Key Takeaways from a Huge Derby Prep Weekend

Luis Saez celebrates on Essential Quality after winning the Blue Grass Stakes April 3 at Keeneland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from a huge weekend of Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep races that featured the $800,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the $750,000 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park and the $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct on Saturday.

Essential Quality wins a thriller. (Coady Photography)

STILL UNDEFEATED: Essential Quality remained undefeated through five starts and perhaps received the acid test he needed when he and jockey Luis Saez were forced to fight for all they were worth to nail front-running Highly Motivated by a neck in the Blue Grass Stakes. The Godolphin homebred had dominated his only previous start this season, running off with the Feb. 27 Southwest Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths at Oaklawn Park. “It’s a tremendous feeling. He had to dig in (Saturday),” said trainer Brad Cox. “It was probably what he needed. It was good for him to get a good test (Saturday). He did everything easy enough in his last race.” The 2-year-old champion has significant history to overcome in the Kentucky Derby. Street Sense, who won the 2007 Derby, and Nyquist, who brought home the roses in 2016, are the only horses to parlay Breeders’ Cup Juvenile success into a Kentucky Derby triumph. And no Blue Grass winner has delivered in the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991.

Rock Your World romps at Santa Anita. (BENOIT photo)

TURF TO DIRT: After two victories in as many starts on turf, Rock Your World needed to prove his quality on dirt on Santa Anita’s grandest stage for 3-year-olds. He accomplished that in style, seemingly growing stronger with every stride for Umberto Rispoli and finishing with a 4 ¼-length margin against favored Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby. “We have been laying in the weeds,” said trainer John Sadler. “I thought it would be good to start this horse off on the turf, much like Omaha Beach, and develop. The plan was to run him a couple of times on the turf and now it was time to get the points.” Rock Your World got them, all right. The Candy Ride colt, owned by Hronis Racing and Talla Racing and bred by Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally and his wife, Debbie, secured 100 qualifying points with the win, more than enough to be bound for the Bluegrass State.

Carmouche and Bourbonic. (Joe Labozzetta/NYRA Photo)

BOMBS AWAY: Calumet Farm’s Bourbonic, available for $50,000 in a maiden claiming race at Aqueduct as recently as Dec. 6, delivered at the most opportune time, edging fellow Todd Pletcher trainee Dynamic One by a head in a dramatic 96th  edition of the Wood Memorial. Jockey Kendrick Carmouche could not have been more patient in his handling of the improbable winner, who went off at 72.25-1 and returned $146.50 for a $2 win wager. Bourbonic was the last of nine as the field wheeled into the turn for home. “To have any chance, I think the only way he could be successful was to stay back and make one late run,” Pletcher said. “He doesn’t have any early speed.”

Rosario and Malathaat. (Eclipse Sportswire)

COMING UP BIG: Elite riders come up big on big days. That is exactly what Irad Ortiz, Jr., Joel Rosario and Flavien Prat did on Saturday. Ortiz, fresh from winning the riding title at Gulfstream Park’s championship meet, exploded for a six-win day at Aqueduct that culminated in his 5 ½-length romp aboard Mischevious Alex in the $300,000 Carter Handicap. Ortiz gave Mischevious Alex a perfect stalking trip. “I just rode him with confidence and patience,” he said. Rosario sat equally chilly astride undefeated Malathaat in the Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland to cap a four-win day. “I knew my filly would be there for me,” Rosario said. Tips of the cap also go to Flavien Prat, whose four victories at Santa Anita all came in stakes, and to veteran Kendrick Carmouche, who should have his first Derby mount after bringing home Bourbonic with a tremendous late rush in the Wood Memorial (see above).

WELCOME BACK: Fans returned on a restricted basis for Runhappy Santa Anita Derby Day and their exuberance was reflected in the all-sources parimutuel handle. Spectators arrived for the first time in more than a year – 8,246 of them, to be exact – and they contributed to an all-sources handle of $24,282,400 for a talent-laden 12-race card. It was the largest Santa Anita Derby Day handle since 2007. For a track that has endured tremendous adversity and worked hard to keep horses and humans as safe as possible, the big day showed that racing retains a strong West Coast following.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!