04/07/2015 9:37AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Blue Grass Stakes

Coady Photography
Carpe Diem earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 for this victory in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Grade 1, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, Keeneland, April 4, 2015
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: Carpe Diem

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Jockey: John Velazquez

Owner: Stonestreet Stables LLC and WinStar Farm LLC

Beyer Speed Figure: 95

A lot has been expected from CARPE DIEM since before he ever raced, owing to his $1.6 million purchase price as a 2-year-old in training. He has lived up to expectations, with four wins in five starts, including two wins in Grade 1 stakes. His wins have come at three different racetracks. His only loss was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That’s a very strong resume.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

He obviously adores Keeneland, where he won the Breeders’ Futurity last fall, which made the Blue Grass the obvious choice for his final prep for the May 2 Kentucky Derby. In four weeks we’ll see if he likes Churchill Downs as much as he likes Keeneland.

What will be interesting to see is who jockey John Velazquez chooses to ride in the Derby, as he also rides Materiality, the Florida Derby winner, who is also trained by Todd Pletcher. My guess would be Carpe Diem, but it’s a tough call, as both are clearly talented. Between them, they’ve won seven of eight starts.

Carpe Diem had been a bad actor at the gate in prior starts, but he was on his best behavior this day and broke sharply to vie for the early lead with OCHO OCHO OCHO. Velazquez kept him a bit off the rail around the first turn, even though he could have dropped over, an indication he thought outside paths were best. Carpe Diem was on even terms with Ocho Ocho Ocho with about five furlongs to go, and Velazquez took his first peek backwards there, obviously believing he already had Ocho Ocho Ocho measured.

With Ocho Ocho Ocho racing three paths off the rail on the far turn, Carpe Diem stayed in the four path, with Velazquez sitting chilly. Velazquez shook the reins at Carpe Diem in upper stretch and he surged to the front as Velazquez took another peek behind, apparently not wanting to ask for anything more than necessary to win. Velazquez took a couple more peeks behind in the final furlong while giving Carpe Diem an occasional reminder with his whip to go on with it, but the result was never in doubt.

Carpe Diem’s time of 1:49.73 for 1 1/8 miles compared favorably with the time of 1:51.02 earned by the older Grade 1-winning Majestic Harbor in an allowance race earlier in the card. The Beyer Speed Figure came back 95, three points lower than the career top Carpe Diem earned in the Tampa Bay Derby in his only other start this year. He likely would need to improve that fig to win the Kentucky Derby, but that race will be his third start this year following two solid preps, so he certainly has the right to take a forward move, and he acts like the distance will pose no problem. He is yet another strong contender in what is shaping up as an outstanding Derby field.

DANZIG MOON ran on for second in an improvement over his fourth-place finish when  chasing Carpe Diem in the Tampa Bay Derby. He broke from the outside stall and was purposely kept wide around the first turn, about four lanes wide, another indication that some jockeys thought the outside lanes were best. He remained well off the rail while racing in fifth down the backstretch, then was asked for his best around the far turn while racing at least four paths wide. He was fanned five paths wide into the lane, and kept to his task to get the place while never threatening Carpe Diem.

Ocho Ocho Ocho, who finished third, was allowed to roll from his inside draw to take the lead, with Carpe Diem shadowing him. He led narrowly down the backstretch and bravely tried to hold off Carpe Diem in upper stretch, but this smallish colt gradually tired and shortened stride while failing to change leads until the sixteenth pole. His point total likely would be enough to get him in the Derby, but the expected race shape looks to be against him, as he doesn’t appear to have the speed to get clear, and there will be plenty of big guns coming at him at a distance that seems beyond his optimum.

FRAMMENTO, who finished fourth, was guided right to the rail heading into the first turn and was in front of just UNRIVALED. He never left the rail the rest of the way and was able to rally and pass tired horses to earn 10 points. He has no early speed, and never was a threat in this race, but though he saved every inch of ground, I’m not certain that was the best spot on this track. His connections will hope there are enough defections above him on the points list to get into the Derby.

CLASSY CLASS, who finished fifth, was another who seemed purposely kept wide on the first turn. He was fourth, just behind and outside GORGEOUS BIRD, as the field turned into the backstretch, got the best of Gorgeous Bird on the far turn, was tipped to the four path entering the lane, but did not punch it in, once again giving the indication, as he did in the Withers and Gotham, that he’s best at shorter distances.

Gorgeous Bird, who was sixth, raced in the second flight of horses on the first turn, inside but purposely kept off the rail. He raced inside Classy Class down the backstretch and around the far turn while just behind the two leaders, but couldn’t keep up through the lane. Both his two-turn races have been disappointing.

Unrivaled, who finished seventh, broke step slowly and had no early speed, so he was last of all heading into the first turn while guided toward the rail. He was badly outrun down the backstretch, stayed inside the whole way, was under an aggressive ride in upper stretch, but only managed to catch the tired PEPPER ROANI in a dull effort.

Pepper Roani bobbled at the start, then was taken a bit off the rail and raced in sixth around the first turn, just inside Danzig Moon. He began to lose ground down the backstretch, was asked hard with three furlongs to go, but had nothing to offer and faded to last.