The Road to the Kentucky Derby stops in Lexington, Kentucky for one of their signature races of the spring meet, the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass. While you have to go back to 1991 to find the last winner of this race to also win the Kentucky Derby, Strike the Gold, plenty of good horses have come out of this race. Essential Quality won this race last year, and was 4th (now 3rd) in the Derby last year before going on to win the Belmont. Good Magic won this race in 2018 and went on to finish second to Justify in the Derby that year. Skip Away and Holy Bull had this win on their resumes in 1990’s as a part of their Hall of Fame careers. While Street Sense was not a winner of this race, his second place finish in this race in 2007, during the Polytrack era, prepared him for his off the pace Derby victory that year.
This year’s field is a solid 12 horse affair headed by a pair of horses that were very impressive at the end of their two year old seasons. Smile Happy was a dominating winner of the most important two year old race in 2021, not the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but the Kentucky Jockey Club. Three horses so far have gone on from that race to be graded stakes winners, including the recent Grade 1 winner, White Abarrio. Zandon had a tough trip in the Remsen when losing to Mo Donegal by the narrowest of margins. Both of these runners came back to run second and third respectively in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds in February behind Epicenter, and both should be sitting on their best effort today. Todd Pletcher sends out a pair, Emmanuel and Commandperformance, and the Grade 1 winner over this course, Rattle N Roll, joins this group on short race.
Keeneland Saturday 4/9/2022, Race 9: The Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass
170 Total Derby points (100/40/20/10)
1 – Commandperformance (12-1 ML, 100-1 Circa): Todd Pletcher sends out this maiden son of Union Rags for his second start of the season. He was a solid second in his debut, which was a strong enough effort for his connections to enter him in the Grade 1 Champagne in his second start. He ran into a buzzsaw that afternoon, finishing second to Jack Christopher. He progressed to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he finished 4th. He returned to the races on Tampa Bay Derby Day in a maiden special weight race where he towered over his seven opponents. Fenwick ran a decent race that day to win, but I thought his return effort was very dull. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile this year was one of the weakest in recent history, and no one has come back to win yet as a three year old. I’m more concerned about the fact that his two softer efforts have come at two turns. He might have needed his last, however, I am not confident in his chances to break his maiden. I feel the bottom of the exotics will be his ceiling.
2 – Fenwick (20-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): The aforementioned winner of a maiden special weight race at Tampa last out hadn’t offered much in his first four starts. His big effort last month at Tampa seemingly came out of nowhere. He changed tactics and was afforded an easy lead in that race, and he was able to keep finding throughout the stretch. Perhaps he’s more than a one hit wonder, but he won’t be on my tickets while making this big jump up in class.
3- Trademark (30-1 ML, 400-1 Circa): He’s another one that is coming North after racing at Tampa over the winter, running in their two signature stakes races for three year olds. He was last of 12 in the Sam F. Davis, but he did improve to be 5th in the Tampa Bay Derby. Classic Causeway wilting when facing stiffer company at Gulfstream last weekend isn’t a good omen for him. I would think he’d be better suited to the Lexington next week, seeing as how he has already cleared the N1X condition, and there aren’t a ton of viable options for him on the track at the moment.
4 – Zandon (5-2 ML, 25-1 Circa): Chad Brown is making his final push to be represented in the Derby this year as he sends out Early Voting in Wood Memorial and this son of Upstart here. He’s started three times in his career, running solid races in all three. He won on debut at Belmont, coming from off the pace to win when going six furlongs. He stretched out to nine furlongs in his second career start in the Remsen, where he ran a big race to narrowly lose to Mo Donegal. He had a rough trip in Louisiana in the Risen Star, breaking awkwardly and then fanning out five wide off the turn in his three year old debut. Flavien Prat takes over today and I think he’s sitting on a strong race if he’s able to get away cleanly. He has enough tactical speed to put himself in a good position early, which may give him an advantage over the favorite, Smile Happy.
5 – Volcanic (20-1 ML, 125-1, Circa): He was one of the more impressive maiden winners at the Gulfstream meet this winter, dueling with Charge It, pretty much the entire way around the track, and nailing him on the wire. That one went on to crush maidens in his next start, and run second in the Florida Derby, in a race that he possibly could have won had he been able to keep a straight path in the stretch. Volcanic meanwhile shipped to Tampa to try two turns for the first time in the Sam F. Davis, finishing an even third that afternoon. I can see him taking a step forward after pretty much pairing his first two Beyer Speed Figures as a three year old. However, even while improving, I’m not sure he’d be good enough to win this race. He’s another one that could figure underneath to add some value to the trifectas and supers.
6 – Emmanuel (9-2 ML, 14-1 Circa): He was the “it” horse at Tampa this winter, clearing the N1X allowance condition impressively after a solid maiden score at Gulfstream for Pletcher. I dislike the 1 mile and 1/16 configuration at Gulfstream, where they’re starting into the turn, and while breaking from Post 8 in the Fountain of Youth, he took the worst of it, finding himself five wide for pretty much the entire trip. It’ll be interesting to see how Luis Saez opts to ride him here in a race where there’s not a true front runner, but all five horses inside of him have some degree of tactical speed. The Fountain of Youth may not have been the strongest prep either, with Simplification running back to be third in the Florida Derby behind the Holy Bull winner, White Abarrio, and the impressive maiden winner, Charge It. If you were a fan of him going into the Fountain of Youth, I really don’t see any reason to back off of him here, seeing as how you should be getting a better price on him today than you did at Gulfstream. I will cover with him, because it’s hard to imagine him having as bad of a trip today as he ended up with last time out. However, I was not as big of a believer as some others were last month, so I will be cautious with how I use him today.
