The Derby Trail is nearing its end.
This weekend features the second to last Saturday of Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks points preps, and they will run from coast to coast. This piece focuses on the pair of points preps at Keeneland: the Ashland (G1) for the fillies, and a loaded renewal of the Blue Grass (G2) for open company.
In separate pieces, we preview the prep races carded elsewhere: the Wood Memorial (G2) and the Gazelle (G2) at Aqueduct, and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G2) out west.
NBC Sports Network will air a telecast of the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Wood Memorial starting at 4:30pm CDT. Keeneland will stream the Blue Grass, the Ashland, and all of its races on their website. Horse Racing Radio Network will also provide live audio coverage of these two races, as well as the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and the Wood Memorial (G2), streaming on their website.
Race 9: Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:40pm 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. This race has been a fertile ground for lilies, as eleven fillies have parlayed an Ashland Stakes victory into a Kentucky Oaks triumph: 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), Silverbulletday (1999), and Lovely Maria (2015). Last year's Oaks winner contested the Ashland, but did not win: Cathryn Sophia finished third behind longshot Weep No More, but won the Oaks emphatically the following month.
Lovely Maria wins the 2015 Ashland Stakes with ease. She would follow that up with a win in the Kentucky Oaks.
Eight fillies line up to contend for their share of a $500,000 purse and Kentucky Oaks points (100-40-20-10). After airing by twelve lengths on debut at Aqueduct last fall, ELATE has yet to find the winners' circle again in two starts this year. But, the Suncoast Stakes was her first start off a two and a half month lay, and she chased a wire-to-wire winner in Tapa Tapa Tapa all the way around. Next out, in the Honeybee (G3) at Oaklawn, she started poorly but ran on well late. In short, ELATE has some excuses, and some room for improvement third off the layoff. She also gets a return to rider Jose Ortiz, who rode her in her first two career starts. If she settles into her customary stalking spot, she should be well set to draft behind the likes of SOMEDAY SOON and TAPPED, and fulfill the promise she showed in her scintillating debut last year.
DADDYS LIL DARLING hails from the hot barn of trainer Ken McPeek. She gave the grass a try last out, but returns to the dirt here. She has shown solid form going a mile and a sixteenth on dirt, with a win in the Pocahontas (G2) as well as two graded placings last year. Though that Pocahontas victory came in the mud, her placings in the Alcibiades (G1) and the Golden Rod (G2) did not. She can run on a fast track. Though the field is small -- a worry for a closer like DADDYS LIL DARLING -- there is enough speed to give her a setup, and her maiden victory suggests that rider Robby Albarado can keep her a bit closer if he feels he needs to. Back to her preferred surface and second off the lay, there's much to like about DADDYS LIL DARLING.
Trainer Mark Casse sends a pair in here. SUMMER LUCK scratched out of both the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) to run here instead. Given her breeding, two turns should be her game. But, the game of musical chairs has this space wary. PRETTY CITY DANCER, the other Casse, appeals more. Yes, her Davona Dale (G2) was not very good -- despite a cracking pace in front of her, she didn't close. But, that was her only start with blinkers, and she takes them back off here. For Casse, blinkers off is an excellent move: 27% wins, 65% in the money, and a positive ROI. On pace, she stands to get some early speed to run at here. And, as a Tapit half to the long-winded Lear's Princess, PRETTY CITY DANCER has a right to take well to this, her first start at two turns. It is a bit of a concern that Casse's "A" rider, Julien Leparoux, does not ride; he shows up on west coast shipper MEANIE IRENIE instead. But, new rider Joel Rosario has been riding well for Casse lately, and perhaps it was a deliberate rider switch after the clunker in the Davona Dale. All in all, PRETTY CITY DANCER gets one more chance to prove herself here.
#2 ELATE (7/2)
#6 DADDYS LIL DARLING (5/2)
#3 PRETTY CITY DANCER (7/2)
Longshot: #7 SAILOR'S VALENTINE (12/1) has done her best work from forward -- but does not need the lead, something that will prove useful with SOMEDAY SOON and TAPPED both loading into the starting gate. She returns to the dirt here after a solid enough try on turf -- a close second in an allowance at Tampa last month. That came at a mile and a sixteenth, showing she can get the distance. Though SAILOR'S VALENTINE's breeding suggests turf may be where she ends up, she has solid enough dirt form from last year to make this worth a try. And, she has something no other filly in the field has: a win at Keeneland. Coming out on top against this field will not be easy, but the best from SAILOR'S VALENTINE may get her on the podium at long odds.
