A series of upsets throughout the prep season has given hope to many connections looking to have their prospects’ names added to the Derby conversation. This general state of chaos has resulted in large and competitive fields in a number of the prep races, and that is especially true in Saturday’s Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland. Vekoma is the clear favorite, but he has not scared off anyone, as a full field of 14 will go to post.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which is not surprising given the large field assembled. However, it remains to be seen how such a fast might develop. Likely favorite Vekoma (#2) is depicted as the early leader, but he is unlikely to adopt pace-setting tactics. He has run his best races when able to stalk the pace, so his rider Javier Castellano is likely to allow the two speed runners drawn near him, Somelikeithotbrown (#1) and Market King (#4), to share the early lead. While other competitors may attempt to attain forward early positions, none of them are confirmed front-runners. If the leaders do go too swiftly up front, late runners like Signalman (#3), Win Win Win (#8), and Sir Winston (#9) should be ready to capitalize on the situation.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, SOMELIKEITHOTBROWN (10-1): The Jeff Ruby Steaks winner has been most effective racing over turf and synthetic surfaces. While there are some dirt influences in his pedigree, he failed to show up in his only prior start over a sloppy dirt surface at Saratoga. He’s in very good form right now and I believe he could make an impact in some of the upcoming turf graded stakes races. However, this is not the right surface for him. Pass.
#2, VEKOMA (9-5): His ample talent was on display right from the start, as he blazed 6 furlongs in 1:08 4/5 while defeating a strong field of maidens in his debut at Belmont Park last fall. He completed a perfect juvenile season with a commanding victory in the Nashua, recording a similarly fast time. Hopes were high for his 3-year-old debut, as he was sent off as the 3-1 second choice in a highly contentious edition of the Fountain of Youth. While he was hardly disgraced in finishing third, I came away from the race with some doubts.
Vekoma does not have a classic distance pedigree. Candy Ride is a versatile sire, but his dam’s family is undeniably sprint-oriented. His dam herself was a Grade 1 winner at 7 furlongs and her best foal prior to Vekoma was a pure sprinter on both dirt and turf. If you watch this colt’s races, he is clearly a powerful mover. However, he has a pronounced paddling action with his front legs and such inefficiencies of movement can sometimes catch up with young horses as they attempt to stretch out in distance. That labored action was on display in the stretch of the Fountain of Youth as he struggled to regain momentum after Code of Honor ran by him at the top of the stretch. Despite those flaws, Vekoma has maintained a significant speed figure edge on many of his rivals, and his top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 116 would be good enough to win many of the Derby prep races we have seen. As the most naturally gifted runner in this field, I would not be at all surprised if he were to win this race. Yet I am concerned that his vulnerabilities may be exposed over this demanding 9-furlong distance. The horse to beat, with reservations.
#3, SIGNALMAN (5-1): I was poised to dismiss this colt following his dull return effort in the Fountain of Youth. He got a fantastic setup that day but was unable to keep pace with fellow closers Code of Honor and Bourbon War over the final quarter mile. Yet, given the overall lack of quality in this Blue Grass, it would be imprudent to disregard his chances. I still believe he’s a cut below the top 3-year-olds, but this race has not attracted any of those division leaders. Signalman has reportedly trained very well in recent weeks at Gulfstream Park, and it is conceivable that he could put forth an improved effort in his second start off the layoff. A victory would still be a challenge given his mediocre set of speed figures, but he does figure to work out a favorable trip. A logical contender.
#4, MARKET KING (20-1): Ever since breaking out of the maiden ranks, he has elevated his game to a new level. He put forth a solid performance despite turning back to a sprint distance in his first start against winners on Feb. 24, and he followed that up with a deceptively strong third-place effort in the second division of the Rebel. He was clearly no match for the top two finishers that day, but he deserves credit for battling on to be third while fending off far more accomplished rivals. This expensive yearling purchase sports a regal pedigree and he fits the profile of a late-developing D. Wayne Lukas 3-year-old. While he may find the pace scenario of this race to be more taxing than the one he encountered in the Rebel, he’s drawn a great post position and his form is on the upswing. I’m not going to write him off just yet. Not impossible.
