Road to Kentucky Derby Heats Up with 3 Top Prep Races Saturday

mccraken horse

Martin Green

Friday, April 7, 2017 2:32 PM GMT

Friday, Apr. 7, 2017 2:32 PM GMT

There are just two Saturdays remaining for Kentucky Derby points prep races and the action is really heating up. This Saturday is the penultimate round and features three prep races: the Santa Anita Derby in California, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Here we run through that trio of races.

Santa Anita Derby

This race has been seen as a great precursor to the Kentucky Derby in recent times: 2012 winner I’ll Have Another went on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, as did California Chrome in 2014. Dortmund, who won this race in 2015, finished second in the Kentucky Derby, and last year’s Santa Anita Derby winner was Exaggerator, who lost out to Nyquist at the Derby but won the Preakness ahead of his great rival. This year's field was weakened by injury to favorite Mastery, so a bunch of top contenders for the Kentucky Derby have declared in a bid to win the $1 million prize pot and earn crucial qualification points.

Iliad, a +2000 shot for the Kentucky Derby, leads the betting at +350, followed by Gormley at +450, then Reach the World, Battle of Midway and American Anthem at +500, with Royal Mo at +1000. They are all excellent contenders, and it is a tough field to sort out. Battle of Midway lost out to Iliad in December but put in a strong showing to beat Reach the World on this track March 9 and can gain revenge on Iliad here in a broader field and a longer trip. He looks a good each-way bet at +500 as you would expect him to at least make the top three.

 

Wood Memorial

The Wood Memorial has been downgraded from G1 to G2 and the prize purse has also gone down from $1 million to $750,000, but there are still 170 qualification points on offer to be split between the top four finishers, so it has attracted another competitive field. First and second lock a place in the Kentucky Derby. There are three leading contenders for the first two spots. Battalion Runner comes from the stable of Todd Pletcher, which has been on fire in the buildup to the Derby and could have seven starters. Battalion Runner put in two eye-catching wins at Gulfstream Park and big things are expected of him here.

The talented Cloud Computing finished second to Jo Boys Echo, currently fifth favorite for the Kentucky Derby, on just his second start last month, beating the highly-rated El Areeb by seven lengths. Finally Irish War Cry and Mo Town are both seeking redemption. Those horses generated early Derby buzz but have faltered badly. Mo Town has lost rider John Velazquez to Battalion Runner, and Irish War Cry seems the most likely to gain redemption. He blitzed the field in the Holy Bull, beating the highly-rated Gunneverea and Classic Empire, only to finish seventh in the Fountain of Youth. He lost a shoe and it all went wrong in that race, so he should put in a much better showing here, but Battalion Runner has the most promise and looks good at +200.

 

Blue Grass Stakes

We saved the best for last: the $1 million, G2 Blue Grass features the ante-post favorite, third-favorite and fifth-favorite for the Kentucky Derby. McCraken (pictured) is +800 favorite for the Derby, Tapwrit is +1400 and J Boys Echo is +1600. They are +140, +250 and +500, respectively, for the Bluegrass. Finally, we get the chance to see them in action against one another and it should prove a thrilling contest. That being said, it is hard to look past McCraken right now. He has not put a foot wrong in four career starts and beat Tapwrit to win the Sam F Davis Stakes last time out. He has already beaten several of the other contenders for the Bluegrass and, while an injury has kept him out since February, trainer Ian Wilkes is not concerned by the layoff.

J Boys Echo is a strong challenger, but Tapwrit is likely to be McCraken's main contender once again, given the roll trainer Pletcher is on. Some sportsbooks are going out to +400 on Tapwrit, so you could afford to back him to win and place, but for the outright win it has to be McCraken. 

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