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Off to the Race's with Nick Costa Check out his blog below!

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Nick CostaHi everyone, the Kentucky Derby prep season, which culminated back in September, is for all intents and purposes, now completed. Where has the time gone? With all the significant major preps in the books, the 139th Kentucky Derby field has come into focus for the most part, with just two wild card races over the next two weekends offering up one last shot of getting into the Derby field. Both of those races, the G3 Lexington Stakes and the G3 Derby Trial, April 20th and 27th respectively, offer 20 points to the winner. The cutoff point stands at 20 to make the final cut, so a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 4th might be within reach for a horse outside of the top twenty. Even with the last spot still up for grabs, we have a good idea who will make their way to Louisville (barring any dropouts from now until May 4th). Before we look at the horses likely to participate, lets go "Off To The Races" and recap the last four major prep races, and the impact they will each have moving forward.

The last two weekends, which featured four major G1 races, were full of excitement on the trail to the Kentucky Derby. Did we see the Kentucky Derby winner in action? Not sure, but the results of those races did help clear the picture. It was do-or-die time for many horses to earn their spot at Churchill. No fewer than 7-horses did just that, by earning much needed points and securing an opportunity to run for the roses May 4th..

APRIL 6th Preps:
A field of 10 runners went postward at Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial, the final major New York prep race for the Kentucky Derby. 4/5 race favorite, Verrazano, kept his unbeaten record in tact, doing what odds-on undefeated 3-year olds should do, going out and winnning races. The 1 1/8-mile G1 event had a slow pace early, but quickened the final 3-furlomgs. Verrazano stalked the early leader through pedestrian fractions of :24 4/5, :49 3/5, before being asked by rider John Velazquez to accelerate mid-way down the backside. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Verrazano was able to fend off a very determined charge by Vjack in upper stretch, then kept his lead intact from an oncoming Normandy Invasion to win by three-quarters of a length in a final time of 1:50 1/5.

Note: Verrazano was challenged for the first time in four career starts and responded gamely. It's certainly what he needed to show since he was untested prior to the race. So, maybe this experience will do him wonders. His path to Churchill reminds me of Barbaro- winning the early races with ease, only to have his final prep a rather tough test. That certainly worked out well for him on Derby day.
Verrazano will attempt to become the first winner of the Kentucky Derby not to have raced as a juvenile since Apollo in 1882. Based on his 4-0 record, he's in great position to be the likely favorite on Derby day, but he's by no means unbeatable. Normandy Invasion impressed me the most of the group, he was making up ground in the latter stages of the Wood, seemingly an impossible task due to the lack of pace. Credit must be given to jockey Javier Castellano, who helped the horse to a great push late in the race to nab the second spot. It was the difference between getting into the Derby, or being leftout. He's definately a contender. As for third place finisher, Vyjack, the previously unbeaten colt got a good trip and was setup well for the stretch run, with every opportunity to go by Verrazano. but was unable to do get the job done. It appears that maye he was exposed with regards to distance. The top three will all meet again in the Derby.

As for the rest of the Wood field, there were no other horses that showed any improvement, or earned enough points to go move on.

Out west, in the final California prep for horses looking to move on to Louisville, the G1 Santa Anita Derby unfolded vastly different from its New York counterpart. Super Ninety Nine, one of a trio of runners in the race from the renowned Bob Baffert stable, established the lead after the gates sprung open and set a very ambitious early pace, carving out splits of :22 3/5, :46 2/5, and 1:10 2/5, while being pressed by a determined Goldencents to his outside. Race favorite, and another Baffert trainee, Flashback, winner of the G2 Bob Lewis Stakes and runner-up in the G2 San Felipe, was perfectly positioned in a ground-saving trip along the inside. Around the final bend, Goldencents, under jockey Kevin Krigger, turned up the pressure on the leader while Flashback was guided off the rail to launch a 3-wide bid. Super Ninety Nine gave way to both challengers entering the stretch, and the favorite looked to have the race at his mercy, but he lugged in past mid-stretch and Goldencents simply had plenty left in reserve to keep his nemesis at bay to win by 1 1/4-lengths at the wire in a final time of 1:48 3/5.

