May 8, 2021

Five points to ponder: 2021 Blue Grass, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby

Rock Your World stayed perfect in two starts in the Pasadena © BENOIT PHOTO

The Kentucky Derby (G1) picture will crystallize further after Saturday’s three preps, all worth the maximum points according to the 100-40-20-10 format to the top four finishers.

The Wood Memorial S. (G2), Blue Grass S. (G2), and Santa Anita Derby (G1) offer some themes in common, if with different accents.

Free past performances courtesy of Brisnet:
Wood Memorial (5:58 p.m. ET)
Blue Grass (6:35 p.m. ET)
Santa Anita Derby (7:15 p.m.ET)

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Essential Quality meets another star from Future Stars Friday.

Five months after Breeders’ Cup “Future Stars Friday,” we finally have a clash between two of those stars – unbeaten Juvenile (G1) champion Essential Quality and Highly Motivated, a track record-setter in the undercard Nyquist S. – back at Keeneland in the Blue Grass.

Essential Quality is listed at a skimpy 3-5 on the morning line, reflecting his accomplishments as the divisional leader who returned triumphant in the Southwest (G3). The race shape could also play into the hands of the Brad Cox trainee. The lack of an obvious pacesetter in the Blue Grass – a prep loaded with patient stalkers and closers – shouldn’t bother him, since he captured last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) over Keepmeinmind with a more forward ride. Essential Quality could leverage the pace scenario, on top of his form over the track, and stay perfect en route to Churchill Downs.

But Highly Motivated could also benefit from a moderate tempo as he seeks to translate his one-turn talent to 1 1/8 miles. By Into Mischief and out of a Warrior’s Reward mare, the Chad Brown pupil won’t be facing as searching a test of stamina as he might have. His comeback third in the Gotham (G3) was full of promise, considering he steadied early and picked up well late in his first attempt at a mile.

2. Prevalence is taking multiple tests simultaneously in the Wood.

After a debut hinting of freakish ability, and a more workmanlike allowance tally, which better reflects the real Prevalence? I’m “wishcasting” the former. His Gulfstream follow-up was mainly a case of getting him back on the trail, following an ill-timed illness that scuttled any idea of making the Fountain of Youth (G2). Trainer Brendan Walsh just needed the benefit of another raceday experience in the interim, and Prevalence has every right to improve in this obviously more meaningful target.

The Wood was arguably the most sensible of the final Derby preps, with his Godolphin confrere Essential Quality long earmarked for the Blue Grass, Santa Anita perhaps too much cross-country back-and-forth even after Life Is Good was out, and a potential monster bestriding Arkansas in Bob Baffert’s Concert Tour.

Yet Prevalence’s raw talent shouldn’t overshadow the multiple tests being thrown at him at once – his first ship to a new venue, first try around two turns, and the acid class test versus graded rivals. Factor in a potentially robust pace scenario, or at least an honest one, and his tactical assignment grows more complex.

Prevalence will have to beat the winners of Aqueduct’s three graded preps. Withers (G3) hero Risk Taking could well get an ideal set-up for his late kick. At the same time, this is also a deeper contest than the Withers, where his beaten foes included Overtook (not on the Derby trail but pointing for the Peter Pan [G3]) and (a non-staying?) Capo Kane. Brooklyn Strong is also proven at track and trip as the Remsen (G2) winner, although he didn’t have the smoothest winter and faces a substantial question off the layoff. Thus his technical drubbing of future Florida Derby (G1) romper Known Agenda isn’t to be taken literally. Not to be overlooked is brave Gotham upsetter Weyburn, who kept on grinding to mug Crowded Trade. While Crowded Trade drew first blood with a quicker thrust, Weyburn parried in the manner of one preferring more ground.

3. Can Medina Spirit seize his time in the spotlight?

Medina Spirit has inherited the Santa Anita Derby favorite’s role after the sidelining of unbeaten stablemate Life Is Good. That’s totally logical, between Medina Spirit’s having lost only to Life Is Good, and trainer Bob Baffert’s record nine wins in this race. Also, note that Medina Spirit had a minor procedure to address an entrapped epiglottis from the San Felipe (G2). His runner-up effort, despite sub-optimal breathing, looks particularly commendable, and he’s entitled to move forward.

