Updated on 04/10/2016 9:30AM

Crist: Bettors have their pick of pick fours


Four Saturdays before the Kentucky Derby is one of the best and busiest days on the American racing calendar. This year, April 9 is host to seven Grade 1 races – the Ashland, Blue Grass, Carter, Madison, Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Oaks, and Wood Memorial – and some pretty solid Grade 2s and 3s, including the Bay Shore, Commonwealth, Excelsior, Fantasy, Gazelle, Providencia, and Shakertown.

Those seven Grade 1s are spread over the three top-tier tracks running this month. Aqueduct, Keeneland, and Santa Anita each have a $1 million race for 3-year-olds who will be making their final starts before the Kentucky Derby as well as an important stakes race for 3-year-old fillies pointing for the Kentucky Oaks.

The focus, of course, will be on the three Derby preps, which will be nationally televised on the NBC Sports Network from 5 to 7 p.m. Eastern. The Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial usually are the major factors in setting the Derby landscape, but this year, they have fewer top prospects than ever. Only three of the top 10 horses in last week’s Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager are running Saturday: fourth choice Mor Spirit and sixth choice Danzing Candy at Santa Anita and ninth choice Shagaf in the Wood. Most of the others concluded their Derby prepping more than a month out, including Nyquist, Mohaymen, Gun Runner, Destin, Mo Tom, and Lani.

All of Saturday’s three Grade 1 Derby preps would have drawn exactly the same fields with $500,000 purses, but tracks still seem to think they are in an arms race with one another that forces them all to offer seven-figure purses, whether or not they are appropriate or necessary. Even as the foal crop is half of what it used to be and horses are making fewer starts than ever, Derby prep purses seem to go in only one direction. This year’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, a Grade 2 prep for a Grade 1 prep for the Derby – was worth a mind-boggling $900,000.

The Blue Grass may be the first $1 million race with only a single stakes winner of any kind (Brody’s Cause) in a full field of 16 that also includes three maidens. The race’s deficiencies, however, are more than balanced out by what look like outstanding renewals of the Ashland and Madison, which drew five Grade 1 winners, including the Breeders’ Cup winners Stopchargingmaria and Wavell Avenue.

The Wood is a more interesting race than it might first appear. Despite the presence of just two stakes winners in the field, Shagaf (Gotham) and Flexibility (Jerome), the race drew two of the faster colts in the crop in Matt King Coal and Outwork.

It’s a great day for all-stakes pick fours, with almost too many opportunities to hook up the stakes at Aqueduct and Keeneland, where  nine races have been slotted into the 16 legs of  four pick fours:

4:02 p.m.: Keeneland starts a pick four on its races 7 through 10, combining the Commonwealth, Shakertown, Madison, and Blue Grass.

4:16 p.m.: Aqueduct’s late pick four starts with the Gazelle, followed by the Bay Shore, Wood, and Carter.

4:42 p.m.: Keeneland begins another pick four on races 8 through 11: the Shakertown, Madison, Blue Grass, and a maiden race.

4:52 p.m.: Cue up the “Big Apple/Bluegrass Pick 4,” a joint venture between Aqueduct and Keeneland that goes back and forth between the two tracks, consisting of the Bay Shore, Madison, Wood, and Blue Grass.

You not only have to pick your horses, you have to pick your pick four.

Phipps was dominating figure

Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps died Wednesday night in New York at the age of 75, and racing will miss him.

He accomplished so much that the sport ran out of ways to honor him. When he retired last year as The Jockey Club’s longest-serving chairman, he was an obvious candidate for the Eclipse Award of Merit – until someone realized that he had already received it 38 years earlier when he was chairman of the New York Racing Association, where he led a successful fight for two takeout reductions.

During his time at The Jockey Club, he greatly expanded its two principal charities, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, and founded Equibase. He will probably be best remembered by racing fans for the champions he raced, including Inside Information, Rhythm, and Storm Flag Flying. He also was the co-owner of Orb, the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner.

Unlike some dynastic stables that have faded or disappeared when latter generations got out of the business, Phipps got his children involved in the game at early age, so there’s hope that the iconic cherry-and-black silks of the Phipps Stable will continue to fly at the top of the game.