#5, CHESS CHIEF (30-1): I believe this race is open to several longshot contenders, but this colt is not one of those. He’s never run remotely fast enough to be considered a serious threat. Pass.
#6, DREAM MAKER (12-1): I was one of many who had high hopes for this horse following his authoritative victory in early February at the Fair Grounds. The strength of that allowance field was only bolstered as horses ran back out of the race, and Dream Maker absolutely demolished those left in his wake. A stakes victory appeared to be right around the corner following such an effort, but it was not to be. His performance in the Tampa Bay Derby was an utter disaster. He reverted to the worst tendencies we saw out of him as a 2-year-old – breaking awkwardly, fighting his rider, and refusing to run inside of horses. Even if we are to believe that this colt still possesses the kind of ability that was on display in that 3-year-old debut, I find it unlikely that he can reproduce that form in this particular race. Dream Maker’s greatest vulnerability is his inability to deal with adversity of any kind, and I am doubtful that he will work out a perfect trip in this crowded field. Use underneath, if at all.
#7, ADMIRE (15-1): While he has not threatened to win either of his graded stakes attempts, he ran well enough in both to justify Dale Romans placing him in this spot. As the only member of this field to own a 9-furlong dirt victory, stamina should not be an issue for this son of Cairo Prince as he stretches back out in distance. With the top 3-year-olds scattering to other jurisdictions, Admire’s top TimeformUS Speed Figures of 111 and 110 actually stack up favorably with many of his main rivals. I see greater potential with others, but I would not be shocked if this long shot stuck around for a minor award. An exotics possibility.
#8, WIN WIN WIN (7-2): Those looking for reasons to be optimistic in the aftermath of his disappointing loss in the Tampa Bay Derby should note that he endured a very wide trip that day. He never got an opportunity to tuck in around the first turn and was hung out 4-wide for the entirety of the far turn. To his credit, he never stopped closing ground in the lane, though his gains were relatively gradual in comparison to some of his rivals. The son of Hat Trick will now attempt to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time. I typically have a pretty strong sense of horses’ distance preferences by this point in their careers, but Win Win Win remains an enigma. His pedigree offers few clues and we failed to get any concrete answers about his stamina in his most recent start.
Irad Ortiz is unlikely to risk the kind of ground loss that proved to be his undoing last time, and the Pace Projector is predicting that he should benefit from a quick early tempo. His TimeformUS Late Pace Rating of 98 is the second highest in the field and he may get the jump on some of the deep closers. I can understand why some handicappers might rate him very highly in this Blue Grass, but I’m somewhat reluctant to concede this race to one of the favorites. Furthermore, I prefer a different horse – one whom I’ll get to in short order – out of the Tampa Bay Derby. Just one of many contenders.
#9, SIR WINSTON (15-1): This is the horse exiting the Tampa Bay Derby whom I would support. His speed figures are similar to those of Admire, who finished less than a length behind him in both the Withers and Tampa Bay Derby, but I found this colt’s performances in those races to be more encouraging. Sir Winston was somewhat against the race flow in the Withers, which was dominated by horses racing close to the pace. While hardly a threat to the top three finishers, he nevertheless put in a decent rally to be fourth, earning a career-best 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure. He was completely ignored on the tote board in the Tampa Bay Derby, and those long odds appeared to be justified around the three-eighths pole as Sir Winston struggled to keep pace with the main body of the field. Yet, once Julien Leparoux was able to work him off the rail in the stretch, Sir Winston found another gear and flew through the lane. He only managed to get up for fifth, but he made up nearly 10 lengths on the leaders and was about to run right past Win Win Win as the field crossed the wire.
This son of Awesome Again gives the impression that he will run all day and his TimeformUS Late Pace Rating of 103 is the highest in the field. Leparoux rides Keeneland better than most and I would not be surprised if Sir Winston manages to pass them all in the long stretch. A major threat at a price.
