By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
With the Triple Crown having wrapped up last Saturday, it can be easy for racing fans to enter a post-Triple Crown depression. After all, it will be a full six months before next year’s Triple Crown trail really begins!
Fortunately, there is plenty of action scheduled for this coming Saturday, including a terrific card at Churchill Downs that features four graded stakes. Even though memories of the Belmont Stakes are still fresh in our minds, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup is ready to begin! So let’s take a quick look at the Churchill card and see who’s running…
Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I)
If this race had been run back in February or March, last year’s champion three-year-old colt Will Take Charge would have been heavily favored to win. Coming off of an exceptional 2013 campaign, which ended with a narrow victory in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, Will Take Charge began 2014 with a pair of tremendous runner-up efforts in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), earning Beyer speed figures that fairly tower over those of his Stephen Foster rivals.
But in his last two starts, Will Take Charge hasn’t been as sharp. In the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) on April 12th, he had to fight hard to edge Revolutionary by three-quarters of a length, and his Beyer speed figure dropped noticeably. Perhaps even more worrisome was the fact that he drifted a great deal throughout the homestretch, a trait he had not demonstrated in the past.
Three weeks later, Will Take Charge was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, and proceeded to turn in his first poor showing in nearly a year. The colt was farther back than usual earlier on and never mustered a rally thereafter, finishing sixth by 10 ¼ lengths in a disappointing performance.
So the question is, which version of Will Take Charge will show up in the Stephen Foster? Will the six weeks of rest since the Alysheba prove sufficient to bring him back to top form?
My guess is yes. Will Take Charge has recorded four solid workouts since the Alysheba, including a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 1/5 on June 6th. And when you race as frequently as Will Take Charge, you’re bound to turn in a sub-par effort once in a while. So considering that Will Take Charge isn’t even the favorite on the morning line, and that his best effort would easily win this race, I’m willing to take a shot and hope that he returns to form on Saturday.
If you don’t like the chances of Will Take Charge, a logical candidate for the upset is Departing, winner of the Illinois Derby (gr. III), West Virginia Derby (gr. II), and Super Derby (gr. II) last year. Following a seven-month break during the winter, Departing returned on April 30th to win a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs by almost two lengths, and—interestingly—flashed enough speed to be just off the lead after six furlongs in 1:09.88 seconds. That was considerably more early speed than Departing had ever flashed before, and may be a sign that he has improved considerably as a four-year-old.
Selection: Will Take Charge
Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III)
This seven-horse field is led by two-time graded stakes winner Tapiture, who most recently finished fifteenth in the Kentucky Derby. He looms as the horse to beat in this spot, but coming off of two so-so performances—and as the 9-5 favorite on the morning line—he might be worth trying to beat.
In my opinion, the other morning line favorites appear vulnerable as well. Rise Up (3-1) is unbeaten at bullring racetracks, but has been very disappointing each time he has stepped up into graded stakes company at a major one-mile racetrack. Almost Famous is 3-for-4 at Churchill Downs, but has lost every start in which he hasn’t secured a clear early lead. The presence of Tapiture, Rise Up, and The Admiral makes securing such a lead unlikely.
One horse that has caught my eye is Conquest Titan, a 10-1 shot on the morning line. Last November at Churchill Downs, Conquest Titan unleashed a breathtaking burst of acceleration to win a one-mile allowance race by 1 ¾ lengths over future stakes winner General a Rod, and—in doing so—ran his final half-mile in approximately :47 3/5 seconds. I am a bit concerned that he may be better around one turn rather than two, as all of his best efforts have come in one-turn races, but given the question marks surrounding the favorites, I believe that Conquest Titan has as good a chance as any.
Selection: Conquest Titan
There are many other top-notch races being run this Saturday, including a pair of grade Is at Santa Anita Park. I will be handicapping all of these and others in the comments section of this post, and I would love to hear who you like this weekend!