By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman
The last Saturday in March is a day that I mark on my calendar far in advance each year. Without question, it is one of the best days of racing every year, and 2015 promises to be no exception. Across the world in Dubai, a nine-race program worth $30 million will be highlighted by the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). Back in the United States, a terrific afternoon of racing will feature a dozen graded stakes races, including the $1,000,000 Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) and the $750,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II), a pair of Kentucky Derby prep races that will offer a massive 100 Derby qualification points to their winners. It promises to be an unforgettable day of racing—let’s take a look at who’s running!
Florida Derby (gr. I)
||2nd Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||Irad Ortiz, Jr.
||6th Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
||6th Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
||1st (via DQ) Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||3rd Islamorada Handicap (VIDEO)|
||My Point Exactly
||1st Sunday Silence Stakes (VIDEO)|
||1st Islamorada Handicap (VIDEO)|
||4th Black Gold Stakes (VIDEO)|
||Richard Violette, Jr.
||2nd (DQ’d from 1st) Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
On paper, the Florida Derby looks like a three-horse race between Upstart, Itsaknockout, and Materiality. The first two colts ran 1-2 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), and Materiality posted an eye-catching 104 Beyer speed figure while winning the nine-furlong Islamorada Handicap at Gulfstream three weeks ago. All three possess excellent tactical speed, competitive speed figures, and good form at Gulfstream Park. Barring the unforeseen, they should have a great chance to sweep the trifecta.
But whenever a race looks this simple on paper, I can’t help but think back to the 2012 Florida Derby, a race that looked like a virtual match race between Fountain of Youth winner Union Rags and Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) winner El Padrino. But there were six other horses in the race, and in the end, 8-1 shot Take Charge Indy and 31-1 shot Reveron ran 1-2 all the way around the track while Union Rags and El Padrino never seriously challenged and wound up third and fourth.
Keeping this in mind, I’m going to try and beat Upstart for the top spot. There’s no doubt that he deserves great respect in this race—he’s never finished worse than third in six starts, has placed in a couple of grade Is, and crossed the wire first by impressive margins in the Holy Bull (gr. II) and Fountain of Youth. He’s also trained well in preparation for this race, most recently breezing five furlongs in :59 2/5 at Palm Meadows on March 21st.
But there are a few concerns to keep in mind. For one, Upstart has drawn post nine with a short run to the first turn, which means that he is bound to lose some ground early on. Additionally, I’m still not sure what to make of his effort in the Fountain of Youth, in which the track was playing slow and Upstart staggered and drifted down the homestretch while running the final five-sixteenths in :34.63, or an average of :06.93 per sixteenth. Furthermore, with the Kentucky Derby being the main goal, I doubt that Upstart is ready for an absolute peak effort today, which could leave him vulnerable to an upset. I won’t be surprised at all if he wins, but I do think he’s worth trying to beat at a short price.
I will also take a stand against Itsaknockout. True, he had his momentum checked in the homestretch of the Fountain of Youth, and he might have finished much closer to Upstart with a clear run. But having drawn post four, with a short run to the first turn and speedy colts drawn directly to his inside and outside, I have the feeling that Itsaknockout is going to find himself in an awkward position between horses early on. This possibility, along with my feeling that he might not relish nine furlongs, makes me think that he could be vulnerable on Saturday as well.
So which colts do I like? Well, for one, I like Materiality. I was very impressed his 5 ¾-length victory in the Islamorada Handicap, especially given that it was just his second start, and his first around two turns. The fact that he’s already proven at nine furlongs is a plus, and having drawn post seven, he should be able to save more ground than Upstart while settling into a nice tracking position early on. I think he’s sitting on another strong effort this Saturday, and a repeat of his Islamorada performance should be enough to pull off the upset.
I also like Ami’s Flatter quite a bit, as he fired off a very nice effort last time out to finish second in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) after making a strong middle move. The biggest concern is that he has drawn the rail, and the rail has not been the place to be at Gulfstream Park in recent days. Still, if the track is playing fairly on Saturday, I can envision him saving ground throughout and rallying to secure a spot in the trifecta.
Additionally, if you would like to try a huge longshot, Indianaughty could be one to consider while making his debut on dirt. He was never a threat last time out in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), but won a turf allowance race two starts back and is bred for dirt. If he can get away with setting or tracking a moderate pace, he might be able to hang around for a piece of the purse.
Louisiana Derby (gr. II)
||2nd Islamorada Handicap (VIDEO)|
||D. Wayne Lukas
||3rd Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)|
||Brian Hernandez, Jr.
||2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
||1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
||A Day in Paradise
||1st Texas Heritage Stakes (VIDEO)|
||2nd Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||3rd Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||St. Joe Bay
||4th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
International Star has stamped himself as a deserving favorite after winning the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and LeComte Stakes (gr. III) with impressive late rallies, but like Upstart, I think International Star can be beaten on Saturday. In both the Risen Star and the LeComte, International Star was able to save ground while rating behind fast early paces, then rally up the rail in the homestretch to win. He may very well work out a similar trip on Saturday—there’s plenty of early speed in the Louisiana Derby, so the pace should be quick again—but having drawn gate nine, jockey Miguel Mena will have to make all the right decisions to help International Star save ground, and in terms of Beyer speed figures, International Star doesn’t have much of an edge over his rivals.
