And down the stretch they come! (Tip of the hat to Dave Johnson.)
Prologue will be past after the last two prep races for the Kentucky Derby – the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes – are run on Saturday, leaving handicappers three weeks to make sense of what has been an exhilarating run up to the main event.
We’ll use that time to tear the race apart from various angles and keep you up to speed on the latest developments, but first I thought it worth discussing the annual game of musical saddles that begins about this time each year.
The platter began spinning this week, when jockey John Velazquez, trainer Todd Pletcher’s main rider for years, raised eyebrows by announcing he would ride Vino Rosso, winner of last weekend’s Wood Memorial, rather than Florida Derby winner Audible in Louisville.
That, in turn, resulted in Javier Castellano, who left Audible behind in Florida when he traveled to Dubai to ride West Coast in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, reclaiming the mount and abandoning Bolt d’Oro. “I feel like I need to be with Todd,” said Castellano, who also has a long and productive relationship with Pletcher.
Enter Victor Espinoza, the only active Triple Crown winning rider, to take over on Bolt d’Oro for trainer Mick Ruiz.
Some social media posters claimed to know that Velazquez prefers the improving Vino Rosso to the brilliant Audible, winner of four straight races.
That could be true, but it’s also possible that Pletcher excused Castellano to ride in Dubai with the understanding that he could reunite with Audible upon his return or that someone in the colt’s ownership group expressed a strong preference for Castellano.
My point is that until Velazquez or Castellano come out and say who did the picking, I’d take note of such changes but not put a lot of stock into the inferences that spring from accepting the initial premise.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers have tackled virtually every Kentucky Derby prep race and they’re not about to quit in the final weekend.
In the 1 1/16th mile, Grade Three Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, the ‘cappers are siding with 5-2 morning line favorite My Boy Jack, who was entered in this race at the last minute because he needs more Kentucky Derby points to ensure he makes the cut for Churchill Downs. They see Pony Up (6-1) and Greyvitos (6-1) as his main threats.
Make mine Greyvitos. He appears to have the speed to dominate in his return from a four-month injury induced layoff. I’ll also use him in an exacta box with My Boy Jack and Zanesville (20-1).
Even though this isn’t the big race on Saturday, comment of the week honors go to Charlie Cronin, also a fan of Greyvitos.
“I didn’t play Patch (the one-eyed horse) last year but like this story better. He survived the San Luis Rey training center fire, recovered from knee surgery, is grey (my personal fave) and hasn’t looked back after breaking his maiden in the Bob Hope,” he wrote. “Fast enough for these, so why not?”
In the Arkansas Derby, a Grade One race at 1 1/18 miles at Oaklawn Park, the crowd ‘cappers like the brilliant Pletcher trainee Magnum Moon, the 8-5 morning line favorite, to run his record to 4-0 by besting Solomini (2-1) and newcomer Tenfold (10-1).
The top two look tough to me as well.
Join us next week as we search for new handicapping challenges outside the 3-year-old ranks. Just email me or hop on Twitter and search for #RJhorseracing if you’d like to get involved.
Ellis Starr’s Arkansas Derby analysis
The horse likely to have the best odds among a trio of win contenders in this year’s Arkansas Derby is Tenfold. The most lightly raced horse in the field with only two starts, Tenfold won his first start with authority by 5 3/4 lengths before winning by a nose in his second career start. Both were two-turn races at 1 1/16th miles. Tenfold now gets the services of Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to victory in the 2015 Arkansas Derby on the way to the first Triple Crown in 37 years. With the ability to lead from start to finish as he did in his debut, or to stalk the pacesetter as he did in his second start, and with improving to do in only the third start of his career, Tenfold has potential to post the upset win.
Magnum Moon has no knocks I can find as he is unbeaten in three starts and as his efforts and figures have improved in both his two-turn races. Given he has enough points (50) on the Road to the Derby leader board to enter the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby, Magnum Moon doesn’t need to get into a battle in the stretch if one ensues because he just needs a good effort to hold top condition. Nevertheless, unless another horse jumps forward considerably, as I am hopeful Tenfold may do, Magnum Moon may even regress a bit off his Rebel effort and still win the Arkansas Derby.
Solomini was making his first start following more than three months off in the Rebel Stakes, when second to Magnum Moon. He could improve markedly and run well enough to win the Arkansas Derby. He has 34 points on the Road to the Derby leaderboard and would need at least a third place finish (worth 20 points) to ensure a spot in the gate next month. In the Rebel, jockey Prat chose to try to go inside the leader on the turn but that horse held his ground so Prat had to guide Solomini around horses and lost ground in doing so. After that, Solomini battled head-and-head down the stretch with Combatant for second. With a bit better trip, Solomini has potential to reverse positions with Magnum Moon in this race.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.