Road To The Triple Crown: 3 Big Races Coast-To-Coast

We’ve counting down the Road To The Triple Crown here at TheSportsNotebook since January, with previews of all the biggest Derby Prep races. Now the Kentucky Derby is just a month away and the last really big day of prep race action goes Saturday. And what a day it is, with three big races going across the country, at New York, California and Illinois. TheSportsNotebook previews all three…

Wood Memorial (Aqueduct, NY  5:15 PM ET): A million-dollar purse is on the line as part of a big day overall in New York racing. The eight-horse Wood Memorial has three horses that have emerged as betting line favorites and those are Gemologist (8-5), Alpha (5-2) and Street Life (4-1). Gemologist’s resume is thin, but impressive—a win in a Churchill Downs stakes race last November and a tuneup win at Gulfstream Park in Florida a couple weeks ago. The connections are even more impressive, with trainer Todd Pletcher in charge and jockey Javier Castellano in the saddle. The minimal action Gemologist has seen—along with the short odds—suggest clearly that Pletcher is pointing the horse to this race and has essentially babied him the way a manager might take a Cy Young-caliber pitcher out after six innings to preserve him for the postseason. Now we find out if Gemologist is up to the task.

Alpha has scores big victories here at Aqueduct in the Withers Stakes, a prep race in its own right, and the Count Fleet Stakes. Furthermore, last fall at Belmont, he came in second in the high-quality Champagne Stakes (Belmont is where New York horses go in the fall, while Aqueduct has spring and winter meets). So this horse is clearly comfortable in New York, but an 11th-place finish at the Breeders Cup last November, while no shame, does suggest a problem in stepping up in class. The Wood Memorial isn’t the Breeders Cup, but it’s a tougher race than anything Alpha has faced thus far. Street Life has won his last two races here at Aqueduct, including a St. Patrick’s Day stakes race.

Both Alpha and Street Life are worthy challengers. If you’re a bettor who wants to go for a longer price, or an interested fan who wants to be alert to a big upset, two horses to watch would be Tiger Watch (15-1) and My Adonis (8-1). Tiger Watch is ridden by John Velazquez, one of the best in New York, and while no stakes races are on his resume, the horse has improved each of his last four starts. My Adonis came close in good stakes races here at Aqueduct and Gulfstream earlier in the year.

If it were up to me—and since I’m writing this column, I guess it is—I’d take a flyer on Tiger Watch to win and maybe hedge the bet by also taking lower odds for him to get in the top two.

Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita, CA, 5:30 PM ET): This race goes ahead of the one in Illinois because the SoCal track has scheduled it in the middle of the card, while the other two races are at the end. At this writing, odds are not yet posted, so I’m going to have to take my best guess at the favorites in the 10-horse field. I don’t think I’m taking any big chances in saying Creative Cause will be a factor, with a long record of success in stakes races here at Santa Anita, Del Mar (late-summer stop in SoCal) and Churchill Downs. Creative Cause has consistently run on the board and grabbed a 1-2-3 spot in the biggest races.   I’ll Have Another won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, a Derby prep race at this same locale earlier this year. I have to think these two horses will be the favorites, and if you get anything better than 4-1, they’d be a quality bet.

The intriguing horse in this field is Paynter. There is nothing in the horse’s resume that suggest he’s ready to compete at this level. Yes, he won an off-Broadway race here in February. There’s up to nine races a day four days a week—you do the math and what kind of company that puts him in. But the trainer is Bob Baffert, one of the West’s best. More intriguingly is that jockey Martin Garcia, a former Preakness Stakes winner, chose to ride this horse over others in the field he’s regularly aboard. What do Martin and Baffert know? Another Baffert horse to watch is Liaison, ridden by another high-quality jockey in Rafael Bejarano, with a couple stakes wins at nearby Hollywood Park under his belt. The problem is that Liaison’s been less successful since SoCal moved to the higher-quality racing at Santa Anita. Finally, keep an eye on Midnight Terrace, who finished third and first in stakes races at this track. There’s nothing spectacular there, but if you get odds of 10-1 or higher, he might be worth it.

Illinois Derby (Hawthorne, IL 6:46 PM ET): 17 horses are lined up to go in the Midwest and that makes this the closest approximation we’ll see to the field that the Kentucky Derby trots out (usually about 20). It’s worth noting that Kentucky Derby winners usually come at good odds—it’s tough for anyone to be too big a favorite in a field like this, and more importantly, a big field creates huge uncertainty, with anything from early jostling to greater difficulty in finding a rhythm all being bigger factors than normal. So let’s look at the four favorites, then target three solid longshots who could upset the applecart.

Currency Swap (4-1) is the current favorite and an unimpressive one at that. He got a stakes win at Saratoga and has only run once in 2012, a second-place finish. Saratoga’s a great meet in upstate New York every summer, but one stakes win does not a heavy favorite make. Our Entourage (9-2) is next in line and trained by Pletcher, but there’s nothing stakes-level in his previous record. Pretension (5-1) ran two stakes race in New York, winning neither and finishing in the money only once. Hakama (6-1) had his best showing at a stakes race at a minor track in Laurel, Maryland—where he finished second. Pardon me if I’m not overwhelmed by the caliber of the favorites.

When looking for a longshot I’m not going to pretend I’m some expert in monitoring workout patterns, though you can do that at if you’re so inclined. I’m more interested in finding a jockey or trainer with a good record. Similar to looking for an NCAA Tournament darkhorse—you might like Florida at a #7 seed just because of the reputation of Billy Donovan. At Hawthorne Saturday, the equivalents thereof are Morgan’s Guerrilla (10-1), with the jockey/trainer team of Rosie Napravnik and Mike Maker, Saturday Launch (15-1) trained by former Belmont Stakes winner Ken McPeek, and Skyring (20-1) who was the legendary D. Wayne Lukas behind him.

To start with I’m probably giving Napravnik the benefit of the doubt in putting her in this company, but I am fascinated with the whole quest of her being the first woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race. The story’s fun, and her horse has won a couple no-name races. I’d dismiss this if we were talking about a favorite—not so if you can get odds like 10-1. Saturday Launch has been even more consistent, running in the money the last six times out. Again, none in big races. But it’s Skyring I find the most improving. Like the others, this horse hasn’t gone against elite company, but in his last three races he’s gone from fifth to second to first. An improving horse, a legendary trainer and a great price. Why not? If you check my section Bad Betting Advice, where I put all the bets I’d really make if I were in Las Vegas with a grand to   burn, I’m adding $10 to Skyring to finish in the top three.