Keeneland | Race 10 | Post Time 6:17 p.m. (ET) | Go To The FREE TimeformUS PPs
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Out of all of the preps we have yet witnessed this year, the Grade 2, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass figures to have the greatest implications moving forward to the Kentucky Derby. Not only has this race drawn the early Derby favorite, McCraken, but it has also attracted three other major graded stakes winners: J Boys Echo earned one of the highest speed figures of the season in winning the Grade 3 Gotham; Tapwrit created plenty of buzz with a runaway victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby; and Practical Joke is a dual Grade 1 winner, having taken the Hopeful and Champagne as a two-year-old.
Incidentally, each of those aforementioned contenders possesses a very similar running style. All prefer to race somewhere in mid-pack early before sweeping to the lead coming off the far turn. That should lead to an interesting pace scenario, since there really is not a confirmed frontrunner in this compact field.
The Pace Projector is predicting that Wild Shot (#5), who had shown plenty of speed as a two-year-old, will be leading the pack early in a situation that is predicted to favor horses on or near the lead. Given the fact that the top contenders in this race are not necessarily in need of a win in order to qualify for the Derby, it’s fair to wonder if any of their connections will be eager to go after the projected leader early in the race.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, IT’S YOUR NICKEL (20-1): By virtue of a disqualification two back, he comes into this Blue Grass riding a three-race winning streak. However, this represents a huge step up in class. The runner that he was involved in a photo finish with at the Fair Grounds returned to finish a well-beaten sixth in the Louisiana Derby, and the Blue Grass undoubtedly came up tougher than that prep. Furthermore, this son of Dialed In has been most impressive in his two wins over turf and Polytrack. He appears to be up against it against the best of his generation on dirt.
#2, MCCRAKEN (7-5): It’s hard to find any faults with this colt. Each race that he’s run has seemingly been a carbon copy of the last – except for the fact that he’s run faster with each successive start, cycling up to a respectable 116 TimeformUS Speed Figure for his win in the Sam F. Davis. He has already beaten two of his main rivals in this race, Tapwrit and Wild Shot, going a mile and a sixteenth, and he gives no indication that the extra half-furlong will pose an issue.
The only minor concern with this horse is the unplanned layoff heading into this final prep. It has been well documented that he missed a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby due to a minor ankle injury. Ian Wilkes has not shied away from saying that he really needs to get a race into McCraken and isn’t necessarily afraid of losing this one as long as the horse gets something out of it. He is still the horse to beat and a deserving favorite, so I have to use him prominently in my wagers. Yet, given an expected short price – and a probable underlay at that – in spite of the apparent hurdles, I also want to look at some other contenders.
#3, J BOYS ECHO (4-1): While this horse paid a generous win price of $14.80 in the Gotham, his decisive victory came as no surprise to those that were paying attention to the inner track surface this winter. J Boys Echo has run considerably better than it had appeared in the Withers back in February after racing extremely wide all the way on a day when the inner track was strongly favoring horses that raced on the rail. Yet, if nothing went right for J Boys Echo in the Withers, everything went his way in the Gotham. Unlike in the Withers, which featured a slow pace that caused the field to bunch up, the early pace of the Gotham was quite fast, which allowed J Boys Echo to race freely and in the clear down the backstretch. He had the leaders in his sight a long way out, and just waited for Robby Albarado to push the button, at which point he overwhelmed his foes and strutted home to an easy win.
While he did work out a perfect trip in the Gotham, I don’t think you need to take anything away from his performance. After all, the race earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure and a 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure, making it one of the fastest Kentucky Derby preps that has been run so far this year. J Boys Echo has run well in all of his two-turn starts despite encountering trouble in three of them, and he even owns an impressive win at Keeneland. Futhermore, he possesses more tactical speed than the rivals drawn on either side of him, which could allow him to work out a perfect stalking trip just in behind likely leader Wild Shot. In my opinion, he is the most likely candidate to upset McCraken.
#4, TAPWRIT (5-2): Did he really take a major step forward in the Tampa Bay Derby, or was he just flattered by McCraken’s absence? Fans of this son of Tapit bet him like he couldn’t possible lose that day, hammering him down to nearly even-money by post time, and he did not disappoint. However, the waters get much deeper here. Not only does he have to turn the tables on McCraken, but he must deal with a quicker J Boys Echo and overcome a pace scenario that will do him no favors. I believe he should be no better than third choice in this race, somewhere around 7-2 odds. Yet I have a feeling his price will drop below that threshold. In a race that compels you to split hairs, I’m mildly against this horse.
#5, WILD SHOT (15-1): This horse used his speed to great effect as a two-year-old, contesting fast paces in both the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club en route to top three finishes in both of those races. He didn’t even run that much worse than McCraken in the latter race, as he put away the other speeds past midstretch and battled back gamely when McCraken came to him at the sixteenth pole. Yet, for whatever reason, his connections have been attempting to change his running style as a three-year-old. The experiment began against a speed-laden field in the Sam F. Davis, in which he worked out a wide trip after being restrained about three lengths off the pace in the early going. However, things then got ridiculous when he was inexplicably taken back to ninth-place in the early going of the Tampa Bay Derby, rating behind even the closing Tapwrit. He tried to follow that foe’s far turn move, but briefly had to alter course and lost momentum before securing third late.
As far as I can tell, Wild Shot is simply not the kind of horse that wants to be ridden from the off the pace. Rusty Arnold had this to say about the whole experiment: “He will be on the lead [in the Blue Grass]… I’m done piddling around trying to get him to go a mile and a quarter.” That’s refreshing to hear, because the Pace Projector is practically begging for a frontrunner to take advantage of a paceless situation. I don’t know if he’s quite good enough to actually win the Blue Grass, but his trainer knows how to pull off an upset at Keeneland. It sounds like Wild Shot is finally going to be given a chance to do what he does best and he’s going to be a generous price. I have to use him.
#6, IRAP (20-1): This maiden could not get the job done against far weaker fields in the Robert B. Lewis and Sunland Derby. He’s a potential pace factor, but that’s about it.
#7, PRACTICAL JOKE (7-2): I’d be more willing to give him a pass for his Fountain of Youth effort in his first start off a four-month layoff if Chad Brown had not been raving about how well he was doing coming into that race. It’s looking more and more likely that this horse just does not want to go two turns. In every single one of his races, he’s displayed an eye-catching turn of foot, but he’s had trouble sustaining that burst of speed as the distances have gotten longer. He appeared to hang in the late stages of the Champagne after appearing to have the race won, and he could barely edge out Three Rules at Gulfstream after looking like he’d blow by that foe on the far turn. His one hope in the Blue Grass would be if the pace were truly dawdling early and it turns into a sprint to the wire. In that type of situation, his turn of foot could come into play. However, it’s not as if McCraken’s finishing speed is any less impressive and we already know he can get the distance. Practical Joke is still a player, but I’ll primarily use him underneath in trifectas.
McCraken (#2) is the horse to beat, but I think this is the time to try and beat him. He doesn’t need to win this race to advance to the Derby and I believe that others are better situated to capitalize on the circumstances that this race presents. J Boys Echo (#3) looks like the most likely upset candidate, but I also want to give one more push to Wild Shot (#5), who is far more talented than his 15-1 morning line odds suggest and is finally going to get the right kind of ride.
Win: 3 (at odds of 7-2 or greater)
Win/Place: 5 (at odds of 10-1 or greater)
Exacta Key Box: 5 with 2,3,4,7
Trifecta: 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7
Trifecta: 3 with 2,4,7 with 2,3,4,5,7