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Final prep races to bring Kentucky Derby field into focus

Updated April 11, 2019 - 6:24 pm

With three weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby, it’s high time that we turn our attention to the 145th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.

The final major Derby prep races — the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park — will be run Saturday, cementing the field for Louisville on the first Saturday in May with the possible exception of any contenders who are withdrawn.

Tacitus, the Wood Memorial and Tampa Bay Derby winner, sits atop the Derby points leaderboard with 150 points. The Bill Mott-trained son of Tapit will be joined by 19 other 3-year-olds in the starting gate for the 1¼-mile race. An interesting newcomer joined the field this week, as the connections of Master Fencer announced he will be just the third horse based in Japan — and the first colt bred there — to try to win America’s most-celebrated horse race.

I’ll dig more deeply into the probable field next week, looking at what appear to be the key prep races and the best speed figures posted by the runners. In the meantime, you can check the point standings at KentuckyDerby.com/horses.

A few other tidbits to get you salivating for the “fastest two minutes in sports:”

— Trainer Bob Baffert, who last year saddled favored Justify in the Derby en route to his Triple Crown sweep, appears likely to have three entrants if Improbable turns in another gritty performance in the Arkansas Derby. The colt is 26th in Derby points with 25 and needs to finish at least third Saturday to ensure he gets in the lineup for Louisville. Baffert’s two other runners — Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile conquerer Game Winner — have enough points banked.

— You hear almost every year that “this is one of the most wide-open Derbies ever,” but this time it’s really true. The road to Kentucky always has its unexpected twists and turns, but this year produced more than its share of upsets. So don’t expect to see a heavy favorite in the starting gate barring a monster performance by someone in Saturday’s races.

— In wagering in the fourth and final official Derby futures pool, which closed Sunday, Roadster was the 6-1 favorite, followed by Game Winner and Florida Derby winner Maximum Security at 7-1 and Improbable and Tacitus at 8-1.

— What’s the best Derby storyline so far? There are a few contenders, but I’d put my money on 58-year-old jockey Jon Court, the rider of Long Range Toddy, vying to become the oldest rider to win the Kentucky Derby. If he pulls it off, he would unseat Bill Shoemaker, a mere pup of 54 when he won the 1986 Derby aboard Ferdinand.

Santa Anita update

After a week of training and racing that saw no fatalities, the cloud that has hung low over Santa Anita Park for much of the season has lifted — at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board to discuss shifting some of the track’s remaining race dates to another track was postponed until April 18. Also delayed: A planned day of “whipless” racing Friday in which jockeys were to ride without the cushion crops they customarily use. The Jockeys’ Guild had agreed to the one-day experiment as a “fact-finding” mission, but said it put it on hold at the request of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew is, as you would expect, zeroed in on the $200,000 Lexington Stakes and the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

In the former, to be run at 1 1/16th mile, the crowd ’cappers are edging out on a limb by picking the Louisiana-bred Shang, 10-1 on the morning line, to upend the apple cart by besting Sueno (5-1) and 2-1 favorite Anothertwistafate.

I like their thinking, but I’ll try a different route with Zenden (6-1), a speedy son of Fed Biz who tired late in the Tampa Bay Derby. I’ll use Anothertwistafate and Shang in second and third.

In the 1 1/8th mile Arkansas Derby, the crew is also trying to beat the favorite, narrowly favoring Omaha Beach (2-1 on the morning line) over the Bob Baffert-trained Improbable (8-5). They see Long Range Toddy (5-1) finishing third.

“Omaha Beach won his division of the Rebel with a 110 speed figure. Mike Smith still aboard,” crowd ’capper Howie Reed wrote of the group’s pick.

I think the gang has the right two on top, but I’ll flip them and use Improbable over Omaha Beach. I like Galilean for third.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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