The Kentucky Derby prep race season is winding down with only five races left on the calendar to determine the final list of competitors for the 143rd Running of the Roses on May 6.

Three of these races are slated to occur on Saturday, April 8 which NBC Sports Network will televise from 5:30-7:30pm EDT (Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby).

The two final races are scheduled for April 15. (Arkansas, Lexington)

Below I will break down each of this weekend’s races, all of which should be very fun to watch.  They should also help give a clearer perspective as to how this strange prep season will finally unfold.

WOOD MEMORIAL STAKES, APRIL 8 – Aqueduct Racetrack, Queens NY (5:52pm ET POST)

First up is the 93rd running of the G2 Wood Memorial which was just downgraded from a G1 race for the 2017 season.   From 1930-2000 eleven winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby; four of them won the Triple Crown.   But no winner of this race has been the Kentucky Derby champion since 2000, likely the reason of the reduction in grade level.

There will be 8 competitors for this 9-furlong race (1 1/8-mile).  The most intriguing is the favorite Irish War Cry whose morning line odds are 7-2.  He stunned a field of 8 when he beat out Gunnevera and Classic Empire in February’s Holy Bull Stakes, but faltered in March’s Fountain of Youth where he finished 7thTrainer Graham Motion said the colt’s recent loss was a “real head-scratcher”, but he was also surprised how the jockey (Joel Rosario) chose to run him (so close to the place).  This weekend, Irish War Cry will have a different pilot likely with the plan to “settle” the horse and have him come from off the pace.  He’ll have to place to be in the Derby field (at least 3rd).

Another favorite for this race is Mo Town (6-1) whose sire (Uncle Mo) was also father to last year’s Derby winner Nyquist.  He’s won at this distance before on this track (Remsen Stakes in Nov 2016), but came in 5th at the Risen Star (LA) in February.  For this race, he’ll have the outstanding Javier Castellano on his back and his trainer Tony Dutrow is really pleased with how the horse is training lately.  This is another colt who needs to rebound and probably will.

There’s also good buzz surrounding Cloud Computing (5-2) who broke his maiden at this racetrack in February and came in 2nd at the Gotham Stakes in March to J Boys Echo at 8 furlongs on this track.  Even though this horse has only those 2 races under his belt, there is excitement that he has the distance to compete and travels well.  His trainer is Chad Brown, considered the best turf trainer in the country, but he is also on the rise in the world of major dirt races.  We’ll have more information on this horse after this race and if he’ll be a serious contender for Brown in May.

The horse that I am particularly interested in this race is Todd Pletcher’s Battalion Runner (2-1).  He’s only been lightly raced (3) and this will be his stakes debut, but his pedigree is outstanding (sire is Unbridled’s Song – Arrogate’s father; and his Dam is from Tapit & Deputy Minister).  Also, he’s registered an Equibase® Speed Figure of 108 and will be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez.  Considered a horse with “tactical speed” by Pletcher, he anticipates running the horse just off the pace.  We’ll see how this one does, but I think he could win this race or finish well with the speed he has shown.  Could be an exciting finish after the stretch.

BLUE GRASS STAKES, APRIL 8 – Keeneland Racecourse, Lexington KY (6:17pm ET POST)

Next is the 93rd running of the Toyota Blue Grass, a G2 race which is also a 9 furlong or 1 1/8-mile contest and another that was just downgraded from G1 for 2017.  Also, from 2007 to 2014, this event was raced on a “synthetic” surface, but is now dirt for the 3rd year.

As interesting as the Wood Memorial will be, this one is even more anticipated as at least 4 of the 7 entrants are highly regarded and could take this race.

But, I like McCraken (7-5) to win.  The undefeated colt (4-4) is trained by Ian Wilkes and beat out another top contender in this race (Tapwrit) at the Sam F. Davis Stakes in February.  There is a lingering question about McCraken since he suffered what Wilkes identified as a “minor ankle strain” before March’s Tampa Bay Derby and which caused him to scratch McCraken from that race.  In his absence, Tapwrit won Tampa easily.  Since then, Wilkes said McCraken has been “training very well” and has gotten “bigger” and “stronger” since Feb.

