The G3 Coolmore Lexington Stakes
Keeneland, Race 9
By Robert Finnegan
11 horses are entered in the Grade 3 Coolmore Lexington, to be run at a mile and 1/16 on Polytrack, and what the race lacks in Kentucky Derby implications, it makes up for in chaos. More than half the field (including the two favorites on the morning line) has never raced on synthetic. Several horses enter off terrible efforts. Several horses enter off big efforts on surfaces other than synthetic. Several horses appear capable of being the early leader. There is much to contemplate in this race.
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Looking over how the Keeneland Polytrack has been playing recently in route races, we see winners with all sorts of running styles, but we also notice that deep closers have been operating at nothing like the sort of disadvantage at which they typically operate over most American racetracks.
According to the TimeformUS Pace Projector, Solitary Ranger will have the lead at the opening half, with Supermonic and Global Strike close behind, followed by the morning line favorite, Mr Speaker, and then Dynamic Impact and Divine Oath. If this projection is borne out on the racetrack, three of the first six horses at the opening half will be trained by Todd Pletcher.
Although it's by no means a sure thing, we think there is a reasonable chance that the Coolmore Lexington will be run at a destructively fast pace. The talented speedster Solitary Ranger does his best work on the front end, while Supermonic and Global Strike earned recent victories in wire-to-wire fashion and drew outside posts that may call for them to employ their speed early.
The two horses who interest us most in this race are Mr Speaker and Z Lucky.
Mr Speaker might deserve to be called the most-accomplished horse in the race, given that he has a win and a second from his two Gulfstream Grade 3 turf attempts. He will be making his synthetic debut today. However, his turf form bodes well for his chances of handling synthetic, as does his Pedigree Rating for this synthetic route (an 86), and he has trained well over this surface for a trainer who gets a 93 rating at Keeneland and a sparkling 98 rating with first-time synthetic.
Mr Speaker has consistently run strong speed figures. He made a visually impressive middle-move in his last race, after having trouble at the start. He should be able to secure a ground-saving stalking trip today. We think he is the most likely winner of this race.
Z Lucky (20-1 on the ML) figures to be a huge price, and we think he might have the ability to pull off a surprise today. To date, he has raced only on dirt. He has a strong Pedigree Rating of 87 for this race. His sire, Zensational, has shown early promise as a sire of synthetic runners. Z Lucky ran a big race at Oaklawn in February, finishing second in an allowance race and running a figure of 81 despite losing so much ground racing wide that he looked like Ride On Curlin. In his last race, he had some trouble at the start, got into a position from which it is hard to win horse races, and then put in a strong-but-belated run while very wide. If he puts it all together today and gets a strong pace in front of him, he is a strong threat to get into the trifecta and some kind of threat for the whole thing.
Solitary Ranger and Divine Oath are also obvious threats.
The G3 Illinois Derby
Hawthorne, Race 9
By Jason Perlmutter
Barring an extraordinary event, such as colt throwing rider, the Baffert-trained Midnight Hawk (#3) will win the G3 Illinois Derby this Saturday. Those hoping to make a quick 80 cents on the dollar at the 4-5 morning line can forget it -- he will be 2-5 or lower when the gates open. Midnight Hawk has a tremendous speed figure advantage over his seven outclassed rivals. Not only that, he figures to have a clear early lead in a race favoring early speed. Saturday's race is little more than a (handsomely) paid workout for the son of Midnight Lute. Assuming things go as expected, he'll make an interesting new shooter in the Preakness.
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Now that we got that out of the way, which son of Smart Strike will complete the exacta? Will it be #7 Global Strike or #8 Class Leader? Global Strike is 15-1 on the morning line, but given the fact that he is trained by Todd Pletcher, we highly doubt we will see that number when the gates open, especially with memories of Danza fresh in punters' minds. Regardless, Global Strike figures to sit in second place all by his lonesome, and, based on the way he has been breezing in the mornings at Palm Meadows, we expect him to bounce back from his disappointing effort in the Sunland Derby.
Neil Howard appears to have a promising young colt in Class Leader. After a shaky debut at Churchill Downs, the colt put together a pair of winning efforts at Fairgrounds. We don't really love him as second choice in this race, but he has had plenty of rest since his last effort and has been training regularly and well.
The Wager: Straight exacta #3 Midnight Hawk over #7 Global Strike. Trifecta Key: Midnight Hawk over Global Strike and Class Leader.
Adjusted wager in the case of Global Strike scratch: If Global Strike is scratched, replace him in the wager with #2 A Step Ahead.
The G3 Ben Ali Stakes
Keeneland, Race 8
By Alan Mann
In the Grade 3 Ben Ali Stakes, to be run at a mile and an eighth on the Keeneland Polytrack, morning line favorite Newsdad (#10, 3-1) returned to form in taking the G2 Pan American at Gulfstream late last month. Though that race was a marathon mile and a half affair, and despite our preference to shop for prices at a meet which produces more than its fair share of inscrutable results, this six-year old son of Arch is tough to look past in this spot. Newsdad has more than proven that he can unleash the devastating closing kick that he used to win the Pan American at this shorter distance on this particular track.
His last effort over the surface came in the Fayette Stakes, at this distance, in the fall of 2012.
