April 5 (UPI) -- With the end of the Kentucky Derby prep season in sight and no clear favorite to be found, Saturday's three big "semifinals" in New York, Kentucky and California either will sort things out or leave the 145th Run for the Roses a wide-open affair.
"There are a lot of nice 3-year olds," five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said on a media call early in the week. "There just hasn't been a horse that has just broke through. And I think that everybody's waiting for that. Maybe it'll happen this week."
Here's a look at the races where it could happen, with some key players:
$1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby
Only six are on the program for the top West Coast Triple Crown prep but it's a quality bunch including two of Baffert's top prospects.
Game Winner, the 2018 juvenile champion, is the 4-5 morning-line favorite. The Candy Ride colt was undefeated last year, winning three Grade I races including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Baffert charge suffered his first career setback when he fell a nose short of catching Omaha Beach with a wide trip in the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park in his 3-year-old debut March 16.
Baffert said Game Winner's performance in the Rebel was encouraging despite the loss.
"Well, I think the thing about him, he's tough, he's gritty," Baffert said. "He showed that in his last race. He had every chance when he was behind there to not finish like he did. He tries hard. And he gives it his all. He shows up every time and that's all you can ask for a horse, just shows up. He's going to try hard. And that's what you need. Coming to the Derby, you want a horse that's resilient."
The "other Baffert," Roadster, starts from the rail in the Santa Anita Derby. The Quality Road colt finished third in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September, 2 lengths back of the winner, Game Winner. He did not run again until March 3 when he was an easy winner in a restricted allowance race going 1 mile -- a race that Baffert said was "off the charts" good. The negatives are added distance and his relative lack of experience. On the plus side, "Big Money" Mike Smith is his regular rider.
Instagrand, an Into Mischief colt trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, won the Grade II Best Pal at Del Mar in August. His only intervening start was a third-place showing in the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct May 9. He's 3-1 on the morning line mainly because any of the other three contenders here would need a quantum leap to win this race.
The $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct
There's a "big three" in this one, too.
Tacitus, a Tapit colt who won on his second try in November over the Aqueduct strip, then won the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in his only other start. Bill Mott trains the gray Juddmonte Farms homebred, installed as the 5-2 favorite on the morning line. The colt is the first foal from 2014 Eclipse Champion Mare Close Hatches, a five-time Grade I winner Mott also trained for Juddmonte.
Haikal, a Shadwell Stable homebred colt by Daahar, whose triumph in the Grade III Gotham on March 9 was his third straight win and enough to make him second pick on the morning line at 7-2. "The only question is the two turns but we feel like it'll be no problem," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "Hopefully he won't be as far back as he was last time." That was 14 lengths behind the leader after the first half mile.
Tax, an Arch colt whose last race was a hard-fought win in the Grade II Withers at Aqueduct on Groundhog Day. He's 9-2 on the line and trainer Danny Gargan, who claimed the colt last October at Keeneland for $50,000, said, "He's a nice horse and we're just hoping we can run top-three so we can go to the Derby.
Hoffa's Union, Joevia and Grumps Little Tots were late Triple Crown nominees early this week at $6,000 each, indicating rosy views on the part of their connections. Hoffa's Union is the most impressive of that trio going into the Wood. His only previous start was a 15 1/2-lengths win Feb. 28 at Laurel Park, going 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.61, after which he was sold and turned over to trainer Mark Casse.
$1 million Grade II Toyota Blue Grass
With a field of 14, this is the most wide-open of Saturday's races.
Vekoma, another by Candy Ride, is the 7-2 morning line favorite but that's after he finished third in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park last month. The Fountain was his 3-year-old debut and then did win the Grade III Nashua at Aqueduct as a 2-year-old.
No horse since Coaltown in 1948 has won the Blue Grass coming into the event with just three lifetime starts -- the task Vekoma faces Saturday. "He is a late May foal and after the Nashua last year he indicated he may need a break so we passed the Remsen and decided to focus on his 3-year-old campaign," trainer George Weaver said Thursday morning. He said he was forced to switch jockeys from Manny Franco to Javier Castellano because he was late to commit to the Blue Grass and Franco was committed to ride at Aqueduct.
Win Win Win, a son of the Japanese-bred sire Hat Trick, comes to the Blue Grass following a third-place finish as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby. That was enough to make him the second choice on the morning line at 7-2.
Signalman, a General Quarters colt, was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs three weeks later. He needs to atone for a seventh-place showing in the Fountain of Youth but trainer Kenny McPeek said that race might have benefitted Signalman. "Vekoma is the favorite for the Blue Grass and he only beat Signalman four lengths in the Fountain of Youth, and now my horse has a race under his belt," McPeek said.
Among the others, Somelikeithotbrown dominated on the Turfway Park all-weather course early in the year but will have to translate that to the Keeneland dirt. And after that, stab that program with a hatpin and hope to get lucky.
One more week and we'll just about have the field set for Kentucky Derby 145. But this is worth waiting for as the April 13 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park is expected to have a few of the likely favorites for the Run for the Roses including yet another Baffert hope, Improbable.
This weekend marks the final opportunity to fish for a decent price on the likely favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens Friday and runs through 6 p.m. EDT Sunday. Win and exacta bets are available on 23 individual horses and "all others".
The attraction is, horses likely to go off at short odds on Derby Day offer a much better return in the Future Wager. For example, reigning 2-year-old champ Game Winner and last Saturday's Florida Derby winner Maximum Security both open the weekend wagering at 8-1 on Mike Battaglia's morning line. Saturday's UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait is 30-1.
You won't get that on May 4 -- at least not on Game Winner. The down side: If the horse doesn't run, you lose the bet.
On second thought, Plus Que Parfait easily might be 30-1 at post time. Ditto Maximum Security at 8-1 and his trainer isn't even saying for sure he will target the Derby. So match the risk with the potential reward.
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
The three Derby preps are paired with a trio of Oaks Preps on Saturday: the $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland, the $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and the $300,000 Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk is the favorite in the Ashland despite losing her 3-year-old debut. The Gazelle is wide open with six entrants. And the Santa Anita Oaks features Bellafina as the odds-on favorite after a pair of Grade II victories over the course.