By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Over the weekend, racing fans were treated to a trio of major Kentucky Derby prep races, all of which yielded intriguing results and major changes to the Kentucky Derby picture. Muddling the results were track conditions ranging from fast to slow and sloppy, as well as unpredictable pace scenarios and a controversial disqualification. There’s a lot to recap, so let’s get started!
We’ll begin with the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Gulfstream Park, a race in which favored Upstart won by 2 ¾ lengths before being disqualified to second for interfering with runner-up Itsaknockout in the homestretch. There has been great debate as to whether Upstart should have been disqualified or not, but having watched the replay multiple times—including the head-on angle—I personally feel that the stewards made the right call. The chain of events in the homestretch was started by Frosted, who drifted out at the top of the stretch and crowded Upstart into Itsaknockout, but all three colts straightened out quickly and the contact between them was minor. However, a few strides later, Upstart began to drift out under left-handed whipping, crossing the path of Itsaknockout and forcing the latter to check and lose momentum. One can make a case that Upstart didn’t cost Itsaknockout a better placing—Itsaknockout did stay on to finish second, and Upstart might have beaten Itsaknockout regardless of the interference—but watching the race live, I thought Itsaknockout had Upstart measured before the incident occurred, and I think he would have made the finish very close if given a clean run.
But leaving the disqualification aside, there are a few other questions to consider regarding this race. First off—what in the world happened to Frosted? After pressuring Bluegrass Singer through what appeared to be fairly moderate fractions, Frosted took command on the far turn without urging, and with Upstart and Itsaknockout struggling to keep up at that point, Frosted appeared poised to win by as many lengths as his rider pleased. But entering the homestretch, Frosted suddenly ran out of gas, and was swallowed up by Upstart and Itsaknockout in a matter of strides. In the end, Frosted couldn’t even save third, getting nabbed at the finish by the late-running Frammento.
So what happened to Frosted? Having taken a couple of days to ponder the subject, I believe the track conditions were at fault. The track was very slow and tiring for the Fountain of Youth; so tiring that the fourth quarter-mile was run in :27.33 and the final sixteenth in :07.30. But by the same token, this suggests that the early fractions were much more tiring than they appear to be at first glance. Fractions of :24.27, :47.87, and 1:11.65 don’t appear to be particularly strenuous on paper, but when considered in context of the way the track was playing, I believe the fractions were actually exhausting—perhaps the equivalent of running the first six furlongs in 1:10 flat on a faster track. Note that when the field passed the five-sixteenths pole, almost every horse was under vigorous urging to continue, which they should not have been if the fractions were truly as moderate as they appear. This would explain why Frosted stopped at the top of the stretch, and why Upstart and Itsaknockout were staggering down the homestretch in the final furlong.
So although my first impression after the race was that I didn’t like the chances of Upstart and Itsaknockout for staying ten furlongs in the Kentucky Derby, I now think that the track conditions were a major factor in the slow time and unimpressive finish. After all, the Fountain of Youth was run at the same distance as the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), a race in which Upstart won decisively—and without any obvious hints of stamina limitations—to stamp himself as one of the early favorites for the Derby.
Having spent a sizable chunk of this blog post recapping the Fountain of Youth, I will be a bit briefer in recapping the other major races of the week. In the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Fair Grounds, I would like to give a ton of credit to International Star and War Story for finishing 1-2, just as they did in the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) last month. Both colts ran excellent races, and notably, they were running fast at the finish—International Star ran the fourth quarter-mile in about :24 2/5 and the final sixteenth in a solid :06.46, while War Story ran nearly as quick while losing by only a length. But just as in the LeComte, I believe International Star and War Story got a very ideal pace setup in the Risen Star, closing into quick early fractions of :23.29 and :47.08 set by dueling leaders Hero of Humor and St. Joe Bay. From this perspective, I think St. Joe Bay ran a terrific race, as he succeeded in disposing of his fellow pace-setter—as well as Tiznow R J and Bluff, who were attempting to track the early pace—and still stayed on well enough in the homestretch to finish fourth, beaten just 2 ¾ lengths by International Star. But what I find most interesting about St. Joe Bay’s solid effort is that in his last two starts—both in California—he couldn’t hold a candle to Calculator and Prospect Park, which I think is further evidence that the California-based three-year-olds are a very strong group this year.
At Oaklawn, the major race of the week was the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO) on Sunday, which had been postponed from last Monday due to bad weather. A field of eleven went to post, with Smarty Jones Stakes winner Far Right rallying up the rail to win his second consecutive Derby prep at Oaklawn. Overall, I really liked his performance, but it’s hard to say how the sloppy track might have affected some of his key rivals, and a pretty solid early pace—coupled with a slow final half-mile—probably aided his late run. The same goes for runner-up The Truth or Else, although I was particularly impressed by the latter’s performance given that he was coming off a three-month layoff and unleashed a spectacular rally on the far turn to reach contention at the top of the stretch. The fact that he flattened out a bit is understandable, but to lose by just three-quarters of a length after that trip suggests that he could be a player in future prep races down the road.
Finishing third in the Southwest was Mr. Z, who has now placed in seven graded stakes races without winning. In my opinion, he ran the best race in the Southwest, setting the early pace and battling on gamely down the homestretch to lose second place by just a nose. But given the number of photo finishes he has lost—and the fact that he hasn’t won a race since breaking his maiden last June—he seems to lack the ability or desire to finish the deal and defeat his opponents in the homestretch. Also, although he didn’t duck out dramatically in the Southwest like he did in the Smarty Jones, he nevertheless drifted out quite a bit down the homestretch, opening the rail for Far Right and carrying The Truth or Else out into the middle of the track. Additionally, he seemed rank in the early going, hauling jockey Corey Nakatani to the lead and refusing to rate behind Hillbilly Royalty. There’s no doubt that Mr. Z has talent, but even with ten starts under his belt, he still seems to be a work-in-progress, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses during the coming months.
And finally, no recap of the weekend would be complete without a mention of Khozan, Todd Pletcher’s promising colt that won a one-mile allowance race (VIDEO) on Sunday at Gulfstream by 12 ¾ lengths without much urging. Unlike in his debut, when he stayed outside throughout and never ran into any kind of trouble, Khozan found himself in between and in behind horses in the early stages of his allowance victory, yet responded to the adversity without hesitation, professionally moving up through a small opening to take command and draw off to win with complete authority. His next start is scheduled to come in the Florida Derby (gr. I), where he will get a major class test while making his debut around two turns.
Now it’s your turn! Which horses impressed you the most over the weekend?
In order to aid in keeping track of all the Kentucky Derby prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Also, here is the link to the complete entries and current standings for our "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing!