April 8 (UPI) -- After weeks of upsets and disappointments, and with just four weeks to go before the big race, finally there is a bit of clarity in the Kentucky Derby picture.
Roadster found a late burst of speed to catch Game Winner and take the Santa Anita Derby with both Bob Baffert-trained colts headed for Louisville. Tacitus drew off late to win the Wood Memorial and all three top finishers there likely will meet again at Churchill Downs. And Vekoma, the dominant winner in the Blue Grass, also is headed for the Run for the Roses, likely with runner-up Win Win Win.
While those big-deal preps churned up some logical choices from the early Derby morass, there still is no clear-cut favorite. Evidence? The fourth and final Kentucky Derby Futures pool closed Sunday evening with only $11,722 separating the favorite, Roadster, from the sixth choice, Omaha Beach. Roadster closed at odds of 6-1; Omaha Beach, 10-1. In between, in order, were Florida Derby winner Maximum Security (7-1), Game Winner (7-1), Tacitus (8-1) and likely Arkansas Derby winner Improbable (8-1).
Here's how the weekend unfolded:
The Santa Anita Derby
For the longest while, it appeared Instagrand was going to lead gate-to-wire in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Derby. Then, Game Winner surged to the lead in the stretch and looked like the one. But no, it was Roadster, who had lagged well back in the six-horse field, flying down the outside and getting past his stablemate to win by 1/2 length. Instagrand battled on well to hold third and the other three were filler.
Roadster, a Quality Road colt, finished the 1 1/8 miles over a fast track in 1:51.28 with "Big Money" Mike Smith up. The win was his third from just four career starts. He also finished third in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, won by Game Winner.
Roadster had to finish first or second to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby. Game winner, the 2018 Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, already had enough points to qualify for Louisville. Instagrand is on the bubble with 30 points and two horses in front of him in the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Baffert, trains both Roadster and Game Winner, was asked immediately after the Santa Anita Derby, "Will they both go on to the Kentucky Derby." He replied, "What do you think?" With five Kentucky Derby victories and two Triple Crowns to his credit, the white-haired conditioner does not shy away from Churchill Downs.
And the horse many think is Baffert's best, Improbable, looks to nail down a Kentucky Derby starting slot in next Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
The Wood Memorial
Tacitus and Tax raced well back of an early speed duel in Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, then raced as a team into the stretch run. Tacitus, on the outside, gradually inched clear in the final sixteenth, winning by 1 1/4 lengths with Haikal's late run securing third, another 2 3/4 lengths back. Tacitus, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby in his previous start, finished 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:51.23 with Jose Ortiz at the controls.
It was not the easiest of trips for the winner, who was bumped soundly at the start, then had a rival clip heels from behind him midway through the first turn. The Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Tapit then was four wide on the stretch turn, conceding ground to Tax.
Tacitus jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard while Tax and Haikal both earned a spot in the Run for the Roses and their trainers indicated Sunday they are going.
Garret O'Rourke, racing manager for Juddmonte Farms, noted the outfit has have five swings at the Kentucky Derby "and came out of them all with our tail between our legs ... We have a legitimate contender now that's bred to be a Derby horse and he's now proving that, hopefully, he is up to that standard."
Trainer Bill Mott, who also trained Tacitus' talented dam, Close Hatches, said Tacitus will remain in New York for a week before shipping to Louisville, adding, "I think the race shapes up well for him."
Three of the 11 Wood Memorial starters were $6,000 late nominees earlier in the week to the Triple Crown. Their owners were disappointed as Joevia finished seventh but was demoted to last for causing a traffic jam at the start; Hoffa's Union finished eighth, promoted to seventh; and Grumps Little Tots was home ninth, moved up to eighth.
The Blue Grass
Vekoma pressured the early leader, Somelikeithotbrown, all the way down the backstretch in Saturday's $1 million Grade II Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, took the lead on the turn and drew off smartly to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Win Win Win came from far far far back to edge Signalman for second. Somelikeithotbrown finished fourth. Vekoma, after suffering his first career defeat in the Grade II Fountain of Youth in his previous start, finished the 1 1/8 miles of the Blue Grass in 1:50.93 with Javier Castellano in the irons. George Weaver trains the Candy Ride colt.
Vekoma earned 100 points, putting him second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Win Win Win's narrow second earned 40 points, giving him 50 total, likely enough for a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Had he finished third, he probably would not have qualified. Signalman now has 38 points and Somelikeithotbrown 30 and both are on the Derby bubble.
