Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Litfin: Look For Battalion Runner to Step Up in Wood

No going against McCraken in Blue Grass Stakes (G2).

Horse players will need three sets of eyes to keep track of this week's action, as Aqueduct RacetrackKeeneland, and Santa Anita Park all run 170-point qualifiers to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) to highlight their stakes-stacked cards.

Let's look at the males first:

Wood Memorial Presented By NYRA Bets (Aqu, race 10, 5:52 EDT): Battalion Runner (#3) was scratched out of last week's Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), as Todd Pletcher opted to go solo with Always Dreaming, who made the decision look good by winning impressively.

"That they have common ownership...makes it easy to split them up," said Pletcher, who has won four of the Wood's last seven editions, including last year's with Outwork . The way his 3-year-olds have been running so far, it's probably wise to expect a huge effort from Battalion Runner in his stakes debut.

Cloud Computing (#7) was close to a sharp pace in the Gotham Stakes (G3) and ran on well behind the highly-regarded J Boys Echo, in what was just his second career start, and his first route. He looks like a major talent for Chad Brown.

Mo Town (#2) and Irish War Cry (#8) respectively try to atone for off-the-board finishes as favorites in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2).

Mo Town gets points for winning at the Wood's 1 1/8-mile distance in the Remsen Stakes (G2) last fall, although that has come to be a well-documented negative key race.

Irish War Cry didn't settle well through the early stages of the Fountain of Youth. His trainer, Graham Motion, believes he may have "bounced" off his big-figure win in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) four weeks earlier, and will attempt to make the son of Curlin  more manageable by changing to a Figure 8 bridle.

A - 3, 7
B - 2, 8

Toyota Blue Grass (Kee, race 10, 6:17 EDT): McCraken (#2) is atop the division by virtue of a four-for-four record that includes decisive wins over subsequent Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit (#4) and Wild Shot (#5).

However, McCraken missed the Tampa Bay Derby due to a slight ankle strain, and has run just once since wearing down Wild Shot in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) late last fall.

After trying off-the-pace tactics to no avail in the Tampa Bay Derby, Wild Shot finds himself in a situation where the early lead is their for the taking, so it behooves race-watchers to evaluate how the Keeneland surface is playing.

J Boys Echo (#3) capitalized on a terrific pace setup to win the Gotham going away. Good setup or not, though, handicappers can award a strong check-mark to lightly-raced 3-year-olds when they dispense such a breakthrough performance. Moreover, the Mineshaft  colt won big over the track last fall.

I'm not convinced Practical Joke (#7) wants to go this far at this level, but I'd feel silly if a two-time grade 1 winner from Chad Brown completely knocked me out of a multi-race play.

A - 2, 3
B - 4
C - 5, 7

Santa Anita Derby (SA, race 8, 3:30 PDT): If there were a National Pick 3 linking this race to the Wood and Blue Grass (don't worry, there isn't), this would be a likely spread situation for many bettors.

In terms of ability, the one-two finishers from the Sham Stakes (G3), Gormley (#8) and American Anthem (#6) seem at the top of the 13-horse field along with San Vicente (G2) winner Iliad (#9) and Robert B. Lewis (G3) winner Royal Mo

But then, Gormley was a flop finishing fourth in the San Felipe Stakes (G2); American Anthem was next-to-last as the favorite in the Rebel (G2); Iliad was just an OK second in the San Felipe in his first route try; and Royal Mo beat only two horses in the Rebel—one of them being American Anthem.

Battle of Midway (#3) beat Reach the World (#2) by a neck in a well-rated allowance route last month, and both have subsequently trained impressively.

For better or worse, American Anthem gets the benefit of the doubt to rebound back on his home grounds.

A - 6
B - 8, 9
C - 2, 3, 13

As we discuss the fillies, let's just come right out and say it—with the exception of the sidelined Unique Bella, this has been, for the most part, a distressingly slow division, at least up to now. Any and all lightly-raced runners who have shown a glimmer of ability must be considered armed and dangerous.

Gazelle (Aqu, race 11, 6:25 EDT): Miss Sky Warrior (#5) closed out her juvenile season winning the Tempted (G3) and Demoiselle (G2) stakes over the main track at the Big A, and picked up her third straight graded stakes score when brought back for the Davona Dale Stakes (G2) five weeks ago. So if you're keeping score of the graded stakes tallies at home, it's Miss Sky Warrior 3, and the rest of the field nothing.

That's not to say that, by the numbers, Miss Sky Warrior enjoys any demonstrable edge on the likes of Busher winner Yorkiepoo Princess(#1), Busanda winner Lockdown (#4), or even North End (#8), who exits a win over New York-bred maidens.

Stay Fond (#9) tracked a slow pace in wearing down 1-5 shot Awestruck in a maiden race out of the Gulfstream Park chute on March 15. The daughter of Stay Thirsty  has to move forward a few lengths, but you leave out these up-and-coming Todd Pletcher runners at your own peril.

A - 4, 5
B - 1, 8, 9

Central Bank Ashland (Kee, race 9, 5:40 EDT): I am taking the position that a third-place finish in the Honeybee Stakes (G3) was the means to an end for Elate (#2), a homebred daughter of Medaglia d'Oro  whose connections, Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider, annually showcase their best stock at Keeneland.

Elate was compromised when pinched back at the start of the Honeybee, and finished well after altering course and splitting horses. She will be reunited with Jose Ortiz, and should get much better position in this matchup.

Daddys Lil Darling (#6) used the grassy Florida Oaks (G3T) as strictly a prep for this. The stakes-seasoned filly by the late Scat Daddy made a big middle move in that race before flattening out, and appears primed to fire her best shot.

Tapped (#8) has been freshened since coming up second best at 2-5 in the California Oaks on Golden Gate's synthetic surface. The main question is whether the pacesetter in the Starlet Stakes (G1) can carry her speed this far.

Summer Luck (#5) and Pretty City Dancer (#3), third and sixth behind Miss Sky Warrior last out for trainer Mark Casse, are in back-up roles. The former was scratched from the Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) last week to await this.

A - 2
B - 6
C - 3, 5, 8

Santa Anita Oaks (SA, race 6, 2:30 PDT): The fact that Abel Tasman (#4) made Unique Bella work in the Santa Ysabel (G3) validated her win in the Starlet as legit.

Abel Tasman has since been transferred to Bob Baffert, and she will probably have to deal with It Tiz Well (#2), who has won twice since running a distant second to Unique Bella in the Santa Ynez (G2), capped by a promising effort in the Honeybee first time going long.

I really don't see anyone else here, unless Princess Karen (#7) catches a speed-friendly track and sets up shop on an easy lead.

A - 4
B - 2
C - 7