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Derby Prep Preview: The Wood, Illinois Derby, and Santa Anita Derby

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In terms of prep races for the Kentucky Derby, you really can't ask for a day bigger than one where both the #1 and #2 contenders are in action.  Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky won't race against each other, but they do get a chance to cement their current status as the top Derby horses in the country.  

It's not all for show, however, as Eskendereya is a little light on those all important graded earnings.  He needs at least a second place finish to feel secure about his place at Churchill Downs.

A rundown of each prep is below the jump...

Grade 1 Wood Memorial

The Wood may only contain a field of six, but it’s a very talented with the inclusion of Awesome Act, Eskendereya, Schoolyard Dreams, and Jackson Bend.  I’d love to say that I have a bunch of great ideas about how to attack this race, but I don’t.  If Eskendereya is as good as his Fountain of Youth, then it’s his race to lose. 

2-Awesome Act’s Gotham was very impressive but I wonder if the pace in this small field will be a little too soft for his liking. 

4-Schoolyard Dreams seems to get better every time out but I haven’t decided what to make of that Tampa Bay Derby field he ran against.  Visually, it was a pretty ugly race and I still don’t believe that he found a way to lose that.  Dominguez will be the sixth different jockey in six lifetime starts.

5-Jackson Bend could be the sleeper of the bunch in this race.  His ability to stalk the pace might give him a leg up on Awesome Act, and his wide draw should ensure that he’s in perfect position to track the leaders.  Note that Calvin Borel takes over for Jeremy Rose in the irons; it wasn’t a good weekend for Rose as he lost the mount on both Schoolyard Dreams and Jackson Bend.  I’m interested to see if Calvin can get this horse to step up his game.


Grade 3 Illinois Derby

There is not a whole lot of speed to speak of in this year’s Illinois Derby, which makes the Santa Anita shipper, 1-American Lion, a dangerous prospect.  He didn’t show much in the San Felipe but his performance in the Lewis would put him right at the wire with the best of this field.

4-Yawanna Twist is coming off a very game second to Awesome Act in the Gotham.  I think results of the Wood might tell us all we need to know about Yawanna Twist.  A strong performance by Awesome Act and Yawanna Twist could become a very hot commodity at Hawthorne.   Also, take note of the fact that this is the first horse Dutrow has every shipped to Hawthorne.  That’s an important fact to consider when dealing with a trainer that is good at spotting his horses.

I really liked 6-Dave in Dixie’s performance in the Lewis but, unfortunately, he was really pace compromised in the San Felipe.  He might have the same problem in this race as he seems to have found a group that is pretty light on early speed.  He’s also going to try and close on a Hawthorne surface that tends to play more towards the early leaders.  Looks like he’s going to need some help in this race.

7-Backtalk is really the enigma of the race, in my opinion.  You look at his two year old form and he looks like a colt that had the potential to really develop as a three year old.  He came back to win his first start of the year at Delta Downs but I think there’s a big question as to whether he’s ready to run at this level.  The odds will probably determine what to do with this horse: if he goes off near 5/1 or higher, he might be worth a play.  Anything less seems like an underlay to me.


Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby

I’m not a big fan of 4-Sidney’s Candy and haven’t been for most of the prep race season (as illustrated by my Top 10 list that hasn’t included this colt at any time this spring).  It’s not that I don’t think that he’s a decent colt it’s more due to his running style as it relates to potential success in the Kentucky Derby.  That being said, Sidney’s Candy finds himself in a Santa Anita Derby that is almost completely devoid of any early speed and he will have every opportunity to take this field wire to wire.  That’s a difficult task going nine furlongs at Santa Anita but this might be the perfect set-up.

I don’t believe 7-Lookin At Lucky will be wound up to fire a huge race in this spot essentially because he doesn’t need to run a big race.  He’s a lock to make the Derby and now just needs to take get into top condition by May 1st.  When asked about Lookin At Lucky and the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob Baffert to the Daily Racing Form:

"I just want him to come out of the race healthy and alive.  It’s not a do-or-die race for me.  If I can keep him fit and healthy, he can carry me the rest of the way."

That doesn’t sound like a trainer that is aiming to have his colt run the race of his life.  Looking At Lucky is the best horse in the field, and it’s possible that 80% of his best effort is good enough to beat this group.  But it’s also likely that he’s going to be a little under his best form in this spot, and at 4/5 odds, it’s best to look elsewhere.