A Longshot in the Vanderbilt Handicap

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Although opening weekend at Saratoga was excellent, the racing action really heats up this Saturday, with four graded stakes races on the agenda. Two of the most intriguing from a handicapping perspective are the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I) for older sprinters and the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) for three-year-olds. The Vanderbilt in particular looks like a race where lots of value could be found, so let's start handicapping!

Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I)

Although it's commonplace to consider all races shorter than a mile "sprints," there's actually a lot of difference between sprints of various differences. Races at six furlongs and seven furlongs might appear to be pretty similar at first glance, but to win a grade I race at six furlongs, a horse needs to be fast--very fast. They need the speed to keep up even if the pace is blazing, and they need to have enough stamina to keep going in the challenging final furlong.

The Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap is held at six furlongs, and in recent years, the pace fractions and final times have been very quick. No front-runner has prevailed since Sean Avery in 2011, but neither have deep closers enjoyed success--only one winner in the last fifteen years has rallied from farther than three lengths back, and that one winner came from just 3 ½ lengths behind.

For these reasons, I'm tempted to play against morning line favorite Anchor Down, who enters off a runner-up effort in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I). Anchor Down has enjoyed his best success going a mile, and I don't think he has the sprint speed necessary to win a top race at six furlongs. In addition, he has drawn the rail and might need to be sent hard to secure good early position, which could tire him out for the run down the homestretch.

A much truer six-furlong sprinter is Delta Bluesman, who has crossed the wire first in his last four races, all of them at six furlongs. Last time out, he survived a hard duel for the lead in the Smile Sprint Handicap (gr. II) at Gulfstream, posting fractions of :21.70 and :43.81 before kicking clear to win by 3 ¾ lengths. Of course, Gulfstream does have a tendency to favor speed, which probably helped Delta Bluesman's chances, but the point remains the same--this six-year-old gelding has brilliant early speed and can carry it six furlongs, a huge asset in a race like the Vanderbilt.

Delta Bluesman has two stablemates entered in the Vanderbilt, including Catalina Red, who won the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II) before being outsprinted when fourth in the six-furlong True North Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont. He deserves respect, but I'm actually more intrigued by Chublicious, who is 12-1 on the morning line. He's shown improvement since being gelded last year, and after being transferred to the barn of Jorge Navarro, he's taken a huge step forward. In his 2016 debut, he rallied from third to win the six-furlong John J. Reilly Handicap at Monmouth over the talented sprinter Green Gratto, then came back a month later to win the Mr. Prospector Stakes over the same track and distance in a terrific performance. Breaking from the rail, Chublicious was away just a step slowly and got shuffled back a bit in the first two furlongs, then unleashed a strong move in between horses during a second quarter-mile timed in :22 flat to move within 1 ½ lengths of the lead. A move like that--especially into a :43.88 half-mile--would leave most horses exhausted, but Chublicious kept going and rallied to win by 1 ¼ lengths despite steadying slightly on two occasions when the leader drifted out in the homestretch.

Since that race, Chublicious has posted two bullet five-furlong workouts at Monmouth, including a :58 2/5 breeze on July 16th that was labeled "handily" by the clockers. In my opinion, Chublicious has the potential to be a very serious sprinter, and the way he rallied through the field in the Mr. Prospector without hesitating suggests that he won't have any issues with traffic in the Vanderbilt. His ability to rate just off the lead should also serve him well given that Saratoga seems to be playing slightly in favor of closers, and if Chublicious stays near his morning line price of 12-1, I think that's fantastic value on a horse that might be an up-and-coming star.

I would also like to mention A. P. Indian, winner of the Belmont Park Sprint Championship (gr. III) on July 9th. A remarkably consistent but lightly-raced six-year-old gelding that has won 8 of 14 starts, A. P. Indian might be better at seven furlongs than six, but he gave Delta Bluesman all he could handle in the six-furlong Decathlon Stakes at Monmouth in May and was actually placed first when Delta Bluesman was disqualified for interference. A. P. Indian is pretty versatile in terms of running style and could work out a nice trip sitting just off the pace; I don't know if he's good enough to win a grade I race going six furlongs, but you can almost always count on him to give you a run, and at the very least, he's a great candidate for the exotics at 5-1.

Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II)

With all due respect to Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Creator, who has steadily improved throughout the year and looks like a force to reckon with at any distance, the expected modest pace in the Jim Dandy might not suit his chances, and I think this nine-furlong race looks like a battle between Mohaymen and Destin. Mohaymen went unbeaten in his first five starts and was the Kentucky Derby favorite before finishing fourth in the Florida Derby (gr. I); however, the son of Tapit rebounded nicely to finish fourth by 4 ½ lengths in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and has been pointing toward the Jim Dandy ever since. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is off to a fantastic start at the Saratoga meet with 7 wins from 10 starters, and the nine-furlong distance of the Jim Dandy should suit Mohaymen perfectly.

The only question is whether Destin might simply be superior. In terms of Beyer speed figures, Destin is faster, having earned figures in the 99-100 range on three occasions; in contrast, Mohaymen's career-best is a 96. Furthermore, Destin might have slightly more tactical speed than Mohaymen and could get the jump on his key rival turning for home, which proved to be critical in last year's Jim Dandy when Texas Red's tactical speed enabled him to put distance between himself and favored Frosted before hanging on to win by a half-length.

Furthermore, when Todd Pletcher sends a Belmont Stakes top-three finisher into the Jim Dandy, watch out-since 2003, Pletcher has sent out eight starters in the Jim Dandy and has won five times, and he's been even stronger with horses going straight from the Belmont Stakes to the Jim Dandy, winning three times from four starters. With Destin coming off a nose defeat to Creator in the Belmont Stakes, he fits the profile perfectly, and also reminds me a lot of Stay Thirsty, who won the 2011 Jim Dandy off a strong runner-up effort in the Belmont.

With all this in mind, I'll take Destin as my narrow choice to win, and I'll also put in a good word for Governor Malibu, who finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes despite a very rough trip in the homestretch. He had previously finished second in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) one start after winning the nine-furlong Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel, and he's trained strongly coming into this race, suggesting that he could be sitting on a big run. If he drifts a bit from his morning line price of 9-2, I think he's worth a close look from a value perspective.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the major races this weekend?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic 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 www.theturfboard.com.

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