The calendar says spring, but you'd never know it from the weather at Keeneland, where the forecast for the April 7 multi-stakes card topped by the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and the Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1) calls for possible snow showers and highs in the low 40s.
The forecast for Aqueduct Racetrack's five-stakes program highlighted by the Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets (G2) and the Carter Handicap (G1) is for overcast skies and a high of 45, which is actually an improvement from what had initially been expected.
Out in Southern California, there should be better conditions for the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and the Royal Heroine Stakes (G2T), with an outlook for partly cloudy skies and a high near 75, with just the slight chance of a shower.
The fact remains that racing is the greatest sport played outdoors and horseplayers must simply make the best of it and adjust on the fly, depending on what Mother Nature has in store. Keeping an eye to the sky—especially in Lexington—here are some impressions on Saturday's six 170-point qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Ashland (Kee, race 9, 5:45 ET): Monomoy Girl(1) is nearly perfect from five starts, her only loss when nipped near the wire in the Golden Rod Stakes (G2) last fall. She overcame an eventful break for a last-to-first return score in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) in her seasonal debut, and bypassed the Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) two weeks ago to shoot for a grade 1 title in this richer event.
Eskimo Kisses(2) has been vastly improved since going off Lasix for her last two starts, with a close second in the Fair Grounds Oaks preceded by a big allowance win in the slop at Oaklawn Park. That experience with off-going is something Monomoy Girl lacks, a variable that looms large if the Keeneland strip devolves into a sea of muck and mire.
Nothing clever beyond the two favorites in the Ashland, which is the penultimate leg of an all-stakes pick five. I would use Eskimo Kisses in equal strength with the favorite if the track is wet.
Blue Grass (Kee, race 10, 6:23 ET): Quip is expected to scratch and await next Saturday's Arkansas Derby (G1), which removes a significant amount of early speed from the matchup. That is probably good news for Good Magic(11), the reigning juvenile male champion, who will try to regroup after coming up a flat third in the Xpressbet.com Fountain Of Youth Stakes (G2) as the odds-on favorite.
The Fountain Of Youth unfolded in merry go-round fashion, with Promises Fulfilled leading throughout and runner-up Strike Power chasing him around the track. The fact that those two wound up dueling themselves into exhaustion in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) last Saturday doesn't add any luster to Good Magic, or the three others exiting the Fountain of Youth, but that being said, Good Magic has only 34 qualifying points, so one would imagine he has been trained more aggressively for a make-or-break race where he can finish no worse than second if he is to continue on to Louisville.
This strikes me as a good spot for Sporting Chance(2) andFree Drop Billy(10), the one-two finishers from the Hopeful Stakes (G1) last summer, who each make their third starts of the year. Sporting Chance drew favorably, and should find this a better pace setup than what he encountered at Oaklawn Park in the Southwest (G3) and Rebel Stakes (G2). Free Drop Billy won big over the Keeneland surface in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) in his initial two-turn try.
I liked Kanthaka a bit in the San Felipe, and he did well to wind up third after stumbling at the start.
A - 11
B - 2, 10
C - 4
Santa Anita Derby (SA, race 9, 3:30 PT): A showdown looms between Bolt d'Oro(3) and Justify(6), and whichever one prevails could well wind up favored in the Run for the Roses four weeks from Saturday.
As with many of these qualifying races, handicappers must evaluate intent as well as ability. Bolt d'Oro already has 64 points so he will make the Derby no matter where he finishes, and he has run only once in the last four months owing to a minor training setback.
As sensational as he has looked winning his first two starts by lopsided margins well in hand, Justify has zero points, and this race was not on his itinerary until stablemate McKinzie was removed from consideration March 31.
For all the hype in the wake of Justify's one-mile allowance win at 1-20, the last quarter-mile was run in a pedestrian :26.09 seconds. Justify may win regardless, but Bolt d'Oro is already a two-time grade 1 winner, and he should be the favorite.
A - 3
B - 6
Santa Anita Oaks (SA race 11, 4:30 PT): Midnight Bisou(3) looks like a legitimate 6-5 shot after open-lengths wins in the Santa Ynez (G2) and Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3).
The only other stakes winner in the lineup is Spectator (7), who captured the Sorrento Stakes (G2) at Del Mar last summer. I'm not thrilled with the fact that she is coming back less than three weeks after a hard-fought allowance win—which was her first outing in more than five months—and stretching out to two turns for the first time.
Thirteen Squared(9) drew horribly on the outside, but she hung in there pretty well for second behind Midnight Bisou with blinkers removed in the Santa Ysabel, and followed up 16 days later with a scintillating five-furlong work that was fastest of 96 at the distance.
A - 3
B - 9
C - 7
Gazelle (Aqu, race 6, 3:38 ET): New York-breds such as Audible and Mind Your Biscuits won major races last Saturday, the former dominating the Florida Derby, and the latter winning the Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News (G1) for the second straight year, and surpassing Funny Cideas the all-time richest runner from the Empire State.
Midnight Disguise, a New York-bred daughter of Midnight Lute , will be favored in this nine-furlong Oaks prep, and significantly, she is the lone entrant in the field of six that has won at the distance, and four of her opponents have never been two turns. I thought she was up against it turning back to a mile in the Busher five weeks ago, but she was still able to outkick Sara Street(5) and My Miss Lilly (6).
The Gazelle kicks off the pick six at Aqueduct, and it's tempting to single her.
Wood Memorial (Aqu, race 10, 5:55 ET): Enticed (5) will be favored on the strength of a win in the Gotham Stakes (G3) where he was being geared down through the late stages after catching pacesetter Old Time Revival (4).
Old Time Revival was 35-1 in the Gotham and wound up four lengths clear of Blue Grass entrant Free Drop Billy, with Champagne Stakes (G1) winner Firenze Fire (2) another 2 1/2 lengths back in fourth. Old Time Revival picks up six pounds off that effort, but it's possible he can make the lead more easily in this longer race, depending on what Restoring Hope(8) has in mind.
The Bob Baffert-trained Restoring Hopewas re-routed to the Wood after failing to get into an oversubscribed edition of the Sunland Derby (G3) on March 25, and this will be his first start since a good-figure maiden win at Santa Anita nine weeks ago. He has reportedly been holding his own in morning works with Arkansas Derby-bound stablemate Solomini,and may trip out nicely sitting just off Old Time Revival.
King Zachary(7), coming off an eye-catching maiden win at Gulfstream Park, and Vino Rosso, who appeared to idle on the far turn of both the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), are Curlin colts who respectively sold for $550,000 and $410,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.
A - 5, 8
B - 2, 4, 9
C - 7