This weekend, we reach the crescendo of the three-year-old prep season. Four different tracks feature points races, and Picks and Ponderings makes (proverbial) visits to each.
Here, we focus on the two GI three-year-old preps on Saturday of opening weekend at Keeneland, the Ashland Stakes and the Blue Grass Stakes.
Paul Mazur looks east for Aqueduct's prep races, the Gazelle (GII) and the Wood Memorial (GI). He also turns his attention west for the final round of West Coast preps, the Santa Anita Oaks (GI) and the Santa Anita Derby (GI). Continuing their midwest theme, in addition to Keeneland, Nicolle Neulist also heads to Arkansas for the Fantasy Stakes (GIII), the final Kentucky Oaks prep at Oaklawn.
Lovers of multi-race wagers that span multiple tracks will get their wish this weekend with the Big Apple/Bluegrass Pick 4. The wager spans four graded stakes, two at Aqueduct (the GIII Bay Shore and the GI Wood) and two at Keeneland (the GI Madison and the GI Blue Grass). For those who monitor takeout, the rate is 19%, same as other Pick 4 wagers that Keeneland offers. It will also have a $0.50 minimum wager.
These races, and all races at Keeneland, can be streamed for free on the Keeneland website as well as the Horse Races Now mobile app. The Blue Grass Stakes will also be part of a telecast on NBC Sports Network, run from 5:00-7:00pm EDT. That telecast will also include the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby.
Race 6: Central Bank Ashland Stakes (GI), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 3:28pm EDT
Henry Clay was not just The Great Compromiser, a well-known statesman. He also owned, bred, and raced horses. His property was named Ashland, hence the moniker for this race. His son John continued the tradition of breeding and running horses from their estate. John was still alive when Day Star (1878) became Ashland Stud's first Kentucky Derby winner. After his death, Ashland produced Riley (1890) and Alan-A-Dale (1902). The name Ashland lives on in Lexington here, through the Ashland Stakes. Last year, the Ashland Stakes produced the Kentucky Oaks winner, Lovely Maria. However, she was not the first to take the Keeneland route to the blanket of lilies. Though she was the first in sixteen years to sweep that double, ten other fillies did it before her: Come and Go (1945), Real Delight (1952), Hidden Talent (1959), Sally Ship (1963), Blue Norther (1964), Sun and Snow (1975), Optimistic Gal (1976), Blush With Pride (1982), Princess Rooney (1983) and Silverbulletday (1999) also performed that feat.
Eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria wins the 2015 Ashland Stakes.
This year's Ashland drew just five fillies to compete for a Grade I win, a $500,000 purse, and a 100-50-20-10 allocation of Kentucky Oaks points. However, what it lacks in field size, it has in quality. RACHEL'S VALENTINA and CARINA MIA stamped themselves as top two-year-olds last year, and even BANREE had some solid runs against the boys as a juvenile. CATHRYN SOPHIA has emerged a force to be reckoned with at three, and WEEP NO MORE pulled a shocker (and made Picks and Ponderings readers a buck or two) at Tampa Bay Downs in February.
CATHRYN SOPHIA will be the chalk. Just as in her last few races at Gulfstream, the question is -- does she merit the short price? This space thinks, "if you can't beat them, join them." CATHRYN SOPHIA looks like the goods. She is fast enough to get the lead, ratable enough to stalk, and adaptable enough to rally from well off the pace to win even if the beginning goes poorly. She proved that in the Forward Gal. The biggest questions are the fact that she will be going two turns for the first time, and that the forecast suggests she may be running in slop for the first time. But, this space has no pedigree-related reservations on CATHRYN SOPHIA stretching to a mile and a sixteenth at this point in her career. She is by Street Boss, and her second dam Belterra (the horse, not the Ohio track) won the Golden Rod and was third in the Ashland. Her early speed is sharp, her late pace is on par with closers even if she runs early, and her breeding is fine for an off track. Though she has not raced at Keeneland, she is not a Gulfstream Park Horse -- she has handled Laurel and Parx beautifully, suggesting she can ship. Anyone looking for a clever way to beat CATHRYN SOPHIA in the Ashland will not find it here: she looks like the goods, and sometimes you just have to admit it.
