenda second. Spielberg was sent away at 7-1. Known Agenda was 5-1.
I opted for Spielberg mainly because Southern California shippers had been doing so well lately in graded stakes races on the Kentucky Derby trail. I picked Spielberg even though he had drawn post 10 (not good) and had been inconsistent.
“Despite Spielberg’s unreliability, I’m going to stick with him as my top pick” in the Florida Derby, I wrote.
After Spielberg finished a respectable second in Oaklawn Park’s Grade II Rebel Stakes, I thought maybe he finally would put together back-to-back good efforts last Saturday.
Spielberg lost the Florida Derby by 17 1/4 lengths while finishing eighth in the field of 11.
Known Agenda won by 2 3/4 lengths. He paid $12.80 for each $2 win wager. Oh, how I am kicking myself for not making Known Agenda my top pick. I consider it a golden opportunity to have slipped through my fingers. (Insert frowny face emoji.)
This was trainer Todd Pletcher’s record sixth Florida Derby winner after Scat Daddy in 2007, Constitution in 2014, Materiality in 2015, Always Dreaming in 2017 and Audible in 2018.
Always Dreaming followed his Florida Derby victory by capturing the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. Pletcher also won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver.
In last Saturday’s Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, I also was on the right track to not go with 5-2 favorite Tarantino. He finished last in the field of 11. Hockey Dad was my top pick. Hockey Dad ran well, but he had to settle for third at odds of 7-1. The winner was Like the King, who likewise was sent away at 7-1.
For Xpressbet.com in late January, I began making selections in the U.S. races offering points toward the Kentucky Derby.
Of the 16 such races to date, I have picked the winner in eight of them, as noted below:
Date Race (Selection) Finish, $2 win payoff if applicable
01-30-21 Holy Bull (Greatest Honour) WON, $7.60
01-30-21 Robert B. Lewis (Medina Spirit), WON, $4.00
02-06-21 Sam F. Davis (Candy Man Rocket), WON, $8.20
02-06-21 Withers (Donegal Bay), finished 7th
02-13-21 Risen Star (Senor Buscador), finished 5th
02-13-21 El Camino Real Derby (Rombauer), WON, $4.40
02-26-21 Battaglia Memorial (Gretzky the Great), finished 3rd
02-27-21 Southwest (Essential Quality), WON, $3.80
02-27-21 Fountain of Youth (Greatest Honor), WON, $4.00
03-06-21 Gotham (Freedom Fighter), finished 4th
03-06-21 Tampa Bay Derby (Hidden Stash), finished 2nd
03-06-21 San Felipe Stakes, Life Is Good, WON, $3.00
03-13-21 Rebel Stakes, Concert Tour, WON, $5.40
03-20-21 Louisiana Derby, Proxy, finished 4th
03-27-21 Jeff Ruby Steaks, Hockey Dad, finished 3rd
03-27-21 Florida Derby, Spielberg, finished 8th
10 TO CLASH IN RUNHAPPY SANTA ANITA DERBY
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had planned to run Life Is Good in the Santa Anita Derby. The undefeated multiple graded stakes winner undoubtedly would have been an overwhelming favorite. But Life Is Good currently is on the mend from a left-hind ankle injury.
Undaunted by Life Is Good’s defection, the powerful Baffert barn still will be represented in the Santa Anita Derby by the likely favorite in Medina Spirit.
Medina Spirit, unlike Life Is Good, is not undefeated. Medina Spirit has won two of four career starts.
But Medina Spirit would be undefeated if not for finishing second twice to Life Is Good.
Medina Spirit began his racing career with a three-length maiden win in a Los Alamitos sprint on Dec. 11. The Florida-bred Protonico colt then finished second to Life Is Good in Santa Anita’s Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 2. Four lengths off the lead at the eighth pole in the Sham, Medina Spirit came on thereafter to lose by just three-quarters of a length. That is the closest anyone has come to defeating Life Is Good.
After the Sham, Medina Spirit won Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes in game fashion by a neck on Jan. 30. He then again took on Life Is Good in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 6.
Life Is Good trounced Medina Spirit in the San Felipe. Life Is Good won by eight lengths, while Medina Spirit came in second.
Even though Medina Spirit did not win the San Felipe, he showed heart late in the race by retaking second after having been passed by Dream Shake. It’s all the more impressive that Medina Spirit finished second that day because he did so despite a throat issue.
