John Clay

Looking for Kentucky Derby favorite? Focus is on strong Blue Grass field.

Always Dreaming and jockey John R. Velazquez won Saturday’s 66th running of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Always Dreaming and jockey John R. Velazquez won Saturday’s 66th running of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Miami Herald

Just this year, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes was demoted from a Grade I stakes to a Grade II. When it comes to Kentucky Derby preps, however, Keeneland’s top race for three-year-olds is about to make a comeback.

With the unbeaten McCraken, Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit, Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo and two-time Grade I winner Practical Joke expected for Saturday’s running, the favorite for Kentucky Derby 143 could well come from the $1 million race.

That is even more likely given the results of Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream and the $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

Gunnevera, the Florida Derby’s 4/5 favorite, broke last from his outside post in the field of 11. Jockey Javier Castellano weaved the Antonio Sano-trained entry through traffic to finish third. It’s unlikely, however, the Kentucky Derby betting favorite will be a horse that finished third in his last prep.

Always Dreaming was the impressive winner of the Florida Derby under jockey John Velazquez. The colt was making his stakes debut and fourth career start, however, for trainer Todd Pletcher, who won his fourth Florida Derby. Does he have the seasoning needed for the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs?

Girvin, the 6-5 favorite, improved his career mark to three-for-four by winning the Louisiana Derby. Trained by Joe Sharp and ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr., Girvin also won the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds back on Feb. 25. By the sprinter Tale of Ekati, Girvin has so far outrun his pedigree.

Hernandez is also the jockey for McCraken, who will be looking to extend his record to five-for-five when he races in the Blue Grass. In fact, Hernandez flew from Louisiana to Keeneland last week to work McCraken, who won the Street Sense and the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at two and the Sam. F. Davis at three for trainer Ian Wilkes. Hernandez could well choose McCraken over Girvin as his Derby mount.

The most interesting horse coming out of the Louisiana Derby, however, may end up being second-place finisher Patch, another lightly-raced candidate in Pletcher’s barn. Owned by Calumet Farm, Patch was making just third career start on Saturday and his first in stakes company. The son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags was coming off a maiden win in a mile race at Gulfstream on Feb. 18 before shipping to Fair Grounds. Does he have the seasoning?

The Blue Grass isn’t the only major Derby prep on next Saturday’s docket. There’s the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York and the Santa Anita Derby out in California.

After winning four straight, El Areeb was hoping to bounce back from his disappointing third-place showing in the Gotham with a strong performance in the Wood. He’s now off the Derby trail, however, with a knee injury that requires a six-month layoff. Rebel Stakes winner Malagacy, trained by Pletcher, could be the Wood favorite.

Meanwhile, the Santa Anita Derby has also been hurt by attrition. Moments after winning the San Felipe Stakes, Mastery was taken off with a condylar fracture. That not only knocked the Bob Baffert-trained entry out of the Kentucky Derby but turned the Santa Anita Derby into a wide open affair.

Finally, there’s the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 15, where Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire hopes to answer a lot of questions. After a puzzling third-place finish in the Holy Bull, the colt twice refused to work before being shipped to Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala where he has put in two impressive works.

Meanwhile, a McCraken win at Keeneland on Saturday should make octogenarian owner Janis Whitham the favorite on Derby Day. Tapwrit, trained by Pletcher, set a stakes record in winning the Tampa Bay Derby. J Boys Echo, trained by Dale Romans, won the Gotham by 3  1/4 lengths. And Practical Joke was second to Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth.

For the first time in a long time, the focus is on the Blue Grass.

Kentucky Derby prep races

Date

Race

Track

Points

Winner

9/17/16

Iroquois

Churchill Downs

10

Not This Time

10/1/16

FrontRunner

Belmont Park

10

Gormley

10/8/16

Champagne

Belmont Park

10

Practical Joke

10/8/16

Breeders' Futurity

Keeneland

10

Classic Empire

11/5/16

Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Santa Anita Park

20

Classic Empire

11/19/16

Delta Downs Jackpot

Delta Downs

10

Gunnevera

11/26/16

Remsen

Aqueduct

10

Mo Town

11/26/16

Kentucky Jockey Club

Churchill Downs

10

McCraken

11/26/16

Cattleya Sho*

Tokyo Racecourse

40

Mont Saint Legame

12/10/16

Los Alamitos Futurity

Los Alamitos

10

Mastery

1/2/17

Jerome

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

1/7/17

Sham

Santa Anita Park

10

Gormley

1/16/17

Smarty Jones

Oaklawn Park

10

Uncontested

1/21/17

Lecomte

Fair Grounds

10

Guest Suite

2/4/17

Withers

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

2/4/17

Holy Bull

Gulfstream Park

10

Irish War Cry

2/4/17

Robert B. Lewis

Santa Anita Park

10

Royal Mo

2/11/17

Sam F. Davis

Tampa Bay Downs

10

McCraken

2/18/17

El Camino Real Derby

Golden Gate Fields

10

Zakaroff

2/19/17

Hyacinth*

Tokyo Racecourse

50

Epicharis

2/20/17

Southwest

Oaklawn Park

10

One Liner

2/25/17

Risen Star

Fair Grounds

50

Girvin

3/4/17

Fountain of Youth

Gulfstream Park

50

Gunnevera

3/4/17

Gotham

Aqueduct

50

J Boys Echo

3/11/17

Tampa Bay Derby

Tampa Bay Downs

50

Tapwrit

3/11/17

San Felipe

Santa Anita Park

50

Mastery

3/18/17

Rebel

Oaklawn Park

50

Malagacy

3/25/17

UAE Derby

Meydan Racecourse

100

Thunder Snow

3/25/17

Spiral

Turfway Park

50

Fast and Accurate

3/25/17

Sunland Derby

Sunland Park

50

Hence

4/1/17

Florida Derby

Gulfstream Park

100

Always Dreaming

4/1/17

Louisiana Derby

Fair Grounds

100

Girvin

4/8/17

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct

100

4/8/17

Blue Grass

Keeneland

100

4/8/17

Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Park

100

4/15/17

Arkansas Derby

Oaklawn Park

100

4/15/17

Lexington

Keeneland

10

* Japan Road to Kentucky Derby

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