Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from the weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps

In a photo provided by Benoit Photo, Justify and jockey Mike Smith win the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, April 7, 2018, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif. Trained by Bob Baffert, Justify will be one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
In a photo provided by Benoit Photo, Justify and jockey Mike Smith win the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, April 7, 2018, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif. Trained by Bob Baffert, Justify will be one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Benoit Photo via Associated Press

Three takeaways from this weekend’s big Kentucky Derby preps:

1. Yes, Justify is the real deal

Having run but twice, with both starts coming this year, and for never more than $56,000, there were plenty of questions about whether the brilliant but unseasoned colt could handle Bolt d’Oro and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby field.

Justify not just handled it, he aced it. His 107 Beyer speed figure for the race is the highest by a three-year-old this season and the third straight 100+ by the Bob Baffert trainee this year. Those are the three best Beyers for a three-year-old in 2018.

Yes, Justify got an easy lead. Yes, the fractions were slow. But when Bolt d’Oro made his move at the top of the stretch to put a slight bit of pressure on Justify, jockey Mike Smith was able to pull away with little problem for the three-length win.

“Justify is just a natural,” Baffert told the Blood-Horse afterward, “and he’s just learning how to run.”

Color Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form impressed.

“In only his third career start, and in his first attempt at a distance beyond one mile, Justify absolutely toyed with Bolt d’Oro,” he wrote. “Think about that for a second. Bolt d’Oro is indisputably one of the best members of his generation. His stellar victory in the FrontRunner last fall was, I thought, the best performance by any 2-year-old in North America last year.”

2. Good Magic gets win, but not raves

The first maiden to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile returned to the winner’s circle on Saturday by taking the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. The victory redeemed Good Magic’s dull third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth last month.

Still, Good Magic’s race was overshadowed by Justify’s effort in California. Good Magic posted a 95 Beyer figure and had to work to put away the field.

“That said, Good Magic’s Blue Grass still left me a bit cold,” Watchmaker wrote. “For one, he was hard pressed to turn back Flameaway. Now, Flameaway is as game as they come and runs on anything, and I’d love to own him. But he had eight starts going into the Blue Grass, meaning we had a good handle on exactly what he is, and his previous-best Beyer of 93 said what Flameaway is – limited.”

Trainer Chad Brown said he plans to keep Good Magic at Keeneland for the next couple of weeks before moving on to Louisville. Good Magic will get at least one work on the Churchill Downs surface before the May 5 race.

3. Kentucky Derby contenders putting off Louisville arrival

Good Magic isn’t the only serious Kentucky Derby contender who will wait before making the trip to Churchill.

Both Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso and runner-up Enticed are expected to return to the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Florida before coming to Louisville.

Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer for Gotham winner Enticed, said he prefers the weather in Florida and the quiet at Palm Meadows compared to the often crowded backside at Churchill Downs leading up to the race.

“Mainly because of the weather, and it’s very quiet there in the month of April because of all the horses that have shipped out, so it’s almost like a private training center,” McLaughlin told the NYRA. “We’ll train there and point for the Derby. We’re doubtful that we’ll even work him at Churchill, because he won there last fall and we already know that he likes the track.”

Same for Vino Rosso, who bounced back from his fourth-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby to win the Wood. Trainer Tood Pletcher said over the weekend he expects the son of Curlin will breeze twice between now and the Kentucky Derby, and both could take place in Florida.

Vino Rosso is owned by Mike Repole and St. Elias Stable of Vinnie Viola, who also owns the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Viola was a part owner of 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who was also trained by Pletcher.

Kentucky Derby 2018

When: Saturday, May 5

Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville

Post time: 6:34 p.m.

TV: NBC

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