With that in mind, my choice to win is War Story, who finished second to International Star in both the Risen Star and the LeComte. On both occasions, War Story broke slowly and rallied wide while International Star saved ground, yet in the Risen Star, War Story lost by only a length in an impressive performance. He has since posted three solid workouts at Fair Grounds, most recently breezing a bullet five furlongs in :58 4/5, and trainer Tom Amoss has been working at the starting gate with War Story to try and get his colt off to a better start on Saturday. Additionally, having drawn post five with a speedy quartet inside of him, it could be War Story that saves ground this time, and with a bit of luck, I think he can turn the tables on International Star.
Mr. Z definitely deserves respect after placing in four consecutive graded stakes races, including a strong third-place finish in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) last time out, a race in which Mr. Z set a fast pace before losing by just three-quarters of a length to a pair of stretch-runners. The blinkers will be removed today in an effort to help Mr. Z run a more professional race—he has been a bit unpredictable while drifting out in his last three starts—but a bigger concern might be the potential pace scenario of the Louisiana Derby. Mr. Z likes to run on or near the lead, and with four or five other colts likely to show early speed as well, the pace could be hot and favorable toward stretch-runners like War Story and International Star. I also think that nine furlongs might be a bit beyond Mr. Z’s ideal distance, and it’s hard to overlook the fact that he has lost his last nine starts. He is absolutely a contender to hit the board, but I think one or two others will beat him to the wire on Saturday.
Dubai World Cup (UAE-I)
||Saeed bin Suroor
||2nd Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-I) (VIDEO)|
||1st Kawasaki Kinen|
||Saeed bin Suroor
||1st Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-I) (VIDEO)|
||4th Cox Plate (AUS-I)|
||2nd Donn Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||6th Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||Salem bin Ghadayer
||9th Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-I) (VIDEO)|
||5th Arima Kinen (Jpn-I) (VIDEO)|
||2nd San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
On paper, it’s hard to look past the U.S.-based pair of California Chrome and Lea, who are thoroughly proven at the grade I level on dirt and should relish the new dirt track at Meydan. According to reports, both have handled the trip to Dubai well and have been training strongly at Meydan, so they should have every chance to bring their best races on Saturday. Additionally, both possess a great deal of tactical speed, which is especially important since the Meydan dirt has been favoring front-runners since its installation. I feel confident that both will run well in this race, but deciding which one has the better chance of winning is much harder.
After giving the matter a great deal of thought, I’m going to side with Lea as my official selection. In the Donn Handicap (gr. I) last time out, Lea was boxed in toward the rail early on before shifting out in the homestretch and rallying to fall just short of Constitution, a talented colt with an affinity for Gulfstream that took advantage of a speed-favoring track. Having drawn post five, Lea should be able to save more ground than California Chrome while racing near the front, and I think the tiring nature of the Meydan dirt track could help Lea’s chances. Additionally, both his trainer and his jockey have won the Dubai World Cup in previous years, which is a positive.
As for the others, African Story and Prince Bishop ran 1-2 in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3—the local prep for the Dubai World Cup—but both looked a bit uncomfortable over the track, particularly Prince Bishop. He seemed to greatly dislike getting dirt kicked in his face, and had to be urged hard heading into the first turn just to avoid dropping too far back. When in the clear, he did put in a strong rally to just miss catching African Story, but having drawn post one for the Dubai World Cup, he’s going to have to be used hard early to avoid getting behind horses at the start, and that could leave him leg-weary in the homestretch.
If you would like to try and beat the locals for the exotics, you might want to take a look at the Japanese pair of Epiphaneia and Hokko Tarumae. Both have won multiple group I winners in their native country, and the latter is even proven on dirt, having spent the majority of his career competing in Japan’s best dirt races. On class, Epiphaneia probably has the edge, but he is also unproven on dirt. With that in mind, Hokko Tarumae—who has drawn very well in post two—may be the better play, and he should offer better odds as well.
And although he may be overlooked a bit, I think Candy Boy has the talent to be in the mix as well. Unraced since a sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Candy Boy will be making his debut for trainer Doug Watson, and while beating the favorites could be a major challenge, we do know that he likes dirt, and I wouldn’t count him out of getting involved for the exotics at a solid price.
For those who would like to watch and handicap the races in Dubai, here are links to the livestream and past performances for all of the races.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like on Saturday?
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. Don't forget that from March 23rd to March 27th, you can add three additional horses to your "Road to the Kentucky Derby" contest stable!
Enjoy the racing!