Final Three Major Derby Preps Headline Huge Saturday (April 9)

The following Weekend Preview piece was written by UPI Racing Writer Robert Kieckhefer

The final three major Kentucky Derby prep races go to the post Saturday in a transcontinental marathon of horse racing that will virtually determine the field for this year’s Run for the Roses. 

Keeneland’s spring meeting kicks off with one of those big events, plus a host of other graded stakes. Aqueduct and Santa Anita also support their 3-year-old setpieces with lots of other top action. There’s never been a better time to get a second opinion on the big races and none better than Jude Feld’s — check his thoughts at

The Road to the Roses By the time the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean Saturday, the field for the May 7 Kentucky Derby will be just about set. Three races, spread across the continent, will see to that, starting with the $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, continuing on to the $1 million Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland and finishing with the $750,000 Grade I Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. 

The Derby is May 7 at Churchill Downs

With no strong favorite yet for this year’s Run for the Roses, the final preliminaries should be illuminating. In Kentucky The Blue Grass has a field of 12 with Smile Happy as the 9-5 favorite on the Mike Battaglia morning line. The Runhappy colt, trained by Kenny McPeek, won at first asking at Keeneland last October and doubled up on that with a victory in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs the following month. In his only previous start this year, he finished second to Epicenter, who tops the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” leaderboard, in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds. McPeek also has Rattle N Roll, winner of the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland Oct. 9. He has underachieved in two starts this year. Battaglia puts Zandon, an Upstart colt trained by Chad Brown, second on the line. He comes off a third in the Risen Star. Emmanuel, a More Than Ready colt from Todd Pletcher’s operation, also gets a nod despite finishing fourth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut. Looking for an upsetter? Blackadder won the El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate all-weather in his last start. Grantham was a good second in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. Ethereal Road just missed to a big long shot in the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park. 

In New York Two undefeated colts — Early Voting and Morello — stand out among eight signed on for Saturday’s $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Early Voting, a Gun Runner colt trained by Chad Brown, is 2-for-2 with an easy victory in the Grade II Withers in his most recent. Morello, by Classic Empire, has won all three starts and won the Grade III Gotham with equal ease in his last. Mo Donegal won the Grade II Remsen at 1 1/8 miles in December but never got going in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February, finishing third. Barese has won all three of his starts but the Laoban colt has been facing fellow New York-breds and gets a big class test — from the outside gate, no less. Todd Pletcher, who has won the Wood six times, saddles Mo Donegal and outsiders Golden Code and Long Term. A win would put Pletcher in a tie with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Wood victories. “It would be really cool to equal a record of someone as legendary as he is,” Pletcher said. 

In California Saturday’s $750,000 Grade I Runhappy Santa Anita Derby has Messier, Forbidden Kingdom and four others. Messier, an Empire Maker colt previously trained by Bob Baffert and now with Tim Yakteen, is the even-money favorite. Forbidden Kingdom, by American Pharoah and trained by Richard Mandella, is 6-5 on the morning line. Forbidden Kingdom already has a spot locked up in the Kentucky Derby with 50 points on the board. Messier forfeited points from his earlier wins because of the Churchill Downs Baffert ban so he likely needs to finish first or second to get into the Run for the Roses. Either or both would be among the favorites on May 7 as things stand now. Yakteen has two others in the six-horse field — Armagnac and Taiba, both also Baffert transfers. Armagnac so far hasn’t looked good enough. Although Taiba makes just his second start, the first one indicated the Gun Runner colt could be anything. Maybe not yet, though.

The Path to the Oaks Eight are set for Friday’s $600,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and things look pretty wide open. Happy Soul has won three straight for trainer Wesley Ward. Awake At Midnyte has not been worse than third in four starts, three of them graded stakes. Nest has won three of her four races including the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct. Venti Valentine has only to repeat her last race to be untouchable in Saturday’s $250,000 Grade III Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct. The Firing Line filly, from Jorge Abreu’s barn, won the Busher Invitational over the Big A track by 7 lengths, earning a 92 Beyer Speed Figure, far eclipsing any of her seven Saturday rivals. She would be undefeated after four starts if not for a second behind another Oaks prospect, Nest, in the Grade II Demoiselle in December. 

Saturday’s $400,000 Grade II Santa Anita Oaks, like the Derby, features favorites handed off from Bob Baffert to Tim Yakteen. In this case, that’s 3-5 morning-line favorite Adare Manor, 13-lengths winner of the Grade III Las Virgenes in her last start, and 5-2 chance Under the Stars, second in the Grade III Santa Ysabel in her most recent. There are only three others with Ain’t Easy looking the most likely upsetter after two wins and a decent third in the Santa Ysabel in her first run of 2022. 

Turf / Turf Mile Friday’s $400,000 Grade III Kentucky Utilities Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds has a well-bred field of six. Verbal, a Juddmonte Farms homebred colt by Flintshire, is 2-for-2 and won the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar in his last race in November. Cy Dog, by Slumber, comes from New York with a 2-for-2 record. Grand Sonata, a Medaglia d’Oro colt, comes off two straight wins in Florida. Coinage, by Tapit, won the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park last time out. Saturday’s $100,000 Danger’s Hour Stakes at Aqueduct drew a field of nine without a standout.

