By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Believe it or not, when the first stakes races of the second annual Churchill Downs September meet are held this Saturday, the road to the 2015 Kentucky Derby will begin with the running of the $100,000 Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) for two-year-old colts and geldings. Sure, it’s a bit early to be talking about the Derby when the Breeders’ Cup has not yet been run, but the Saturday card at Churchill—which features three other stakes races aside from the Iroquois—is much too good to overlook. So let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the card!
Iroquois Stakes (gr. III)
Nine horses have turned out for this 8.5-furlong race, which will offer a total of seventeen Kentucky Derby qualifications points to the top four finishers.
The favorite is likely to be Mr. Z, who broke his maiden in gritty fashion at Churchill Downs before going on to finish second in both the Sanford Stakes (gr. III) and Saratoga Special (gr. II) at Saratoga. Part of what makes Mr. Z such a talented colt is his versatility. He flashed terrific early speed when breaking his maiden, but came from several lengths off the lead in both of his Saratoga stakes runs. This will be his first start beyond 6 ½ furlongs, which is obviously a question mark, but being by Malibu Moon out of a Storm Cat mare, it shouldn’t be a big concern.
Still, since Mr. Z is likely to attract much of the wagering attention, and since none of these lightly-raced colts are proven going 8.5 furlongs on dirt, it might be wise to look for a horse offering better value. I believe that horse is Bold Conquest.
After finishing second in his debut at Saratoga behind the talented Blame Jim, Bold Conquest returned in a 6 ½-furlong maiden race at Saratoga and triumphed in very impressive fashion. Hung wide around the turn while dueling for command, Bold Conquest demonstrated remarkable determination in the homestretch to out-duel Todd Pletcher’s Money Charger by a head. All the more impressive is that Bold Conquest is a son of Curlin out of a Distorted Humor mare, meaning that he should only improve with additional time and distance. For those reasons, I believe he is capable of upsetting Mr. Z on Saturday.
Other colts that I will consider using in the exotics are Danny Boy and Holy Frazier, as both are proven at a mile on turf, and should have little trouble negotiating another sixteenth of a mile. I am particularly intrigued by Danny Boy, who is bred for success on the dirt and is trained by Dale Romans.
Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III)
The Ack Ack lost a great deal of its expected luster when Donn Handicap (gr. I) winner Lea was forced to miss the race with a fever, but the five colts and geldings that have entered are all proven stakes winners, and the race should prove to be a very entertaining one.
Certainly the most well-known horse in the race is Flashback, one of the early favorites for the 2013 Kentucky Derby after winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) in impressive fashion. However, he went to the sidelines following a runner-up effort in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and while he returned in late 2013 to finish second in the Damascus Stakes and fourth in the Malibu (gr. I), the Bob Baffert-trained colt went to the sidelines again shortly thereafter. The Ack Ack will mark Flashback’s first start since the Malibu, and also his first start under the care of trainer Wayne Catalano. He has shown a steady stream of workouts in preparation for his return, but will he be fit enough to handle the four rivals he will face in the Ack Ack?
Believe it or not, I think Flashback could have trouble cracking the exacta, or even the top three—that’s how capable his rivals are. First and foremost among them is Bradester, most recently runner-up to Valid in the grade II Monmouth Cup Stakes (for which he earned a very impressive 108 Beyer speed figure!) He also finished second to Itsmyluckyday in the Salvator Mile Stakes (gr. III), which demonstrates the good company he has been keeping. In the Ack Ack, he’s drawn post five, which should enable him to work out a terrific stalking trip just behind Right to Vote. Under the circumstances, I believe that Bradester is the horse to beat.
But speaking of Right to Vote, he has finished a close second after setting the pace in each of his last two starts, including a neck defeat in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) to fellow Ack Ack starter Carve. But both of those starts came at nine furlongs, and the cutback to a one-turn mile should help his chances a great deal. For me, the race is a tossup between Bradester and Right to Vote, and since the latter is unlikely to be anything better than the fourth choice in the wagering, I’ll take a shot with Right to Vote, and hope that Bradester’s 1-for-5 record at Churchill means that he may not take to the track as well as he has taken to Monmouth.
Who do you like this weekend?