The best of the rest, particularly with the possible rain as well as the short field, looks to be CARINA MIA. Though she has not raced since her Golden Rod (GII) win on Thanksgiving weekend, she has a few points in her favour. She looks to be the speed of the speed, likely the final frontier between CATHRYN SOPHIA and the finish line. She is a proven quantity in the rain, as her victory in the Golden Rod came over sloppy going. She has won over the same distance as the Ashland -- again, in that wire-to-wire victory in the Golden Rod. However, the waters are deeper here. CARINA MIA races first off a lay of over four months, as she was quarantined with everyone else at Payson Park this spring. Furthermore, the horse who chased her home in that last race, Stageplay, has been exposed to be questionable at best going two turns against classy company. She has never faced a challenge like CATHRYN SOPHIA: a filly fresher, fitter, and far more formidable than anything CARINA MIA has ever seen.
Three others remain. RACHEL'S VALENTINA is the class of the group, based on her two-year-old performances. She has gone this distance at Keeneland, and earned a "Second to Songbird" medal for her efforts. But, she has been on the shelf for five months, and stands to be an underlay given all the "Rachel's baby" money. BANREE has two wins over the Keenland course, but has done her better work going short. The move back to dirt is a positive sign, but she seems better set to go short. WEEP NO MORE intrigues, and should be the right price to spice up the bottoms of exotics. Her one race over slop was disappointing, but that was also her first career try. She broke her maiden in solid manner second out, over a good track at Tampa Bay. Particularly if the rain is tapering off by Saturday afternoon, she should be fine. Though she has not raced since mid-February due to the Payson quarantine, her strong races over Tampa's taxing track suggest fitness, as to the fact that both of her wins have come at two turns. WEEP NO MORE is an off-pace type, but her late pace is strong enough to suggest she will be rallying more sharply than anyone except perhaps the top selection late. Will she beat the likes of CATHRYN SOPHIA? Probably not. But, does the balance of risk and reward work out for tossing her underneath in a trifecta? Sure.
#3 CATHRYN SOPHIA (1/1)
#5 CARINA MIA (7/5)
#1 WEEP NO MORE (20/1)
Longshot: A nice five-horse field is still a five-horse field. The longshot writer is busy checking out the Blue Grass.
Race 10: Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (GI), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:00pm EDT
As one could surmise, the Blue Grass Stakes takes its name from the Kentucky Bluegrass region where Lexington lies. Run for the 92nd time this year, it has been a fruitful Kentucky Derby prep race. So far, ten winners of the Blue Grass have also won the Kentucky Derby. Of highest local interest is the winner of both the Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby in 1970: Dust Commander, the only Illinois-bred winner of the Kentucky Derby. In addition to winning a Classic himself, he also sired 1975 Preakness winner Master Derby -- who, himself, also won the Blue Grass. The nine others to have swept the Blue Grass/Derby double include Shut Out (1942), Tomy Lee (1959), Chateaugay (1963), Northern Dancer (1964), Lucky Debonair (1965), Forward Pass (1968, via the DQ of Dancer's Image), Riva Ridge (1972), Spectacular Bid (1979), and Strike the Gold (1991). It has been 25 years since a winner of the Blue Grass has won the Derby as well, though Blue Grass winner Dullahan was third behind I'll Have Another in 2012. Among Blue Grass winners who did not win the Derby, we would be remiss to leave out the 1966 edition: Abe's Hope, an Illinois-bred who had found hard luck down the Derby trail that year, racked up his first win of his sophomore season in that year's Blue Grass.
Spectacular Bid romps in the 1979 Blue Grass Stakes.
