(Jose Ortiz and Good Magic after the Blue Grass Stakes / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

Busy week along the Kentucky Derby Trail. Three major Stakes events that also double as major preps for the Kentucky Derby were run on Saturday. Now, there are only two races left with points attached to them and where both owners and horses can earn their way into the 2018 “Run for the Roses.”

Next Saturday, the premier event will be the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, which figures to attract the likes of Solomini, and Magnum Moon. Then, on the same day, there will be the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. And, that one is sure to attract some of the 3-year-olds that are sitting too close to the fire, and too wobbly on the fence in terms of points.

After that, the field will be set, ready, and on go for the “First Saturday in May.”

But it is good to take a second and look back on Saturday’s action, which went a long way in focusing the binoculars on the top contenders for this year’s Derby. Here’s a look at this week’s “Winners, Losers & In-Betweeners.”

The Winners:

  1. Good Magic: The top winner this week was none other than the 2017 Breeders’ Cup winner and the 2017 Juvenile Champion Good Magic. He entered the week needing a good performance in the G2 Blue Grass Stakes to firm up his stake and position in the 2018 Kentucky Derby field. More importantly, he needed a good race, with some good results, to give his camp — and the skeptics — some good karma going into this year’s Derby. He achieved all that. In very good order. And, maybe even more. The 3YO son of Curlin truly dominated the Blue Grass on Saturday, running off at the end to win by over 11/2 lengths. And, he did it over a field of 13 others that may have comprised one of the best groups of horses to run at Keeneland in the last decade. Good Magic — with regular rider Jose Ortiz in the irons — laid off the lead in a nice stalking position and just behind the front-running Flameaway and Arawak and Sporting Chance through the first three-quarters of the race. But when Ortiz asked his horse for something more, Good Magic gave him something else — like a burst of energy that just wasn’t seen or performed in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in his first race this year. In short, the Champ was back. And, impressive.
  2. Enticed: The winner of the G3 Gotham Stakes on March 10 came back to run one heck of a race in the G2 Wood Memorial on Saturday at Aqueduct. And, the well-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro should have won the race. Instead, he was fouled into submission by the eventual winner, Vino Rosso, and had to settle for a less-than-satisfying second. As soon as the race was over, the stewards flashed the “Inquiry” sign lights, and Enticed’s rider, Junior Alvarado, filed an objection. Instead of doing the right thing, though, the NYRA stewards didn’t issue a disqualification, and left Vino Rosso on top. One would have to ask the stewards why they didn’t make the change, even though there was plenty of visual evidence to support a disqualification. Even Vino Rosso’s rider, John Velazquez, admitted after the race that he and his horse bumped the favorite on a number of occasions. Still, all in all, Enticed emerged as a winner in our book. While Old Time Revival and jockey Jeremy Rose ran off to an unimaginable and unsustainable early lead, Enticed and Alvarado bided their time along the rail until making a solid move entering and leaving the final turn. It was then that Velazquez pinned Enticed along the inner rail and pinched the Gotham winner over and over. While not fair nor warranted, the experience may be just the thing that Enticed needed. He is sure to experience some of the same things in the running of the 20-horse field Kentucky Derby. And, maybe next time, he will be the better for having gone through it before.
  3. Justify: The undefeated glory boy from the barn of Team Baffert proved that he is a talent in the Santa Anita Derby. The big red-head chestnut broke quickly, juiced to an early lead and never looked back in ripping off to an easy 3-length victory over the talented, highly-acclaimed and much more experienced Bolt d’Oro. Was it enough to spirit this one to the top of the 3YO class and make him the prohibitive favorite for the 2018 Kentucky Derby? Many, including his trainer, think that it should. And, based on his performances to date, it is hard to argue against this guy. In three starts to date, he hasn’t been touched. But…There is this lingering little thing called the “Apollo Curse,” that looms ahead. No horse since Apollo, some 134 years ago, has won the Kentucky Derby without having made at least one start as a 2-year-old. This year, both Justify and Magnum Moon will take on that long-established curse and history, if they make the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. And…For good horses, the fractions in the Santa Anita Derby were rather, er, lackadaisical, at best. No other horse in the race pushed the pace, and Justify was simply able to fiddle away on the front end, carving out easy fractions that truly never taxed his running style or ability. That scenario is not likely to play out in this year’s Derby. So…questions shall remain.
  4. National Flag: He won’t get into this year’s Kentucky Derby, but he may be one of the most talented 3YOs in the country. This son of Speightstown came from near last to win by a growing 4 lengths in the G3 Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday. It was only 7 furlongs, but this guy gave every impression that he may be a tough customer to handle farther down this Triple Crown road. A great friend of mine texted me on Sunday and asked if I had witnessed the race. After I said that I had watched it, and was impressed, my friend suggested that this one could be this year’s version of Practical Joke. I concur. But this one could be even better. And, that is written a lot. In my opinion, this one is far more impressive than the Wood Memorial winner and stablemate, Vino Rosso.

