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On Saturday, April 9, Keeneland will kick off the first weekend of their spring meet with five graded stakes races including the Grade I Kentucky Derby Prep Blue Grass Stakes. Get my analysis and selections for each graded stakes race.
ANALYSIS

Saturday Free Horse Racing Picks: The Blue Grass Stakes and More at Keeneland

The winner will receive 100 points toward qualifying for the big race on the first Saturday in May.

Race 5

  • Distance: 7 furlongs
  • Name: The Commonwealth – Grade III
  • Age: 4-years-old and up
  • Surface: Dirt

We’ll kick off the graded stakes schedule on Saturday at Keeneland with a fascinating race that features some erratic horses and an intriguing pace setup. The overwhelming morning line favorite is Nashville (1-1), but he’s been inconsistent since returning from a year-long layoff. In the three races back, he tired severely in the first two and then blew the field away at Fair Grounds. He’s never won a graded stakes race and seven furlongs is stretching him out to his longest distances. He’s also running without Lasix for the first time. Typically, I would be fading a horse like this, but he represents the only early speed in a dirt sprint, which is a winning formula. With no other horses pushing him, he should be able to relax on the lead and may be able to replicate his last effort.

With the lack of a strong pace, hurts the chance of deeper closers like O Besos (5-1) and Endorsed (8-1). Both are quality horses, but O Besos would do better over two turns, and Endorsed just has a knack for not winning (4-25 lifetime). Two horses I like in this spot who provide value are Sir Alfred James (10-1) and Prevalence (5-1). Sir Alfred James is a reliable horse to include in exotics and has beaten several other horses in the field such as Long Range Toddy (20-1) and Endorsed. He’s been running well in the mid-Atlantic circuit and has experience winning without Lasix. Prevalence came back from a lengthy layoff like Nashville and was a little rusty coming out of the gate but won his last time out at Gulfstream. In his brief career, Prevalence has shown the need to be forwardly placed to finish well and he should have that opportunity. He’s breaking from an outside post position and should be able to get a tracking trip behind Nashville. The big question is whether Nashville can hold on for a win. I don’t think he can, and I expect him to tire again down the stretch now that he’s going an extra furlong and has a better field chasing him.

Race 5 Picks

  • Win: Prevalence
  • Place: Nashville
  • Show: Sir Alfred James

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Race 6

  • Distance: 1 mile
  • Name: The Appalachian – Grade II
  • Age: 3-years-old (F)
  • Surface: Turf

Let’s start with the weather as it’s going to be cold and wet the entire weekend at Keeneland. I’m sure the grounds crew will do everything in their power to ensure these races get to run on turf, but the best-case scenario is that it will be run on softer ground with the possibility of it getting taken off grass altogether.

As for the horses, morning-line favorite Spendarella (7-5) is a classy filly who broke her maiden running over a mile and backed it up with a win at the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes, which was a mile on turf. She has wired the field in both of her victories, and she picks up Tyler Gaffalione on the mount who has been incredibly hot the last few weeks. The only potential downside is that her trainer, Graham Motion, hasn’t won a race on the Opening Weekend at Keeneland in four years. The likely soggy surface conditions and having a more talented group chasing her might contribute to her first career loss.

Chad Brown’s Dolce Zel (5-2) is coming off a nice win in the Grade III Florida Oaks, running over softer ground, which was like the conditions she ran in over in France. She’s hard to ignore given the likely surface conditions. From a racing perspective, it was impressive to see her win making her North American debut, which coincided with a six-month layoff. You would expect her to be crisper the second time out as Brown horses are winning 30% of the time under those conditions.

Looking beyond the top two for more value, I prefer Skims (6-1) who is a Shug McGaughey filly picking up Flavien Prat for the ride. She’s still green but showed a nice jump in development last time out in an optional claiming win at Tampa. She can do the distance and Shug’s been heating up the last month. This filly has been turning in wonderful workouts on the turf and has tremendous pedigree as she’s the progeny of undefeated champion Frankel. I’m more skeptical of An Agent Mistake (5-1) who is coming in from California for trainer Doug O’Neill. She ran well while finishing second at the China Doll Stakes, but I typically fade west coast turf horses who travel east and must contend with poor surface conditions.

