New Blogger Keeler Johnson on the Turf Debut of Alpha

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?

29 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Plod Boy Phil

Keelerman -

Pretty neat, Pretty neat

Pretty good,  pretty good.

13 Feb 2014 5:40 PM
-Keelerman

Thanks, Plod Boy Phil! I appreciate it!

13 Feb 2014 6:41 PM
Plod Boy Phil

I found the perfect horse for the occasion.

Santa Anita  R1  1 A Toast to You

Had little chance behind an Extreme for Speed in his last when claimed off a three month freshening. His win at this trip two back was 'neutral',  and very good.  Gets Flow Friday.

13 Feb 2014 6:59 PM
Ranagulzion

Keelerman: Congratulations are in order. You've gotten a "clean break from the gates" in this column and I know that from your excellent blog posts in the past, you are no plodder and not lacking in class and stamina to hold your own in pesent comany :)

In the Mac Diarmida, I fancy Amen kitten to nail Alpha at the wire.

Tamarando ia soup in the El Camino Real.

13 Feb 2014 8:55 PM
-Keelerman

Thank you for those kind words, Ranagulzion! I really appreciate them!

Who is your early pick for the Kentucky Derby? I'm on board the Top Billing bandwagon, but Bayern certainly caught my eye with his allowance victory this afternoon. The performance reminded me quite a bit of Bodemeister's maiden victory two years ago. Any thoughts?

13 Feb 2014 10:26 PM
JayJay

Keelerman :  Well deserved and excited to see you with your very own blog here at Bloodhorse.  Have always had much respect for you and your posts, you've always been fair and honest.  Looking forward to reading your blogs!  Congrats!

14 Feb 2014 12:03 AM
-Keelerman

Thank you, JayJay! It's always great to hear from you!

Is anyone up for an informal handicapping contest tomorrow? Same style as we've done in the past, with mythical $2 win/place wagers on each selection and the highest total payoffs determining the winner.

Here's what the contest race schedule would look like, along with post times:

4:03: The Very One Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream

4:24: Barbara Fritchie Handicap (gr. II) at Laurel

5:03: Mac Diarmida Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream

6:09: King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn

7:00: Santa Maria Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita

7:15: El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Golden Gate

(all times Eastern)

Anyone interested?

14 Feb 2014 12:00 PM
Byerly

A little late to the game. For Bernardini, don't forget European winners Biondetti (G1), Gamilati (G2W), Theyskens' Theory (G3W, G1 placed), etc.,

14 Feb 2014 3:40 PM
-Keelerman

It looks like the Southwest Stakes has come up very deep! I'm hoping for strong performances from Strong Mandate and Ride On Curlin, who sit third and tenth on my most recent Kentucky Derby rankings. In particular, I'm hoping that Ride On Curlin returns to the form he showed last year in finishing third to Havana and Honor Code in the Champagne Stakes.

Speaking of Ride On Curlin, does anyone have an opinion on his recent allowance victory? I thought it was a strong effort overall, given that he survived chasing a :21.80 opening quarter, but his final quarter of :27.79 seconds does worry me a bit. And given the huge variety of running styles he has demonstrated during his relatively short career, I don't have a clue where he will be early on in the Southwest.

If anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to hear them!

14 Feb 2014 4:30 PM
-Keelerman

Great point, Byerly! All the more reason to like Alpha's chances tomorrow!

Plod Boy Phil;

I just watched the opener at Santa Anita. Great pick with "A Toast to You!" :)

14 Feb 2014 4:37 PM
Plod Boy Phil

Thanks KJ -

I notified a few regulars of the contest 'upstairs' on the latest of what is now a 3 way Blog duel here at Unlocking Winners.

15 Feb 2014 8:38 AM
Little Bill

Shame about Laurel canceling. Loved a deep closer (Bomb) in a field with 10 lead types.

15 Feb 2014 9:22 AM
Plod Boy Phil

Saturday Contest

GP 9th  5 Preferential

-

GP 10th  1 Suntracer

OP 9th  2 Mico Margarita

SA 8th  3 Ondine

GG 8th  8 Dance With Fate

Good luck all

15 Feb 2014 11:40 AM
-Keelerman

Here are my contest selections!

The Very One Stakes (gr. III): Anjaz

Mac Diarmida Stakes (gr. II): Alpha

King Cotton Stakes: Picko's Pride

Santa Maria Stakes (gr. II): Ondine

El Camino Real Derby (gr. III): Enterprising

For anyone who still wishes to join, please note that Laurel Park has canceled racing today, and thus the Barbara Fritchie Handicap will not be run.

15 Feb 2014 12:46 PM
Producer

The Very One Stakes - Left a Message

Hi Keelerman, great post, great to see you here.

I'll throw in my selections for the contest:

The Very One Stakes - Left a Message

Mac Diarmida Stakes - Alpha

King Cotton Stakes - Picko's Pride

Santa Maria Stakes - Iotapa

El Camino Real Derby - Tamarando

15 Feb 2014 1:21 PM
ROBBIEJOE25

GP RACE-9:PREFERENTIAL

GP RACE-10:AMEN KITTEN

OP RACE-9:PICKOS PRIDE

SA RACE-8:ONDINE

GG RACE-8:DANCE WITH FATE

15 Feb 2014 1:30 PM
Mary Zinke

Hi, Keelerman.Nice to see your blog. I've been busy and didn't know about this blog until Phil posted something at the other Brisnet one.  I missed The Very One, and I think the Barbara Fritchie was re-scheduled for next week, but I'll try to post picks for the others.  Not much time to look.  GL all.

