04/14/2011 12:46PM

Weekend Warrior for April 16


Although a couple of other preps remain, most notably next week’s Coolmore Lexington, Saturday marks the final round of really major prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Saturday’s two Grade 1 springboards to Louisville are the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, and the $750,000 Blue Grass at Keeneland. The Blue Grass card also boasts three other graded stakes, including two Grade 2’s – the $200,000 Jenny Wiley, and the $175,000 Commonwealth.

Interestingly, the Arkansas Derby is not the only race in the nation Saturday with a seven-figure purse. The other is the Grade 3, $1 million Charles Town Classic. Also worthy of mention Saturday is the stakes doubleheader at Santa Anita consisting of the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Barbara Handicap and the Grade 3, San Simeon Handicap, and the Grade 2, $150,000 feature at Aqueduct, the Distaff Handicap.

Blue Grass Stakes

While the Blue Grass enjoys a reputation as a premier Kentucky Derby prep, its status has slipped a notch since it was switched to Polytrack four years ago. Although it is true that Street Sense rebounded from a second in the 2007 Blue Grass to win the Derby, and that Paddy O’Prado followed his second in last year’s Blue Grass with a third in the Derby, they seem like aberrations. The four actual winners of the Blue Grass since it has been run on Polytrack – Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, and Stately Victor – finished 11th, 20th, 10th, and eighth, respectively in the Derby. This shouldn’t be a surprise even with the Blue Grass’s prior history of being a very successful stepping-stone to the Derby because of this overriding question: How significant can a prep on a synthetic surface be when the race it is meant as a prep for is run on dirt?

I mention this as partial explanation for why this Blue Grass did not attract a strong field. Of the 12 entered, only one – Santiva – can be considered a prominent Derby prospect. And while Santiva is a nice colt, he is not at this time a first-level Derby candidate. He has also not raced in two months (by design), his Beyer Figures aren’t anything special, and he is truly prepping for Louisville. Santiva, who will be well bet because of his reputation as the only “name” Derby candidate in the field, seems vulnerable. Take him out of the mix, and this is a wide-open race. So what this Blue Grass lacks in terms of top 3-year-olds, it makes up for as a betting opportunity.

The intriguing thing for me in this race involves the pace. There is little early speed on paper, and we saw in last week’s Ashland that speed on Keeneland’s Polytrack can be a lot more dangerous than it used to be when Lilacs and Lace got loose early and went on to post a 48-1 upset. The big question I have centers on how Sensational Sam will be ridden early. Given the positional speed he showed in sprints last year, Sensational Sam could be quick enough to make the lead here. But I sense his connections might want him to run at a target. If I’m right, then that target might wind up making a very easy lead. That’s the scenario I’m going for, and I’m taking Joes Blazing Aaron for the upset.

Joes Blazing Aaron could have been claimed two starts back at Gulfstream for $50,000. But that was also his turf debut, and he won it in front-running fashion at 73-1. He then came back to upset the Palm Beach Stakes last time out, also in front-running style. Joes Blazing Aaron has completely turned his career around upon the switch to turf, and that suggests he might also be very effective on a synthetic track. He now makes his first start for high-percentage trainer Mike Maker, who won this race last year with the 40-1 Stately Victor, and who has big stats with newcomers to his barn, and with horses going turf to synthetic. Worth a flyer to go wire to wire.

Arkansas Derby

The Factor was most impressive winning the Rebel Stakes most recently in his two-turn bow, and he is the only candidate for the Kentucky Derby to have put together three straight triple-digit Beyers. I have the utmost respect for The Factor, and it’s probably foolish to go against him Saturday. On the other hand, this will be his first start at as far as 1 1/8 miles, and he did enjoy an uncontested early lead in the Rebel. I just wonder if one of the two Todd Pletcher horses in this race – Brethren, who gets blinkers on and thus should show more early zip, or Dance City – might not go after The Factor early, or at least make him work harder in the initial stages than he did last time.

I will go with Nehro. Nehro showed vast improvement last time out, jumping from a wide trip but slow maiden win over the Oaklawn track to be a narrowly beaten second in the Louisiana Derby. He missed by only a neck at Fair Grounds, and that after having to steady behind the backing-up pacesetter entering the stretch. Nehro figures to sit the same close-up, inside stalking trip that he got in the Louisiana Derby, and that could be the garden trip if someone does indeed hook The Factor early.

Jenny Wiley Stakes

I liked Aviate and Zagora quite a bit in their last starts, and while both turned in sharp efforts, they didn’t impress me quite as much as I thought they would. Gypsy’s Warning and Miss Keller make their 2011 debuts here after compiling nice records last season. But I have doubts as to just how strong the Matriarch won by Gypsy’s Warning and the Canadian Stakes won by Miss Keller were last year. So I went looking elsewhere and settled on C. S. Silk.

C. S. Silk is the play for three reasons: She is in sharp form, having finished a gaining second last time out in the Endeavor Stakes to Silver Reunion, who got away with controlling an easy pace in that race. She loves the course, as evidenced by her narrowly beaten second last fall in the First Lady to Proviso, who made that event her fourth straight Grade 1 victory. And C. S. Silk projects to sit a nice trip stalking the pace likely to be set by overmatched speedball Ice Mist.