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This Saturday will feature three Kentucky Derby prep races. The top five finishers in each race will receive points toward being at the starting gate of the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Matthew DeSantis shares his picks and analysis for each of the races.
ANALYSIS

Saturday Free Horse Racing Picks: Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial

The winners of the Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial will receive 100 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, which guarantees their inclusion in the starting gate. The second through fifth-place finishers in each race will receive 40, 30, 20, and 10 points, respectively.

Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland

  • Post time: 5:15 PM ET
  • Distance: 1 1/8 miles
  • Field size: 11

With the opening weekend of racing at Keeneland, we get one of the more historically prestigious Kentucky Derby Prep races in the Blue Grass Stakes. The morning line favorite is Tapit Trice (5-2), who drew the inside rail. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt is one that I liked (and picked) the last time he ran when he won the Tampa Bay Derby in thrilling fashion. However, my advice would be to play against him in this spot. Tapit Trice has a bad habit of breaking poorly from the gate and given his inside post draw, he'll get shuffled back and likely be dead last early. While he was able to overcome that last time out, he's facing a better-caliber field and will not have an aggressive pace to run into. Due to those lingering questions, I'll look elsewhere for a winner.

My top pick is Verifying (3-1), who is coming off a troubled trip last time out in the Rebel Stakes, where he finished fourth. He was sucked into an aggressive early pace while being boxed in and not having anywhere to run when turning for home. The fact he finished fourth I took as a positive sign. On Saturday, he will not have much pace pressure to contend with and can either take the lead or sit just off the pace of long shot Major Blue (30-1). He should have an ideal trip and be in a perfect position to move to come home. He's been training beautifully for Brad Cox and seems to be sitting on a huge effort.

Aside from Tapit Trice and Verifying, there are some intriguing horses in this race. Raise Cain (9-2) is coming back from winning a bizarre Gotham Stakes, which featured a sloppy track, an insane pace, and a riderless horse nearly winning. All of this is to say I'm fading him on Saturday. Blazing Sevens (6-1) is a Chad Brown-trained runner getting jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard. Those two team up to win all the time (30% win rate at Keeneland), but Blazing Sevens was horrendous last time out at the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. He's a talented colt, as proven by his Grade I Champagne Stakes win as a two-year-old, but it's hard for me to like him at that price.

As a result, I'm looking at Classic Car Wash (12-1) and Scoobie Quando (15-1) to add some value. Classic Car Wash has solid tactical speed and can sit on whatever trip he needs depending on the pace. He also has an incredible knack for hitting the board at a big price, as evidenced by his last two Derby prep races, where he finished second and third at the price of 13-1 and 12-1, respectively. As for Scoobie Quando, if you've been reading my columns, you know I've liked him for a while. He's shipping in from Turfway Park for trainer Ben Colebrook, and he's never finished worse than second in his career. He may need a little pace to run into, but he's a horse who should like the distance and will be picking horses off as they come down the stretch.

Blue Grass Stakes Picks

  • Win: Verifying (3-1)
  • Place: Classic Carwash (12-1)
  • Show: Scoobie Quando (15-1)

Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita

  • Post time: 5:43 PM ET
  • Distance: 1 1/8 miles
  • Field size: 9

Due to trainer Bob Baffert's two-year suspension from entering horses in the Kentucky Derby, there has been less attention paid to the California circuit this year, and I believe that is a mistake. This year's Santa Anita Derby features four very strong runners and a Japanese import who is a bit of a wild card.

The morning line favorite is Practical Move (8-5), who has won his last two races in convincing fashion. After winning the Los Alamitos Futurity as a two-year-old, he took three months off and then convincingly won the Grade II San Felipe while earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, which is one of the highest of any three-year-old this year. He has the perfect running style for trainer Tim Yakteen. He will stalk the early pace while sitting third or fourth. He'll be in a perfect position turning for home, but the question with him is his pedigree.

His sire, Practical Joke, typically produces sprinters rather than distance runners. His offspring have won sprint races 18% of the time (5% above average), while only 11% of his offspring have won distance races (3% below average). However, Practical Move's dam, Ack Naughty, has a tremendous distance pedigree as she's an Afleet Alex mare. All of this is to say that going 9 furlongs is a new test.

