Tom Pedulla presents five key takeaways from a trio of pivotal Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep races on Saturday – the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, the Grade 2, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct.
CHASING HISTORY: All eyes were on Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert last year after Justify won the Santa Anita Derby and used that to catapult him to the Triple Crown. The silver-haired genius will be the center of attention again this year as he looks to tie legendary Ben Jones with his sixth Kentucky Derby triumph. He loves his position after Roadster and Game Winner ran one-two as part of his mind-boggling ninth Santa Anita Derby triumph. “We’re there. We’ve just got to keep them happy and healthy, enjoy the ride, the moment. It’s hard to get to this moment,” Baffert said. Well, for most it is. And, remember, Baffert’s Improbable will be a leading contender in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, the last major Derby prep, next Saturday at Oaklawn Park.
DON’T DISMISS: Anyone ready to give up on 2-year-old champion Game Winner might want to re-think that position. Baffert and owner Gary West made it clear that the colt was not meant to be at the top of his game when he was re-directed to the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and still ran a strong second to Omaha Beach. He endured a wide trip with jockey Joel Rosario in placing second by half of a length to stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby, leaving Baffert to suggest there are better days ahead. “I think Game Winner’s next race will be better,” he said. “I’ve been bringing him along really easy.”
UNEXPECTED ASSIST: Tax, claimed by trainer Danny Gargan for $50,000 last Oct. 21 at Keeneland, is Derby-bound after his solid second-place finish to Tacitus in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He might never have been on the Road to the Derby if not for an assist from an unlikely source, rival trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. When the well-respected McLaughlin saw Tax training sharply following the claim last autumn, he suggested to Gargan that he might want to supplement the gelding to the Dec. 1 Remsen Stakes. Although Gargan was hesitant at first, he eventually listened to his friend and was rewarded with a third-place finish in the Remsen. Interestingly, McLaughlin’s Haikal came in third to Tax in the Wood.
OVERCOMING INEXPERIENCE: The experience factor may be overrated these days. Justify, unraced at 2, ended the Curse of Apollo in winning the Kentucky Derby last year as the first step to a Triple Crown. Now, along comes Vekoma. While he is not to be compared to Justify, he has some cachet of his own after he became the first horse to win the Blue Grass Stakes in only his fourth career start since Hall of Famer Coaltown in 1948. Veteran trainer George Weaver thinks Vekoma, third in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes in his previous Derby prep, can develop into something special. “He’s so talented and he’s done things in the morning,” Weaver said. “I’ve never really had a colt like this in all the time I’ve trained.”
GREAT DAY: Santa Anita Park needed a great, injury-free day of racing and it got that with a reconfigured card highlighted by the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, which had been postponed. Baffert was gratified by a turnout that suggested racing remains strong in California. “It was so comforting to see all the fans here and get behind us,” he said. “They know at the end of the day we love our horses. We wake up worrying about them. We go to sleep worrying about them.”