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Super-Sized Saturday for Horseplayers Looking for Derby Contenders

Santa Anita Park

By Steve Davidowitz | Beautiful Keeneland Racecourse opened on Friday, April 6 and as the centerpiece of a stakes-rich 15-day spring meet it is set to host the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes next Saturday, the focus this weekend has to be elsewhere…
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In Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby we will see CREATIVE CAUSE go to the post against a relatively deep field of 3-year-olds who need to upset Creative Cause to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Across the American continent on the same afternoon, the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct racetrack in New York will make or break the chances of undefeated GEMOLOGIST to make the Derby starting field.
As most know, the field for the 1-1/4 mile annual spring classic at Churchill Downs is limited to 20 starters and the deciding factor is linked directly to lifetime earnings in Graded Stakes. Right now, Gemologist has Graded earnings of $103, 855 by virtue of his Grade-2 win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last fall. Right now—before we know the results of the Wood, the Santa Anita Derby and even the $500,000 Illinois Derby on Saturday — Gemologist sits in 35th place and frankly that means he probably has to run at least second (worth $200,000) to get safely into the Derby Top 20.
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The 20th horse on the list is REVERON—with $220,000 after finishing second to TAKE CHARGE INDY in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream last Sunday. The list is so tight that 14 horses already have at least $300,000 in Graded earnings while 23 more horses have earned at least $100,000 or more. With a winner’s purse of $600,000 in the Wood, horses with zero Graded earnings such as THE LUMBER GUY, STREET LIFE, TEETH OF THE DOG and CASUAL TRICK could leap right all but the top nine on the list with an upset victory. Several others, including the aforementioned Gemologist, are on the proverbial bubble and might only need a second or third place finish in this rich race to secure a Derby post position.
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Alpha, the second choice in the Wood morning line did win two stakes at Aqueduct this winter, including the Grade-3 Withers. But Alpha only can claim 23rd place on the list with his $180,000 in Graded earnings and he probably will need at least a third place finish (worth $100,000) in the Wood to get out of the woods. Frankly, with eight Graded Stakes for 3-year-olds still to be run worth an aggregate $4.6 million, no one really knows how much in Graded earnings will be required to make the field. 
Here is the remaining Graded Stakes schedule leading up to the Kentucky Derby:
Apr. 7:
$750,000 Santa Anita Derby (G-1)
$1 million Wood Memorial, Aqueduct (G-1)
$500,000 Illinois Derby, Hawthorne, (G-3)

Apr. 14:
$750,000Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland, (G-1)
$1 million Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park, (G-1)
Apr. 21:
$200,000 Lexington Stakes, Keeneland (G-3)
$200,000 Jerome, Aqueduct (G-2)

Apr. 30:
$200,000 Derby Trial Stakes, Churchill Downs, (G-3).
That’s a lot of Graded Stakes money yet to be distributed between now and the Kentucky Derby post position draw scheduled for Wednesday, May 2 at Churchill Downs. Given that so many of the horses under consideration for these eight Graded stakes must win or run second, a major shakeup seems quite likely to occur after the results are officially posted. While I like Gemologist to handle Alpha in the Wood; Creative Cause will be facing a deeper group of lightly raced Derby possibilities in the SA Derby and I see at least three rapidly developing horses in the field who have hinted at considerable upside.
Can Creative Cause win? Yes, of course; but I would suggest taking a hard look at the promising maiden BROTHER FRANCIS, who has $120,000 in Graded earnings (and I would not toss the very fast Bob Baffert trained maiden race winner PAYNTER), who has not yet won a dime in Graded Stakes. I also can make a case for the improving MIDNIGHT TRANSFER, who only has $36,000 in his Graded Stakes portfolio.
Each of the above three young horses have much more at stake than Creative Cause. Fact is, Creative Cause does not have to finish in the top three to make the Derby and he does not have to prove he is the best 3-year-old in California either. Yet he probably needs to run well enough to indicate that he still is in form and has a whole lot more energy left in his tank for the main event next month.
Next Saturday, we will see two more deep fields of Derby prospects compete in the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby. I will of course cover both of these Derby preps in more detail in this space on April 13.
While all of these races offer fine wagering opportunities, looking further down the long winding road to Louisville, it makes as much sense to find the strongest finishers who seem to be in great health as they move forward towards generating a peak performance in the one race every owner, trainer, breeder, jockey and horseplayer most wants to win.
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