After the San Felipe, Medina Spirit “had a little ulcer in his throat and looked like he was starting to entrap, so they did a minor procedure on it and he’s doing great now and has since turned in two works,” Secretariat.com’s Steve Haskin wrote.
One of the reasons I am not going to pick against Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby is his trainer’s stellar record in this race. Baffert has won the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times (Cavonnier in 1996, Indian Charlie in 1998, General Challenge in 1999, Point Given in 2001, Pioneerof the Nile in 2009, Midnight Interlude in 2011, Dortmund in 2015, Justify in 2018 and Roadster in 2019).
Moreover, as Jeremy Plonk of Countdown to the Crown recently pointed out, check out which trainer has won almost all of Santa Anita’s 3-year-old graded stakes races going back to the 2019 Santa Anita Derby:
Trainer, Race, Winner
--Bob Baffert, 2021 San Felipe Stakes, Life Is Good
--Bob Baffert, 2021 San Vicente Stakes, Concert Tour
--Bob Baffert, 2021 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Medina Spirit
--Bob Baffert, 2021 Sham Stakes, Life Is Good
--John Shirreffs, 2020 Santa Anita Derby, Honor A.P.
--Bob Baffert, 2020 San Felipe Stakes, Authentic
--Bob Baffert, 2020 San Vicente Stakes, Nadal
--Bob Baffert, 2020 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Thousand Words
--Bob Baffert, 2020 Sham Stakes, Authentic
--Bob Baffert, 2019 Santa Anita Derby, Roadster
My selections for the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby are below:
1. Medina Spirit
2. Dream Shake
3. Rock Your World
4. Roman Centurian
With a furlong to go in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, it looked like Dream Shake was going to run second after he had passed Medina Spirit. Dream Shake would go on to weaken a bit late and finished third. But the Kentucky-bred Twirling Candy colt certainly had a right to weaken some late in that it was only his second career start and it was his first race going farther than 6 1/2 furlongs.
Now, with two races under his belt, including a start in a 1 1/16-mile contest, it will not be surprising to see a big effort from Dream Shake this Saturday for trainer Peter Eurton.
Rock Your World is something of a wild card in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s two for two and appears to have a ton of talent. But both wins have come on the grass.
So, the question is, how will Rock Your World do when racing on the dirt for the first time this Saturday? He did record a bullet workout on the dirt last Sunday for trainer John Sadler, five furlongs in :59.20. Not only was it the fastest of 76 works at the distance that morning, it was two full seconds faster than the average time that day of 1:01.20.
John Sadler trains Rock Your World, whose sire, Candy Ride, set a track record of 1:59.11 when he won Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic on dirt in 2003, a mark that still stands.
Roman Centurian finished fourth in the San Felipe, a race he lost by 13 1/2 lengths. But the Kentucky-bred Empire Maker colt is dangerous in the Santa Anita Derby off his effort in the Lewis when he lost by just neck to Medina Spirit.
In the Lewis, Roman Centurian nosed out Hot Rod Charlie for second. Hot Rod Charlie subsequently won Fair Grounds’ Grade II Louisiana Derby by two lengths.
BLUE GRASS STAKES TOPPED BY ESSENTIAL QUALITY
Essential Quality looms a short-priced favorite in the Blue Grass.
This drf.com headline was correct when it stated: “Essential Quality draws post 4 in nine-horse Blue Grass field.”
However, DRF writer Marty McGee once again was mistaken when writing that “Essential Quality has been assigned post 4 as the heavy favorite in a field of nine 3-year-olds in the Grade II, $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes, to be run Saturday at Keeneland for the 97th time.”
Assigned post 4? Just who did the “assigning?” Was it the racing secretary? Did someone else do the assigning?
No, Essential Quality did not get “assigned” post 4. He got post 4 in a random draw.
Trained by Brad Cox, Essential Quality is undefeated in four lifetime starts. Not only that, the Kentucky-bred Tapit colt is two for two at Keeneland.
Essential Quality won both the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity and Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last year en route to being voted an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
In his lone 2021 start to date, Essential Quality registered a 4 1/4-length victory as a 9-10 favorite in Oaklawn Park’s Southwest Stakes, which was contested on a sloppy track Feb. 27.