This year's Blue Grass offers a $1,000,000 purse, as well as Kentucky Derby points (100-50-20-10) to horses placed in the top four. The race drew an overflow field: fourteen entries, plus two on the also eligible list.
It also drew a lot of speed. As opposed to the Gotham, when LAOBAN had a relatively easy time on the front end, he will have more to fight here. Longshots TWIZZ and CARDS OF STONE will need to be on the front end to have any shot. LOOKIN FOR A KISS, DONEGAL MOON, AMERICAN DUBAI, and ZULU have also shown speed, and should be keeping them honest. With that, combined with his back form at Keeneland, BRODY'S CAUSE looks like the one to beat. He comes into the race second off a layoff. He did not fire at Tampa Bay last out, but give that a pass. He did not fire in his career debut, either, suggesting he may just be the type who needs one. Furthermore, Tampa Bay is a love-it-or-hate-it track. Odds are good BRODY'S CAUSE hated it. Keeneland, on the other hand, he loved last year. He won the Breeders' Futurity (GI) in the slop there, and finished a late-running third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (GI) there on a dry track. No matter the condition of the track, BRODY'S CAUSE demands respect, and should be covered on all multi-race tickets.
However, in a field this big? If there looks to be a value option to take it to the chalk, you bet that horse to win.
That option exists here, and it's MY MAN SAM. He is the top selection, and looks primed to validate his connections' decision to nominate him late to the Kentucky Derby. This talented son of Trappe Shot makes his first start away from the Aqueduct inner, and his first in stakes company. He took a huge step forward when he stretched from a sprint to a route for the first time, and then finished a respectable second behind Matt King Coal last out. MY MAN SAM has some of the strongest late pace in the field. The pace looks to set up beautifully for him for the same reasons as it will for BRODY'S CAUSE. He has the fitness, he has the recent form, and he should be the right price to appeal in the win pool.
The third slot was a close decision between a pair of Todd Pletcher runners, DONEGAL MOON and ZULU. Both of them should be closer to the pace, but both have shown enough of a rating gear to suggest they can sit off the speed of the speed, and then pounce. Each has a question that makes them tough to take at a short price. ZULU has only raced at Gulfstream, leaving open the possibility that he is just a Gulfstream Park Horse. Furthermore, regular rider John Velazquez shows up on Outwork in the Wood instead. DONEGAL MOON still has to prove his class. He has tried stakes company a few times, but never quite cut it. However, he was previously doing his best on the front -- but won an allowance at Parx last out while sitting off the pace. The field is larger and tougher here, but the fact that he ran the best race of his life while showing a new stalking dimension last out means that this son of Malibu Moon may be figuring the whole racing thing out. Given that DONEGAL MOON seems likely to drift longer than his 5/1 morning line, whereas ZULU will likely go off at a similarly short price as BRODY'S CAUSE, DONEGAL MOON is a more attractive bet. That said, it would be no surprise to see ZULU acquit himself well.
#14 MY MAN SAM (10/1)
#6 BRODY'S CAUSE (4/1)
#2 DONEGAL MOON (5/1)
Longshot: This space found #5 CRESCENT DRIVE (20/1) intriguing in last week's Spiral Stakes, but he did not draw in off the also-eligible list. We go right back to him here. Given how much speed drew into the race, his midpack-to-closing style should suit the race. Trainer Tom Amoss puts the blinkers on for the first time; his 26% win rate with that move suggests he knows what he is doing. The nine-furlong distance also should be fine, given his pedigree: sire Flower Alley won at a mile and an eighth, and dam Patience Drive is a Pulpit mare who won at two turns. This will be CRESCENT DRIVE's first try on dirt, but again, the pedigree looks fine: Flower Alley produced dual Classic winner I'll Have Another, and all of Patience Drive's wins came on dirt as well. CRESCENT DRIVE will have to take an enormous step forward to win this race, but among the true longshots in the field, this Amoss bomb has the best chance to invade for a share.
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