While I really like Practical Move, the horse I'm more excited about is Richard Mandella's horse, Geaux Rocket Ride (3-1). He's got tons of speed but has the versatility to sit off the pace. Saturday will only be his third career race, but he won his first race and then finished an impressive second to Practical Move last time out in the San Felipe. His workouts have been spectacular, and I love that he retains jockey Flavien Prat. Santa Anita tends to be a track that carries speed well, so there is a distinct chance he could wire the field.

A horse that will be hoping for an aggressive early pace is Skinner (4-1) for trainer John Shirreffs. He's more of a closer and seems to have become a different horse since coming back as a three-year-old. His last two races have been very strong (95+ Beyer Speed Figures). He will need the right pace set-up, but at a slightly higher price, he's worth including in vertical exotics because he'll be making a late charge and passing a lot of tired horses.

National Treasure (3-1) is the former Bob Baffert horse who is now trained by Tim Yakteen. He's an honest runner, but just never seems to win. His pedigree would suggest the longer he runs, the better he will get. However, he was scratched out of the San Felipe a month ago because of a medical issue, and many thought his Kentucky Derby future was snuffed out. However, he's returned to training effectively and is a formidable figure in this field. However, his inability to win and his recent medical setback make me hesitant to use him.

The horse everyone will be asking about is Japanese runner Mandarin Hero (8-1). I've written about the influence and rise of Japanese racing, but this is an exciting step to see their horses coming over to the United States to run in our prep races. Mandarin Hero has won four of his five career starts. His lone defeat came by a neck last time out while running the 1 1/8 mile distance. However, his victories have come on local-level tracks in Japan, and he hasn't faced the elite competition over here. Expecting him to hit the board is a tall task.

Santa Anita Derby Picks

  • Win: Geaux Rocket Ride (3-1)
  • Place: Practical Move (8-5)
  • Show: Skinner (4-1)

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Wood Memorial at Aqueduct

  • Post time: 6:16 PM ET
  • Distance: 1 1/8 miles
  • Field size: 12

The Wood Memorial feels like the most wide-open field of this entire Kentucky Derby prep season. The New York circuit has not produced many great horses this year after producing last year's Preakness winner (Early Voting) and Belmont winner (Mo Donegal). As a result, the morning line favorite is the Brad Cox-trained Hit Show (5-2), who trains down in Louisiana and Kentucky when he's not racing up in New York. Hit Show is a nice horse who won the Grade III Withers last time out at Aqueduct. However, he's drawn the far outside post and will have to find a way to save ground. He's also not an overwhelming horse, as his best effort is not that superior to the rest of the horses in the field.

On the complete other end of the gate on the far inside is Dreamlike (7-2), who has yet to win a race but has turned in two impressive speed figures in his first two starts. He gets the inside rail and has the speed to ensure that he'll be forwardly placed. However, if you watched his last race he had every opportunity to win and simply hung while letting a long shot get the best of him. If he's doing that against inferior competition, what will he do against this field?

As a result, I'm looking at using two horses that provide some value. Slip Mahoney (6-1) and Crupi (12-1). Slip Mahoney finished second last time out in the Grade III Gotham while flying in from far off the pace at the end. However, traditionally he's not a deep closer. He has good tactical speed and should work out more of a mid-pack trip in this race. He's run against excellent competition as in the three races he lost; he got beat by graded stakes winner Litigate, Blue Grass favorite Tapit Trice, and Gotham champion Raise Cain. If he runs back to the form he showed in his December 2022 and January 2023 races, then he's got a big shot here.

Meanwhile, Crupi is another maiden who has yet to win. However, much like Slip Mahoney, he's simply lost to a better caliber of horse than nearly anyone else in the field. He's lost to Disarm, Instant Coffee, Signator, and Angel of Empire. All four of those horses have gone on to do great things since defeating Crupi in their races with him. He just barely got beat by Slip Mahoney two races ago. His last effort in the Grade II Risen Star was less than ideal, but he's being reunited with jockey Kendrick Carmouche who seems to get the best out of the horse. Crupi is a deep closer who will need pace to run into, but he should get it in this contest as there are four or five horses who will push an honest pace early. If Crupi can get away from the gate better than he has in the past, then he's got a shot to shock the establishment at a big price.

Wood Memorial Picks

  • Win: Slip Mahoney (6-1)
  • Place: Crupi (12-1)
  • Show: Dreamlike (7-2)

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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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