By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The entries for the second "Stars of Tomorrow" card at the 2015 Churchill Downs fall meet were released earlier today, and while the twelve-race card features the traditional lineup of intriguing maiden and allowance races for two-year-olds, by far the highlight of the day will be the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II). The 8.5-furlong race serves as an early prep for the Kentucky Derby, offering a total of 17 qualification points to the top four finishers, and this year's renewal of the race has drawn an extremely deep and competitive field of fourteen.
Among the entries is a colt that I'm very, very excited about, that being Gun Runner. A son of Candy Ride trained by Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner broke his maiden going a mile at Churchill in impressive fashion, running his final quarter-mile in a sharp :24 flat to overcome a three-wide trip and prevail by just under a length. A month later, he was even more impressive in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Keeneland, settling in third along the rail before splitting horses professionally at the top of the stretch and drawing off to win by two lengths. In terms of Beyer speed figures, he hasn't been all that fast—he's earned figures of 72 and 84 so far—but of all the two-year-olds that I've seen this year, none have impressed me as much as Gun Runner from a visual perspective. With five workouts under his belt in preparation for this race, I think we're going to see Gun Runner take a big step forward on Saturday to stamp himself as a major player on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Another colt that I'm looking forward to seeing is Airoforce, who won the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland before finishing second by a neck in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I). This Mark Casse-trained runner has stamped himself as clearly the best two-year-old in the U.S. on turf, but the Kentucky Jockey Club will mark his debut on dirt. Can he handle the switch in surfaces? Being by Colonel John out of a Cuvee mare suggests that he can, and he has trained very well on dirt at Churchill Downs. Additionally, Airoforce will wear blinkers on Saturday, a switch that Casse has stated is to try and get Airforce to run as well as he's been training in the mornings. If Airforce's performances to date aren't as good as Casse believes they can be, that certainly says a lot about Airoforce's talent!
Mo Tom and Tom's Ready will draw support after finishing 1-2 in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill earlier this month, but both will be making their debuts around two turns. Additionally, from a Beyer perspective, both Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready will need to take a step forward to contend for victory, although that certainly isn't impossible. On that note, it’s interesting to see that the horse with the best Beyer speed figure is the California shipper Mor Spirit, who brought his record to a perfect 2-for-2 with an impressive 4 1/4-length win in a one-mile Santa Anita maiden race on October 23rd. Trained by Bob Baffert, Mor Spirit brings Beyers of 83 and 92 into the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but hasn't been facing the toughest company and will be taking a big step up in class. Can he beat some of the best two-year-olds in Kentucky while shipping across the country?
Then there's Annual Report, who parlayed a Parx maiden win into an impressive stretch-running victory in the six-furlong Futurity Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont. He's obviously got talent, but he took advantage of a fast pace in the Futurity, and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes will mark his first start beyond six furlongs. How will he handle the longer distance and expected slower pace?
In handicapping the race, my feeling is to lean toward Airoforce and Gun Runner as the most probable winners while playing against Mor Spirit and Annual Report, who will likely be well-bet despite having big questions to answer. For the exotics, I’ll strongly consider Rated R Superstar, who placed second in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) and third in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I); Uncle Jerry, who finished second to Gun Runner in the latter’s allowance win at Keeneland; and Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, since they are proven at Churchill and in stakes company. Of those two, I slightly prefer, Tom’s Ready, who ran a more even race from a pace perspective in the Street Sense and might be better-suited to two turns than Mo Tom, whose explosive rally from the back of the pack and subsequent ground loss in the final furlong suggests, along with his pedigree, that he might be better-suited to one-turn races.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes?
To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.