Filly & Mare Turf Going Global and Excelerina, both trained by Phil D’Amato, are the cream of a five-hours field in Saturday’s $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes at Santa Anita. Going Global, a 4-year-old Mehmas filly, went 6-for-8 last year and stumbled only when asked to go 1 1/4 miles in the off-the-turf American Oaks in her final start. That didn’t work but now she’s back on the grass and back at 1 mile. Excelerina, a 4-year-old daughter of Excelebration, hit the ground running after shipping in from Ireland late last year and won her first two U.S. starts. This will be her first stakes effort. Seven of the eight 3-year-old fillies set for Saturday’s $150,000 Grade II Appalachian at Keeneland won their last start. But several of those were well down the class ladder and here, look to Spendarella, undefeated in a pair of starts, and two fillies from the first crop of Zelzal, a French-bred son of Sea the Stars. Six are set for Saturday’s $100,000 Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita with not much to separate them. Should be fun to watch. 

Turf Sprint It’s been nearly two years now since The Lir Jet and Golden Pal finished 1-2 in that order, just a neck apart, as 2-year-olds in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot. They meet again in Saturday’s $350,000 Grade II Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland with Golden Pal starting for the first time since winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in November and The Lir Jet having his first go since winning the Grade II Franklin-Simpson at Kentucky Downs in September. With those two coming off the bench, it’s not exactly a two-horse race but if they’re ready to go, they seem best. One question mark: Mark Casse saddles Filo Di Arianna, who was 3-for-3 in his native Brazil in 2020, took two years off and returned to win a 7-furlong allowance at Woodbine last June. It should be a wide-open scramble down the hillside turf course in Saturday’s $200,000 Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. Six are entered, three with successful records on the unique layout. Sunday’s $200,000 Palisades Stakes for 3-year-olds at Keeneland shapes up as a pre-Royal Ascot showcase for trainer Wesley Ward. He will saddle both Twilight Gleaming and Kaufymaker, who reported first and third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. Twilight Gleaming earlier finished second in the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes at the Royal Meeting while Kaufymaker was eighth in the Group 2 Coventry Stakes at the same meeting. They are not the only prospects in the race. Slipstream won the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park before finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup. Classicstateofmind, unlike the others, has raced through the winter at Gulfstream Park, winning two of his last three starts.

Sprint Saturday’s $300,000 Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct looks like a nice setup for Speaker’s Corner. The 4-year-old Street Sense colt, a Godolphin homebred, has won five of eight career starts for trainer Bill Mott. He captured the Grade III Fred W. Hooper and the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile while wintering in Florida and now cuts back to 7 furlongs, at which he’s 2-for-2. Mind Control was second in the 2021 Carter and returns off a layoff. Reinvestment Risk was good at 2, made only one start in 2021, won only previous start this year at Gulfstream Park and gets a nice weight break. It looks like Nashville is the one to catch in a big field entered for Saturday’s $300,000 Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland. The question mark is the distance. The lightly race son of Speightstown has gone this 7-furlongs trip only one, fading to finish fourth. But if he gets a clean start and an early lead, he will be hard to catch. If not, there are plenty of prospects. My Prankster is the solid favorite in a field of 12 3-year-old set for Friday’s $400,000 Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the Into Mischief colt was a close send in the Bowman’s Mill at Keeneland in the fall and comes off a pair of wins in Florida, most recently the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park. Money Supply, by Practical Joke, will show whether his only previous start, a 2-lengths win with a 91 Beyer Speed Figure at Tampa Bay Downs, was a fluke or that he’s the real deal. Tejano Twist arrives from Fair Grounds with the credentials to contend from the outside gate in this one-turn, 7-furlongs event. Pletcher also has two formidable contenders in Saturday’s $200,000 Grade III Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct in Wit and Dean’s List. Wit, a Practical Joke colt, won the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga last year, then was second in the Grade I Hopeful at the Spa and a distant third in the Grade I Champaign. Dean’s List, by Speightstown, was third behind Morello (see above) in the Grade III Gotham over the course. Highly Respected makes just his second start but must be respected off an impressive debut Feb 26 for Chad Brown.

Filly & Mare Sprint Saturday’s $500,000 Grade I Madison Stakes at Keeneland drew a solid field of 10 with no shortage of speed to tackle the one-turn 7 furlongs. Eight of them are graded stakes winners, including last year’s dead-heat winner, Kimari, and third-place finisher, Bell’s the One. Lady Rocket, Center Aisle, Just One Time, Four Graces, Club Car and Kalypso all have solid form against top competition, promising a race to savor. Search Results makes her 4-year-old debut in Saturday’s $150,000 Grade III Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct. The Flatter filly won the Busher Invitational and Grade III Gazelle at the Big A last year en route to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks, beaten a neck, then won the Grade I Acorn. Glass Ceiling has been running well all winter but faces better here. Sunday’s $400,000 Grade III Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland has seven 3-year-old fillies tackling 7 furlongs. It’s a mixed bag with a few coming off maiden wins and a few others with modest stakes success.