15 Feb 2014 4:21 PM
Mary Zinke

Mac Diarmida: Cozy Kitten

King Cotton: Picko's Pride

Santa Maria: Let Faith Arise

El Camino Real: Dance With Fate

15 Feb 2014 4:35 PM
-Keelerman

Thanks for joining in, everyone! Here are the standings after the first two races of the contest:

RobbieJoe25 - $5.20

Plod Boy Phil - $0

Keelerman - $0

Producer - $0

Mary Zinke - $0

Good luck!

15 Feb 2014 5:44 PM
-Keelerman

No change in the standings after the King Cotton Stakes. Two races to go!

15 Feb 2014 6:30 PM
Little Bill

Am I going to sneak into this contest with Craftsman?

15 Feb 2014 7:33 PM
-Keelerman

Congratulations, Producer! You have won our handicapping contest!

Here are the final standings . . .

Producer - $20.60

RobbieJoe25 - $9.80

Mary Zinke - $8.20

Plod Boy Phil - $4.60

Fugue for Tinhorns - $0.00

Keelerman - $0.00

Thanks to all for playing! And thanks to Plod Boy Phil for helping spread the word! :)

15 Feb 2014 8:50 PM
Ranagulzion

Keelerman: My early fancy for the Kentucky Derby has been Honor Code since right after his impressive unner-up effort in the Champagne last season. I haven't seen any reason to change my mind about his superiority over this crop for going ten furlongs. Shared Belief would have the edge at a shorter distance but he has too many questions to answer at this point (surface, distance and soundness).

The other colt that has my very serious attention is Top Billing. I like this colt as one of the very few that has the pedigree and potential to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. In fact, if he can win the Fountain of Youth which is coming up as a very knotty affair with some other serious emerging talent (Wildcat red, General a Rod and Almost Famous) I'd stick my neck out and tout him as the best prospect of breaking the Triple Crown drought since Eskendereya ...BUT ...I'm not saying that just yet ...only observing and assessing.

Regarding your interest in Ride on Curlin, I think that he's either a sprinter/miler or a late developer that has shown ability but hasn't come to hand yet. Based on his pedigree (broodmare by Storm Cat and inbred to Bold Ruler with not enough stamina influences in the first generations)he's more than likely a stretch out sprinter.

16 Feb 2014 11:41 AM
Ranagulzion

Keelerman: If Strong Mandate, with a clean break, doesn't romp the Southwest by the proverbial city block or win with a ton-in-hand then consider him just a moderate sort.

16 Feb 2014 12:08 PM
-Keelerman

Ranagulzion;

Thanks for your thoughts! I have similar thoughts regarding Strong Mandate. I'm hoping -- even kind of expecting -- that he'll romp to an easy victory tomorrow, and I will be disappointed if he doesn't. But that said, if someone else steps up and gives him a fight, and they both wind up 8+ lengths clear of everyone else, I would be happy with that.

As for Top Billing, I hope he shows a bit more tactical speed in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, because I share your hope that he has what it takes to end the Triple Crown drought, and I think he'll need more versatility in order to complete the sweep. I've become convinced that winning the Belmont Stakes nowadays requires being reasonably close to the early pace, a strategy used so successfully in recent years by Palace Malice, Union Rags, and Ruler On Ice, and nearly as successfully by Oxbow, Paynter, and Stay Thirsty. With that in mind, I've got my fingers crossed that Shared Belief comes back in time to make the Derby, because I feel he has the right blend of tactical speed and tractability to sweep the Triple Crown -- assuming that the other questions marks you mentioned (dirt, distance) are within his capabilities.

The next few months should be exciting!

16 Feb 2014 1:18 PM
Ranagulzion

Keelerman: Shared Belief is obviously a top class performer that might be effective at the distances of the Derby and Preakness but is a very long shot to be a Belmont Stakes contender based upon his pedigree, therefore I wouldn't count him as a good candidate to sweep all three legs of the Triple Crown.

16 Feb 2014 2:23 PM
-Keelerman

Ranagulzion;

I agree, the distance of the Belmont could be a stretch . . . I can't help but remember that Shared Belief is bred on the same Candy Ride/Storm Cat cross as Sidney's Candy, and that does have me worried.

16 Feb 2014 9:03 PM
Plod Boy Phil

OP  Southwest  

I'm on board with Strong Mandate off the 'Quick to Zip' move in the BCJ - an Extreme Race for Closers.  He's one of the 3 singles for me in the Late P4 sequence.

17 Feb 2014 10:21 AM
Carlos in Cali

Keelerman?... What the @#$%!... congrats!

Ranagulzion,

Commissioner will once again defeat the much-hyped Top Billing and take the FOY. He's just getting started.

17 Feb 2014 10:43 AM

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