Race 6 Picks

  • Win: Dolce Zel
  • Place: Skims
  • Show: Spendarella

Race 7

  • Distance: 7 furlongs
  • Name: The Madison – Grade I
  • Age: 4-years-old and up (F&M)
  • Surface: Dirt

A deep field of talented sprinters defines this year’s Madison. Lady Rocket (5-2) may not be the morning line favorite but if she runs like she did the last time out at the Go for Wand Handicap then it’s all academic. She posted a field-best 107 Beyers speed figure that day, which is nine points better than anyone else in the field has ever run. The reason to doubt her replication of that performance is two-fold. First, she hasn’t run since that effort and is coming back from a four-month layoff. Not surprisingly, her trainer Brad Cox has her firing off impressive workouts, but it’s still legitimate to question how much rust she may show. Second, her last speed figure was 13-points better than anything she had run previously. In most instances, horses regress to the mean after running an anomalous race. She’s an obvious contender given that she’s 10-11 hitting the board in her career with six wins, but don’t be fooled by a single-speed figure.

The morning-line favorite, Kimari (2-1), has only run twice since winning this race last year. In fact, she had a seven-month layoff after that effort before running in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, which yielded an uninspired seventh-place performance. She took some more time off and came back in March to easily win an optional claiming race in Gulfstream Park. The question is whether that was enough of a prep for this spot. Her trainer Wesley Ward is as good as they come at Keeneland where he wins over 40% of his entries. She’s got Tyler Gaffalione riding her and at her best, she’s the clear pick.

However, to her inside is Bell’s the One (7-2) whose connections may not be as heralded as Kimari’s but who just loves to win. She’s won 11 of her 22 career races and four of her last five, two of which were Grade IIs. Like Lady Rocket, she’s coming back from a lengthy layoff and finished second to Kimar in last year’s Madison. The race should set up nicely for her as Lady Rocket, Cilla (20-1), and Tiz Splendid News (15-1) should give her something to run into. Whether she’ll be able to cross the wire first at her maximum preferred distance is another question.

Brad Cox’s other horse, Just One Time (8-1), provides some intriguing value. She’s made a meteoric rise since running in allowance races at Penn National seven months ago. She’s now a Grade II winning filly who showed off tremendous natural speed at the Inside Info Stakes last time out where she broke poorly and swallowed up the field late. She also has won on the slop and shouldn’t mind the potentially messy conditions. This may be too deep of a field for her, but I like her to add value to your exotics.

Race 7 Picks

  • Win: Kimari
  • Place: Just One Time
  • Show: Lady Rocket

Race 8

  • Distance: 5 ½ furlongs
  • Name: The Shakertown – Grade II
  • Age: 3-years-old and up
  • Surface: Turf

With all due respect to Grade I Blue Grass, this may be the race on Saturday I look most forward to watching. It sets up as a classic duel between Golden Pal (4-5) and Just Might (4-1) who have established themselves as two of the premier turf sprinters. Golden Pal capped off an incredibly 2021 with a dominant performance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint where he was so fast out of the gate that he was clear by open lengths less than 100 meters into the race. He’s not run since that performance but has been working crisply under the watchful eye of his trainer Wesley Ward and has Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard as he has for all his victories. However, like Lady Rocket in the last race, Golden Pal’s performance at the Breeders’ Cup was a career effort by a significant margin. The combination of expected regression and a five-month layoff opens the door for other contenders.

Just Might would normally fit the bill, but his last effort was a headscratcher as he pulled clear down the stretch only to labor significant and get caught at the wire by longshot Pyron. Prior to that, he had crossed the finish line first in seven of his previous eight races. The fact he tries to wire the field like Golden Pal makes me concerned that he could get caught up in a speed dueled and fade down the stretch while get passed by some late chargers.

The two late chargers to keep an eye on are Barazza (6-1) and The Lir Jet (12-1). Barazza is shortening up to 5 ½ furlongs for the first time and is more accustomed to the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. However, he’s got a tremendous late turn of foot and will have plenty of speed to run into with the leaders going fast upfront. The biggest question with him is whether he’ll be able to make up the ground he spots the field now that he’s cutting back in distance. The conditions do concern me for the same reason I mentioned earlier as west coast turf horses are accustomed to running in pristine conditions and a soft turf may derail their efforts.

