Derby Prep Alert
Derby Prep Alert

April 7, 2017Sponsored by BRIS, our Preferred Past Performance Provider

Sponsored by BRIS, our Preferred Past Performance Provider

It’s an action-packed week with six races, so let’s get right down to business! If you missed any of last week’s action, check out our last installment for replays, Brisnet charts and links to recaps.

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News About the Contenders

Blood-Horse: Sweet Loretta Back to Form in Beaumont
Blood-Horse: Sailor’s Valentine Exits Ashland in Good Order
Blood-Horse: Paradise Woods Brings Mandella Back to Kentucky Oaks
Blood-Horse: Blue Grass Hero Irap in Good Order After Shocking Win
Blood-Horse: Wilkes Retains Confidence After Blue Grass Loss
DRF: Watchmaker: Can Irish War Cry fire big back to back?
Oaklawn Park: Asmussen’s Arkansas Derby Pair Put in Final Works

Blood-Horse: Tapwrit Enters Blue Grass Looking Like a Million Bucks
Blood-Horse: Haskin’s Derby Dozen – April 4, 2017
Blood-Horse: Classic Empire Works Toward Arkansas Derby
Blood-Horse: Always Dreaming Moves to Second in Triple Crown Poll
Brisnet: Always Dreaming most impressive, Girvin keeps winning
DRF: Kentucky Derby: Who’s hot, who’s not for April 5
DRF: Road to the Derby: Florida Derby analysis
DRF: Road to the Derby: Louisiana Derby analysis

Ashland Stakes Kentucky Oaks prep race

Keeneland, Saturday April 8, post time: 5:40 pm ET
1 1/16 miles (8.5 furlongs)

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Favorite Daddys Lil Darling looks to make her trademark stretch rally in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

Sweeping five-wide moves, closing surges at the wire, late runs with flourish – these are descriptions of how Daddys Lil Darling prefers to finish her races. To simply call her a “closer” would be an injustice.

A change in running style last out in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks – also her first try on turf – didn’t suit the bay filly at all, something trainer Kenny McPeek noted.

“I think she’s just got one run in her,” said McPeek, who is seeking his third Ashland win. “I think she’s an off-the-pace type. That’s just the way she is.”

Winner of the Grade 2 Pocahontas, the bay filly came up short against Dancing Rags in the Grade 1 Alcibiades over this surface in October. In the Grade 2 Golden Rod, she was second to Farrell, now one of the top 3-year-old fillies in the country and who swept the Kentucky Oaks preps at Fair Grounds.

Trainer Bill Mott’s lightly-raced Elate has the look of a rising star. Her third-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 3 Honeybee was a strong effort, considering the troubled start that left her far back and out of the mix until a vigorous stretch rally. In her two previous races she was close to the pace, and that will likely be the perfect spot for her here with jockey José Ortiz aboard. She’ll be in prime position to fire in her third race off the layoff.

Elate also boasts a standout pedigree as a daughter of top sire Medaglia d’Oro, known for such female greats as Rachel Alexandra, Plum Pretty and Songbird.

Was it the blinkers-on experiment, the 12-post in a huge field or just an unexplained aberration for Pretty City Dancer in her last start, the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream?

The lackluster sixth-place finish was out of character for the gray filly. She had previously not finished worse than third in five starts, including a dead-heat win in the Grade 1 Spinaway. She’ll return blinkers-free to try two turns for the first time and will have a new jockey in Joel Rosario. Look for Pretty City Dancer to be closer to the pace on Saturday.

Casse’s other contender is Summer Luck, also trying two turns for the first time. This rallying closer has made up ground in the stretch of all three stakes tries, including finishing third in the Davona Dale. Her running style and stamina pedigree – she’s by 2010 Preakness and Haskell Invitational winner Lookin at Lucky – indicate she’s tailored for the added distance. Florent Geroux, aboard for the Davona Dale, returns to the saddle.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s Tapped and Richard Baltas’ Meanie Irenie ship from California.

Tapped has been in the mix in all five starts, including finishing fourth after setting the pace in a competitive Grade 1 Starlet. She likes to be on or near the lead, so the question is: How far can she carry her speed?

Interesting to note that Julien Leparoux lands on longshot Meanie Irenie. She’ll be trying many new things: first time away from Santa Anita, first stakes race and first time beyond 6 1/2 furlongs.

