The Kentucky Derby picture – already fairly clear heading into the first weekend of April – became significantly more transparent with legitimate contenders showing why they deserve to be among the favorites for the great race.

We previewed each of the key preps – the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby – in The Saturday Special presented by Pin Oak Stud. The only reference made to one of the races possibly producing the outright favorite for the Derby came in our blurb about the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

We wrote: Final pieces of the Derby puzzle for this weekend will be filled in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby. The lone Grade 1 of the trio of Derby preps could produce the likely favorite if Bolt d’Oro or Justify win and it figures to come down to those two with Lecomte winner Instilled Regard looking to bounce back from fourth in the Risen Star last time for Jerry Hollendorfer.”

A few Best of The Saturday Special and Worst of The Saturday Special selections are below, but we’ll consider this one among the former category since Justify most likely stepped into the favorite’s role with a victory over Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby. Sent to the front from the start, the son of Scat Daddy simply showed he was better than Bolt d’Oro and drew off to win by 3 lengths.

Critics will rally on the fact that no Derby winner has won without racing at 2, or they’ll say he’s so lightly race that he must be Indian Charlie reincarnated or that he drifted a little in the lane – all legitimate points – but it’s pretty obvious that the flashy chestnut should be the chalk come May 5.

It didn’t take many casual racing fans that gathered at this writer’s house to watch the Derby preps long to figure out which horse was best.

“Does he always have to run on the lead, or is he just better?” someone asked.

“He’s just better,” someone else said.

Everyone found out in the 1:49.72 it took Justify to win the $1 million Santa Anita Derby to improve to 3-for-3. If he makes the gate in Louisville he’ll join a group of 16 others since 1900 who made their fourth start in the Kentucky Derby, a cast that includes two winners in Big Brown (2008) and Regret (1915) and a third-place finishers in Curlin (2009).

Justify will also join 62 other horses since 1937 that did not race at 2 if he runs in the Kentucky Derby. None have won – some sharpies call it the “Curse of Apollo” in reference to the 1882 winner who didn’t race at 2 and actually won the Derby – but three finished second and five finished third. Four went off as the favorite, the last being 2012 runner-up Bodemeister, who like Justify was trained by Bob Baffert.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, who will be the second choice?

Most likely Good Magic, who rebounded from his loss in the Fountain of Youth to win the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass on a wintery day at Keeneland. Last year’s champion 2-year-old male turned in a professional performance in the Blue Grass, wearing down a stubborn opponent in Flameaway and holding off the late runners to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Chad Brown looks to improve his Derby record with Good Magic, who will be his fifth starter in the race since 2013. He recorded his best finish that year when Normandy Invasion finished fourth.

Good Magic leads the Road to the Kentucky Derby point standings at 134, and he’ll maintain that edge unless Solomini win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. Solomini has 34 points, good for 19th and in the Derby field if the race were today, and he’ll pick up 100 with a win in the Arkansas Derby.

The Wood Memorial, the first of the three preps run Saturday, featured a little extra drama with a stewards inquiry for bumping in the stretch. Vino Rosso was the alleged culprit, but officials kept his and John Velazquez’s number up after his 3-length win over Enticed.

Vino Rosso, co-owned by Mike Repole and Vinny Viola, is one of four serious contenders for two-time Derby winner Todd Pletcher along with Audible, Noble Indy and Magnum Moon.

 

Potential Derby field

With a little more than four weeks to go until the post-position draw for the Kentucky Derby, here’s the field if the race was today:

Good Magic, Audible, Noble Indy, Vino Rosso, Bolt d’Oro, Enticed, Mendelssohn, Justify, Flameaway, Bravazo, Promises Fulfilled, Magnum Moon, Runaway Ghost, Quip, Free Drop Billy, Lone Sailor, Hofburg, Firenze Fire, Solomini, Gronkowski.

The next five by points are: My Boy Jack, Instilled Regard, Snapper Sinclair, Combatant and Blended Citizen.

 

Handicapper’s Report

The ST Handicappers were nearly blanked on the four-race Georgia Steeplechase card in Atlanta – well, one did ring up the donut – and it took a winner in the last to bail them out.

The Fields Stable’s Barnacle Bill won the day’s feature, the $29,100 Georgia Cup Handicap, by 15 3/4 lengths under Jack Doyle for trainer Elizabeth Voss. Joe “On the way to Saratoga for the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ dinner Monday” Clancy maintained his lead in the season standings picking Barnacle Bill. Tom “Needs to cultivate handicapping knowledge versus a craft beer collection” Law also picked Barnacle Bill and doubled his season total to two. Sean “Late to post the picks” Clancy took the collar and remains at three. If you’re scoring that’s 6-3-2 now with Joe on top.

The other winners on the card were Eve Ledyard’s Go Get The Basil in the $27,9000 maiden hurdle for trainer Ricky Hendriks and jockey Ross Geraghty and Peggy Steinman’s Bullet Star in the $20,000 filly and mare maiden hurdle for trainer Paul Fout and jockey Kieran Norris. Hendriks also sent out the winner of the opener, Debra Kachel’s Gotta Get Away, who took the $13,950 maiden claiming hurdle under Michael Mitchell.

 

By the Numbers

6.2: Percentage increase for wagering in the first quarter of 2018 ($2.63 billion) compared to the first quarter of 2017 ($2.47 billion).

