04/10/2016 9:55AM

Watchmaker: Final preps fail to clarify Kentucky Derby picture

Shigeki Kikkawa
Skeptics are wondering how much the sloppy conditions helped Exaggerator dominate the Santa Anita Derby.

If you woke up Sunday morning more confused than ever about the Kentucky Derby picture, take heart. You have a lot of company. A lot.

Of course, there are some who will take the results of Saturday’s three huge Kentucky Derby preps – the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass, and the Wood Memorial – as compelling evidence that when it comes to this Run for the Roses, there is undefeated Nyquist, and then there is everyone else. Hey, they might be right.

But for those of us who aren’t totally sold on a Derby favorite in Nyquist who right now is about the sixth or seventh fastest of this group in terms of two-turn Beyer Figures, we looked to Saturday’s major preps for some clarity, and what we got, in a general sense, were results as clear as the slop that prevailed at Santa Anita, and the mud at Aqueduct.

There isn’t any question that Exaggerator was much the best in the Santa Anita Derby. But it is impossible to avoid the question of how much of a role the track condition might have played in his performance. Exaggerator was the only member of the field to have previously won on a wet track, having done so in the Delta Downs Jackpot. He was also second in the mud to Brody’s Cause (winner of the Blue Grass) in the Breeders’ Futurity.

Exaggerator clearly loves a wet track, and it’s anyone’s guess how much the big 103 Beyer Figure he was assigned for his score Saturday is owed to that. And of course, you also have to wonder what the Santa Anita Derby will mean if the track doesn’t come up sloppy for the Kentucky Derby, because Exaggerator previously never came close to winning off by more than six lengths like he did Saturday.

In addition, you have to wonder how much Exaggerator’s huge move late on the far turn was a function of the Santa Anita Derby slowing down dramatically at that point, because it certainly played some part. The pace Danzing Candy set (22.15 and 45.24 seconds) was hot, and that wasn’t even with speedy stretch-out sprinter Iron Rob electing to get involved. The final three-eighths of a mile, when Exaggerator swept from sixth to blow his field away, was run in a very slow 39.54 seconds.

Speaking of fast early/slow late races, the Wood Memorial was the poster boy for such events. Matt King Coal set early fractions in the Wood of 22.91 and 46.93, which were very fast given how slow Aqueduct’s wet main track was playing. So give Outwork credit for pressing those splits and still prevailing, though it’s not like Matt King Coal gave up the ghost. He finished fourth and was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths.

But Outwork prevailed in a Wood in which the final three-eighths was run in a glacier-like 40.61, and his final time of 1:52.92 was the slowest in the 92-year history of the race. Moreover, Outwork just got the bob over the Wood’s rank outsider, the 81-1 Trojan Nation, a Southern California shipper who was a maiden after five starts going into Saturday and whose best previous Beyer was a 74. So while the same wet track concerns that apply to Exaggerator also apply to Outwork, Outwork didn’t receive nearly as strong a Beyer (he was given a kind 93), and he didn’t win decisively.

There were no wet track concerns in the Blue Grass, and the result was entirely logical. Brody’s Cause, returning to the track on which he won the Breeders’ Futurity and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, improved second start off a layoff, and bested two improving horses in My Man Sam and Cherry Wine. These three were the second, third, and fourth betting choices in the 14-horse field. But with all the logic at play, the Blue Grass still had issues.

The Blue Grass also fell apart late. The top three finishers were running 11th, 12th, and 14th early on, and advanced through a final three-eighths run in 38.76, which was forever on a Keeneland main track that was fast in every sense of the word. And the winning Beyer hung on the Blue Grass of 91 is uninspiring, to put it mildly.

Saturday notes:

Shagaf, fifth as the favorite in the Wood, had no excuse that I saw, and Zulu’s ground loss in the Blue Grass wasn’t enough to explain his weary 12th-place finish as the favorite. I was more disappointed in Mor Spirit, who I thought was the most likely winner of the Santa Anita Derby. He finished second, but was never really competitive. Despite a pedigree that says he should love a wet track and a second-place finish in the slop in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, I sense Mor Spirit is much better on a fast track.

Songbird won easily again in the Santa Anita Oaks. She is now unbeaten in seven starts, and still hasn’t even been remotely tested. I’ve admired her brilliance from early on, but I’m starting to wonder if she’s getting enough out of these ridiculously easy wins. She’s going to be tested someday. How will she respond then?

Tip of the hat to trainer John Servis for realizing that, at least at this point, Cathryn Sophia is not at her best at two turns. Cathryn Sophia was beaten just two necks in the Ashland, and it would have been easy to go on to the Kentucky Oaks. But Servis will shorten her up, and that’s smart, because that’s where she’s brilliant.

Oh, and like everyone else, I thought Rachel’s Valentina was gutsy narrowly missing in the Ashland to Weep No More in her first start since the Breeders’ Cup.

Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria, and Wavell Avenue all ran well finishing one-two-three in the Madison in their first starts since the Breeders’ Cup. All three looked primed for productive campaigns.

Unified could not have been more impressive than he was winning the Bay Shore on the Wood Memorial undercard, spread-eagling his field because he ran so fast. Unified, who was coming off only a quick debut score at Gulfstream, is by Candy Ride, from a Dixie Union mare. He will stretch out, and with health, he will win some big races.