Weaver said he told Castellano to worry less about the pace in the Blue Grass than about getting Vekoma into a contending position and that strategy played out well.
"He's so talented and he's done things in the morning," Weaver said. I've really never had a colt like this in all the time I've trained. Nothing would surprise me. If he comes out of it well, we'll go to Louisville and see what happens.
"I'm pretty tore up," Weaver added. "I'm excited. I grew up in Kentucky and came to the Blue Grass when I was a kid, every year. Winning this race is very special."
Another country heard from:
Master Fencer, winner of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series, has accepted his invitation to Louisville and a guaranteed spot in the Run for the Roses. The Just a Way colt finished second in the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama last weekend and earlier was fourth in the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo -- enough to earn the most points among horses nominated to the Triple Crown. Although two Japan-based horses have started in previous runnings of the Derby, Master Fencer would be the first Japan-bred starter in the race's history.
"It is an honor to be able to participate in one of the world's greatest races," said owner Katsumi Yoshizawa.
The acceptance cuts to 19 the number of Derby spots available to American-based runners. And should the winner of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby decide to take his spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate, that number would be shaved to 18. The European series concludes Thursday at Chelmsford City.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby promises to provide a humdinger finale to the Derby prep season. The expected field includes a rematch between Improbable and the colt who handed him his first career loss in a division of the Rebel, Long Range Toddy. Also set for the Oaklawn Park feature are Omaha Beach, who bettered previously undefeated Game Winner in the other division of the Rebel, as well as Gray Attempt, Country House and Roiland. Although the Baffert-trained Improbable is regarded as one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, he probably needs a third-place or better finish to make it into the field.
Also Saturday, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland offers 20-8-4 and 2 Kentucky Derby points and could put one or even two "bubble" horses over the top for a spot.
And then ... it's three weeks to the 145th Kentucky Derby. Let's hope the sun shines bright on our old Kentucky home. We deserve it after last year's historic deluge.
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
Bellafina had no trouble at all with three rivals in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. Wide all the way, the Quality Road filly waited behind the early speed, moved to take the lead exiting the stretch turn and spurted away to win by 5 1/4 lengths, never asked for her best by jockey Flavien Prat. Flor de la Mar was second and Chasing Yesterday settled for third.
While winning for the sixth time in eight starts, Bellafina ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.47. She now is 3-for-3 since finishing fourth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filles at Churchill Downs, won by Jaywalk.
"She relaxed great, did exactly what Flavien wanted and she was there when he wanted her, so it worked out as we hoped," said trainer Simon Callaghan. "We weren't sure what the tactics were going to be on the inside of us and we didn't want to commit to going to the lead because then we could be pressured. We figured staying out wide made sense."
Prat said he was "quite confident. I'm looking forward to the Kentucky Oaks. I'm confident that she will run better than she did in the Breeders' Cup."
At Keeneland, Out for a Spin handed Jaywalk, the 2018 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and Eclipse Award winner, her second loss of the season in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland. After pressing the pace made by Jaywalk right into the stretch, Out for a Spin ran by that tiring foe and held off Restless Rider in the final strides to win by a neck -- at 52-1 odds. Jaywalk was third. Out for a Spin, a Virginia-bred filly by Hard Spun making her stakes debut, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track for jockey Paco Lopez and trainer Dallas Stewart.
"She hasn't done much wrong," Stewart said of Out for a Spin. "She's won her last two out of three and she did it impressively. She trains great. In this great game that we have, there are ups and downs, and this an up. Great to have a win today with this big, beautiful filly ... We're going take it to the Kentucky Oaks from here."
Jaywalk's trainer, John Servis, said in hindsight he might not have sent his filly to the front but added, "I was very happy with her effort. I think this sets her up for the Kentucky Oaks. She is right where we want her to be."
And at Aqueduct, Always Shopping punched her ticket to the Oaks with a pace-stalking, 1 3/4-lengths victory in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gazelle. With Manny Franco riding, the Awesome Again filly chased the pace set by Positive Spirit, spun by that one in the stretch and won comfortably. Positive Spirit salvaged second, a neck in front of the late-running Off Topic, while the favorite, Espresso Shot, finished fifth with a dull effort. Always Shopping, winner of the 1 1/8-mile Busanda in her previous start, finished the same trip in 1:52.91 in the Gazelle.
Always Shopping's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said of a potential Oaks bid, "I think the key is if she can continue moving forward. I think she's proven that two turns, a mile and an eighth, is her thing. I actually think she'd be better off in a race with some pace where she could settle and make one run."