The afore-mentioned Tapwrit (5-2) should be the runner-up in this race. Another Todd Pletcher trained colt, he has a bit of a rivalry with McCraken as previously mentioned, but not as much is at stake for this horse at this race since he already has 54 Derby points on the road to the Derby, in comparison to McCraken who only has 20 points and listed as 17th on the current Derby leaderboard.  Still, this horse will show up and if McCraken doesn’t, he could win it.

Another excellent contender for this race is J Boys Echo (4-1) who just won the Gotham Stakes in his last start.  He has good pedigree and has won on this track before (Oct 2016).  Trainer Dale Romans would have liked to put budding superstar Not This Time out there, but after his racing career was cut short by injury last November, J Boys Echo “[stepped] in and replaced him” and has done well.  Romans regards the field for this race “the toughest” his improving colt will face yet in his career.

We can’t leave Practical Joke (7-2) out of this conversation, a proven winner who is (3-2) and has faced tough competition before including Gunnevera who he came in 2nd behind at the Fountain of Youth in March and Classic Empire and Not This Time, whom he came in 3rd behind at the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in Nov 2016.  Trainer Chad Brown (Cloud Computing’s trainer) enters this horse here and gives him a chance, but PG could be distance-challenged.

SANTA ANITA DERBY, APRIL 8 – Santa Anita Racetrack, CA (6:30pm ET POST)

It may be a bigger field than the previous 2 races, but it is also a weaker one.  Only 3 of the 13 horses entered in this contest have a graded stakes victory.  Chock this up to the unexpected exit of Mastery from the Derby trail due to injury in March.  Without him in the field, it opens the door for others to qualify for the Derby with 100 points at stake for the winner, 40 for 2nd place, 20 for 3rd and 10 for 4th.  So, this 9-furlong (1 1/8-mile) race on dirt will saddle 13 hopeful entrants, the largest field at this race since 1981.  This could be a very interesting one and great for bettors.

Even though the field is “wide open”, someone must be the morning line favorite and that is Iliad (7-2).  He is currently 2-2 in his career, but his 2nd place finish at the San Felipe Stakes 6 ¾ lengths behind Mastery in March and his 108-speed figure at his San Vincente victory in February gain him the most respect out of this field.  He has also posted 3 consecutive triple speed figures.  If he doesn’t win it, he should be in the mix.

Another favorite is Gormley (9-2) who has been shown to be inconsistent.  He is 3-5 for his career and had a nice win at the Sham Stakes in January, but finished 7th at the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and 4th at the San Felipe Stakes.  His trainer Jon Shireffs believes that a poor start out of the gate hurt his chances against Iliad at the San Felipe. A good horse, I’m not convinced he can win in this large field, but surely deserves consideration.

Battle of Midway (5-1) is also a top contender that his Hall of Fame trainer (Jerry Hollendorfer) hopes will come into the money tomorrow.  He has a 2-3 record and came in 3rd behind Iliad at the San Vincente, but this “stalker” has “room for improvement” according to Holldendorfer.

Bob Baffert may have a record 7 victories at the Santa Anita Derby and had 26 Derby starters in the past, but it is conceivable that after Mastery went out, he will not saddle anyone the first Saturday in May.  One contender for him in this race is American Anthem (5-1) who was the 8-5 favorite going into last month’s Rebel Stakes, but finished 10th out of 11.  Baffert has said that the colt broke “flat footed and lost a shoe” in the race, which may explain his terrible performance.  But, it says a lot that jockey Mike Smith chose to ride Reach the World over this one.

Reach the World (5-1) may be a better bet for Baffert as he has slowly been improving since he came onto the scene in January.  At his previous races, his top speed figures have gone from 91 to 98 to 103.  Also, while he finished 2nd to Battle of Midway last month, he has excellent pedigree and it is telling that jockey Mike Smith will be navigating over other choices. I like this horse to finish well in this race and I would include him somewhere on my betting ticket.


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