#10, LUCKY LEE (20-1): He worked out the wrong trip in the Withers after breaking about a length slowly. He never seemed to be comfortable on the chase and was spent by the time the field reached the quarter pole. John Servis is pressing on undeterred, and he’s not typically the type of trainer to get overly ambitious with his horses’ placements in stakes company. The problem with Lucky Lee is that his only competitive speed figure was earned in wire-to-wire fashion at Parx, and he is highly unlikely to work out that kind of trip in this speed-laden field. Pass.
#11, SO ALIVE (15-1): This deep closer seems like the slower version of his half-brother Vino Rosso. Some viewers were impressed by his late rally in the Sam F. Davis, but he still lost by nearly a dozen lengths and the race has not been one of the more productive preps. Furthermore, So Alive would need to improve his top speed figure by around 20 points to earn the victory in this race. That’s an awfully tall order. Pass.
#12, PARSIMONY (20-1): The lone maiden in the field had some trouble in the second division of the Rebel, but was never a serious factor in that race. These connections have had some success by placing their horses ambitiously in the past, but they’re biting off more than they can chew with this colt. Pass.
#13, MOONSTER (30-1): His third-place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks was primarily a function of the fast pace, as he was merely passing tired runners in the lane. His prior dirt form hardly makes him a serious factor in this race. Pass.
#14, AQUADINI (30-1): Many handicappers are likely to skip right over this colt given his lack of stakes credentials at this late stage in the prep season. Yet I believe there are some reasons to linger here. Aquadini clearly wanted no part of sprinting when he began his career a few months ago, but he seemed to wake up when Dallas Stewart stretched him out for the first time on Feb. 2. He was not facing the toughest field that day, but he won with complete authority, drawing off with powerful strides in the final furlong to open up nearly 6 lengths at the wire. He immediately stepped up to face N1X allowance company four weeks later and he lost as the 6-5 favorite. However, I believe he actually enhanced his stature in defeat. TimeformUS has the main track at the Fair Grounds color-coded light blue on Mar. 2, indicating that the surface was favoring closers. Aquadini was sent straight to the lead and carved out taxing fractions for the distance. He opened up a sizable margin at the quarter pole and just seemed to lose focus as he got leg weary in the late stages. The winner of that race has some quality and the pair of them finished nearly 14 lengths clear of the rest of the field. The 107 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that performance is still a bit light in comparison to his rivals, but I don’t believe we’ve yet seen the best of this colt.
This Blue Grass lacks top contenders with proven stamina breeding, and Aquadini’s pedigree suggests that he should have no trouble handling the distance. He is by Preakness and Travers winner Bernardini and is out of a dam who won a stakes at 1 1/8 miles and was stakes-placed at 1 1/4 miles. This colt has a beautiful stride when in top flight and gives the impression that he has real quality. The post position is obviously not ideal, but I’m optimistic that his tendency to break sharply will bail him out of a difficult situation in the opening furlong. Aquadini has a right to take another step forward stretching out to 1 1/8 miles, and I’m not particularly afraid of the favorites in this wide-open field. It would not be the first time Dallas Stewart has sent out a live longshot in a major race. The selection.
I’m taking a stand against likely favorites Vekoma (#2) and Win Win Win (#8) given my doubts about their stamina and the wide-open nature of this race. My top pick is the longshot Aquadini (#14). I’ll bet him to win since he’s guaranteed to be a massive price, but I’ll also use him underneath in the exotics. I also want to use Sir Winston (#9) prominently, especially when constructing trifectas, as he should be picking up pieces late.
Exacta Key Box: 14 with 2,3,4,6,7,8,9
Exacta Key Box: 9 with 2,3,8
Trifecta: 14 with 2,3,8,9 with 2,3,4,6,7,8,9
Trifecta: 2,8 with 9,14 with 2,3,4,6,7,8,9,14
Trifecta: 2,8 with 2,3,4,6,7,8 with 9,14