Meanwhile, The Lir Jet is the only horse in the field who can boast the accomplishment of beating Golden Pal, which he did in his second career race in the GII Norfolk Stakes at Ascot. He went into a bit of a slump after that performance but won his North American debut at Kentucky Downs in the Grade II Franklin Simpson Stakes. He’s not raced in seven months, but he provides excellent value for a horse that has shown so much class and has a trainer, Brendan Walsh, who has a great reputation for getting horses ready coming back from a long layoff.

Race 8 Picks

  • Win: Golden Pal
  • Place: The Lir Jet
  • Show: Barazza

Race 9 – Kentucky Derby Prep Race (100 points to winner)

  • Distance: 1 1/8 miles
  • Name: The Blue Grass – Grade I
  • Age: 3-years-old
  • Surface: Dirt

This is a wide-open race and surprisingly features a lot of horses who haven’t won much since stepping up in class on the Derby Trail. The morning-line favorite, Smile Happy (9-5) is the crown jewel of trainer Ken McPeek’s three-year-old crop and when he was a juvenile, he bested eventual Florida Derby winner White Abarrio and eventual Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway. After a three-month layoff, he ran second behind Epicenter at the Grade II Risen Star Stakes in a race where he got pinned inside. Given Epicenter’s rise as a potential Kentucky Derby favorite that second-place performance looks better every day. Smile Happy should like the pace upfront as multiple horses will contend for the early lead, which should result in some strong early fractions. He’ll be a significant factor late if he stays mid-pack rather than dropping toward the back of the 12-horse field.

Behind him are a slew of intriguing horses. McPeek’s other horse, Rattle N Roll (8-1) has shown improving speed figures at the Fountain of Youth and Louisiana Derby but was a non-factor in both races. D. Wayne Lukas’ Ethereal Road (20-1) turned in a solid second at the Grade II Rebel Stakes last time out but considering how easily the winner of that race, Un Ojo, was defeated in the Arkansas Derby it doesn’t seem like a great springboard to a placement in a deeper field. Meanwhile, you have the tantalizing talent of Command performance (12-1) who has yet to break his maiden but is somehow making his third start in a Grade I race. He looked sluggish while finishing second last time out in a maiden special weight that seem tailor-made for him to win. The other big name is the former Baffert runner, Blackadder (20-1), who has already qualified for the Preakness due to his win of the El Camino Real Stakes at Golden Gate. Blackadder is a good horse but is probably better on turf or synthetic. His only dirt victory came in a turf race that was taken off the grass.

However, the two horses I like the most are Zandon (5-2) and Emmanuel (9-2). Zandon, trained by Chad Brown, finished right behind Epicenter and Smile Happy at the Risen Star. He fell back to 10th early in that race and simply gave himself too much to do late. He gets Flavien Prat aboard and should be more forwardly placed given his inside post position and Prat wanting to avoid him getting shuffled back. He has no problem with the distance and has been working out like a metronome for Brown. On the other hand, Emmanuel is coming off perhaps the worst trip of the major contenders. In the Grade II Fountain of Youth, he was forced so far wide it felt like he was halfway to Key West. He traveled the most ground that day and gave way at the end but still managed to hang on for fourth. He’ll have Luis Saez aboard again and should sit in a stalking trip behind the early speed. If he can carve out a better trip, he’s got the tactical speed to win this race late.

Interestingly, Zandon and Smile Happy are both horses who like to come from well off the pace, but if the Derby Trail has taught us anything it’s that early speed and stalking trips are the way to win and for that reason, I’ll go the Todd Pletcher horse to get it done.

Race 9 Picks

  • Win: Emmanuel
  • Place: Zandon
  • Show: Smile Happy

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Article Author

Horse Racing

Matthew DeSantis is a horse racing handicapper with a fondness for lightly raced horses with improving speed figures. You can find him at the track playing surface changes and second off the layoff.

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