Note: Goldencents, almost a forgotten horse on the Derby trail after one loss, put his name back on the marquee by running a huge race, a race that most handicappers didn't think the colt was capable of running. His final time lead to a Beyer speed figure of 105, which is the highest Beyer figure posted in ANY prep race to this point. This was definitely a nice final prep for the Doug O'Neill runner whose early speed could be quite beneficial come Derby day. However, I truly believe the speed favoring racing strip on Santa Anita Derby day had a TON to do with his victory. In my opinion, I feel his pedigree leaves some uncertainty about his aptitude for the Derby's 1 1/4 miles, and I'll take a stand against him in Louisville. Flashback had a beautiful trip and also ran a strong race, but he just wasn't good enough. He came out of the Santa Anita Derby with a knee chip and will out of training for roughly two months. Sadly, he is out of the Kentucky Derby. Super Ninety Nine ran a better race here than he did in the Rebel Stakes, but still was unable to maintain it throughout, and was easily passed by the top two. He has enough points to go on to Louisville and participate in the Kentucky Derby. If he does, I don't think he has any chance over a fast track, but IF the Churchill surface comes up sloppy on the first Saturday in May, he could be very enticing at good odds, seeing that he has proven he loves an off track. As for Power Broker, the third Baffert horse in the Santa Anita Derby, he's a talented runner, but it was an awful lot to ask of the colt to come back off a significant layoff, and he showed why. There will be no roses for him.

Javas WarAPRIL 13th Preps:
With a thrilling and powerful stretch run, a late-flying Java's War turned in a last-to first performance to win the G1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, stamping his ticket to the May 4th Kentucky Derby. The Ken McPeek trainee broke poorly, but settled into a rhythm at the back of the pack under Julien Leparoux as favored Rydilluc dueled with longshot Undrafted down the backside. Rydilluc opened up a length-and-a half lead at the head of the lane, and Javas War was taken out seven or eight wide when producing his run. Palace Malice, who was getting a dream trip along the inside, angled out and chased after Rydullic, wrestling the lead away from the leader in mid-stretch, but Javas War galloped on with giant strides, quickening in the final furlong and was up in time to find the wire a neck to the good in a final time of 1:50 1/5. Charming Kitten rallied between horses to complete the trifecta, while Rydilluc held fourth.

Note: Although there was no faulting Java's War memorable performance, it was on Polytrack and he will need a major pace meltdown to win the Kentucky Derby. Despite the unfortunate result at the finish line, Palace Malice still got enough points (40) necessary to qualify. He's a talented horse, but will need to figure out how to finish better at the slightly longer 10-furlong distance. Charming Kitten ran a solid third place in the middle of them running on well. No surprise (other his race odds) for a turf horse running on synthetics. As for Rydullic, losing a lead that late in the race makes his performance was a big letdown. Uncaptured finished 10th in the field of 14, but was the favorite before the race with 7-2 odds. In his last eight races before Saturday, Uncaptured had won six of them, so a lot of people were expecting the multiple graded stakes winner to continue the hot streak. After taking a lead at the start of the race, Uncaptured began to slowly fall behind. He stayed in the front of the pack before eventually falling off by the end. It may have been a good start, but all that matters is where you finish. Even with enough points to be in the field, Uncapatured will not go to the Kentucky Derby, however, the Mark Casse runner could target the Queens Plate at Woodbine.

Analyze this ANALYZE THIS:

Disappointing as the chalk in his seasonal debut in Aqueduct's G3 Gotham Stakes last month, Overanalyze, in a major display of form reversal, drove past the competition to a decisive 4 1/4-length tally in the G1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. The victory earned the Todd Pletcher trainee a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Hung four deep on the first turn while traveling in midpack, Overanalyze settled well to tracked splits of :23 1/5 and :47 3/5 before seeming to spin his wheels on the final turn. However, he kept plugging away, and when called upon by rider Rafael Bejarano, picked up a full head of steam out in the center of the track to range up outside of Frac Daddy at the head of the lane as pacesetter Falling Sky tried to fend off Dens Legacy. Overanalyze bore in slightly as he asserted for the lead at the eighth pole, but when Bejarano straightened away his mount, the race was over, as the bay colt ran away from the field through the stretch hitting the finish line in a time of 1:51 4/5. Frac Daddy, an early Derby contender this season, now really is off this 2nd place finish. 3rd place went to longshot Carve, back another 1/2 length and a neck in front of the G3 Sam Davis winner, Falling Sky

Note: Overanalyze needed this race to qualify, and rallied on cue to take this field apart by the 1/16 pole as if they were not in the same league, but by no means was this an impressive effort. The winning time was slow and the Beyer Speed Figure came back soft (88). Frac Daddy suffered a quarter crack after the Holy Bull, and was probably unable to be trained much for his next effort which turned out to be the G1 Florida Derby where he finished. In this event, with a combination of better soundness and fitness, he fired an excellent shot, racing very wide throughout, coming in a nice second. G2 Rebel Stakes runnner-up Oxbow seemed discouraged by the dirt kicking into his face on the first turn and could do no better than fifth. There wasnt a single more disappointing performance on Saturday than War Academy. The 2-1 race favorite was pulled up on the backstretch by jockey Mike Smith after he felt the colt take a couple bad steps. There's good news to report. War Academy walked off the track on his own and trainer Bob Baffert indicated the colt was fine. 3rd place finisher, Carve, was the only horse in this field that was not triple-crown nominated., so his 20 points have no effect on the point standings. 4th place finisher, Dynamic Sky, who has enough points to continue on to the big show, was far behind at the finish (5 lengths), and his status is uncertain at this time. If he does participate in the Kentucky Derby, he will not be a factor