Sailor’s Valentine returns to the scene of her debut and lone career win. She’s been valiant in defeat against some tough company. Her loss by a neck on March 12 at Tampa on turf was a sharp return after a two-month layoff and could set her up well for this scenario. Jockey Corey Lanerie is always one to watch at Keeneland. The only drawback is that Sailor’s Valentine has faltered as the favorite three out of four times in races far below this class level.

Ohio-bred Someday Soon showed what she’s capable of in a nice wire-to-wire win in an optional claiming race at Oaklawn on Feb. 12. Her efforts against state-bred foes are solid, but this Grade 1 looks like a steep hill to climb for this bay filly.

J.J. Hysell

Wood Memorial Kentucky Derby prep race

Aqueduct, Saturday April 8, post time: 5:52 pm ET
1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs)

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This year’s renewal of the Wood Memorial—first run in 1925—carries a bit of ignominy, as it was downgraded last year from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2, its purse cut from $1 million to $750,000.

But it’s still worth 170 Kentucky Derby points, and that means that its top two finishers, and possibly the third-place runner, will earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 6.

Graham Motion’s Irish War Cry is taking the northern route to the Derby following a seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. He was an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Holy Bull in February, going straight to the lead and playing “catch me if you can.” No one did, and he won by 3 3/4 lengths. Next out jockey Joel Rosario seemed to be trying to teach the chestnut colt to rate, as speedsters are seldom successful in the Kentucky Derby; if the Fountain of Youth was supposed to be a lesson, Irish War Cry didn’t learn it. There’s some speed entered here, and having drawn post 8, Rosario’s going to have make a decision out of the gate about whether to gun or to hang back.

Another with an affinity for the lead is Todd Pletcher’s Battalion Runner, the morning line favorite who is also making his debut in a stakes race of any kind. His first race was last June at Belmont, and then we didn’t see him again until December at Gulfstream, where he won two straight. Pletcher and owner Vincent Viola elected to run Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby last weekend and run this guy here—a decision that paid off when they won down south, and it will hardly be a surprise if the move pays off here, too.

The last time Mo Town raced at Aqueduct, in the Grade 2 Remsen back in November, he put himself firmly on the Derby trail with 2 1/2-length win. Since then, he’s raced just once, finishing fifth in the Risen Star in late February at Fair Grounds. He, too, likes to run on or near the lead, but in post 2 with cheap speed to his inside and Battalion Runner on the other side, that might not prove a winning strategy. He’ll need to improve significantly to earn enough points to make it to Churchill Downs.

A late-comer to the Derby trail is Cloud Computing, who made his first start in February, winning at Aqueduct, then jumping right into graded stakes with a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham. He was 3 1/2 lengths behind J Boys Echo, but given his inexperience, his performance was impressive, and it’ll be no surprise to see him go off as the favorite on Saturday.

True Timber has danced every dance at Aqueduct this winter, but he hasn’t gotten to the winner’s circle since December, and he faces tougher competition here than he has in the last few months. Bonus Points is another who stuck around for the winter, finishing second, 11 lengths behind El Areeb in the Grade 3 Jerome, then fourth in the Grade 3 Withers. He’s unraced since that early February race.

Stretch’s Stone broke his maiden impressively at Aqueduct in December, then was off for two months, returning to finish second by a neck in an optional-claimer in late February. This is a big jump, and a big ask, but if the rain that’s been pummeling New York sticks around long enough, you might give him a second look, as that 8 1/4-length win came in the slop. Glennrichment took four races to break his maiden, and he goes straight from that win to this race. It seems unlikely that owners Zayat Stables will get their Derby runner here.

Teresa Genaro

Santa Anita Oaks Kentucky Oaks prep race

Santa Anita, Saturday April 8, post time: 6:04 pm ET
1 1/16 miles (8.5 furlongs)

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For the second time in as many years, the Kentucky Oaks favorite going into April will miss that race on the first Friday in May due to injury.

Last year it was Songbird who looked invincible heading into the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks off a victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. This year, Unique Bella won’t even make the Santa Anita Oaks, but this race still could provide the Kentucky Oaks favorite four weeks later, as Abel Tasman leads a field of 7 3-year-old fillies on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

Abel Tasman is making her first start for Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert after winning three of five starts, including the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes as a 2-year-old for trainer Simon Callaghan. However, a silks mix-up when the filly was second by 2 1/4 lengths to Unique Bella in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel prompted the trainer change.

Another Racing Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, has the dubious distinction of having trained both sidelined Oaks favorites, but he is still represented in the Santa Anita Oaks with It Tiz Well, winner of the Grade 3 Honeybee last out. It Tiz Well finished 7 1/2 lengths behind her stablemate Unique Bella when second in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes in their 3-year-old debuts.

