Passing Some Time at Belmont and Keeneland

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

As I sit writing this, it is almost exactly one week to the hour that the first of the eagerly awaited Breeders’ Cup races will be run on October 31st. But while part of me (a big part of me!) wants to spend as much time as possible handicapping the pre-entries and speculating on the impact of possible post position draws, another part of me is intrigued by the $200,000 Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) and the $200,000 Hagyard Fayette Stakes (gr. II) that will be run on Saturday at Belmont and Keeneland. In my opinion, there are some very promising longshots in both races, and what better way to kick off Breeders’ Cup week than by hitting a nice-sized trifecta or two?

So without further ado, let’s take a quick look and see who’s running!

Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III)

A field of seven has turned out for this seven-furlong sprint, with River Rocks the morning line favorite at 2-1. I really liked his effort last time out in the one-mile Kelso Handicap (gr. II), as he led the way through strong fractions of :23.55, :45.64, and 1:09.09 before tiring late to finish second behind Vyjack, who got a perfect trip rallying from fourth behind the three early leaders. The cutback in distance to seven furlongs should only aid River Rocks’ chances, and if he stays at his morning line price of 2-1, I think that’s good value.

A couple of longshots that intrigue me are Sage Valley and Joe Tess. The first-mentioned runner won a couple of grade III sprints last year, including the James Marvin Stakes at Saratoga, before heading to the sidelines at the end of the year. He returned to the races on October 3rd to finish second in a six-furlong allowance race at Laurel Park, beaten just a neck in the quick time of 1:09.30. He could improve in his second start off the layoff, and could be in the mix for a top-three finish at around 10-1.

As for Joe Tess, his recent form has been muddled a bit by racing on turf and in route races, but in his last start in a dirt sprint, he finished second in the six-furlong Decathlon Stakes at Monmouth after setting fractions of :21.72 and :44.03. Granted, Monmouth often plays kindly toward speed, but this was still a pretty solid effort, and at 12-1 with Javier Castellano in the saddle, he’s worth a look.

Fayette Stakes (gr. II)

I found this race harder to handicap than the Bold Ruler, due to the fact that the eight horses entered in this nine-furlong race are pretty evenly matched. However, I am of the opinion that Long River—who finished an impressive third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) last time out—is unlikely to replicate that effort at Churchill Downs, and since he’s a 3-1 shot on the morning line, that’s as good a place as any to start in the quest for value!

The morning line favorite at 5-2 is Departing, although it wouldn’t surprise me to see him go off at slightly lower than that. With a few exceptions, he’s been very consistent throughout his career, winning seven of his thirteen lifetime starts and placing in three others. Last time out, he ran well against Breeders’ Cup Classic-bound Cigar Street in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, and three starts back, he finished just a neck behind Will Take Charge when third in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), which gives one an idea of the company Departing has been keeping. He must be considered the horse to beat, but it’s worth noting that he tends to be slowing down a great deal at the end of his nine-furlong races—he ran the final furlong of the Homecoming Classic in about :13 1/5; the final furlong of the Whitney in about :13 flat; the final furlong of the Oklahoma Derby in about :13 2/5; the final furlong of the Super Derby in about :13 flat; the final furlong of the West Virginia Derby in about :13 3/5…

Keeping this in mind, I’m going to take a shot at beating Departing in the Fayette. But with whom?

As readers of this blog may remember, I supported Stephanoatsee in both the Woodward Stakes (gr. I)—where he finished fifth while rallying over a speed-favoring track—and in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he was fifth across the wire again, but in a less impressive performance. I still believe that Stephanoatsee has the talent to win a graded stakes race someday, but the terrific odds he offered in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup are gone—he’s actually the 3-1 co-second choice on the Fayette morning line. Can he win this race? I think so. But at 3-1, I’m afraid I won’t be backing him this time.

Actually, the horse I like best in the Fayette is Pick of the Litter. I loved his effort four starts back in a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs, in which he overcame a tough trip and unfavorable pace setup to finish second. I also really liked his fourth-place finish next time out in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (gr. II), in which he was attempting to rally over a very speed-favoring track. When things finally went his way in a nine-furlong allowance race at Saratoga, Pick of the Litter responded with a solid half-length victory over the above-mentioned Cigar Street. Most recently, Pick of the Litter finished fourth in the Homecoming Classic, albeit just three-quarters of a length behind Departing. In general, Pick of the Litter strikes me as a colt that is improving with maturity (not surprising since he’s by Kitten’s Joy), and while he may not be the most consistent runner in the race, his Beyer speed figures match up well with those of his rivals. If he stays near his morning line price of 6-1, I think that’s more than fair value.

I would also like to take a moment to mention Mister Marti Gras, a veteran of forty-one starts that is 10-1 on the morning line. He doesn’t race on dirt very often, but some of his very best races and speed figures have come on that surface, and it’s a rare day when he’s not in the mix at the finish. I think he’s a very logical candidate to round out the trifecta or superfecta at a solid price.

Who do you like this weekend?

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