Still, his profile is more one of a hard-trying battler than a dominant force. Medina Spirit’s stakes victory in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) came at the expense of a ring-rusty Hot Rod Charlie and a hanging Roman Centurian (who will scratch from the Santa Anita Derby). As splendidly game as it was, chances are that Medina Spirit will have more of a fight on his hands from wildcards and rebound candidates.

4. Rock Your World is one of the day’s most fascinating wildcards.

I’ve been besotted by Rock Your World since his stylish debut victory in a Santa Anita turf sprint. For a son of Candy Ride and multiple Grade 1-placed Empire Maker mare Charm the Maker to display such apparently effortless speed, over six furlongs, struck me as a gigantic plus. Way back in January, the Oaklawn Park notes mentioned Rock Your World as possible for the Smarty Jones.

But trainer John Sadler opted to take it methodically, stretching out for a turf stakes at home before attempting a dirt switch. Rock Your World passed that test with flying colors in the Pasadena, and the Santa Anita Derby was reportedly on the radar even when a healthy Life Is Good was scaring others off. I’m hopeful he has the same cruising ability and knockout punch on dirt.

The Santa Anita Derby has others who could step up from maiden wins, even if they’re opting to take a shot in the absence of Life Is Good. Oaklawn shipper Ottothelegend presumably heads out of town to avoid Concert Tour in next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1). An Uncle Mo half to Twirling Candy, the Steve Asmussen trainee prefers to venture into Baffert’s backyard to take on the understudies. Baffert’s other chance, late-running Defunded, muscled through traffic to win handsomely in a March 6 sprint maiden and gets Mike Smith.

The Blue Grass wildcard is Untreated, who looked like a different horse after his epiglottis fix. Well beaten as the favorite in Candy Man Rocket’s maiden at Gulfstream, the well-bred Nyquist colt was sold for $300,000 at the Estate of Paul Pompa’s Dispersal at Keeneland January. His new owners, Team Valor International, transferred him from Brown to Todd Pletcher. As Team Valor impresario Barry Irwin recounted to Thoroughbred Daily News, Untreated was found to have a breathing problem. That was corrected before his 8 3/4-length maiden rout at Tampa Bay Downs. Untreated pummeled them with a devastating move from off the pace, and he deserves a crack at this.

Fellow Pletcher trainee Dynamic One, second in Greatest Honour’s maiden win at Gulfstream, could be a wildcard in the Wood. A Phipps-bred son of Union Rags, grandson of champion Storm Flag Flying, and descendant of unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, the $725,000 Keeneland September yearling has been a work in progress. Dynamic One finally put it all together in a course-and-distance maiden last out, albeit in a slowly run affair.

5. Santa Anita rebound candidates have a stronger case than others.

Dream Shake ran a mighty race in his stakes and two-turn debut in the San Felipe. Trying to stick with Medina Spirit down the lane, he wilted to third but could show more this time around for Peter Eurton. San Felipe fifth The Great One flopped after back-to-back big efforts. Trainer Doug O’Neill told Daily Racing Form that their restraining tactics were misguided, but in any event, his comments telegraph a more aggressive play on Saturday. Parnelli can be included in this category as well, but the new set of blinkers will have a lot of work to do.

Candy Man Rocket looks to rebound from a Tampa Bay Derby (G2) debacle in the Wood. The Bill Mott pupil is obviously better than that, as the winner of the Sam F. Davis (G3). Yet Candy Man Rocket is probably not the type to improve with added distance, and his Davis form should be treated warily. Runner-up and stablemate Nova Rags was subsequently a distant fourth behind Known Agenda in the Florida Derby. Known Agenda, who had been fifth in the Davis (pre-blinkers), was overturning the form emphatically.

Moreover, Davis third Hidden Stash, who reeked of greenness before kicking on belatedly, took a step forward when runner-up in the Tampa Bay Derby. Granted, he deferred too readily to Helium, but it still represented a significant improvement in how Hidden Stash conducted himself through the race. That makes him a candidate to continue progressing in the Blue Grass, although trainer Vicki Oliver was ruing his rail draw. I’m still a fan of the Constitution colt for the long haul.