By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Sometimes, handicapping a horse race can be as much about the horses whose chances you don’t like as it is about the horses whose chances you do like. For me, the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga is such a race.
A field of seven has turned out for this nine-furlong Travers prep race, led by Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Tonalist. The son of Tapit has been improving steadily all year, and his combination of tactical speed and staying power makes him a contender regardless of pace scenario. He has turned in a quartet of five-furlong workouts since the Belmont, and all indications are that he is maintaining his form well, and perhaps even getting better. Obviously, he has to be considered the horse to beat.
His primary challengers, based on what they have accomplished thus far, are Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong, Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) winner Kid Cruz, and Kentucky Derby (gr. I) runner-up Commanding Curve. But previous accomplishments aside, do they have what it takes to challenge Tonalist on Saturday?
We’ll start with Commanding Curve. Yes, he was eye-catching in rallying down the Churchill Downs homestretch to secure second place in the Derby behind California Chrome. But his late run was aided greatly by the fact that the last half-mile of the Derby was run in a slow :51.86 seconds. Next time out, in the Belmont Stakes, Commanding Curve finished a badly-beaten ninth behind Tonalist. Thus far, his career has been eerily similar to that of his stablemate Golden Soul, runner-up in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. In seven starts since then, Golden Soul has never finished better than fifth in stakes company, and has not won a single race.
Keeping in mind that his runner-up effort in the Derby is really the only major bright spot on Commanding Curve’s record, I’ll be siding against him in the Jim Dandy, even though from a fan perspective, I would love to see him run well.
The chances of Kid Cruz are more difficult to interpret. The colt has won four of his last five starts—all stakes—with impressive late rallies, but in his lone start against truly top-notch competition, he finished eighth by sixteen lengths in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). One can also make a case that Kid Cruz has a special fondness for the main track at Belmont (with its sweeping turns and sandy surface), for it is at Belmont that his two most impressive performances have been achieved. I wouldn’t be comfortable tossing him entirely from consideration, but given the question marks regarding caliber of competition and surface switch, I will be leaning against him on Saturday.
Wicked Strong, on the other hand, looks like a major contender to upset Tonalist. Three starts back, he stamped himself as a high-caliber colt with a late-running victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He followed up that effort with a pair of troubled fourth-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby (in which he stumbled at the start, got hung wide on the first turn, and ran into the traffic in the homestretch) and the Belmont Stakes (in which he endured very wide trip around the final turn and was compromised by a moderate pace.) Since the Belmont, he has recorded a trio of solid workouts—including two at six furlongs—and will be adding blinkers for the Jim Dandy in an effort to keep him more focused.
Rounding out the list of entrants are Ulanbator (a distant third behind Kid Cruz in the Dwyer), Legend (a distant runner-up to Kid Cruz in the Easy Goer Stakes), and Cousin Stephen (narrow winner of a one-mile allowance race at Parx Racing.) All three would have to improve substantially to contend in this spot, although I do like the chances of Legend well enough to consider him as a contender for the third spot.
In essence, my selections—as uncreative as they may be!—are Tonalist on top of Wicked Strong in a trifecta, with Legend and Kid Cruz (preference for the former) sharing the third spot in a trifecta. If there was a bit more early pace, I would consider choosing Wicked Strong on top over Tonalist, but with Tonalist likely to secure a terrific stalking trip behind Legend and/or Cousin Stephen, I find it difficult to envision a scenario where Tonalist does not win this race.
Who do you like in the Jim Dandy?
With such a spectacular week of racing coming up, I hope you’ll join me frequently during the next seven days as I blog about the best races from around the world! On Saturday evening, after the Jim Dandy, I will be posting my analysis of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), in which Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Untapable will take on the colts for the first time. Then, on Monday evening, I’ll be shifting my focus to England to analyze the group I Sussex Stakes at "Glorious Goodwood!" It’s a week of racing you definitely won’t want to miss!