The major prep races in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by TwinSpires.com" are in the books, but a pair of "wildcard" events will still be offered for horses that haven't qualified: Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the April 27 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.
The top 20 point earners nominated to the Triple Crown will secure a spot in the starting gate for the 139th running of the $2 million Kentucky Derby on May 4, and the wildcard races offer points on a 20-8-4-2 scale to the top four finishers.
Eleven horses are entered for the 1 1/16-mile Lexington, but only six are Triple Crown nominated. Pure Fun, the 7-2 morning-line favorite, isn't and her connections are using the Lexington strictly as a prep race for the Kentucky Oaks on May 3. The filly will have to overcome the far outside post position to defeat her male rivals.
The other four with no Kentucky Derby aspirations - their owners would need to pay a $200,000 supplemental fee and have less than 20 Triple Crown nominees in the main body of the field - are Examen (5-1 morning line), Pick of the Litter (6-1), General Election (15-1) and Where's Dominic (20-1).
Sunbean (4-1) and Cerro (5-1) are the most viable candidates to wheel back on two weeks rest in the Kentucky Derby if they should win the Lexington. Both are exiting races against better competition.
Sunbean reeled off three consecutive wins at Fair Grounds before experiencing an extremely rough trip in the March 30 Louisiana Derby, checking in eighth behind Revolutionary after being repeatedly blocked and jostled around during the stretch run. The Louisiana-bred colt will make his first start Saturday for Mike Maker, the leading trainer at the current Keeneland meet, and receives a rider switch to Hall of Famer Gary Stevens.
Cerro stamped himself as a promising Kentucky Derby prospect when capturing a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream Park in late January, but he's been sidelined since finishing sixth to Orb in the February 23 Fountain of Youth. Keeneland's leading rider, Joel Rosario, has the assignment for trainer Graham Motion.
Winning Cause (5-1) is a dangerous presence for Todd Pletcher, who already has five horses (Charming Kitten, Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary and Verrazano) confirmed for the Kentucky Derby. The colt is two for two on Keeneland's Polytrack, breaking his maiden last October and winning an April 6 allowance, and Winning Cause would most likely head to the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the May 18 Preakness, if he wins the Lexington.
The Lexington does not feature a lot of early speed and River Rocks, an attractive 12-1 on the morning line, figures to be rolling from the start with jockey James Graham. A smart 5 «-length winner two starts back, the Wayne Catalano-trained colt registered BRIS Early Pace ratings of 106 and 112 when finishing second in a salty Gulfstream allowance most recently.
My selections are:
- Winning Cause
- River Rocks
The Lexington lacks a rich history - the last two winners to contest the Kentucky Derby, Advice (2009) and Derby Kitten (2011), both finished 13th - and we can expect the winner to be a major longshot if his connections elect to pursue this year's Run for the Roses. However, Charismatic recorded a 31-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby after winning the 1999 Lexington and Proud Citizen finished second at 23-1 after capturing the 2002 edition.
It's unlikely that this year's winner could be a major factor two weeks later at Churchill Downs, but anything's possible.