1,000: Wins for trainer Jason Servis after sending out Meant Tobe Mine in the ninth race Sunday at Gulfstream Park.

18,374: Opening Day crowd at Keeneland Friday, when Analyze It won the Grade 3 Transylvania to stay undefeated.

39,023: Attendance for Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby Day card, up 8 percent from a year ago.

$543,010: Total handle for the fourth Kentucky Derby Future Wager, an increase of 23.3 percent for the same pool a year ago.

$893,353: Wagering on the four Future Wager pools since November, up 25.4 percent.

$22,634,861: Record all-sources handle for Blue Grass Day at Keeneland, topping the mark of $21,736,983 set in 2016.

$957 million: Record total handle for the 2017-18 Gulfstream Park Championship meeting, up 10.4 percent from last year’s record $867 million

 

Worth Repeating

“I always kid people that a used car salesman could train him; he’s not hard to train at all.”
D. Wayne Lukas on Grade 3 Commonwealth winner Warrior’s Club 

“Every night it’s a different horse race we know that.”
Bill Rafftery during last Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship

“Love it. Never had been to Keeneland. I don’t want to leave. Can someone buy me a home here?”
Trainer Anthony Quartarolo before running Machismo in Saturday’s $1 million Toyota Blue Grass. He finished 12th of 14.

 

The Best of the Saturday Special

We wrote - Keeneland. Race 5. 3:25. First carded grass race of the Saturday card is 9-furlong allowance that looks like a good spot for Coco Channel off the layoff. If it comes off Charlie LoPresti might not be too upset either as she finished third in Grade 3 Cardinal in the slop last fall at Churchill Downs.
LoPresti didn’t mind and neither did Coco Channel, the winner by 1 ¾ lengths at 5-2 in the field of six.

We wrote - Aqueduct. Race 9. 5:17. You never know what you're going to see at Saratoga. In the sixth race August 5 last year, you saw a preview of the 2018 Bay Shore Stakes. National Flag and Engage dueled through the stretch of the 6-furlong maiden that day. After making contact with each other multiple times, National Flag got the best his rival that day. Since then, National Flag disappointed in the Grade 1 Hopeful, but won his comeback last month at Gulfstream. Engage hasn't been seen since he was an impressive winner of the Grade 3 Futurity in October. They are the headliners in this one.
They didn’t duel this time but National Flag and Engage finished 1-2 in the Grade 3 Bay Shore. National Flag closed from sixth to win by 4 lengths as the slight second choice. The two favorites in the field of seven combined for a $1 exacta worth $5. Hey, money is money.

 

The Worst of The Saturday Special

We wrote - Aqueduct Race 2. 1:31. The team of John Velazquez and Tony Dutrow look to strike here, a day before Grade 1 Hollywood Derby winner Mo Town makes his 2018 debut in the Danger's Hour Stakes. They will likely be tough here with 3-year-old Gravitating. He goes on the turf a month after his debut over the surface at Gulfstream when he finished second. He's up against the Chad Brown-trained duo of Clear N Convincing and Azzedine, a French-bred son of Dansili. 
We missed the mark in this one as Stuart Janney III’s homebred County Court upset the field at nearly 11-1, while Gravitating finished fifth. Azzedine was second and Clear N Convincing was fourth. Shug got Tony again Sunday as Phipps homebred Fire Away won the $100,000 Danger’s House with Mo Town third as the odds-on favorite.

We wrote - Golden Gate Fields. Race 5. 5:15. Jeff Bonde gave She’s No Drama a chance at the big time two back in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes, where she finished fifth. After a fifth again in Santa Anita sprint optional she’s back in Northern California for this 5 1/2-furlong optional.
She’s No Drama provided little drama to her supporters, stalking early and eventually fading to finish fifth of six at 3-2.

 

Stable Tour Archives

Ron Moquett was a breath of fresh air when we stopped by his barn in Saratoga’s Clark Stakes Barn for his 2016 Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour. The native of Hot Springs, Ark., pulled no punches during the visit, freely say he cared more about developing horses than he did win percentages; clearly our kind of guy. “That’s for novice gamblers and owners that don’t know what horsemanship is,” Moquett said. Here here.

Moquett also talked about a 2-year-old New York-bred filly by Maclean’s Music named Swing And Sway. A $185,000 buy at the OBS March sale, she hadn’t started at that point but later finished fifth in her debut late in the meet. Now 4, Swing And Sway ran her record to 5-for-15 with a victory in Saturday’s $147,000 Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Here’s what Moquett said about Swing And Sway in 2016:

“My New York-bred. Westrock's horse, the coffee people, Joe Ford. We bought a New York-bred, I don’t know why or what. She’s by Maclean’s Music. We were looking at her and later we realized she was a New York-bred, we like her, don’t care if she’s a New York-bred or not. Our main places to show out for us are here and Oaklawn. Obviously she can run here and they don't care if we run her there. She’ll be tough. She needs to take her job a little more seriously. She’s very talented. When she runs, has a good break and everything stays the way it is, you'll be writing about her the next day. That's a fast horse. I’m working her (Sunday) and if all goes well and stays good with her shins then we’ll probably go a week later. Just whenever the next maiden special weight goes. I’m talking her up, but I’m a trainer. I’m supposed to, right? If we were in that second race (Friday) she would have beat their brains in, from what I’ve seen. If she brings it in the afternoon.”