December 6, 2022

Three points to ponder: 2022 Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass, Wood Memorial

Messier with John Velazquez riding wins the Robert Lewis Stakes (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

After Saturday’s stakes crescendo, we’ll have a better idea of the Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite.

Track record-setting Louisiana Derby (G2) hero Epicenter entered the weekend as the morning-line favorite in the final Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. As he freshens up and watches the competition duke it out in the last major preps, the Steve Asmussen trainee could maintain that status if his rivals fail to impress.

But chances are that someone will advertise himself. Messier can turn in an impressive display in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), and Forbidden Kingdom partisans would make the same point about him. And Smile Happy, the individual favorite in Pools 1 through 4, has a right to re-assert his claims in the Blue Grass (G1). The Wood Memorial (G2) is the least likely to shake up the top of the market, although the winner at Aqueduct will gain support.

Here are my points to ponder for the final preps worth 100-40-20-10 points:

1. Is Messier a more natural router than Forbidden Kingdom?

The two gladiators in the Santa Anita Derby have met once before, when Messier swept right on by Forbidden Kingdom in last November’s Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar. But that result doesn’t mean a lot in their rematch, for two reasons: a seven-furlong dash for juveniles is a thin reed to lean on for a 1 1/8-mile prize in April, and more significant, Forbidden Kingdom grabbed a quarter in that race.

Yet I’d look for Messier to confirm the form for a different reason: he just strikes me as a natural router. Although Forbidden Kingdom is by Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, his dam is the precocious sprinter Just Louise. His San Felipe (G2) conquest, in itself, doesn’t refute that point since Forbidden Kingdom had a substantial class edge. In other words, my hypothesis is that he got away with it because there was one else in his league to test his limits.

Messier can be that rival good enough to keep up with Forbidden Kingdom until stamina becomes an issue. Granted, my bias in favor of sire Empire Maker is showing, but his dam helps too. Messier is out of the multiple stakes-winning Checkered Past, a daughter of Smart Strike and an A.P. Indy mare. As a product of Ontario’s historic Sam-Son Farm, Messier has depth through the female line.

Whenever a race looks like a two-horse war, though, there’s always the chance that one beats a retreat and opens the door for someone else to take second. Taiba has the flash factor off his debut win for Bob Baffert before joining the exodus to Tim Yakteen, but it’s a big ask to stretch out off a single six-furlong race. Win the Day picked up the pieces from a pace collapse in a mile maiden, albeit a slow one, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he clunks up for a minor award.

2. Is Smile Happy the best rebound candidate in the Blue Grass?

Smile Happy is the deserving favorite in the Blue Grass, despite coming off his first loss in the Risen Star (G2). Held up further off the Risen Star pace than in his two juvenile wins, the Ken McPeek trainee had no chance of catching Epicenter who had it his own way on the front end. Yet Smile Happy delivered a robust late run, in just the kind of building-block effort that can move you forward on the trail.

But Risen Star third Zandon had an even tougher trip at Fair Grounds. After compromising himself with a poor start that put him totally out of position, he also lost ground when swinging wide into the stretch. Through all that, Zandon finished well, only a half-length astern of Smile Happy.

While both figure to receive better trips at Keeneland, Zandon projects a significantly improved passage for Chad Brown. He’s drawn in post 5, compared to Smile Happy in post 10, and new rider Flavien Prat might click with him. On paper, Zandon is capable of overcoming his half-length deficit and then some.

On the other hand, Smile Happy has the edge of a win over the track, in his debut last fall. Just as he improved from that to stamp his authority all over a salty Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), the Runhappy colt has every right to leapfrog from his Risen Star tightener. If he gets decent early position in a race of likely moderate tempo at best, Smile Happy could just be unassailable as the class of the field.

The Blue Grass has several other sensible rebound candidates, chief among them McPeek’s Rattle N Roll, hero of the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland. The addition of blinkers might galvanize the hitherto promising colt who just hasn’t progressed as hoped this term. This does have the feel of a last roll of the dice, though. A sneakier chance is Mark Casse’s Volcanic, who edged highly-regarded Charge It before a third in the Sam F. Davis (G3). Emmanuel’s inexperience found him out when fourth in the Fountain of Youth (G2), and you can make that case for Rebel (G2) near-misser Ethereal Road.

3. Will Mo Donegal’s points gamble pay off in the Wood Memorial?

It’s now or never for Mo Donegal, since his required Derby points are all contained in this Aqueduct basket. A brief fever, coinciding with his outside draw in the Fountain of Youth, led Pletcher and Team Donegal to await the Wood as his one shot.

On form, the Uncle Mo colt ought to make the gamble pay off. After all, he outdueled (or perhaps more accurately, hampered) Zandon in the Remsen (G2) at this track and trip, a result validated by Zandon’s performance in the Risen Star. Indeed, Mo Donegal had validated it already himself in the Holy Bull (G3), with a powerful if belated rally for third to White Abarrio and Simplification. Those two have continued to frank the form, most recently when first and third in the Florida Derby (G1).

The only caveat on Mo Donegal is that he can get a bit outpaced on the far turn before deploying his stride down the stretch. That was a bigger liability going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park, and a return to Aqueduct’s 1 1/8 miles should be the decisive assist. New rider Joel Rosario could be another key.

Early Voting is arguably his biggest danger, as a rival likewise proven in these conditions in the Withers (G3), and one with superior tactical speed. I have a distance scruple about the otherwise impressive Morello, in the anticipation of a solid pace that won’t make the step up in trip a cakewalk.