Race 10: Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:17pm EDT
As one could surmise, the Blue Grass Stakes takes its name from the Kentucky Bluegrass region where Lexington lies. Run for the 93rd time this year, it has been a fruitful Kentucky Derby prep race over its history -- though less so in recent years, as it was downshifted to a Grade 2 for this year's running. 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). 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 leaves no doubt who was best in the 1979 Blue Grass Stakes.
Though the Blue Grass drew just seven horses to compete for a $1,000,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points (100-40-20-10), the race drew four top-notch Derby contenders in MCCRAKEN, TAPWRIT, J BOYS ECHO, and PRACTICAL JOKE. MCCRAKEN has been tough so far -- in four starts, no one has beaten him yet, and there has always been daylight between him and the place horse come the wire. Whether the pace was torrid or merely honest, MCCRAKEN has always fired, always gotten there. His last-out victory in the Sam F. Davis has been franked since, with second-place TAPWRIT coming back to win the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and third-place State of Honor getting place honours in both that race and the Florida Derby (G1). MCCRAKEN's breeding suggests a mile and an eighth should be fine.
But -- there is always the lingering question when a horse misses an intended start, and MCCRAKEN missed the Tampa Bay Derby with an ankle strain. He has been working like gangbusters since, suggesting that the injury was as minor as trainer Ian Wilkes says it was. With MCCRAKEN likely to be a short price, and this field the toughest that MCCRAKEN has yet seen, it makes sense to look elsewhere if there is a credible candidate.
Hello, PRACTICAL JOKE. He has been facing, and proving up to the task of, classy company both at ages two and three. He finished a well-beaten second behind Gunnevera last out in the Fountain of Youth, but that was his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) in November. It was the sort of prep he could move forward from, and he should be tighter here. PRACTICAL JOKE came from well off the pace in his last three starts -- but his more tactical trip in the Hopeful (G1) last out suggests that Joel Rosario should be able to ride him a little closer to the pace. That matters, as this field does not have much pace other than WILD SHOT, and means he could possibly get the jump on MCCRAKEN. The biggest worry is the mile and an eighth distance; PRACTICAL JOKE is an Into Mischief, and, his babies are a bit suspect going nine panels. But, the underside of his pedigree should give him some bottom, and trainer Chad Brown has no qualms about keeping a horse at shorter distances if that's where they belong: see Swale (G2) winner Favorable Outcome, who is not only trained by Brown but owned by the same connections.
TAPWRIT and J BOYS ECHO are both legitimate Derby prospects on speed and form, though both get a class test here. TAPWRIT has some tables to turn on MCCRAKEN here. Though he has some tactical versatility, rider Jose Ortiz has really only taken him from midpack, and an in-form MCCRAKEN likely proves a sharper closer. J BOYS ECHO, on the other hand, appeals just a bit more. He rallied from midpack in a short field last out in the Gotham (G3), taking a serious step forward from the Withers (G3) where he was third behind lone speed El Areeb. But, particularly interesting is J BOYS ECHO's maiden win. It came over a fast track at Keeneland, showing he can run well over the course. And, with Robby Albarado aboard, he sat closer to the pace than he has been in his more recent starts. Albarado, his regular rider, returns to the irons today. Add to that, J BOYS ECHO's distance breeding suggests he can cover the nine furlongs of the Blue Grass, and then some. If he can step from a relatively weak New York prep circuit up amongst the big boys, J BOYS ECHO could make an impact.
#7 PRACTICAL JOKE (7/2)
#2 MCCRAKEN (7/5)
#3 J BOYS ECHO (4/1)
Longshot: Speed in a short field can be dangerous, and #5 WILD SHOT (15/1) has that going for him. Of course, he has some tables to turn here: MCCRAKEN beat him at Churchill Downs and at Tampa Bay Downs, and TAPWRIT finished ahead of him twice in Tampa, too. But, WILD SHOT does revert back to having Corey Lanerie in the irons; Lanerie booted him to a solid second behind McCraken in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) last year. His one start at Keeneland last year was also a solid enough one: on a pressured pace in the Breeders' Futurity (G1), he still hung around for third behind Classic Empire and Lookin At Lee. These are deep waters for WILD SHOT, but with a pace advantage, a jockey he likes, and a course he can handle, perhaps he can surprise some people at long odds.