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Derby Watch: Eyes remain on McCraken even when not racing

Ron Flatter
VSiN.com

LAS VEGAS--In a winter when no 3-year-old is jumping off the page to be anointed the Kentucky Derby favorite, the biggest forward move this week came not during a race but during some workouts.

McCraken, 6-1 in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager and a winner in his last two prep stakes, has been taking daily gallops recently at Palm Meadows in Florida. That is newsworthy, because trainer Ian Wilkes had reported the colt by Ghostzapper had a “minor” problem with his left-front ankle after winning last month’s Sam F. Davis Stakes.

So while we wait for McCraken to come back for next month’s Blue Grass Stakes, we bide our time on Saturday with two more preps – races on opposite sides of the country that will virtually qualify two more winners for the Derby, even if they do not necessarily dazzle bettors into thinking either of them will win come May at Churchill Downs.

In California, speed horses Mastery and Gormley – each the winner of a minor Derby prep – are 6/5 and 9/5, respectively, on the morning line for the $400,000 Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. About a half-hour later in Florida, the stalking Tapwrit returns from a runner-up finish to McCraken in the Davis when he goes off as a 3-1 morning-line favorite in the $350,000 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.

OK, Mastery did get to 8-1 in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager. But honestly, there is not a healthy horse that is pegging the betting needle right now. Is that a sign that this is a weak crop of 3-year-olds?

“It’s more of an evolving scenario,” said Steve Byk, who hosts the daily show “At the Races” on SiriusXM Radio. “If you go back and look at these 3-year-old seasons, especially coverage in January, February and into early March, it’s always the same. ‘This crop isn’t very good.’ ‘This crop is slow.’ Then all of a sudden we’ll get a 101 Beyer (Speed) Rating here, we’ll get a 104 in the Rebel, we’ll get a 106 in the Arkansas Derby, and that conversation withers.”

Attrition also plays a big role in determining the quality of a given year’s 3-year-olds, even if that given year has only 10 weeks to show for it. Last year’s 2-year-old champion Classic Empire is still sidelined. The latest setback was a sore back this week to go with the hoof abscess that flared up after his disappointing, third-place finish in last month’s Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Florida. Trainer Mark Casse remains hopeful that the colt by Pioneerof The Nile will be able to challenge McCraken in the Blue Grass.

“I think they’ve got real problems,” Byk said. “But if he trots out and runs big, we’ve still got only one horse. It’s still only one 3-year-old. If one horse flares up, it is the leader in the clubhouse for now, but it doesn’t really matter until they line 20 of them up in May.”

Knock on wood, the horses racing Saturday are fit.

“Tapwrit has done very well physically since the Sam Davis,” his trainer Todd Pletcher said. “The most important thing he got from that race was the experience and education. He got hemmed up inside and had to wait for room, but when he got clear he closed well and galloped out strongly.”

The gray-roan colt by Tapit will start from gate 5 in the field of 10 that includes front-running State Of Honor, 4-1 on the morning line coming off a fade to third in the Davis.

In the San Felipe, Mastery will start from post position 4 and Gormley from 5. The 5/2 third choice Iliad goes from gate 6 off a win in last month’s seven-furlong San Vicente on the same track. His first test around two turns will also be his second race since he was transferred from Baffert to trainer Doug O’Neill.

The $750,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap for horses 4 and up is Saturday’s feature in California. Winner of his first two graded stakes in a return to dirt, 6-year-old speed horse Midnight Storm starts from the rail and is the 8/5 morning-line favorite starting for trainer Phil D’Amato. Last year’s Woodward Stakes winner Shaman Ghost drew post position 3 and is the 2-1 second choice. Both are top-weighted at 122 pounds.

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