Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby – The G1 Toyota Blue Grass – By Eric Solomon

Since Keeneland switched back to traditional dirt, this race has attracted some strong contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Even though a Derby winner has not won this race and the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold did it in 1991, we have seen several quality horses take their shot here over the last few years. Belmont winner, Essential Quality, won this race in 2021. Art Collector, Vekoma, and Good Magic all went on to win Grade 1 races after winning this race in recent years. 

There’s an 11 horse field put together for this year’s race, headed by Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapit Trice. Todd Pletcher is tied for having the most training wins in this race (3), so a win by this son of Tapit would give him the outright lead. I do think this runner will be bet down below his 5-2 morning line figure, and I see him as a vulnerable favorite in this spot. 

This is the first of three 100 Derby Point races scheduled for today, with the post time set for 5:15 (ET). 

Keeneland, Saturday 4/8/23, Race 9: The Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass

200 Total Derby Points (100/40/30/20/10)

1 – Tapit Trice (5-2 ML, 6-1 Circa, 10-1 Caesars): This $1.3 million purchase is coming to town with a three race win streak, including an eventful score in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby last month. He was sent off as the definitive 1-2 favorite in a race where he appeared to tower over his rivals. He broke last and was being encouraged by Luis Saez for the majority of the race. He was simply better than his eleven rivals that afternoon as he was able to grind by the frontrunners late to score by a widening two lengths. That was his first career start at two turns, so I do think it’s fair to say that he passed that test. My major concern with this gorgeous gray horse is that he takes a long time to find his best stride. He broke at the back of the pack in all four of his career races. He was last of 12 last going into the first turn in the Tampa Bay Derby, which, after rewatching his first three races, that shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. His first three starts came in one turn mile races where he had a long run to build up his momentum, before making his move on the far turn. Once he gets going, his strides have been longer and more powerful than his opposition up to this point. Perhaps that race was educational for him, as Saez was coaxing him to keep up early on. However, I don’t think he can win today if he runs a race like he did in Tampa. I don’t love the rail for him in this large field. When he ran his biggest race, he drew the rail in a field of six at Gulfstream and Saez was able to angle him out into the three path early on and quite easily. I don’t think he wants to be stuck inside of horses. To avoid that, he’ll likely need to break at the back of the pack again. There was a solid pace in front of him last time out, and I’m not sure there’s enough speed to maximize his late strides. I like him moving forward, as he looks like a horse that could be built for the Belmont, however, at short odds, I’m going to look elsewhere today.


2 – Clear the Air (30-1 ML): Trainer William Walden has cross-entered this son of Ransom the Moon in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which is also being run this afternoon. In either race, he’s going to be a longshot. He has four career starts, two on the dirt and two on synthetic. He broke his maiden three back at Turfway and has never finished better than 5th on the main track. He’ll be a tough sell for me in this spot. 


3 – Verifying (3-1 ML, 45-1 Circa, 50-1 Westgate): The runner up in the 2022 Grade 1 Champagne came back at Oaklawn in January and was very impressive when controlling the pace to easily beat a nice allowance field where the second and third place finishers came back to win in their next starts. He advanced to stakes company and caught a sloppy course in the Rebel Stakes at the end of February. He never really had a chance to run that day, until it was too late. A pair of longshots were quarter-horsed from the gate, while Florent Geroux allowed him to settle in behind them. They set an aggressive pace while he tracked them in third. When the back markers began to make their run, he was left in behind horses with nowhere to run. He ran on late to finish 4th. I’m willing to draw a line through that effort and use him today. I don’t see a ton of early speed signed on in this race, so I think Tyler Gaffalione will have every opportunity to put him on the lead. He’s not a horse that has to be to leading, so if there is strong pressure from the outside, he’ll still be able to press the pace again. Cox gave him a few weeks to rest after the Rebel and he’s worked well in the interim in New Orleans and over the local course. I see him as the one to beat in this race today. 


4 – Classic Car Wash (12-1 ML, 125-1 Circa): The runner-up in the Tampa Bay Derby was second best among a suspect bunch. He’s finished in the money in his last four starts, with two of those races coming in Grade 3 events. He has enough tactical speed to adapt to whatever the pace scenario might be in this race. He feels like a horse that is quickly becoming a popular wiseguy pick in this race, so I’m wondering if he’s going to go into the gate at odds lower than his 12-1 morning line figure. Javier Castellano is going to ride for the first time as Emisael Jaramillo will stay in Florida today. At odds longer than 12-1, I could consider him as a possible longshot hope, however, I don’t think the fields at Tampa were very strong, so he is going to have to take another sizable step forward to win this race.


5 – Hayes Strike (15-1 ML, 200-1 Circa): Ken McPeek is represented with a trio of runners for three different clients, all trying to make a last minute case for their inclusion in the field for the Kentucky Derby. He enters this race as the most experienced runner in the field, making his 10th start this afternoon. He is graded stakes placed, finishing second in the Grade 3 Street Sense in October and third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November. He was dull in his next two starts at the Fair Grounds and Turfway before coming back with a strong winning effort in the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel three weeks ago. He ran a career top speed figure that afternoon, so it’s possible that we’re seeing a return to some of his better form. However, it is also worth noting that his win in Maryland came with the addition of raceday Lasix for the first time in his career. Regardless, I do think that race was a very good effort, and  I could see him sitting a similar kind of trip with this group today. I think he’s more appealing than some of the other longer prices in this race. 