In winning that Grade 2 stakes, Newsdad earned a superb speed figure of 117, the best synthetic figure in this field. Note too that his last-to-first move was hardly the result of a collapsed pace. The pace figures show that the tempo was a steady one from start to finish. In this race, Pace Projector, while not labeling this as a Fast Pace, surely shows a contested one that should help to set up his late run. Newsdad owns, by far, the best late pace rating in this field.
Going back further in his past performances (takes just a flick on your tablet to see any horse's entire set of running lines), we see that this horse's other two Keeneland races were a win at a mile and a quarter with a speed figure of 105; and a close 4th against the pace grain in the 2011 Blue Grass. The question about Newsdad is whether he is back to his prime form after two long layoffs since his win in the Fayette. But the 113 figure that he earned in the Pan American is amongst his best career numbers. We take encouragement that trainer Bill Mott sees fit to bring him back for his third race in 49 days after that last extended break - Mott has a trainer rating of 94 for horses running third time off the layoff. And we like the half-mile breeze five days before the race, just as he worked prior to the Pan American. With the hope that the competitive look of the race will ensure that he goes off at least at his morning line, Newsdad is the selection.
Looking at some of the others:
We've been waiting for Frac Daddy (#9, 8-1) to return to this surface after he won over it in his only race on synthetic. Yes, he defeated far weaker in that race last fall. But he absolutely toyed with the competition, earning a figure of 105. Shadowed 4 w, drew even leaving 2nd turn, cleared, geared down reads our long chart comment; get the picture? Cleared, in hand late, the short comment shown by the competition (assuming they're still showing as many as the last three running lines) doesn't quite convey the full picture. Anyway, suffice to say that we think that trainer Ken McPeek had this race in mind when he prepped Frac Daddy off a 105-day layoff on dirt at Sam Houston last month.
Nikki's Sandcastle (#3, 6-1) has also demonstrated an affinity for this track. He was second behind the top choice in the 2012 Fayette, and won the race last year. Forget his last, on dirt; and he faced some tough pace scenarios in his prior two, on grass.
With the second best late pace figure in the field, this honest seven-year old should be on the scene late.
Stealcase (#2, 10-1) overcame a poor start, a wide trip, and a slow pace to win a G3 stakes on the Poly at Woodbine last fall, with a good speed figure of 106.
He prepped for this with a nice dirt win, and trainer Mark Casse has a rating of 97 with horses going from dirt to synthetic.
We're not quite sure what to make of Winning Cause (#6, 6-1). He's yet another one who surely likes the track, with a lifetime record of 5-3-1-0 over it, including a second to Nikki's Sandcastle in the Fayette. He earned a career best figure in his last, on grass, but that was on Sunday, and off a 148 day layoff. Not like Pletcher to run a horse back six days later. Is he just ready and rarin' to go? Or is it a case of owner interference? Your guess is as good as ours. Perhaps the tote board will provide a clue.
The Toddster also sends out Red Rifle (#7, 5-1), who owns a win in his only synthetic race (over this track), and set a track record in the aforementioned race at Sam Houston with the help of the slow pace he was able to set over a track rated as strongly favoring speed. We don't see that pace scenario playing out here.
Norumbega (#1, 4-1) has raced mostly on dirt, but owns a win in his only try over the Keeneland Poly, with a solid speed figure of 107. That, however, was a race in which he benefited from being allowed to set a slow pace, and Pace Projector does not show him even in the front tier in this spot. At that morning line, we will take a stand against.
The play: Newsdad to win. Tough to separate the others, but let's try exactas over and under Frac Daddy, Nikki's Sandcastle, and Stealcase.
The G2 Distaff Handicap
Aqueduct, Race 8
By Jason Perlmutter
Let's play #4 Munnings Sister (4-1 ML) to capture the Grade 2 Distaff this Saturday at Aqueduct.
Trained by Barclay Tagg (98 rating at Aqueduct), Munnings Sister has been given plenty of time between her recent starts, which puts her in good position to fire against this lightning-fast field of sprinting older fillies and mares. Munnings Sister has kept excellent company in her recent races. Last out, she made all the running before yielding to monster Judy The Beauty and giving up the place slot in the final stride. It was a better effort than it may appear to be on paper. Her last three speed figures have ranged from 109 to 113, and she has been working bullets for her first start at Aqueduct. Munnings Sister will have to outduel the tough La Verdad, who will set up shop to her inside on the backstretch, but we like this scenario for the daughter of Speightstown, as she can force the issue from off the rail and, we hope, seize the advantage as they turn for home. La Verdad has been razor sharp of late, but she has less time in between races than Munnings Sister, and we expect that to make all the difference.
As for the others, we think #6 Bridgehampton (10-1 ML) offers value. She has run only four times. It is possible they haven't gotten to the bottom of her yet.
#5 Kauai Katie (3-1 ML) faces a very tough field in her first start in some nine months. She will have to be at her best. However, this is a four-time graded stakes winner, and we know better than to disrespect such a talented piece of horseflesh in the hands of such a ubiquitous and skilled trainer.
The wager: #4 Munnings Sister to win. #4 Munnings Sister in exactas up and down with #5 Kauai Katie and #6 Bridgehampton.