The April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1) and Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) are the last prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1). At this point, handicappers can be excused for being a trifle gun-shy when it comes to evaluating this crop of 3-year-olds, simply because the most consistent thing about them has been their inconsistency.
Some of the more notable ups and downs:
Gormley won the Sham after being beaten better than 16 lengths in his prior start. He then ran a distant fourth in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) before rebounding to win the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Gunnevera turned in a powerhouse performance to win the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) by nearly six lengths, then was a never-in-it third in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1).
Hence was 13 lengths up the track in the Southwest Stakes (G3), then won the Sunland Derby (G3) by almost four lengths.
Irish War Cry romped in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets (G2). In between, he was beaten over 20 lengths in the Fountain of Youth without an apparent excuse.
While the Lexington offers a mere 10 qualifying points to the Derby, and figures to have more of a potential impact on the Preakness Stakes (G1), the Arkansas Derby is worth 170 points (100-40-20-10) and puts the spotlight back on Classic Empire, the 2-year-old champion whose sophomore season has been a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
Arkansas Derby (OP, race 11, 6:18 CDT): Classic Empire (#2) was washy, balked at loading and was otherwise totally out of sorts when a dull third in the Holy Bull. He came out of that debacle with a foot abscess, some back issues, and briefly soured on training, but is nevertheless pegged as the 8-5 favorite for what will be just his second race in 161 days. He is tough to trust, to put it mildly.
Malagacy (#12), who shipped to Oaklawn Park to beat five of Saturday's opponents in the Rebel, is the 2-1 second choice. But things really fell into place nicely for him in the Rebel, and there's no guarantee he can pull the same kind of favorable trip from the far outside post.
Untrapped (#9) gets blinkers on after three straight in-the-money finishes, and is listed at 6-1.
After that, everyone else is 12-1 and up. Among the more lightly regarded runners is Rockin Rudy (#1), a Midshipman colt perhaps well positioned to burst onto the scene for Reddam Racing and Doug O'Neill, who already have a shot at their third Derby after Irap's 31-1 Blue Grass shocker.
Rockin Rudy was purchased by his present connections after a front-running debut on the main track at Del Mar by over 11 lengths. I can't imagine he was acquired with the idea of being a turf sprinter, and he now returns to dirt after a pair of pace-setting seconds down the hill at Santa Anita, the first against stakes repeater Conquest Farenheit, and the second against Law Abidin Citizen, who was coming off a runner-up finish in the San Vicente Stakes (G2).
I've long been prejudiced in favor of turf-to-dirt horses with early speed, and it's noteworthy the blinkers come off, as was the case with Irap at Keeneland April 8.
Win - 1
Exactas - 2, 9, 12 with 1
Trifectas - 2,9,12 with 2, 9, 12 with 1
The Arkansas Derby is part of a 50-cent pick four that begins with a soft renewal of the Oaklawn Handicap (G2), where 1-2 favorite Midnight Storm towers over six foes on class and speed, and has a pace advantage as the lone front-runner.
Stonestreet Lexington (Kee, race 9, 5:34 EDT): I've got seven of the 10 in here with at least some kind of a chance.
With four graded stakes starts under his belt, beginning with a troubled fourth in the Clairborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland last fall, No Dozing (#4) has as much seasoning in such races as the rest of the field combined. This will be his third start of the season, after hard-to-gauge efforts at Tampa Bay Downs in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby on a surface he didn't seem to handle especially well, particularly in the latter race, where he idled coming off the far turn and picked it up again late after shifting over to the rail.
No Dozing's connections—Lael Stables and Arnaud Delacour—captured this race two years ago with Divining Rod, who went on to run third in the Preakness behind American Pharoah , and this would be a logical time for the son of Union Rags to step up and get some black-type.
Time to Travel (#5) and West Coast (#10) showed promise graduating from the maiden ranks in their most recent starts, and either one could conceivably get the lead in a match-up without much other early speed.
On March 4, Time to Travel was up close throughout his debut in a 13-horse race won by Timeline, who is now 2-for-2 for Chad Brown after splashing to an allowance win by 13 1/2 length in the slop at Aqueduct Racetrack last week.
Time to Travel returned on the Florida Derby undercard and "drew off with authority," according to the chart footnote, and he is being wheeled back just two weeks later with Michael Matz listed as his new conditioner.
I want to downgrade the Bob Baffert-trained West Coast for winning a three-horse maiden race at 1-20, but come to think of it, there was a similar knock on Arrogate going into the Travers Stakes (G1) last summer.
West Coast, a very nicely made individual, gets blinkers on, after appearing to "wait" on a vanquished rival in midstretch last time.
The Lexington is the third leg of an all-stakes pick four with the Ben Ali Stakes (G3), Giant's Causeway and the Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1T).
A - 4, 10
B - 1, 5
C - 2
Coolmore Jenny Wiley (Kee, race 10, 6:12 EDT): Lady Eli's story of perseverance is among the most heart-warming in racing, and she is tabbed as an even-money proposition to win her 5-year-old bow.
Lady Eli (#1) began 2015 with a big win over the Keeneland course in the Appalachian Stakes Presented by Japan Racing Association (G3T), and the fact that Brown chose this spot instead of something easier like the Beaugay Stakes (G3T) next month at Belmont Park speaks to how well she is coming along.
It's impossible to root against Lady Eli, but if everything has broken the right way in the first three legs of the pick four, I'd like to at least have the two other fillies who might be locked and loaded first time back—Time and Motion (#6) and Quidura (#8), who respectively won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Presented by Lane's End (G1T) and Valley View (G3T) over the course last fall.
A - 1
B - 6, 8