J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
biggest day of racing so far on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is coming up on
Saturday, with three major Derby prep races on the agenda at Aqueduct,
Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita. We'll focus our attention on the $350,000
Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) and the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis
Stakes (gr. III), and we'll also take a brief look at Gulfstream's $100,000
Kitten's Joy Stakes, which drew a nice field even though it isn't a Derby prep
race. Let's start handicapping!
Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream
paper, the Holy Bull looks to be dominated by Classic Empire and Gunnevera,
who are by far the two most accomplished horses in the race. Classic Empire is
the reigning Eclipse champion two-year-old male and has three graded stakes
wins under his belt, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), which he won
in a fast time and earned a massive 102 Beyer speed figure. Gunnevera has also
won a couple of graded stakes races, including the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes
(gr. III), in which he unleashed a tremendous run from the back of the pack to
win by 5 ¾ lengths.
the pair, Classic Empire has run faster and actually defeated Gunnevera by 6 ¾ lengths
in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) last October, so if Classic Empire runs
anywhere near his best race in the Holy Bull, he should easily prevail. With a
short run to the first turn, Classic Empire has drawn perfectly in post position
three, and his excellent tactical speed should put him in the position to take
advantage of the very short run down the homestretch (this race will end at the
sixteenth pole.) By the same token, this short homestretch could be a
disadvantage for the late-running Gunnevera.
only question mark is whether Classic Empire will be ready to fire off a
layoff. Generally speaking, horses returning from layoffs at Gulfstream Park
hasn't been the strongest angle for trainer Mark Casse; according to statistics
from StatsMaster, Casse has gone 1-for-24 under these conditions since December
2015. That's not to say that Classic Empire won't win--there are always
exceptions, and Classic Empire is a champion--but since he'll be a very heavy
favorite, I'm tempted to take a shot with an up-and-comer offering better odds.
horse that has really caught my eye is Irish
War Cry, a colt that I've written about extensively in the past. The son of
Curlin drew attention with an impressive six-furlong maiden win on November 11th
at Laurel Park, in which he overcame a slow start to sweep past the field on
the turn and win going away by 4 ½ lengths. He then tackled stakes company in
the seven-furlong Marylander Stakes at Laurel, showcasing a complete change in
running style to set the pace and gamely hold off O Dionysus to win by a nose.
first glance, the margin of victory and final time aren't all that impressive,
but Irish War Cry actually ran the final furlong in :11.99 seconds, suggesting
that he had quite a bit left in the tank. He might have been a bit unfocused on
the lead in the Marylander, so improvement could be possible if he settles into
a tracking position in the Holy Bull Stakes, perhaps just behind Classic Empire.
Given his pedigree, the extra distance of the Holy Bull should be no concern,
and drawing post five--with several closers to his inside--should help him save ground
around the first turn. For what it's worth, he will also be running on Lasix
for the first time.
it a gut feeling or a hunch play, but I think Irish War Cry has that "extra something
special" that could make him a serious Derby contender. Maybe he won't topple
Classic Empire, but I think Irish War Cry is by far the most likely horse to
finish second, and if the odds are right (I'm hoping for 5-1 or higher), I
think he's worth playing on top.
Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at
Anita's second Derby prep race came up a bit weaker than usual, but the
five-horse field looks surprisingly competitive. Doug O'Neill will send out
three starters, including the Grade 3 winner Term of Art and the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) 2-3 finishers Irap and Dangerfield, but the horse to beat might be the recent maiden
winner Sheer Flattery.
a brief look at Sheer Flattery's record reveals that he has been keeping
excellent company. Although he lost his first three starts (all of them
sprints), he was facing horses like Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) winner
Mastery, Sham Stakes (gr. III) runner-up American Anthem, and California Derby
winner So Conflated. As a son of Flatter, Sheer Flattery figured to improve
when stretched out in distance, and he did just that in an 8.5-furlong maiden
special weight at Santa Anita on December 31st. After settling just
off the early pace, Sheer Flattery moved up to take the lead in the homestretch
and won by a nose over stablemate Honor and Courage (a talented colt that is
nominated to the Triple Crown), with Irap 4 ¾ lengths behind in fourth place.
that effort, Sheer Flattery received a Beyer speed figure of 83, the highest of
any horse in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Jockey Mike Smith, who is having a
fantastic year so far with five graded stakes wins in January, will have the
mount. I envision Sheer Flattery working out an ideal trip stalking Royal Mo
and/or Irap in the early stages of the race, and from there, he should be tough
Kitten's Joy Stakes
two graded stakes wins on his five-race record, as well as a solid sixth-place
finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), Made You Look is absolutely the horse to beat in this one-mile turf
race. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the son of More Than Ready unleashed an
explosive late run to win the 7.5-furlong Dania Beach Stakes (gr. III) by 2 ½ lengths
over this course on January 7th, and a repeat of that performance
should get him to the winner's circle.
I wouldn't overlook the chances of Kitten's
Cat, who finished fourth in the Dania Beach. Although on paper he got a
pretty good trip, from a visual perspective it looked much rougher. He was
urged out of the gate to try and get good position from post one, then spent
the rest of the race in tight quarters on the inside looking very uncomfortable.
I don't think he ever relaxed or got into any sort of rhythm, so I'm willing to
forgive that he didn't produce much of a run in the homestretch. I think he's
better coming from farther back (as he did when finishing third in a slow-paced
renewal of the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes), and he's drawn a much more ideal post
position this time around. With a better trip, I think he has a chance
to turn the tables on Made You Look.
it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend stakes races?
The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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.