Saturday does nothing to raise quality of Kentucky Derby preps

What do the Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Santa Anita Derby have in common this year aside from being Grade 1, $1 million events, and the last four major point preps for the Kentucky Derby?

They were all fast early, slow late races.

The Santa Anita Derby, Wood, and Blue Grass were run and discussed in this space last week. The Arkansas Derby was the big race of the day Saturday, and it was eerie -- or perhaps fitting, if you think about it -- how much it was like the trio of stakes for 3-year-olds run seven days earlier.

The early fractions in the Arkansas Derby of 22.81 seconds, 46.33, and 1:10.61 were substantially faster than the corresponding first splits of the nine (count 'em!) other routes on Oaklawn's Saturday card. It was a pace that these 3-year-olds simply could not maintain, and the final three-eighths of the Arkansas Derby was run in a pokey 39.53 seconds.

Despite so many other route races on Oaklawn's card, the only other nine-furlong race of the day that can be used for comparison was the Oaklawn Handicap, run just two races before the Arkansas Derby. Now, it is inherently unfair to compare the group that ran in the Arkansas Derby to good, seasoned older horses like Effinex and Melatonin. And the fact that the Oaklawn Cap had a more controlled early pace also makes comparisons tricky. But for the record, the final three-eighths of the Oaklawn Cap was 36.95, a gaping 2.58 seconds faster than the Arkansas Derby.

At the very least, Creator and Suddenbreakingnews were good enough to capitalize on the situation and finish one-two, and for that, they deserve credit. Creator is certainly improving. It took him six starts to get his maiden victory, but he has now won two of his last three starts, and his Beyer Figures have gone from 80 to 90 to the 96 he was assigned for his Arkansas Derby score. And Suddenbreakingnews, who won Oaklawn's Southwest, also earned a career-best Beyer Saturday, getting a 94.

Whitmore, who finished third, also tried to capitalize on the Arkansas Derby pace collapse. But for the third straight time, Whitmore made a big run only to fade in the late stages, very much in the manner of a horse exceeding his current distance ceiling.

The big disappointment in the Arkansas Derby was, of course, Cupid. Cupid was so impressive winning the Rebel at Oaklawn last month. He rushed up after a slow start, set a fast pace, re-broke when it looked like he was collared in upper stretch, won going away, and galloped out powerfully. Unfortunately, Cupid's Arkansas Derby effort was on the other end of the spectrum.

Once again, Cupid did not break on the button, and the consequence of that was he got knocked around between horses before pushing through to press the hot pace. But as early as midway through the far turn, it was obvious Cupid was out of gas. Maybe the Rebel took too much out of Cupid, but he backed up to finish 10th, while Gettysburg, who set the hot pace under Cupid's pressure, held on to finish a very creditable fifth.

It will be interesting to see how much is made over the next three weeks over the fast early/slow late characteristic that many of this year's final major Kentucky Derby preps carry. No doubt, countless handicapping hours will be spent looking for the horse who can break out of this box. But is that a fool's errand when virtually everyone in this 3-year-old class is fast early/slow late?

Grades for Kentucky Derby prep races

Now that all the Derby preps are in the books, I'm going to slap grades on this year's final preps. Note that my grades were assigned in the context of this year only (or, on a curve, if you like), and really have no connection to who I might land on in the Derby. I'm just weighing these final preps against each other.

Here goes, with brief comments on each prep:

Arkansas Derby
Winning Beyer: 96
Grade: B

Comment: See above.

Wood Memorial
Winning Beyer: 93
Grade: C minus

Comment: The good news is Outwork prevailed after pressing a fast early pace. The bad news is Outwork lasted over an 81-1 maiden in Trojan Nation who rallied up the inside on perhaps the deepest part of the track while crawling home with a final three-eighths in 40.61 in the slowest Wood ever.

Blue Grass
Winning Beyer: 91
Grade: C

Comment: Stop me if you heard this before. The Blue Grass fell apart late, and deep closers Brody's Cause, My Man Sam, and Cherry Wine ran one-two-three. Visually, the race was fine. But against the clock, it was weak.

Santa Anita Derby
Winning Beyer: 103
Grade: B plus

Comment: The grade for this might turn into an A plus. Exaggerator just blew his field off the track. But pace implications aside, how much was Exaggerator's performance enhanced by a sloppy track he clearly loved? And how much were Exaggerator's victims this day compromised by the footing?

Florida Derby
Winning Beyer: 94
Grade: A minus

Comment: The most interesting Kentucky Derby prep matchup in years turned into no match at all as Nyquist romped to remain undefeated, and Mohaymen was a no show, finishing fourth. The Florida Derby gets the top grade because it identified the clear favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But it didn't get an "A" because it wasn't that fast a race.

Winning Beyer: 82
Grade: D

Comment: It was run on a synthetic surface, not the Kentucky Derby surface of dirt, and it was a very slow race. Moreover, the first five finishers, led by Oscar Nominated, were less than a length apart at the finish, and they can't all be champions. My grade here was kind.

Louisiana Derby
Winning Beyer: 91
Grade: C plus

Comment: My grade here might be a little harsh because Gun Runner, with his positional speed (a huge asset), looked good winning as much the best, and did so on a fair racing surface. But the time was just so slow. And yet, that 91 Beyer is Gun Runner's best so far.

UAE Derby
Winning Beyer: n/a
Grade: D

Comment: By most accounts, the field Lani beat was weak, and the Beyer folks came up with an estimated fig of 83, which is soft, but a number they apparently are confident in. The first UAE Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby will be at my expense.

Tampa Bay Derby
Winning Beyer: 100
Grade: B minus

Comment: This normally wouldn't rank as a final Kentucky Derby prep, but it is for Destin, the winner, so it's included here. This has proven to be a productive race (of sorts, anyway) as Outwork and Brody's Cause came out of it to win the Wood and Blue Grass. But I couldn't grade this higher than I did as a final prep for Destin because he will go into the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week layoff, and having never even run as far as 1 1/8 miles.