An oversubscribed field of runners has been assembled for Saturday’s Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland, one of the final round preps for the Kentucky Derby offering 100 qualifying points to the winner. The clear favorite is last year’s two-year-old champion Good Magic, who is looking to bounce back from a disappointing seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which is not usual given a field of this size. The likely pacesetters are California Night (#3) and Machismo (#13), though the connections of the latter have expressed doubt over whether he will participate in this race. However, there are plenty of stalkers who should be looking to secure a position near the front if not setting the pace. Those include Sporting Chance (#2), Quip (#5), Good Magic (#11), and Flameaway (#12). While the race is projected to feature a fast pace, there is not such an abundance of early speed as to suggest a pace collapse is likely. Therefore, plodding closers like Marconi and Zing Zang may still find themselves with a tall order ahead of them.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, ZING ZANG (30-1): I’m still convinced that this colt has a bit of talent, but he’s probably one that will benefit from getting off the Derby trail. It is worth noting that his last race is not nearly as bad as it seems. He was basically given no chance, as his rider took him far off a moderate early pace and found traffic late when trying to rally up the rail in the lane. If the pace completely falls apart he can get a piece, but that doesn’t appear to be an especially likely outcome.
#2, SPORTING CHANCE (10-1): The three-year-old season of last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful winner has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far, as he’s only collected 2 qualifying points towards a start on the first Saturday in May. Therefore, it all comes down to this final prep.
Despite that meager haul from his two 2018 starts, he actually didn’t run that poorly in either race. He was racing on a good rail in the early portion of the Southwest, but he got slammed hard at the top of the stretch, which cost him momentum just as he was commencing a bid. Then last time, he got the wrong trip as he rated off a moderate pace while racing 3 to 4-wide around both turns. He actually never quit trying and was closing in mildly in the final strides. If he had saved more ground early, it’s not inconceivable that he could have been second that day. This time, he’s drawn a great post position in this large field, and Luis Saez figures to make better use of his early speed as he attempts to secure a forward position heading into the first turn. The distance is a question mark, but he’s certainly bred to handle it. I’m not ready to give up on this horse yet, and the price figures to be inviting this time.
#3, CALIFORNIA NIGHT (30-1): This front-runner is likely to face early pressure from the colt just to his inside, and perhaps a few others. He’s bred to handle route distances, so I don’t mind the stretch-out. However, he’s yet to run a fast race, and appears to be overmatched.
#4, KANTHAKA (10-1): He was no match for McKinzie or Bolt d’Oro when testing out two turns for the first time in the San Felipe. While he ran a respectable race to be third that day, he showed none of the brilliance that was on display in his prior win in the San Vicente. In the stretch of the San Felipe, he was actually losing ground to the fourth-place finisher late in the race, which does not bode well for a further stretch-out. He’s clearly fast enough to win a race of this caliber, but I doubt he can do so going 9 furlongs.
#5, QUIP (6-1): How short of a price can you stomach on this horse after you (probably) missed the boat last time at 19-1? There’s no denying that he’s talented, as he ran a respectable 113 TimeformUS Speed Figure in that Tampa Bay Derby win, and easily defeated today’s rival Flameaway. However, he did have some things in his favor that day. Despite the fact that there appeared to be plenty of speed in that race, a fast pace never materialized. Rather, the early fractions were quite slow (indicated by blue color-coded pace figures in the PPs). Quip was able to take advantage of that soft early pace and finish strongly. How will he adapt in this Blue Grass, where the pace is once again predicted to be faster? If he is not aggressively sent out of the gate, he could find himself stalking behind horses. The only other time that he was forced into such a trip resulted in his worst performance in the Kentucky Jockey Club. I will not be unduly surprised if he gets the trip he requires and is able to win this race, because he does possess the talent to do so when everything goes his way. However, I think he represents dubious value at his morning line price of 6-1.
#6, MARCONI (15-1): He has the most experience going this distance, having already competed in 3 races at 1 1/8 miles in his brief career. You can make a case that he was more severely compromised than anyone by the race dynamics of the Fountain of Youth, which was dominated by the early leaders. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the best of this colt, but he’s now failed to perform to expectations in two Derby preps. This is the toughest field he’s ever tackled, and he’s probably not going to be that large of a price, given his general popularity and the novel presence of leading international rider Ryan Moore on his back. If I were going to support a deep closer in this race, I’d be much more inclined to use Zing Zang.
#7, BLENDED CITIZEN (15-1): The Jeff Ruby Steaks winner has recently found a home racing over synthetic surfaces. Unfortunately, this race is being run over dirt and his form on that surface is hardly inspiring.
#8, GOTTA GO (30-1): Look for this closer when he cuts back in distance to sprints or a one-turn mile. His two-turn efforts have been lackluster and he’s unlikely to break that pattern as he steps up to face the toughest field of his career.
#9, TIZ MISCHIEF (30-1): The Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up has failed to step forward as a three-year-old. While it’s true that he did not receive particularly favorable pace setups in either the Fountain of Youth or Tampa Bay Derby, he was still supposed to offer a more potent stretch kick on each occasion. Trainer Dale Romans remains high on this colt, but he’s yet to prove it on the racetrack this year.