My selections for the Blue Grass Stakes are below:
1. Essential Quality
2. Highly Motivated
WOOD MEMORIAL ATTRACTS FIELD OF NINE
I honestly don’t like my chances of picking the winner in the Wood Memorial. I see it as a wide-open affair.
I am not particularly bullish on Prevalence. Sure, he might win. Prevalence is two for two and a definite contender. Who knows? Maybe he will go out there and win big.
But until I am proven otherwise, I think Prevalence is somewhat overrated (sort of like the Big 12 in March Madness). Prevalence’s Beyer Speed Figures of 87, then 83 just do not get my pulse racing. Similarly, a major reason I went against Greatest Honour in the Florida Derby is he had yet to run a Beyer above an 89.
While I do have Risk Taking ranked No. 9 on my current Kentucky Derby Top 10, I am not totally sold on him, either. Like Prevalence, a reservation I have concerning Risk Taking is he has yet to record a Beyer higher than 89.
What I do like about Risk Taking is the improvement he has shown since having blinkers added to his equipment (much like Known Agenda and Hot Rod Charlie).
Risk Taking is two for two with blinkers. I also like it that both of those victories came at 1 1/8 miles.
Chad Brown trains Risk Taking, a Kentucky-bred Medaglia d’Oro colt.
For me, the Wood pretty much boiled down to going with either Weyburn or Crowded Trade as my top pick.
Weyburn, trained by Jimmy Jerkens, won Aqueduct’s Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 6 by a nose when credited with a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. Crowded Trade lost by a scant nose for Brown when also being credited with a 95 Beyer.
The Gotham was Weyburn’s first start since Dec. 5. Crowded Trade, I thought, ran a heckuva race to nearly win the Gotham in that it was only his second career start.
Brooklyn Strong warrants consideration off his win in the Grade II Remsen Stakes on a sloppy track last Dec. 5 at the Big A. The concern with him, of course, is he has not started since the Remsen.
My selections for the Wood Memorial are below:
1. Crowded Trade
3. Risk Taking
4. Brooklyn Strong
KNOWN AGENDA JOINS KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10
I had Greatest Honour ranked at No. 4 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 last week. After he ran third in the Florida Derby, Greatest Honour slides down a couple of notches to No. 6 this week.
Florida Derby winner Known Agenda debuts on my Top 10 this week at No. 4.
My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:
1. Essential Quality
2. Concert Tour
3. Hot Rod Charlie
4. Known Agenda
5. Medina Spirt
6. Greatest Honour
7. Midnight Bourbon
9. Risk Taking
10. Dream Shake
Five horses listed on my Top 10 are scheduled to race this Saturday. They are Essential Quality (Blue Grass), Medina Spirit (Santa Anita Derby), Keepmeinmind (Blue Grass), Risk Taking (Wood) and Dream Shake (Santa Anita Derby).
UPDATED STRIKES SITUATION
My Derby Strikes System (DSS) consists of eight categories developed to try and ascertain a horse’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May from both tactical and historical perspectives. When a horse does not qualify in one of the categories, the horse gets a strike. The eight categories are listed at the end of this column/blog/article.
A number of the categories in the DSS are tied to the Kentucky Derby being run in May. Consequently, when the race was switched from May 2 to Sept. 5 last year due to the pandemic, it rendered the DSS unworkable.
The DSS is back now that the Kentucky Derby is returning to its traditional spot on the calendar in 2021.
According to the DSS, going back to 1973 and excluding the Kentucky Derby of 2020 when the race was run in September, the vast majority of Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike.
Since 1973 (again excluding 2020), 39 out of the Kentucky Derby winners (81%) have had zero strikes or one strike, while just seven have had two strikes.
The seven Kentucky Derby winners with two strikes were:
Cannonade (1974) Categories 3 and 4
Ferdinand (1986) Categories 2 and 4
Sea Hero (1993) Categories 3 and 5
Funny Cide (2003) Categories 2 and 8
Giacomo (2015) Categories 2 and 5
Justify (2018) Categories 1 and 8
Country House (2019) Categories 2 and 3
The only Kentucky Derby winner with more than two strikes was:
Mine That Bird (2009) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 8
In the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security had zero strikes and finished first by 1 1/4 lengths. However, the stewards disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th when ruling that he had committed a foul by veering out sharply nearing the five-sixteenths marker to cause interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy.
It is not until a horse’s next race will be the Kentucky Derby that a horse’s number of strikes can be determined.
