This weekend marks the running of the final three major Kentucky Derby prep and qualifying races. The Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland with post times within 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon. All will carry 100 points to the winner, 40 for the second-place finisher, 20 for third place and 10 for fourth place.
The final qualifier to be run is the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 16. However, it only carries 20 points to the winner, 8 for the runner-up, 4 for the show horse and 2 for the fourth-place finisher. As of this writing, only six horses committed to run next Saturday. Of the six, only two have a real chance to lock in a spot in the Derby. Both In Due Time and Bye Bye Bobby each have 20 points, while Call Me Midnight and Dash Attack have 10 points each. Both of the latter would need something close to a miracle at this point to get a spot. The other two who will run, Strava and The Skipper Too (whose owner appears to be a fan of “Gilligan’s Island”) and anyone else who enters will have no chance of making it in.
It’s relatively safe to say that we will know which horses are headed to the 148th Run for the Roses by Saturday evening.
A look back on this year’s Road to the Kentucky Derby
It’s been a rather eventful journey this year, which started on the 18th of September. First off, the two-year-old champion and winter book favorite for the Derby, Corniche, is still not in serious training and clearly won’t even run. Record tying six-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert is barred from the race this year (and next). Next, Un Ojo pulled off a shocking 75-1 upset in the Rebel Stakes last month. Lastly, we had Secret Oath, a filly — the first since the ill-fated Devil May Care in 2010 — try to get in, only to fall short after a breathtaking move on the far turn in her only attempt to qualify.
Going on the premise that only the top 20 will get in, which horses are heading into the weekend with must-win or run well situations? Generally speaking, it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 points to qualify, although that varies from year to year. So with that number in mind, let’s look at all three races and which steeds are on the bubble.
Remsen Stakes winner Mo Donegal is currently on the outside looking in with just 12 points. Gotham Stakes third-place finisher Golden Code (10 points) and unbeaten Withers Stakes winner Early Voting (10 points) are just behind. Other than Morello, who has already clinched a spot with 50 points, the remaining four starters have 0 points and would need at least a second-place finish to get in.
On paper, both the late-running Mo Donegal and the speedy Early Voting would appear to have the best chances, as both own wins over the track and are the most accomplished of the rest.
Mo Donegal probably should have been disqualified after his Remsen win for impeding the talented Zandon down the stretch. However, the fact still remains that this son of Uncle Mo was dead game as well as that he dug in and flat refused to let Zandon go by in the deep stretch. Guts go a long way, as I’ve seen plenty of horses win on pure guts alone in my 40-plus years in this sport.
Long shots that might show up
Early Voting, who recorded “coast to coast” wins in both starts of his young career, also stands a good chance of getting the necessary points to get in. Yet, at this point, there is no telling how good he is. Saturday will be a telling day for this colt from record-setting sire Gun Runner in more ways than one.
Golden Code looks like he is fighting an uphill battle. He was beaten fair and square and by almost five lengths behind Morello his last time out.
Barese looks like a long shot with a chance. Although he has zero points, he is unbeaten while facing restricted fields in all three starts. His running style fits this racetrack, and I like the upward trajectory of his Beyer Speed Figures (59, 79 and 87), as they signal improvement.
This race has the most moving parts, with the most entries (12) of the three races this weekend. The talented yet still maiden after four races Commandperformance (6 points) will have to run to his name. The megatalented but extremely unlucky Zandon (14 points) is also going to at least hit the board in this spot to join the fray on Derby Day. To Zandon’s direct outside is Volcanic (2 points). Continuing outward in post positions, Emmanuel and Golden Glider (both with 5 points) will also need to run big. The late-running Ethereal Road and Rattle and Roll (both with 20 points) would need at least a third-place finish. The beautiful mover Smile Happy (30 points) could use a fourth-place finish to solidify his chances, while Grantham (21 points) is in the same boat. Once again, all others would need at least a second-place finish.
Favorites or long shots?
Of these, Zandon is the most intriguing as he appears to have boundless talent but has yet to prove it. He’s been the unluckiest horse on the 2022 Road to the Kentucky Derby. If somehow, some way, he doesn’t get in, it’ll be one of the bigger travesties of the 2022 racing season.
As fans and bettors, we would be robbed if Smile Happy doesn’t make it either. I love how he drops his head and shoulders when he makes his patented late run; his smooth, easy stride reminds me of a figure skater.
Emmanuel had some difficulties in his last race. Last time, the handsome colt hung four and five wide in the Tampa Bay Derby. He then catapulted toward the leaders on the turn for home, only to tire in midstretch. If he gets a better trip in this race, and I suspect he might, he should be right there at the end.
Ethereal Road is another who could make it. He proved that his Silky Sullivan-type, come-from-behind, maiden-breaking win two starts back was no fluke. He was charging hard late and just missed winning the Rebel in his next and last start. This colt has the running style and the trainer in D. Wayne Lukas, who is not only in the greatest of all time discussion but also is a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, so you know he knows how to get the job done.
Santa Anita Derby
The 2022 version of this race has been called a “match race” between Forbidden Kingdom (50 points) and Messier (0 points because up until last week, he was still trained by Bob Baffert, whose horses could not qualify for points due to his suspension from the Kentucky Derby). The gifted Messier needs to be second or higher, as does Happy Jack (10 points). So does the rest of the field, as they have zero points. Keep an eye on Taiba, a $1.7 million purchase who annihilated a field of maidens in his debut.