This weekend provides us with arguable the two biggest names in Kentucky Derby prep races - the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby. One of those races looks to be ultra-competitive (Santa Anita Derby), the other should be a walk in the park (Wood Memorial).
I've got a couple of Wood and Santa Anita Derby previews on the SB Nation homepage (Wood Memorial Preview, Santa Anita Derby Preview) that provide a horse-by-horse preview of each race but I wanted to use this preview to talk about what I think are the story-lines I'll be following. I'll start with the Santa Anita Derby since that is easily the more wide-open of the two races.
Four horses in Saturday's Santn Anita Derby field (five before the scratch of Premier Pegasus), are exiting the San Felipe Stakes on March 12th, a race that might rate as one of the more peculiar this winter/spring at the Arcadia track. Since the beginning of the current meet, and the first day of live racing over the new dirt main track, Santa Anita has been a haven for horses running on or near the lead. Horses winning from well off the pace, something always difficult on traditional dirt tracks, have been few and far between, regardless of the ridiculous nature of some of the early fractions. Then the San Felipe took place.
In a race that defied the track profile from the previous two months, horses running 7-9-10 after a half-mile finished 1-2-3 under the wire. Horses running 1-2-3 after a half-mile ended up finishing 9-10-4, with only Comma to the Top fighting the good fight in deep stretch (something to keep in mind going forward with Comma).
To be fair, the frontrunners had no business hanging around in the stretch of the San Felipe given the completely insane fractions set in the early stages. Runflatout, an apt name for a pacesetter if there ever was one, grabbed the lead within a half-furlong from the starting gate and battled Albergatti through opening splits of 21.75 and 44.58. Those two began to throw in the towel shortly thereafter, which allowed Comma to the Top to inherit the lead and click off a six furlong split of 1:08.98. 1:08.98 for six in a 8 ½ furlong race...it's tough to make a case that any of the frontrunners had any business sticking around till the end if they are running on a "fair" race track.
It's difficult to get a true read on the track surface the day of the San Felipe; many of the races (especially at one-turn) were as favorable to speed as they always are, regardless of pace. The two other route races (which included the Grade 1 Santa Margarita) were a bit of a mixed bag - one saw a wire-to-wire winner and the other was won by Miss Match (ARG) from a mid-pack position almost six lengths back of the leader at the half-mile mark. Tough to make a case for a bias either way given those results.
One thing that does appear to be consistent between all three route races is that none of them saw the winner put up a quick final fraction.
Santa Margarita: Miss Match (12.78)
12.5 Claiming: Lucky Fitz (24.86)
San Felipe: Premier Pegasus (31.47)
We wouldn't expect much from a 12.5 claimer in the final furlongs, but the other two winners didn't exactly light the world on fire considering they were running at the Grade 1 and Grade 2 level. Furthermore, given how absolutely horrible all of the speed finished in the San Felipe (combined with fairly pedestrian final splits), I wonder if we could call the track somewhat "tiring" that day, at least with respect to the two-turn races.
What's this all mean? I suppose the main idea is to take the San Felipe with a grain of salt since it unfolded quite differently than others at Santa Anita this year, even though the track might be a little fairer now than it was at the start of the meet. A cursory glance at the results charts from the past week at Santa Anita indicate that there are a few horses that have been able to win coming from off-the-pace, although there doesn't appear to be much of a trend between routes and sprints. Still, the fact that Bob Baffert has decided to put blinkers back on Jaycito should be a sign that the top trainer at the meet feels his colt needs more speed in the Santa Anita Derby if he's going to come out on top.
Changing gears to the Wood Memorial, if players thought the Louisiana Derby was a weak race on paper, what would they be saying about the Wood if Uncle Mo wasn't involved? It's nice to see a ten-horse field but it's hard to find any horse that has the ability to run with the juvenile champion, with the possible exception of Toby's Corner; slim pickings, indeed.
It seems to me that the Wood is ripe for producing a fairly sub-par speed figure in the absence of any true challengers to Uncle Mo. Other than Duca, a recent maiden winner, there is a severe lack of legitimate early speed (and it may be a stretch to call Duca legitimate early speed). Uncle Mo, for all of the great tactical speed at his disposal, displayed an absolute willingness to set slow fractions in the Timely Writer, an attribute that should serve him well when things get more dicey in the Derby. If Uncle Mo is able to grab the lead as easily as he did in the Timely Writer (a very real possibility), Johnny V. will simply need to sit still and enjoy the ride.
One thing about this Saturday's Wood Memorial is certain: the Bridgejumpers are getting ready. Time to clear out the 401(k)...or what's left of it....and let it all ride "to show" on Uncle Mo.