7 – Golden Glider (20-1 ML, 150-1 Circa): He cleared the N1X allowance condition three starts back at Tampa, benefitting from Emmanuel being scratched out of that race. I thought he had a sneaky chance in the Sam F. Davis as the only true closer in a field full of front end types, but he was a nonfactor that day. He got up to be 4th in the Tampa Bay Derby, but never threatened the winner there. I haven’t seen enough progress on the track to think he could win a race like this.
8 – Ethereal Road (20-1 ML, 80-1 Circa): D. Wayne Lukas trains this three year old son of Quality Road, who nearly pulled off the 15-1 upset in the Rebel Stakes last out. He was improving in maiden special weight company this winter and he broke through with a huge effort in his 4th career start. He missed the break that afternoon, spotting the field several lengths, but was absolutely flying through the stretch to blow by the frontrunners, and win by four lengths. He drew a wide post for the Rebel and was much closer to the front end that afternoon. He surged four wide around the turn to take a clear lead, but just as it looked like he was going to pull away, he didn’t switch leads, and idled on the front end, allowing Un Ojo to sneak up the rail for an improbable victory. On one hand, the final time of that race was slow, and Un Ojo was never a factor in the Arkansas Derby last week. Plus, Ethereal Road has never run a race fast enough to beat this level of competition, and looking at his pedigree, 1 mile and 1/16 might be on the outer edge of where he’ll do his best running. On the other hand, he’s looked visually striking in his last two races, looking like a young horse that is still figuring things out. Perhaps his best trip is to sit off the pace and come with one big run. I think he’s more attractive than any of the other longshots in this race, and if he does figure things out, he might be able to make things interesting.
9 – Rattle N Roll (8-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): He’s competing in his own version of the Triple Crown, running in his third stakes race in five weeks. He returned off the layoff in the Fountain of Youth, a race in which he clearly needed to shake off the rust. He took a forward step, while still finishing eight lengths behind Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby two weeks ago. It’s not often we get a horse running in two 100 point prep races, but he’s the exception to the rule here. He is a Grade 1 winner on this course, coming from off the pace to win the Breeders’ Futurity in October. Blinkers go on for the first time today for this son of Connect, and while I prefer his stablemate in the next stall over, he wouldn’t be impossible here.
10 – Smile Happy (9-5 ML, 11-1 Circa ): As White Abarrio, Call Me Midnight, and Classic Causeway all won graded stakes in their first starts after racing in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at the end of the Churchill meet last fall, his stock began to rise rapidly. He made a name for himself when he dominated that race, circling the field with a decisive four wide sweep en route to a 3 and ¼ length victory. He had a tougher trip down inside in his first race as a three year old, running in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds. He rallied well to be second to Epicenter, who had a definitive pace advantage in that race. His Beyer Speed Figure went up from his previous race, so he definitely took a step forward in his first defeat. He’s drawn post ten in this race, so Corey Lanerie is going to have to work out the right trip. While I’m sure the goal is to win, he has banked 30 Derby Points already, so finishing 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th, should give him enough points to guarantee his entry in the Derby. He’s looked the part in his first three races, and he’s been highly competitive in two of the stronger stakes races in this prep season. He’s a major player in here.
11 – Blackadder (20-1 ML, 125-1 Circa): Rodolphe Brisset took over the training of this Quality Road colt a few weeks ago. He won the El Camino Real Derby on Tapeta at Golden Gate in his last start back in February. Edwin Maldanado gave him a perfectly timed ride in between horses to get up in the nick of time that day. However, the field that he beat that day was weak and he hasn’t run a race on the main track that would be remotely competitive with this field. I’m passing on him today.
12 – Grantham (20-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): He was recently the runner up in the Tampa Bay Derby at long odds, coming off a 4th place performance in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. He had a pretty cozy trip from his rail post that afternoon, finishing in front of Shipsational. However, the racing gods gave him post 12 for this race, which is anything but cozy, especially for a longshot that is facing a significantly better field.
The verdict: 4-10-8
Of all of the Derby Preps this season, I think this one is the most difficult to figure out from a race shape perspective. There is no clear frontrunner in this twelve horse field, but several in here have some tactical speed. These are the kind of races where weird things can happen. Sometimes, you’ll have a few riders on horses that aren’t typically front runners, try to seize the front end, and wind up setting fractions that are too quick. Other times, a horse will get the lead by default, and have the opportunity to walk on the front end.
I ended up picking the two favorites on top, because I feel they are the two best horses in the race. They have run in races that have produced horses that have gone to win elsewhere. They both ran a race last out where they topped their previous high Beyer Speed Figure, continuing their upward trend. I chose Zandon as the top pick, thinking that he’s more likely to get a favorable trip from post 4 than Smile Happy could wind up getting from post 10. I see both of these horses as exciting prospects that have the ability to make some noise in the Kentucky Derby next month.
Of the longer priced horses in here, I think Ethereal Road is the one that has the most upside. I thought his maiden win two back was extremely impressive, and even though the Rebel was not a strong prep race, I liked his effort that day. He has made two visually impressive moves in his last two races, and while he struggled late last out when making the lead in the stretch, I think he has the capability of running a stronger race off that performance.
Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.