These are the strikes for 13 current candidates for this year’s Kentucky Derby who are scheduled to make their next start in that race:
ZERO STRIKES OR ONE STRIKE
Greatest Honour (Category 3)
Helium (Category 5)
Hot Rod Charlie (Category 4)
Known Agenda (no strikes)
Like the King (no strikes)
Mandaloun (Category 4)
Midnight Bourbon (Category 4)
Spielberg (Category 5)
Hockey Dad (Categories 2 and 4)
O Besos (Categories 2 and 3)
Sainthood (Categories 2 and 7)
Soup and Sandwich (Categories 2 and 7)
Papetu (Categories 2, 4 and 5)
ESSENTIAL QUALITY FAVORED IN FUTURE WAGER
In Pool 1 of the 2021 Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW), which closed on Nov. 29, Life Is Good was the 5-1 favorite among the 22 individual horses. Essential Quality was the second choice at 8-1.
In Pool 2 of the KDFW, which closed on Jan. 24, Life Is Good was the 7-1 favorite among the 23 individual horses. Essential Quality again was the 8-1 second choice.
In Pool 3 of the KDFW, which closed on Feb. 14, Life Is Good again was the 7-1 favorite and Essential Quality the 8-1 second choice among the 23 individual horses.
In Pool 4 of the KDFW, which closed on March 7, Life Is Good was hammered down to 2-1 favoritism after his eight-length San Felipe victory. Essential Quality was the 5-1 second choice.
Pool 5, which is the final 2021 KDFW pool, closed last Sunday. Essential Quality was the 4-1 favorite. The “All Other 3-Year-Olds” option, which includes Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, closed at 5-1, as did Grade II Rebel Stakes winner Concert Tour.
Below are the final odds for Pool 5 of the 2021 KDFW:
4-1 Essential Quality
5-1 “All Other 3-Year-Olds”
5-1 Concert Tour
9-1 Greatest Honour
12-1 Hot Rod Charlie
13-1 Medina Spirit
25-1 Highly Motivated
27-1 Midnight Bourbon
30-1 Risk Taking
31-1 Rock Your World
33-1 Caddo River
38-1 Crowded Trade
45-1 Dream Shake
50-1 O Besos
53-1 Hidden Stash
SCR Hush of a Storm
Wagering on Hush of a Storm was suspended after he emerged from his third-place finish in the Rebel with an injury, according to Churchill Downs.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Mystic Guide rose to the top of this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll after winning last Saturday’s Group I, $12 million Dubai World Cup by 3 3/4 lengths.
Trained by Michael Stidham, Mystic Guide now is two for two this year. The 4-year-old Ghostzapper colt splashed his way to a six-length victory in Oaklawn’s Razorback Handicap on Feb. 27 in his 2021 debut.
Stidham has been training since 1979. I first got to know him in 1980 at Louisiana Downs. He won multiple stakes races at that Louisiana Downs meet with Me Good Man and Viterbo. When I saw Stidham do that, it was clear to me that the young conditioner might go on to accomplish some big things.
And now, all these years later, Stidham has added a victory in the rich Dubai World Cup to his resume.
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 333 Mystic Guide (21)
2. 328 Charlatan (10)
3. 309 Monomoy Girl (6)
4. 249 Swiss Skydiver (1)
5. 231 Knicks Go
6. 193 Colonel Liam
7. 122 Idol
8. 68 Maxfield
9. 52 Shedaresthedevil
10. 45 Gamine
Following Known Agenda’s Florida Derby triumph, he debuts at No. 4 in this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll.
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 373 Essential Quality (31)
2. 330 Concert Tour (6)
3. 258 Hot Rod Charlie
4. 240 Known Agenda
5. 185 Medina Spirit
6. 178 Greatest Honour
7. 89 Risk Taking
8. 88 Life Is Good (1)
9. 70 Midnight Bourbon
10. 51 Helium
MY DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM’S CATEGORIES
What are the eight categories in my Derby Strikes System? They are listed below:
1. THE GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming in 2017 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)
2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)
3. THE EIGHTH POLE CATEGORY. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
4. THE GAMENESS CATEGORY. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION CATEGORY. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)
6. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS CATEGORY. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)
7. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD CATEGORY. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 and Justify in 2018. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 1 for 63 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to finish second or third in the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)
8. THE NOT A GELDING CATEGORY. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)