Abel Tasman and It Tiz Well are the lone graded stakes winners in the field with Mopotism the lone other stakes winner. She won the Island Fashion Stakes last out at Sunland Park, her first start since finishing second by 8 3/4 lengths to Unique Bella in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes Stakes.

If Abel Tasman wins the Santa Anita Oaks, then she could be favored in the Kentucky Oaks over Fair Grounds Oaks winner Farrell. Otherwise, Farrell is the likely Oaks favorite, though It Tiz Well would certainly take money in the Kentucky Oaks with a good showing here.

The biggest wildcard against the established stakes stars is Princess Karen, who stretches out to 1 1/16 miles after three one-turn races. She figures to set the pace here, though she loses regular jockey Mike Smith to the favorite Abel Tasman.

Maiden winners Paradise Woods and Bernina Star and maiden Majestic Quality round out the field.

Ed DeRosa

Blue Grass Stakes Kentucky Derby prep race

Keeneland, Saturday April 8, post time: 6:17 pm ET
1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs)

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Undefeated McCraken’s route to the starting gate of Saturday’s Grade 2, $1,000,000 Blue Grass Stakes took some detours, but trainer Ian Wilkes thinks it could work out for the best.

McCraken, winner of the Street Sense and the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs as a 2-year-old, stamped himself as a top Kentucky Derby contender with his easy victory in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11. But the bay colt missed a slated run in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby due to a slight left front ankle strain, and since then, he’s been putting in steady works at Keeneland in preparation for his first 1 1/8-miles test.

“He has gotten bigger and stronger since he has been here and maybe missing that race was a blessing,” Wilkes said.

McCraken hasn’t skipped a beat during his off time – and he hasn’t missed a meal, either.

“He loves his food, loves eating,” Wilkes said. “You can’t be late giving him his food because he’ll just holler and scream.”

While the Blue Grass trophy would be a coveted prize for Wilkes and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., Wilkes said a solid effort is the goal. McCraken is currently 17th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 20 points.

“The goal is the first Saturday in May, and he doesn’t have to win this race,” Wilkes said. “I don’t want to put that pressure on the horse. If he gets the right race and moves forward, we’ll be fine.”

The right race for McCraken – a late closer who has come from far off the pace in every race – includes a lively pace up front, and it’s tough to envision that with this field of seven made up mostly of stalkers and closers.

A contender with a lot of upside is the Todd Pletcher-trained Tapwrit, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and runner-up to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis.

Since breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park West on Nov. 6, the gray colt has displayed a handy versatility. He can come from far off the pace or settle in at mid-pack under jockey José Ortiz. His second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis was sneaky-good; once angled out in late stretch, he surged to finish just a length and a half behind that rival. The question will be fitness, as he’s making his third start in a span of eight weeks.

A victory by Tapwrit would give Pletcher a record four Blue Grass Stakes wins. Five trainers have won the race three times.

J Boys Echo returns to the site of his smashing maiden win, and the Dale Romans trainee has shown improvement in three Grade 3 stakes efforts since then. Stuck in post 9 in a field of 10 in the Delta Jackpot, the bay colt re-rallied after losing steam mid-race to finish fourth behind winner Gunnevera. He endured a wide trip from post 10 in the Withers and finished third. A ground-saving journey from the rail in the Gotham proved to be the breakthrough for J Boys Echo, who looks like a solid contender at a nice price.

Pedigree-wise, J Boys Echo is bred for longer distances. He’s a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, who excelled at longer distances and won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 10 furlongs in his career finale. Romans and owner Albaugh Family Stable won last year’s edition of the Blue Grass with Brody’s Cause.

While the added distance could be a challenge for Wild Shot, the George Arnold trainee has held his own against top competition. The colt went head-to-head with McCraken twice; both times he snatched the lead in the stretch but was passed by that rival. He set the pace before conceding to winner Classic Empire in the stretch of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity over this surface in November and wound up finishing third. Classic Empire went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Eclipse Award for top juvenile.

Of interest is the path jockey Corey Lanerie is expected to take with Wild Shot.

“He will be on the lead,” Arnold said.

Going wire-to-wire at the 1 1/8-miles distance could prove a challenge, particularly against such talented closers.

Another prospect questionable on the stretch-out – but not short on talent – is the Chad Brown-trained Practical Joke. The colt was three of four as a 2-year-old with two Grade 1 wins and a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race in which he bumped with runner-up Not This Time at the start and lost ground late.

