04/12/2012 11:54AM

Weekend Warrior for April 14: Blue Grass should set up for closer Dullahan


With the big race now only three weeks away, the last two major Kentucky Derby preps will be contested Saturday. But while the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby and the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes are certainly the undisputed headliners on the respective cards at Oaklawn Park and Keeneland, there are noteworthy stakes on each undercard. Among the three other stakes at Keeneland is the Grade 1, $300,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes, Meanwhile, the Grade 2, $400,000 Oaklawn Handicap is the primary supporting feature at Oaklawn.

The Arkansas Derby is not the only $1 million race on Saturday. The other is the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, to be run under the lights.

Blue Grass Stakes [WATCH LIVE]

There is absolutely no question that Hansen is the best horse in this race. Last year’s champion 2-year-old male is also by far the fastest horse in this race. If he wants, he could open up a quick three or four lengths on this field early. The question is, would he want to do that?

Whether it was because he drew a tough outside post, or it being time to try a new approach, Hansen rated off the pace for the first time most recently in the Gotham, and proved he can be just as effective running that way in a dominant score. But having now shown that he is not a need-the-lead type, I wonder why he would abandon his new rating style Saturday, especially since being able to rate makes him only a more dangerous horse. This issue is important because if Hansen doesn’t steal away early, it makes for an interesting pace scenario.

If Hansen rates among the early pace players, that means as many as six horses – Hansen, Heavy Breathing, Howe Great, Ever So Lucky, Hero of Order, and Scatman – could be involved up front. That, combined with the fact that the last four mentioned are likely to go early because they break from the four outside posts, suggests that the fractions could be strong, and contested. Hansen might well be more than able to deal with this scenario, but I’m inclined to go with a closer.

This setup could help Dullahan, who is my pick. Dullahan got a strong pace to rally into in the Breeders’ Futurity over the track last fall, and he finished strongly to be up in time, and record his first career win. Dullahan proved that performance was no fluke when he came back with a creditable fourth to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and in his gaining second to Howe Great in the Palm Beach Stakes on turf in his first start this year. Howe Great had the edge in recency over Dullahan in the Palm Beach as Dullahan was coming off a four-month layoff, and he also sat the far better pocket trip, while Dullahan had to go four wide on the far turn. Dullahan had a splint issue after the Palm Beach, but a bullet work last Sunday suggests he’s fine now, and he repeats the same turf-to-synthetic move he made when he won the Breeders’ Futurity.

I’m also intrigued by Holy Candy. While Holy Candy comes into this off only a maiden win, it was an impressive score at Santa Anita in which he zipped his last quarter-mile in a fast 23.05 seconds. Before that, Holy Candy finished second in the first three starts of his career to colts who all competed at least reasonably well in a few of this year’s Kentucky Derby preps.

[BLUE GRASS: Get PPs and wager on Saturday's Keeneland card]

Oaklawn Handicap

Pace is always a critical consideration, but even more so in this race as there is a lack of defined early speed. This could compromise Ron the Greek, Hymn Book, and Nehro. Ron the Greek ran off with the Santa Anita Handicap last time out, while Hymn Book got up to win the Donn Handicap in his last start. Nehro, runner-up in last year’s Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana Derbies, romped in his comeback at Fair Grounds (and was to have run in the New Orleans Handicap there two weeks ago, but was scratched when he tied up the day before). This trio clearly sports imposing paper, but all three are also closers who lack a favorable pace setup.

I like Alternation, who surprised everyone when he went wire-to-wire on the speedy Tapizar in the Razorback Handicap last time out. Now, Tapizar did attempt to rate that day, which made Alternation’s trip to the front a bit easier. Still, the successful change of running style by Alternation, who had previously been a deep closer, was impressive. It suggests that he can capitalize on the pace setup in this race, and that if he doesn’t go right to the front again, he can at least get first run on Ron the Greek, Hymn Book, and Nehro. It also doesn’t hurt that Oaklawn is Alternation’s home track, and a surface he loves.

[OAKLAWN HANDICAP: Get PPs and wager on Saturday's Oaklawn card]

Arkansas Derby

Bodemeister is still the only leading Kentucky Derby candidate to have paired up triple-digit Beyer Figures. And what makes that stand out even more is, the 101 Beyer Bodemeister earned for finishing second to Creative Cause last time out in the San Felipe came right off his maiden win, and in only the third start of his career. But as respected as he is, Bodemeister is a desperate horse Saturday. While second money might be enough to get him into the Kentucky Derby, only a win would guarantee it. And to win, Bodemeister must overcome shipping for the first time, the outside post, and the equipment change of blinkers off, which is a lot.

Bodemeister will be the favorite, and the second choice will be his barnmate, Secret Circle. Secret Circle shipped from California to win Oaklawn’s two stepping-stones to this race, a division of the Southwest, and the Rebel. But while Secret Circle came from farther back than ever before in the Rebel, I had the strong sense he was going as far as he wanted to go in that shorter race.

Isn’t He Clever is my play. Isn’t He Clever was a sharp second most recently in the Sunland Derby, one of the quickest Derby preps this year. But not only did Isn’t He Clever have a three- to four-wide trip in that race, I think he also moved way to soon to engage the leaders going into the far turn. He also takes blinkers off Saturday, which should help him relax.

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get PPs and wager on Saturday's Oaklawn card]