J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") starts contributing to the Unlocking Winners blog this week. Johnson is a videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in northern Wisconsin and also blogs at www.triplecrowncountdown.blogspot.com.
Hello, racing fans! My name is J. Keeler Johnson, although regular
readers of "Unlocking Winners" may already know me as "Keelerman." Long-time
members of the Bloodhorse.com blog community may even remember me from the days
of the "Breeders' Cup Chat" blog, when the exciting "Rachel Alexandra
vs. Zenyatta" debates often overshadowed all else!
It is with great excitement that I sit down to write my first post
for the "Unlocking Winners" blog, and I hope that you'll join me each
week in handicapping the biggest races from across the country! My goal is to help
foster an environment in which we can all share our thoughts and selections,
learn from each other's ideas, and enjoy the exploits of our sport's greatest
stars. If you would like to share your own handicapping opinions, or if you
want to digress a bit and reminisce about racing history, just leave a comment
below-I'll be an active participant in the discussions. (Although if asked to
choose between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, I'll just smile, say I was a huge
fan of both, and admire the picture of Zenyatta hanging on my wall.) :)
So introductions aside, let's take a look at the race I'm anticipating
most this weekend: the Mac
Diarmida Stakes (gr. IIT) on
the turf at Gulfstream Park. The 11-furlong race has drawn a large field of
familiar faces, including Twilight
Eclipse, Slumber, Suntracer, Amen Kitten, and . . . Alpha?
Believe it or not, Godolphin Racing's talented-but-inconsistent Alpha is set to make his turf debut this Saturday.
Given the success that Alpha has had on the main track-with victories in the
Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Woodward Stakes (gr. I)-it seems a bit unusual to
see him in a race like the Mac Diarmida, but perhaps his connections are hoping
the surface switch will reverse Alpha's recent string of sub-par performances.
Without question, the key to deciphering this race will be determining
whether or not Alpha can handle the turf, and his pedigree may offer clues to
the answer. While his sire, Bernardini, never ran on the turf, a number of Bernardini's
foals have found success on the grass in Australia. Furthermore, Alpha's dam—Munnaya—was
a stakes winner on turf, has produced a stakes winner on turf, and is by English
Triple Crown-winner Nijinsky II.
It's also encouraging to note that Alpha breezed a half-mile on
the Gulfstream turf in December, which suggests to me that he must have handled
the grass pretty well. Furthermore, it appears that the Mac Diarmida will be
almost completely devoid of speed, which should leave front-running Alpha on a
virtually uncontested lead. Throw top jockey Joel Rosario into the mix-a master,
in my opinion, at riding front-runners-and I believe that a winning combination
has been found.
In the event that Alpha doesn't take to the turf, Twilight Eclipse looms as the most likely winner.
Last February, he broke the world record for 1 1/2 miles while winning the Pan
American Stakes (gr. IIT) here at Gulfstream, demonstrating his affinity for
this course. Although he lost his next five starts, he performed admirably in
several of those defeats, including a mere 2 1/4-length loss in the Breeders' Cup
Turf (gr. IT). He got back into the winner's circle last time out with a romping
victory in an off-the-turf edition of the William L. McKnight Handicap (gr.
III) at Calder, and should relish the return to the Gulfstream turf.
Another horse I like is Amen
Kitten, who demonstrated a powerful turn-of-foot when third in the 10-furlong Hollywood Park Derby (gr. IT) in December. While that effort alone
makes him an intriguing contender, having the word "Kitten" in his name
definitely inspires additional confidence in his chances. Really—how can you
count out a son of Kitten's Joy in a major turf race?
Also on the racing schedule this week is the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Golden Gate Fields, where
California Cup Derby runner-up Tamarando should appreciate the switch from dirt to
Tapeta, given that his best performances by far have come over synthetic
tracks. But I'm tempted to side with Enterprising,
who has the benefit of a previous start at Golden Gate (a close second in the
California Derby) and the services of red-hot jockey Gary Stevens.
I would also like to mention that today's second race at Santa
Anita features the return of Eblouissante,
Zenyatta's five-year-old half-sister. Unraced since finishing sixth in the
Shuvee Handicap (gr. II) last July, Eblouissante will be ridden for the first
time by Mike Smith, and I've got my fingers crossed that we'll experience a
déjà vu moment this afternoon!
But most importantly-who do you like this weekend?