His 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth on March 4 was a solid comeback off the layoff. He was forced to check hard after the first turn, stalling his rally and leaving him far back. When asked for run, the colt took off, passing horses with gusto until he was in a head-to-head battle with leader Three Rules. Winner Gunnevera came from off the pace to pass them both in the stretch while Practical Joke held on for second.

It’s Your Nickel returns to dirt after a win over synthetic in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway. The surface shouldn’t be an issue as he’s fared well on dirt previously, but he hasn’t faced the same level of top 3-year-olds as his foes. The colt also must navigate from the rail.

Irap is looking to become the first maiden to win the Blue Grass. The son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow wheels back less than two weeks after finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby.

This will be Irap’s fourth race in nine weeks. Since he sheds the blinkers he wore in the Sunland Derby, Irap could be part of the early pace scenario.

Most notable for the Doug O’Neill trainee was a distant second behind super-talent Mastery, now sidelined by injury, in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in December. One benefit for the half-brother of 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Speightstown is jockey Julien Leparoux, a Keeneland regular who has won the track’s leading rider title 11 times.

Gazelle Stakes Kentucky Oaks prep race

Aqueduct, Saturday April 8, post time: 6:25 pm ET
1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs)

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The two standouts in this year’s renewal of the Gazelle don’t even need to finish in the top four to ensure a spot in the Kentucky Oaks on April 5: they’ve already got more than enough points, no matter what happens in this race and the other Oaks preps this weekend. A month out from the big race, there’s no reason for their trainers to push them as they try the 9-furlong distance—but nor do they want to head for the biggest race in their careers without a solid tune-up.

Miss Sky Warrior is the only graded stakes winner in the field, and she comes into the Gazelle on quite an impressive streak: four wins, three of them in graded stakes, most recently a half-length win in the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park. Aside from a dominant 7-length win in her maiden-breaker, she doesn’t tend to win by much, but that last race proved that she doesn’t need to be on the lead to win, an advantage in a race that has some speed in it.

In addition to having the best name in the race, Yorkiepoo Princess also has a great story. A gate scratch in her debut at Saratoga last summer, she comes from the barn of trainer Eddie Barker, who’s been training since 1994 and has yet to win a graded stakes race. This dark bay/brown filly was purchased for $65,000 as a yearling by Stonestreet Stables, then was pin-hooked a year later for a mere $8,000. With a record of four wins from seven starts and earnings of $244,000, she’s quite the bargain. She’s worked her way up to her graded stakes debut from maiden claimers and listed stakes, having won her last three by a combined 12 lengths, and like Miss Sky Warrior, she showed in her last race that she can sit off the pace to get the win. With one exception, her losses have come on the grass; she found her home on the dirt, loves Aqueduct (the main and the inner), and has a win at a mile and a sixteenth.

Tiz Rae Anna returns to Aqueduct on two weeks’ rest to try to earn her way into the Oaks. She’s got 10 points, so a third- or maybe even a fourth-place finish might do the trick, but she’s yet to break through in a listed stakes, well-beaten in her last three attempts against some of these rivals. She was claimed when she broke her maiden last fall, and you have to go back to an optional-claimer in January to find her last win.

Stay Fond, from the Pletcher/Repole team, is another who comes back fairly quickly, having broken her maiden at Gulfstream on March 15. That was her first race since last August, when she was third at Monmouth, but that win came at a mile, and her sire Stay Thirsty had an affinity for both distance and Aqueduct. Given the long layoff and the short break, this might be a big ask for a filly with only two races on her resume; nonetheless, she intrigues.

Similarly inexperienced is North End. She spent the winter at Aqueduct and broke her maiden over the inner track by 5 1/2 lengths on March 17, and jockey Javier Castellano takes over in the irons from José Ortiz, no slouch himself. Like Stay Fond, she’s got a win at a mile; like Stay Fond, she’s got impressive connections in Chad Brown and her owners, Michael Dubb, Sheep Pond Partners, and Bethlehem Stables. Both of these fillies have also demonstrated an inclination to race close to the lead, and both are breaking from the outside post, making for some interesting choices for their jockeys.

Full House is another speedy sort who tries this graded stakes with just a maiden win to her credit; last out in the Busher, she was second, in between rivals here Yorkiepoo Princess and Tiz Rae Ann. Rimanisempreforte has had three trainers in a four-race career, with wins coming in a maiden claimer and an optional-claimer.

