The Road to the Kentucky Derby is back to its more traditional format after the pandemic forced last year’s iteration to be heavily modified. This time, 46 prep races spread out over North America, Europe, Dubai and Japan will award points to the top four finishers in each designated race. Three of those prep races arrive this weekend — the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita — and each offers 100 Derby points, the maximum, to the winner, along with 40 to the second-place finisher, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.

Any horse that finishes in the top three of these races will probably get a spot in this year’s Kentucky Derby field. In five of the last six Runs for the Roses (not including 2020), 30 Derby points were enough to get a horse into the post at Churchill Downs on Derby day. Heading into Saturday’s races, there are 36 horses with 10 or more points in the Derby standings but only 16 with more than 25. Here’s a look at the best bets in Saturday’s prep races.

Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland

If the horses hold true to form, this one won’t be tough to handicap. The field boasts undefeated 2-year-old champion Essential Quality (40 points, 11th in the standings) and little front-running speed. Eight of the nine horses entered are classified as either pressers, which like to stay a few lengths off the lead, or stalkers, which like to make a late move and pass tired horses. Essential Quality, meanwhile, should be able to get to the front under jockey Luis Saez and dictate the pace. He has one of the fastest pace figures to the first call (the half-mile mark), and of the five dirt races run at nine furlongs at Keeneland this year, all five produced winners using the same running style as Essential Quality, one that can either be used at the front or slightly behind the leaders with comfort.

The only other horse who has led a dirt route at the second call (the three-quarter-mile mark) is Todd Pletcher’s Untreated, breaking his maiden in his last start at 1 mile and 40 meters. This son of Nyquist would be the only other horse worth a look, but you should demand double-digit odds.

Wood Memorial Stakes, Aqueduct

Two horses in this race, Weyburn and Crowded Trade, faced off before in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes around this oval at a mile. Weyburn edged Crowded Trade by a nose, but there is no doubt Crowded Trade was the faster of the two once you take into account distance traveled. Crowded Trade had to cover 24 feet more than Weyburn on his way to the finish line but did so traveling 37.1 mph, a few ticks higher than Weyburn’s speed (36.9 mph).

2021 Gotham Stakes
Finish
Average speed (mph)
Distance traveled
Feet per second
Weyburn
1st
36.9
5,324 feet
54.1
Crowded Trade
2nd
37.1
5,348 feet
54.3

A better trip almost assuredly would have flipped this result. Crowded Trade and Weyburn are the only horses in the field with a Brisnet final speed figure in excess of 100 on a fast dirt track. Brooklyn Strong earned his triple-digit speed figure — 107, the highest in the field — over a sloppy track in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last year.

One more thing to consider. This race has a lot of front-running speed in Weyburn, Prevalence and Market Maven, setting it up nicely for a horse slightly off the pace, which is where Crowded Trade is usually found.

Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Park

Medina Spirit, winner of the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, is the morning line favorite at 9-5. His performance in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes was lackluster; he came in second by eight lengths to Life is Good, now sidelined by a small chip in his left hind ankle. However, Medina Spirit won’t need his best to beat this field of horses.

None have won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 event, and the closest any of them has come is The Great One’s second by a nose in last year’s Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity. One horse out of the field of 10, Back Ring Luck, was last put up for claim as a maiden in November. Three others, Ottothelegend, Law Professor and Defunded, are stepping out of the maiden ranks for the first time. Rock Your World has never raced on the dirt. Dream Shake and Roman Centurion were beaten by Medina Spirit in the San Felipe Stakes. Parnelli has raced around two turns once and finished fifth by 19 lengths. Trainer John Shirreffs is also adding blinkers to Parnelli for the first time, never a sign that a horse is in prime condition to fire.

It’s quite possible Medina Spirit gets loose on the lead and never looks back, justifying his paltry return at the betting window.