The last of three premier Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve preps scheduled for Saturday is the $1 million, Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park. The 1 1/8-mile race (post time 7:14 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN) features a compact but competitive group of six 3-year-olds, including the 2018 champion 2-year-old male, Game Winner. I’ve modified a couple of questions this week from their original tweets, and want to apologize in advance for taking some creative liberties there. As always, questions are welcome and can be submitted through reaching out on Twitter using @EmilyOptixEQ. And now, on to the Five Questions:
1. “Was Instagrand an early developer out to win early, and was backing off as a 2-year-old a mistake?” – @Derbyologist (CraigJ)
In an attempt to set Instagrand up for a career as an older race horse, his connections made the unconventional decision to rest him following his win last summer in the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes. I was pretty vocal about this decision when it was made public, and was opposed to the idea of resting a developing athlete when he (or she) is in good form. For those who are unaware, my background is in exercise science, and my rationale for voicing this opinion comes from working with human athletes for almost 20 years. Whether the decision to back off was the right one has yet to be determined. Instagrand comes into Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby making his second start of his 3-year-old campaign, exiting the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes last month at Aqueduct. All things considered, he ran a solid race that day, and he should benefit from that start. He was chasing a fast early pace and did encounter some ground loss throughout. He finished third in in a closely-grouped trio of horses behind the winner Haikal, who rallied from off the pace. Fitness-wise, he should benefit from the Gotham, and he could find himself positioned back to his favorite running style – on the lead (and perhaps as the lone speed) – based on the projected race shape of the Santa Anita Derby.
2. “What’s everyone’s take on Roadster?” – @NicoleSchiveley (Nicole S.)
This colt had some hype building before he ever raced, and he backed it up with an impressive open-length debut win at Del Mar last summer. He was favored in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity in his second start coming off that maiden win, but he finished third to Game Winner, though not without some excuses. Rider tactics seemed to play a role in the Del Mar Futurity, with Roadster’s jockey Mike Smith taking off the lead and allowing eventual runner-up Rowayton a comfortable trip on the front end. Roadster came out of the race with a breathing issue that required surgery and recovery time. Following that procedure, he returned to his winning ways, scoring last month in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at Santa Anita. Mike Smith guided his mount on a perfect trip that afternoon, and also “race-rode” Roadster’s main rival Nolo Contesto, keeping him boxed in during a crucial time during the race. Trapping in that rival allowed Roadster to take an advantage and maintain an open-length lead to the wire. He answered the question as to whether he could race around two turns, but exactly how far he wants to go is still an unknown. Roadster’s projected trip in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby breaking from post 1 is another obstacle he may have to overcome. A lot of talk in recent big stakes races revolves around about post position – and although sometimes that element gets too much attention, with this race it could be relevant. Roadster has a tendency of breaking just a step slow out of the gate, and rival Instagrand, who is drawn to Roadster’s outside, has early speed and will be looking to get over and save ground after the start. Meanwhile, Roadster will likely try and manage a trip similar to the one he enjoyed when he broke from the rail back in his debut at Del Mar. He broke a step slow that afternoon, and let a pair of horses take the lead before moving off the inside to stalk and pounce for the win. I think that there are concerns about letting Roadster sit behind horses in Saturday’s race, and feel that Smith will look to get him in the clear as soon as possible. If that is the plan, he could be in a position that will force him to be used early while chasing Instagrand, and that might work against him in the late stages of this 1 1/8-mile race.
3. “According to Joel Rosario, Nolo Contesto didn’t like being inside; and the race on March 1 was a good schooling opportunity.” – @jeremybalan (Jeremy B.)
As mentioned in the previous question, Roadster was able to get a great trip in the Santa Anita allowance partially due to the fact that his rider Mike Smith, was able to keep Joel Rosario and Nolo Contesto boxed in around the far turn. Prior to that point in the race, Nolo Contesto was tracking under a hold and was a bit headstrong while sitting in a pocket position. After lacking room off the turn, he was finally able to get clear late. Once Nolo Contesto had some daylight, he really did extend himself running to the wire, and he caught Roadster on the gallop-out. Most horses do not like racing behind other horses, though that might not even come into play Saturday based on the projected race shape. With Roadster likely forwardly placed from the inside, and More Ice lacking early speed from the second post position, Nolo Contesto should be able to find a good spot behind the pacesetters breaking from post position 3. As far as his prior race serving as a good schooling opportunity, I could not agree more. This ridgling should benefit from that learning experience, and visually appears to have some upside remaining to be tapped for future races. The extra furlong in distance on Saturday does not look to pose any issues for him based on stamina.
4. “Game Winner has enough Derby points to qualify, and Roadster does not.” – @shmira55 (Robert H.)
Juvenile champion male Game Winner is currently sitting at 10th on points for the Road to the Kentucky Derby. His 45 points are likely enough to get him in the gate as it sits right now; however, picking up a few more will not hurt. That said, he does not necessarily need to win the Santa Anita Derby, whereas Roadster does need to win in order to have any chance to make the starting gate in the first Saturday in May. Even though Game Winner does not need a win, he does need to run a good race. He comes into the Santa Anita Derby off a solid effort in the second division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 16 at Oaklawn Park, just coming up short against Omaha Beach in a tight photo finish. That makes Saturday’s race the second start of his form cycle, with the third coming in the Kentucky Derby if all goes to plan. As the Rebel Stakes was held just three weeks ago, Game Winner seems best served to benefit from another prep race, instead of just training up to the Kentucky Derby. As said before, as it sits now, Roadster does not yet have the points to get in the Derby starting gate, and his connections, being the professionals they are, will understand if his best is not good enough to go on to Kentucky. They are no worse off for taking a shot.
5. “Who will win the Santa Anita Derby?” – @ngreenberg (Neil G.)
Even though Game Winner does not have to win the Santa Anita Derby, he is a very logical candidate to do so. He has the right running style for this projected race shape and small field, and his class as a multiple Grade 1 winner makes him the one to beat. His speed figures fit for this race and they have been consistently on the higher end throughout his career. Based on the projected race shape, it would be a mistake to discount Instagrand as he could have a pace advantage on the front end, and he could also show improvement making his second start of the year. As the best value in the race, and based on his most recent start, Nolo Contesto gets a legit look in here as a contender. He has shown talent in each of his three starts and looks to be moving forward coming into the Santa Anita Derby.
Full race analysis, including OptixPLOT/NOTES for the other 3-year-old Kentucky Derby preps, the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct, and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, will be available complimentary at OptixEQ.com. Thanks for reading, and as always, good luck horseplayers.