*In keeping up with the theme of slow 2013 final prep times (with the exception of the Sunland Derby), all four preps above were entertaining affairs, but glacial in terms of final time.
**Trainer Todd Pletcher could have as many as five starters in the Kentucky Derby Wood Memorial winner Verazzano, Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, Arkansas Derby winner,Overanalyze, along with his Blue Grass runners, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
Jockeying for position:
In other significant Derby news, jockeys riding mulitple horses cleared up. The most notable case is with John Velazquez, who had been the rider on both Orb and Verrazano. Velazquez will ride the latter, while Joel Rosario gets the call on the former. Rosario had been aboard Vyjack, who will now get the services of Garrett Gomez. Also, jockey Javier Castellano had to make a decison between two horses he had ridden during the preps, Revolutionary and Normandy Invasion. Castellano committed himself to ride the Wood runner-up for the big race, while gets the mount on Revolutionary, the winner of the Withers and Louisiana Derby, goes to three-time Derby winning rider, Calvin Borel. Blue Grass runner-up, Palace Malice, who was ridden by Gomez in the Blue Grass, will now get the services of Mike Smith. Rosie Napravnik, who last year became the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks, will pilot Mylute in Kentucky Derby.

kentucky derbyUp Next:
As noted above, were down to the final two Derby preps: Lexington Stakes and Derby Trial, each awarding 20 points to the winner, and could certainly aid horses sitting on the Derby bubble. It's possible the former named race could send a starter to Louisville, but it would be a shocker if the latter event had any effect on the Derby starting lineup.

Who's In--Who's Out:
According to Churchill Downs, there were five official defections from the Kentucky Derby. The connections of Uncaptured, Merit Man and Departing confirmed that their horses are no longer under consideration for the Derby. Churchill Downs also removed Den's Legacy and West Hills Giant from their points Leaderboard. So, we now have 19 of the 20-horses that will be in the Derby.

How the early Derby 20 field is shaping up: (with confirmed defections).
Rank Horse Trainer Points
1 Orb Shug McGaughey 150
2 Verrazano Todd Pletcher 150
3 Goldencents Doug O'Neill 129
4 Java's War Ken McPeek 122
5 Overanalyze Todd Pletcher 110
6 Revolutionary Todd Pletcher 110
7 Lines of Battle Aidan O'Brien 100
8 Vyjack Rudy Rodriguez 70
9 Will Take Charge Wayne Lukas 60
10 Itsmyluckyday Eddie Plesa, Jr. 50
11 Govenor Charlie Bob Baffert 50
12 Black Onyx Kelly Breen 50
13 Palace Malice Todd Pletcher 50
14 Normandy Invasion Chad Brown 44
15 Frac Daddy Ken McPeek 44
16 Mylute Tom Amoss 42
17 Oxbow Wayne Lukas 36
18 Super Ninety Nine Bob Baffert 30
19 Falling Sky John Terranova 30
20 Charming Kitten Todd Pletcher 20
21. Code West 20
22. Tiz a Minister 20
1- ORB - Reaffirmed standing as bona fide Classic Horse' winning Fla. Derby.
2-REVOLUTIONARY - Two strong stakes victories showing multiple gears.
3-NORMANDY INVASION - Made impressive late gain against slow pace In The Wood.
4-GOLDENCENTS - Different training tactics led to SA Derby win; had something left.
5-VERRAZANO - Scored well in Tampa Bay Derby; less impressive winning the Wood.
6-PALACE MALICE - Troubled 7th in Louisiana Derby, good finishing 2nd in Ark. Derby.
7-WILL TAKE CHARGE - Stretch running win over stablemate Oxbow in Rebel; training up to the Derby.
8-GOVENOR CHARLIE - Baffert trainee handily beat weaker at Sunland; plenty upside.
9-VYJACK - Versatile and game, but still have doubts he is a true 10 furlong type.
10-OXBOW - Good efforts leading into Ark. Derby yet finished a flat 5th; can do better.
11-MYLUTE - Rallied well for 2nd in La. Derby; room to improve in Louisville.
12-LINES OF BATTLE - Won 1 3/16 mi. UAE Derby; might outdo other Dubai failures.
13-JAVA'S WAR - Goes from the Polytrack of Keeneland to the natural dirt of Churchill Downs.

Photo Credits: Verrazano courtesy of Coglianese photos--Goldencents courtesy of Benoit photos--Java's War courtesy of Keeneland Racecourse--Overanalyze courtesy of Coady photos--Road To The Kentucky Derby logo courtesy of Churchill Downs.

Thats all for this edition, until next time, hope to see you At The Races.
Nick can be contacted at: niagnick@gmail.com or read his blogs at Horse Racing Nation

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