The Road to the Derby Begins

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

Happy New Year, everyone! There is definitely a bit of sadness in bidding farewell to 2014, as it was a wonderful year with some of the very best racing in recent memory, but the good news is that 2015 promises to be just as good, or maybe even better!

One of the reasons that 2015 is shaping up to be such a special year is because this year’s crop of three-year-olds appear to be a very promising group. And what better way to kick off the new year than by seeing some of these promising colts in action on Saturday in the $200,000 Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct?

The one-mile and seventy-yard race, which offers a total of seventeen Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top four finishers, has attracted a field of nine horses, with the most accomplished by far being El Kabeir. After stamping himself as a colt to watch this summer with a 10 ¾-length maiden victory at Saratoga (click link for replay), the son of Scat Daddy disappointed when fourth in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and a distant second in the Nashua Stakes (gr. II), but wet track conditions may have played a role in his sub-par efforts. Returning to a fast track in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, El Kabeir responded with a gate-to-wire victory over the talented graded stakes winner Imperia.

But while El Kabeir may be the most accomplished runner in the Jerome, there are a couple of concerns. First off, I thought his effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club was an exhausting one, as he was all-out down the homestretch to just hang on by a head. Can he come back one month later and repeat that performance? To do so, he will have to overcome drawing the far outside post position, which could cause him to get hung wide on the turns if he isn’t quick out of the starting gate. As the likely favorite, I’m going to take a stand against him.

One colt I find rather intriguing is Ostrolenka. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the colt has demonstrated some striking inconsistency in his four starts thus far. After finishing seventh sprinting six furlongs in his debut at Saratoga, beaten more than thirteen lengths, he stretched out to a mile at Belmont Park and promptly won by 14 ½ lengths. He backed up that effort with an easy win in the one-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes at Belmont, and was then entered in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct, which would mark his first start against open company. Sent off at 9-2, Ostrolenka found himself in tight quarters shortly after the break, then was forced to negotiate the first turn extremely wide while trying to press the pace. After this disastrous start, Ostrolenka threw in the towel on the final turn, retreating to finish last while more than thirty lengths behind the winner.

So the question to ponder is this: which Ostrolenka will show up this Saturday? That’s a complex question that can be viewed many different ways, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt under the circumstances. There’s plenty to like about his chances—he has earned good speed figures, he is trained by Todd Pletcher, and a bad trip explains at least in part why he ran so poorly last time out. If he goes off at 4-1 or so, I think that’s solid value on a promising colt. I’ll take him as my selection.

Nasa is bound to attract some wagering attention off his solid victory in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Parx last time out, but that effort came over a sloppy, sealed track, and time will tell if he can replicate it over a dryer racing surface. Furthermore, the Jerome will mark his first start beyond seven furlongs, and while his breeding suggests that he can stretch out, it is still a bit of a question mark. Nasa can definitely be in the mix for the exotics, but I’ll be going against him for the top spot.

For those that are interested in playing the superfecta, there are plenty of candidates to round out the bottom two slots, with the ones I like best being Mini Cosmo, a Graham Motion-trained colt that broke his maiden going a mile at Parx; Royal Burgh, a Pletcher runner that won his debut going 8.5-furlongs at Keeneland before running twelfth in the Remsen; and General Bellamy, a well-bred colt from the barn of Bill Mott that won a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct.

I would love to discuss some of the other starters in the Jerome, and will gladly do so in the comments section of this post if anyone would like to hear my thoughts, but for the moment, let’s turn our attention to some of the Saturday stakes races at Gulfstream Park. On what promises to be a very exciting day of racing, there are three intriguing stakes races for three-year-old colts on the agenda, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a major Derby contender or two emerge from these races. Let’s take a quick look at each race…

$100,000 Dania Beach Stakes (gr. III)

This 7.5-furlong turf race has drawn a trio of "Kittens" from the stable of Ken and Sarah Ramsey—Wayward Kitten, Smokem Kitten, and Crown the Kitten. Of those three, I will be particularly interested to see how Smokem Kitten performs, as I was very impressed by his romping maiden victory at Gulfstream last month, in which he overcame a wide draw to win with ease. Of the other entrants, Chad Brown’s Night Prowler, narrowly beaten in the one-mile Pulpit Stakes last time out, appears most likely to upset the Kittens.

$100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes

Ready for Rye looks like the colt to beat in this six-furlong dash, for in his two starts thus far, he finished a good second to future grade I winner Carpe Diem in a maiden race at Saratoga, then won a six-furlong maiden race at Belmont by seven lengths in 1:09.92 seconds. Del Mar allowance winner Tizcano ships in from California for trainer Peter Miller and looms as one of the main challengers, along with Toasting Master, a Dale Romans colt that flashed blazing speed when winning a six-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs.

$100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes

Last year, when this one-mile race was known as the Gulfstream Park Derby, a colt named General a Rod won by a head to kick off a campaign that saw him place in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Now, from the same connections, comes a new colt named—get this!—A. Rod Again. After finishing sixth in his debut sprinting at Keeneland, the son of Awesome Again stretched out to 8.5 furlongs and won a maiden special weight at Churchill Downs by 4 ½ lengths. It will be interesting to see if he can continue his progression and emulate his famed stablemate in becoming a major Derby contender.

There are plenty of other interesting colts entered in this race as well. Among the ones I’m looking forward to seeing are Mawthooq, a Kiaran McLaughlin colt that broke his maiden by 10 ½ lengths running a mile at Aqueduct; Bluegrass Singer, who dominated a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on December 17th (he is cross-entered in the Spectacular Bid); and Honest, a son of Blame that showed enough early maturity and speed to win a 5.5-furlong maiden special weight at Monmouth back in September. This will be his first start since then, and while he might be short off the layoff, he should also appreciate the extra distance and could be a colt to watch this winter.

Again, I will be happy to discuss any other horse—and indeed, any other race!—in the comments section of this post. The start of another terrific year has arrived—let the road to the Kentucky Derby begin!

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