As the Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up, each week we will take a look at three things to watch from the 3-year-old division as they head into the weekend's respective prep races.
April 7 figures to be a day that provides clarity regarding the top contenders on this year's Derby trail or leave enough questions to make our heads spin, as the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), and Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2) are all on tap. Below are a trio of storylines expected to have an impact on the races and the forward progress of its contenders.
1. Is Justify for real?
That's been the $64,000 question ever since the son of Scat Daddy aired out foes in his maiden victory at Santa Anita Park, and it's been asked in greater earnest in the wake of his freak-a-licious 6 1/2-length allowance triumph March 11. The fact he was favored in the morning line over multiple grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro speaks to the level of hype Justify carries; and you better believe Bob Baffert wouldn't be tossing him into a grade 1 test against this salty a group if he thought he would end up anything but validated (see: Arrogate 's Travers Stakes victory). While the only things on his resume are a couple wins against overmatched rivals, his workouts have garnered similar rave reviews for the fluidity of his stride and the effortless way he accelerates.
There is some question about how much Bolt d'Oro's battle with McKinzie in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) may have taken out of the Medaglia d'Oro colt, but trainer Mick Ruis insists he didn't have his charge fully cranked that day, adding "he's about 90-95% right now." If that's the case, and Justify runs with/beats him on the square, we'll have our answer as to whether the bandwagon needs an addition built on to it or is ripe to be dismantled.
"We know that he is extremely talented, but now he has to go 1 1/8 miles against top competition, a horse like Bolt d'Oro," Baffert said. "So now I think it will be a good gauge to see where we're at with this horse, and going the 1 1/8 miles, going further now ... we'll find out how he stacks up against the top three."
2. Who in the Blue Grass Stakes is ready to make it rain?
Or snow. Or sleet. Or whatever Kentucky weather decides to do at any given moment. The most handicapped item this week has arguably been the forecast for Keeneland Saturday as predictions supposedly call for snow showers that could dump anywhere from one-three inches of snow—or more depending on which local station you follow—in the region. What seems certain is the likelihood of an off track Saturday, and who handles that could be as key as any pace scenario.
Champion Good Magic needs a top run to both cement himself enough qualifying points and stymie those who see him as a one-hit-wonder. Free Drop Billy needs to show the same kind of turn of foot he did when winning the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) over this course in October. And Kanthaka needs to show he doesn't need one turn to be at his best. Interestingly, the one in the 14-horse field who has answered almost every question asked of him is John Oxley's multiple graded stakes winner Flameaway, with his five wins at five different tracks over three different surfaces. His first graded stakes win you ask? It came in an off-the-turf edition of the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (G3) over a sealed, sloppy Keeneland track where he overcame breaking from a wide post.
He drew post 12 for Saturday and trainer Mark Casse is one of the few currently in the Bluegrass who isn't real mad about the Blue Grass forecast.
"He went from a chubby kid to a man in the last six months," Casse said of Flameaway. "He is just all muscle right now. He used to be kind of on the chubby side with not great muscle tone and ... that's all changed. We're going to have to hustle a bit, but we can from our post. I just would like, turning for home, for him to be in the fight because he's our Rocky. He just gets the job done."
3. Does Enticed need to go wide to go long?
When the son of Medaglia d'Oro captured the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) in November and the March 10 Gotham Stakes (G3), he did so by rolling up outside his challengers and kicking in handily when asked. When he finished a disappointing fourth in the Feb. 3 Holy Bull Stakes (G2), he appeared to throw in the towel when he got stuck down inside. Having drawn post 5 for the Wood Memorial, he should have the opportunity to work out his best trip, and his form says he has no reason not to finish in the top two. If he does indeed have an aversion to being on the inside, however, that is a vulnerability other riders will be mindful of especially if he gets into a 20-horse mele come May 5.