In-Betweeners:

  1. Flameaway: The winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes in his 2018 debut has now run two tough, stubborn, hard-fought, yet-questionable seconds in both the Tampa Bay Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday. The son of Scat Daddy, who is still in the process of transitioning from a grass horse from a year ago into one of the best dirt competitors of this early season, is as gutty as they come in this crop of talented 3YOs. He has speed, and he likes to flash it early to get a good running position. He has talent, like he proved by carrying the field in the Blue Grass all the way to the quarter pole in front. And, he is multi-dimensional. He has proven he can compete at the highest levels on both dirt and turf, and can use his speed either early or late. But…But the question remains, he is good enough to last 11/4-miles on the First Saturday in May. And, that is a question that was not answered on Saturday. More factually, it is a question now raised more and more. While Scat Daddy was a tremendous sire, Flameaway’s dam is Vulcan Rose, a daughter of former Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. But she only mustered one win in 7 lifetime tries, winning only her maiden race at Woodbine at 61/2 furlongs. The second dam is Rose of Tara, who is by the Irish-bred stallion Generous. Rose of Tara only won once in 6 lifetime tries. The third dam is False of Tara, who did manage 8 wins and 3 seconds in 21 starts. She won a Stakes at The Curragh in 1984, and did win both a Group 2 and Group 3 event in 1983. There are pedigree and stamina issues. Serious questions.
  2. Bolt d’Oro: This son of Medaglia d’Oro came into the Santa Anita Derby off a jar-dropping and jarring win in the San Felipe Stakes that turned into a wrestling match from the top of the stretch to near the wire. McKinzie, who crossed the finish line first that day, was disqualified and placed second. Bolt d’Oro, tough as a cob second, was moved up. (Editor’s Note: Vino Rosso got away with much worse in the Wood; maybe Baffert should consider running in New York next time.) On Saturday, McKinzie didn’t show for the dance, being sidelined with a mysterious hind leg injury. Instead, he was replaced by teammate Justify. And, the fresh youngster — left unmolested on the front end — never looked back. Bolt d’Oro ran up towards the leader entering the last turn and headed for home, but didn’t have the muster to challenge the front-runner much. He may have been a bit tired after having his first race since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the San Felipe. He may have been a bit leg weary from the bruising, gut-checker. Or, simply put, he may not be as good. But he did run well enough to carry his name and game on to Churchill Downs. And, I would not be shocked to see him run much better in the third race off a layoff than he has in the first two.
  3. Free Drop Billy / Vino Rosso: Both of these guys should make the field for the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. And, if they do, both will have an outside chance to both surprise and hit the board in the world’s most famous horse race. Free Drop Billy, running at Keeneland for the first time since he won the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity there last October in his most notable accomplishment to date, rallied late and looked to be making a nice run for one of the minor awards behind Good Magic when he once again had to check and steady behind an out-of-control late dart from Sporting Chance — who did the same thing to him in last year’s Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. While he was not going to threaten for the win, Free Drop Billy did show a little late energy that gives one hope. Vino Rosso, as we have described above, looked to be a better horse wearing the blinkers for the first time in the Wood Memorial. After disappointing in both the Sam F. Davis (when 3rd), and the Tampa Bay Derby (when fourth), Vino Rosso did make a sustainable mid- to late-run in the Wood. Although he did pin, foul, and interfere with Enticed, he was still a much more energetic horse than in his previous two runs. And, he will now give Team Pletcher another contender for this third Kentucky Derby victory.

Losers:

  1. Restoring Hope: Was not impressive enough in running a well-beaten third in the Wood Memorial to continue down the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Baffert needs to return this one to California, and season more.
  2. Firenze Fire: Proved, yet again, he is not up to this challenge and these kind. Time to move on.
  3. Old Time Revival: Needs a new rider. Period. And, perhaps, a little more realistic race approach.
  4.  Instilled Regard: Well-beaten fourth in the Santa Anita Derby was disappointing. Never a threat.
  5. Sporting Chance: Needs an equine psycho-analysis. This one ducks so severely when the rider pulls out the whip (admittedly, I would, too), that he is a danger to himself, others, and, in particular, his rider Luis Saez. Can you imagine this guy in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby? Talented, but troubled.
  6. Kanthaka, Tiz Mischief, Marconi, Zing Zang, Gotta Go: All found wanting in the Blue Grass Stakes.