#10, FREE DROP BILLY (5-1): Dale Romans knows how to win this race, having sent out the Blue Grass winner twice in the past 6 years. He takes two shots this year, and Free Drop Billy is clearly his best chance. This Union Rags colt returns to the site of his greatest triumph in last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity as he searched for his first win as a three-year-old. The major knock against Free Drop Billy as a juvenile was his relatively slow speed figures. He’s definitely taken a step forward in that department this year, but he still needs to ascend further if he’s going to cement his status as a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat.
Free Drop Billy’s effort in the Holy Bull was fairly encouraging. He showed improved early speed and was just no match for top three-year-old Audible through the lane while pulling well clear of the rest of the field. He went off as the favorite in the Gotham off the strength of that effort, but finished a disappointing third. However, one can make the case that he received a somewhat uncomfortable trip that day. The field was bunched moving down the backstretch, and Free Drop Billy found himself trying to maintain his position while racing in tight quarters and getting bumped around. He had to alter course when attempting to move up around the far turn, and just appeared to be discouraged by the time he got to the final stretch. The Aqueduct main track appeared to be slightly favoring speed horses on that afternoon, which compromised this colt’s chances. Now he’s stretching back out around two turns, which should not pose a problem and his mid-pack running style is a perfect fit for this race. I think he’s a top threat to come away with the victory.
DRF Formulator Fact: Over the past five years, Dale Romans is 14 for 68 (21 percent, $2.38 ROI) in Keeneland dirt routes.
#11, GOOD MAGIC (2-1): This Curlin colt was an awesome two-year-old, and a deserving champion despite only breaking his maiden in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was a dominant winner of that race, finishing well clear of rival Bolt d’Oro while handling the two-turn 1 1/16 miles without issue. It’s not as if that race came out of nowhere, as he had previously run a game second in the Grade 1 Champagne after making an early move to the lead in mid-stretch.
So what happened in the Fountain of Youth? It’s hard to find a significant excuse. The track was slightly speed favoring (note the pink color-coded race rating in PPs) and the pace of the race was moderate enough to favor the front-runners. Yet Good Magic was in close attendance to that pace and was losing ground on the top two through the final quarter mile. It seems illogical to suggest that the distance was the stumbling block since he finished so powerfully going the same trip last November. Sometimes top two-year-olds just don’t continue their progression into the following season, and it certainly seems as if that could be the case with Good Magic. As great a trainer as Chad Brown is, he doesn’t have particularly strong numbers in this situation.
DRF Formulator Fact: Over the past five years, Chad Brown is just 4 for 34 (12 percent, $0.64 ROI) second off a layoff in dirt route graded stakes races.
I hope he’s able to rebound and get back to top form, because his absence in this year’s Derby would be sorely felt. However, he’s not a runner that I could ever bet as a heavy favorite in this race.
#12, FLAMEAWAY (6-1): He was able to take advantage of a very favorable set of circumstances when he won the Sam F. Davis. His main pace rival scratched out of the race, and he was able to set slow early fractions before holding off his two main rivals in the lane. I was actually far more impressed with his defeat in the Tampa Bay Derby in his subsequent start. Rated off another slow pace, he was the only horse that was making up ground at the end of that race, as he cut into Quip’s winning margin in the final yards. A rare horse that seems equally adept racing over any kind of surface, you have to admire his consistency. However, he was not very lucky at the post position draw, getting situated outside of most of his main pace rivals. A wide journey seems likely, and I’m not confident that he can overcome such a trip against this tougher field. He’s one that I would primarily use underneath in exotics.
#13, MACHISMO (20-1): His connections made the odd decision to rate him well off the early pace in the Fountain of Youth despite the fact that he had shown speed going 6 1/2 furlongs in his prior start. The plan obviously backfired as the race was dominated by the front-running winner. If Machismo starts here (some doubt has been expressed as to where he will land), one would imagine that he’ll be a pace factor this time. Yet, regardless of running style, he’s deserving of his longshot status.
#14, ARAWAK (30-1): Like Blended Citizen, he’s come to hand racing on Polytrack at Turfway Park. His dirt efforts have been considerably slower than his synthetic races and this wide draw does not make his task any easier. An outsider, in every sense.
#15, DETERMINANT (20-1): Likely to scratch in favor of Friday’s Transylvania Stakes.
The two horses that I want to bet are Sporting Chance (#2) and Free Drop Billy (#10), who finished a neck apart when they last met in the 2017 Hopeful at Saratoga. They’ve taken separate paths to get to this race since that time, but I believe that both have developed into top contenders for victory in this Blue Grass. Each would represent fair value at anything close to their morning line odds. I’ll primarily use them with favorite Good Magic (#11), who must be respected despite his status as a likely underlay in the win pool.
Exacta Box: 2,10,11
Trifecta: 2,10 with 2,10,11 with 1,2,5,10,11,12
Trifecta: 2,10 with 1,5,12 with 2,10,11