6 – Scoobie Quando (15-1 ML, 175-1 Circa): I see this son of Uncle Mo as the absolute wild card in this race. I really liked his three races this winter at Turfway, and I thought he offered great value when he was installed at 15-1 in the Jeff Ruby Steaks three weeks ago. He defected from that race in favor of this one where he’ll be racing on a traditional dirt track for the first time. It’s even more odd to me that he’s entered in this race alongside his stablemate, Raise Cain, who earned 50 points toward entry in the Derby at Aqueduct, and is owned by the same people as him. The dam has sired some talented runners, but they’ve all done their best racing on synthetic or turf. He does have a bullet work over this course, but at this level, I’m not convinced he’ll be able to overcome the surface switch. 


7 – Sun Thunder (10-1 ML, 55-1 Circa, 100-1 Westgate): It’s interesting to see Florent Geroux end up on this one for McPeek instead of Verifying. He’s made five starts for Ken McPeek, breaking his maiden at the end of December at Oaklawn, coming from off the pace to easily beat King Russell that afternoon. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the longshot runner-up to Angel of Empire in the Arkansas Derby last weekend. Sun Thunder was very good when he finished second to Angel of Empire two starts ago, when closing into a hot pace in the Risen Star Stakes. He was flat two weeks ago when Kingsbarns was able to set a leisurely pace in the Louisiana Derby. I’m not sure he’s going to get the strong pace he likes to close into. If closers are doing well in the first two days of racing at Keeneland, perhaps I’d consider upgrading him a bit, but I think he’s in line for another midpack finish. 


8 – Blazing Sevens (6-1 ML, 75-1 Circa): A lot of people were anxiously awaiting his return to the races when he showed up in the Fountain of Youth to tango with the Juvenile Champion Forte last month. He started in the middle of the pack that day and was bumped on both sides in the first 50 yards. That being said,I don’t think that was a valid excuse for not being able to keep pace throughout the race and finishing 26 lengths behind the winner. He had a less than ideal break on this track two back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he was much closer to Forte at the end of that one. Irad Ortiz will accept the assignment for today. I do think it’s worth noting that he rebounded to win the Champagne after a dull effort in the Hopeful this summer. Zandon was a little flat in 2022 when he made his seasonal debut at the Fair Grounds, but he looked much better when winning this race in his next start. Brown adds blinkers today in hopes of maybe keeping him more interested early. He’s a perfect 2-2 in races where he doesn’t have to face Forte, and I think we’re going to see a much better version of him this afternoon. 


9 – Major Blue (30-1 ML): D. Wayne Lukas sends out this son of Flatter, searching for his third consecutive victory. He’ll be making his third start in 28 days today, winning twice in March at Oaklawn. He broke his maiden at one mile on March 11th, leading every step of the way. He started 12 days later in an allowance race going 5 and ½ furlongs, which was also a win for him. He was quick enough to make the front end in a race like that, so if he wants the lead from his outside draw, he can probably have it. I have doubts about him being able to get this distance at this level, but stranger things have happened. He’s not for me, but I do think he’s going to get the kind of trip that you’d want to get with this field.


10 – Raise Cain (9-2 ML, 40-1 Circa): He earned enough points to make it into the starting gate by virtue of his dominating performance in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct last month. He was a winner here at seven furlongs back in October when he broke his maiden in his second career start. He finished in the money in a pair of stakes here and at the Fair Grounds before struggling to finish 5th in the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway. I thought he made a lot of sense while cutting back to the one turn mile last time out. I don’t know if he’s going to be as effective at two turns, but I’d be cautious taking a short price on him here. He earned a large speed figure on a sloppy course where he beat several sprinters that were trying to stretch out. He chased a hot pace and got the jump on the field to win by seven. There’s doubt that he was the best that day, and a strong effort from Lugan Knight on Friday in the Lafayette Stakes may flatter him. I’m skeptical of his chances here though, and won’t be using him anywhere near the 9-2 morning line figure. 


11 – Mendelssohns March (20-1 ML, 225-1 Circa): The third of three runners from McPeek’s barn is an undefeated son of the Mendelssohn, who was the winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and the 2018 UAE Derby. He won his debut by disqualification, after just yielding the lead late on the turf at the Fair Grounds. He shipped to Oaklawn, where he faced allowance types on the dirt in the slop where he rallied nicely to get up in time for the win. This is a big step forward, and perhaps he’d be better suited waiting for a race like the Lexington next weekend. However, if competing in the Derby is the goal, then this is the race he’d need to be in. He’d need to take a huge step forward to be able to win this race from his outside post. 




The Verdict: 3-8-5

I was all in on Tapit Trice (#1) at short odds in the Tampa Bay Derby, and while he got the job done, I had hoped that he would have run a better race. I don’t believe that he can run that same race and win this race, so taking odds that will almost certainly be lower than the 5-2 morning line figure, seems crazy to me. He’ll be a backup on my deepest multi-race tickets, and I’ll use him underneath in the vertical exotics, but I think there’s definitely value in playing against him.


I’m going to roll with Verifying (#3) to win this race for Brad Cox, thinking that he’s going to get a similar kind of trip that he did when winning a salty allowance race two starts back at Oaklawn. He had a tough trip in the Rebel where he never really got to run. I think that even if Lukas’s Major Blue (#9) carves out the fractions, he’s going to be in a much better spot than he found himself in last time out. 


Blazing Sevens (#8) is going to be the other horse that I’ll use here, in hopes that his poor effort in Florida was a fluke. He’s had a bit of trouble at the break in his last two starts, so I’m hoping that he’ll be able to get away without incident today. He did run well in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on this course, so I’m looking for a rebound effort for Chad Brown.


Of the deeper prices, I’ll use Hayes Strike (#5), primarily underneath in the vertical exotics. I liked his effort at Laurel last time out in the Private Terms stakes. While this is a significant rise in class, he could be a horse that is turning the corner at the right time. 


We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa,  Caesars-William Hill, or Westgate will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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