04/11/2013 12:38PM

Weekend Warrior for April 13: Picks for Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Jenny Wiley

Shigeki Kikkawa
Den's Legacy may be sitting on a big race coming into Saturday's Arkansas Derby.

Saturday marks the last two 170-point Kentucky Derby preps of the year, although it should be noted that the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland are not the year’s last races with available Derby points. Next week’s Lexington and the Derby Trial the following week are Derby point races, but they offer only 20 points to the winner. The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass each offers 100 Derby points to the winner and 40 points to the runner-up, so these races will have a major role in shaping the Kentucky Derby field.

The Blue Grass tops a stakes-packed Keeneland card which also includes two other Grade 1 races, the Jenny Wiley and Madison, each worth $300,000. There are also a handful of stakes on the Arkansas Derby undercard, the most important being the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, which attracted Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned.

Arkansas Derby

Ground loss is one of many important factors in handicapping, and there are times when it can be a critical component. But like any other handicapping tool, it must be used properly. We all know that when things are equal a horse who raced three wide around both turns and missed by a neck to a ground-saving winner was the best horse. However, things are rarely equal. Ground loss on a main track with sweeping turns like those at Belmont Park is not as compromising as a wide trip on a tight-turned turf course like the one at Aqueduct. Then there is the matter of ground loss in track-bias situations. When the inside appears to be the deeper part of the track, racing wide and losing ground might actually be preferable.

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get Oaklawn PPs, watch video previews]

This came to mind after Oxbow for his third straight start drew an outside post for this race. Oxbow broke from post 10 of 12 two starts back in the Risen Star, was caught five wide on the first turn, and finished fourth, beaten only a half-length after having the lead in midstretch. Last time out in the Rebel, Oxbow broke from post 10 of 11, raced four wide around both turns and was nailed in the last jump. On Saturday, Oxbow will again break from post 10 (of 10, barring scratches), causing much hand wringing.

But is the anguish over Oxbow’s outside draws well founded? It was in the Risen Star, because Fair Grounds played fairly that day, so Oxbow’s ground loss was legitimately compromising. But I don’t think Oxbow’s ground loss was nearly as important in the Rebel, and I don’t think his outside draw will really hurt him Saturday. That is because Oaklawn is a track where outside moves have a good success rate. It might not be as dramatic as at Parx Racing, where the rail always seems to be Death Valley. Still, wide is rarely bad at Oaklawn, and on Rebel Day, wide was good as the rail seemed to be the deeper part of the track. Oxbow was actually out in the better footing, as was Rebel winner Will Take Charge, who got rolling once he moved four wide on the far turn.

This is why I like Den’s Legacy. Den’s Legacy moved to the rail on the first turn of the Rebel and there he stayed, every remaining step of the way. Yet despite racing on what I think was the worst part of the track, Den’s Legacy made a nice move into contention nearing the far turn, challenged for the lead in upper stretch, and wound up third. Den’s Legacy, who finished second to Goldencents and Flashback in the Sham and Lewis in his prior two starts (performances that look better in the wake of their one-two finish in last week’s Santa Anita Derby), was beaten only two lengths in the Rebel. But he can compensate for that with a better trip Saturday.

As for War Academy, he has a ton of potential. But he is stepping way up and he got a fortunate trip in his win most recently when the pacesetter fell apart after running off through an insane third quarter in 23.25 seconds.

Blue Grass Stakes

I’m skeptical of Uncaptured. He has every right to improve off a second in the Spiral in his return from a four-month layoff, and he will have to because the Spiral was not a strong race. Moreover, I’m not certain Uncaptured is at his best routing.

I like Java’s War. I thought Java’s War ran very well when a game second to Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby most recently in his first start in more than three months. Java’s War was unusually sluggish in the early running, but he made a nice move into the far turn and sustained his run to be easily second best. Java’s War handled Keeneland’s Polytrack when third in the Breeders’ Futurity last fall, and judging from his performance in Tampa, he’s a much better horse now.

[BLUE GRASS STAKES: Get Keeneland PPs, watch video previews]

Palace Malice is also dangerous. As everyone knows, his Louisiana Derby is a throw out because he had nowhere to run from early on the far turn to deep stretch. But it is interesting to note that he must have worked well enough on Keeneland’s Polytrack last year to have brought $200,000 at the Keeneland 2-year-olds in training sale.

Jenny Wiley Stakes

Daisy Devine won this race last year and will appreciate getting back on turf, but she might be vulnerable facing much tougher after competing against suspect company over the winter at Fair Grounds.

Centre Court will be tough to beat, for she was impressive winning the Honey Fox in her seasonal bow. But if you respect Centre Court, you can go with Better Lucky, who is just as good and will be a better price. Better Lucky was the better filly when narrowly beaten by Centre Court after a bad trip in the Lake George last summer, and she showed her quality when she upset the Grade 1 Matriarch last November. Better Lucky hasn’t raced since, but she has a history of running well fresh.