Competitive Field Assembles for the Delta Downs Jackpot

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

With its $1,000,000 purse, the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) at Delta Downs would be a major race even if it didn't have Kentucky Derby implications, but as an official Kentucky Derby prep race--offering 10 qualification points to the winner--the Jackpot has even more significance. Ten horses have been entered in the 2016 edition of the 8.5-furlong race, an event that's shaping up to be very competitive.

While handicapping the Jackpot Stakes, I'm struck by the fact that there is a lack of proven Grade 1 competitors entered in the race this year. In recent years, the Jackpot has drawn horses like Exaggerator, Sunny Ridge, Mr. Z, and Goldencents, all of which had placed in Grade 1 races prior to running in the Jackpot, and Exaggerator and Mr. Z had both run well in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

In contrast, only three of the ten horses entered in this year's Jackpot Stakes have so much as contested a graded stakes race, and only Gunnevera has run in a grade I, finishing fifth in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. As a result, this could be a good year to think outside the box and look for a longshot winner.

One horse that has caught my eye is Line Judge, who has won his last three races by the combined margin of 12 ¾ lengths. After starting his career sprinting at Canterbury Park, he shipped to Delta Downs and handled a mile just fine in the Jean $200,000 Lafitte Stakes, winning by 3 ¾ lengths over the talented stakes winner Tip Tap Tapizar.

Horses coming out of the Jean Lafitte have a good record in the Jackpot Stakes, frequently hitting the board and occasionally winning, and proven form over the "bullring" layout at Delta Downs is a positive. There's a lot of speed in the Jackpot Stakes, which could potentially compromise Line Judge's front-running style, but I believe Line Judge might be one of the truest speed horse in the race, and if he can get clear from post position two and settle into a nice rhythm, he could be tough to reel in.

Another logical contender is Hot Sean, who ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert. After finishing a close second in his debut at Del Mar, Hot Sean shipped to Santa Anita and won a 6 ½-furlong maiden race by 1 ¾ lengths, then stretched out to a mile and won an allowance race by 1 ¼ lengths after setting modest fractions of :24.09, :48.62, and 1:12.78. At first glance, Hot Sean's final time of 1:38.48 seems very slow, but the Santa Anita main track was not producing fast times that day, and Hot Sean's time was by far the fastest recorded in the five one-mile dirt races on the card.

On the other hand, Bob Baffert has not yet won a race at Delta Downs and has sent six horses to the Jackpot Stakes in the past, with only one finishing in the trifecta. Hot Sean looks like a talented colt, but I wonder if this race might be a little too deep for him.

J Boys Echo is a recent maiden winner of note; after finishing a strong second sprinting in his debut, he stretched out to 8.5 furlongs at Keeneland and crushed his rivals by 5 ½ lengths (VIDEO). However, the margin of victory doesn't begin to reveal how impress J Boys Echo's performance actually was. After saving ground throughout the race, J Boys Echo was full of run on the far turn, but was boxed in along the rail with nowhere to run. He attempted to come out and split horses at the top of the stretch, but was jostled severely and steadied hard, forcing him to move toward the rail. Seizing an opportunity when the leader drifted off the fence, J Boys Echo shot through the opening in the blink of an eye and pulled clear powerfully to win with ease.

Visually, this was a great performance, and the final time was good for a Beyer speed figure of 75, which fits well in the Jackpot Stakes. The only concern is that J Boys Echo is unproven at Delta Downs and has drawn post nine, which could lead to a wide trip from off-the-pace in a race that tends to favor speed. Still, in terms of talent and potential, J Boys Echo looks like a possible star with the pedigree to be a major player on the Kentucky Derby trail.

One wildcard runner is Our Stormin Norman, who has run two excellent races sprinting on dirt and three disappointing races going long on turf. The question is, were his turf efforts the result of the surface, the distance, or a blend of both? In terms of pedigree, Our Stormin Norman should be able to stretch out in distance, and he couldn't have been much more dominant winning a seven-furlong maiden race on dirt at Keeneland last month, taking command right at the start and setting fast fractions on his way to a 2 ¼-length victory. Visually, he seemed to be in control of the race from the start and was much the best, although he was under a hard ride throughout most of the homestretch and gave the impression that he didn't have a ton left in the tank. Perhaps the addition of blinkers last time out is making a difference, but in a race filled with other speed horses, I'm not sure he'll be able to take this field all the way on the front end.

I actually find Our Stormin Norman's stablemate Thirstforlife to be a bit more intriguing. While his 11 ¼-length defeat in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) suggests that the Jackpot Stakes could be a tough spot for him, he was only beaten 2 ½ lengths for second by Lookin at Lee, who returned to finish a solid fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Last time out, Thirstforlife won an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Keeneland over a good/sealed track, and while the final time of 1:46.07 was very slow, this was mostly the result of a very slow pace--Thirstforlife posted fractions of :24.59, :49.80, and 1:15.69. However, the result was that Thirstforlife accelerated his fourth quarter-mile in :24.42 and the final sixteenth in a fantastic :05.96, suggesting that he was far from tired and just getting going. Furthermore, runner-up Just Move On returned to win a similar allowance race at Churchill Downs by 2 ½ lengths, earning an 81 Beyer speed figure.

Florent Geroux, who seems to ride well at tracks of any configuration, has the mount, and I view this as a positive even though Geroux rarely rides at Delta Downs. From post position three, Thirstforlife should be able to save ground on the tight turns and hopefully settle a couple lengths off the pace before pouncing in the final two furlongs. Trainer Mark Casse won this race in 2007 with Turf War and sent out Tepin to win the 2013 Delta Downs Princess Stakes (gr. III), so we know Casse has a proven record shipping to Delta Downs and coming away with big wins. Throw in the fact that Thirstforlife kept good company earlier this year, running against the likes of Silvertoni, Hey Mike, and Klimt, and I think you can make a case that Thirstforlife has a big chance to win this race.

In a very competitive race where eliminating anyone from consideration is a challenge, I like three horses--Line Judge, Thirstforlife, and J Boys Echo. If I have to pick one, I'll side with J Boys Echo, who showed such determination overcoming trouble in his maiden win. Jockey Kent Desormeaux won this race last year with Exaggerator, who started from post nine, and if Desormeaux can work out a good trip this year from that same post, I envision J Boys Echo triumphing in narrow fashion, with Thirstforlife and Line Judge close behind.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes?


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

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