Lockdown makes her first start since January 15, a win in the Busanda. For the first time in her four-race career, she has the same jock, Kendrick Carmouche, in the saddle for consecutive races. And—sorry for the repetition—she’s another that does her best running on the lead. Aspen Hilltop debuted at Saratoga last August, winning at first asking, then didn’t race again until a month ago in the Davona Dale, when she stumbled over a rival and never factored. So she’s inexperienced and she hasn’t had a real race in her in nine months—second off the layoff and certainly well rested, she’s worth a look.

Teresa Genaro

Santa Anita Derby Kentucky Derby prep race

Santa Anita Park, Saturday April 8, post time: 6:30 pm ET
1 1/8 miles (9 furlongs)

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West Coast-based horses have fared well in recent editions of the Kentucky Derby, with horses trained in the Golden State accounting for four of the past five winners.

However, California’s most prestigious race for 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail–the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby– had more of a say in the first half of that streak than recently.

I’ll Have Another and California Chrome parlayed Santa Anita Derby victories into Kentucky Derby glory in 2012 and 2014, respectively, but champion 2-year-old males American Pharoah and Nyquist both shipped east for their final prep, winning the Arkansas and Florida Derbies, respectively.

What this year’s Santa Anita Derby lacks in immediate star power (there is no Grade 1 winner in the field) makes up for in depth. As the only Grade 1 race for 3-year-olds this weekend (both the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial were downgraded as Grade 2 events for this year), the race attracted 13 entrants versus just seven in the Blue Grass and eight in the Wood. McCraken and Tapwrit have been two of the more consistent horses this year, and they face off in the Blue Grass Stakes, which helps make the Santa Anita Derby more wide open.

The likely favorite in the Santa Anita Derby is the colt who lost to the horse who would have been the favorite had he not been injured. Tha favorite is Iliad, and the injured horse is Mastery, the second- and first-place finishers, respectively, in last month’s Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes.

Mastery won that race impressively but suffered an injury in it and is off the Triple Crown trail. Iliad chased him around the track and looked like a potential winner turning for home. A repeat of that effort is likely good enough to win the Santa Anita Derby.

The key word, though, is “repeat,” which has not happened often during this year’s prep season. Champion Classic Empire lost his 3-year-old debut to Irish War Cry, who then lost his next race to Gunnevera, who lost his next race to Always Dreaming.

McCraken and Tapwrit have been two of the more consistent horses this year, and they face off in the Blue Grass Stakes, which helps make the Santa Anita Derby more wide open especially if Iliad does not replicate his performances to date.

Speaking of not replicating performances to date, two of the other contenders here also fit into that category. The one-two finishers from the Grade 3 Sham Stakes–Gormley and American Anthem, respectively—both ran off the board in their next starts, with Gormley fourth behind Mastery, Iliad, and Term of Art in the San Felipe, and American Anthem 10th in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes.

They both return here as does Term of Art, a winner in an off-the-turf stakes race as a 2-year-old at Del Mar who has not won since but has posted improving Speed Ratings and finish positions.

The key race of the Santa Anita Derby could end up being an allowance race that featured Battle of Midway a neck ahead of Reach the World with Irish Freedom fifth. Bob Baffert trains American Anthem, Reach the World, and Irish Freedom, all of which are entered here.

Not to be outdone Doug O’Neill trains Iliad, Term of Art, So Conflated, and Milton Freewater, meaning the training duo accounts for seven of the 11 entrants. O’Neill won the 2012 Santa Anita and Kentucky Derbies with I’ll Have Another but shipped Nyquist to the Florida Derby last year before winning the Kentucky Derby. Baffert won the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah but prepped him in the Arkansas Derby, winning the Santa Anita Derby that year with Dortmund. Together, Baffert and O’Neill have won four of the past six Santa Anita Derbies.

A live longshot in this year’s race could be Kimbear, who scratched out of the Sunland Park Derby two weeks ago to run here instead. He won his last start by 4 1/2 lengths over Sonneteer, who finished second as a maiden to Malagacy in the Rebel. Kimbear’s best races have come on dirt, and scratching out of an $800,000 race to point here is a sign of confidence.

Robert Lewis Stakes winner Royal Mo drew the far outside post 13 and rounds out the field with maiden winners Comma Sister and Midnight Pleasure. John Shirreffs trains both Gormley and Royal Mo, and throwing his name into the Baffert-O’Neill mix accounts for six of the last 10 Santa Anita Derby winners and 7 of the past 20 Kentucky Derby winners.

Ed DeRosa