Will Oscar Performance Wire the Belmont Derby?

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

Get ready, everyone! A very busy weekend of racing is on schedule, led by a terrific series of graded stakes races at Belmont Park. They included the $1.25 million Belmont Derby (gr. I) and the $1 million Belmont Oaks (gr. I), while across the country at Prairie Meadows, the $250,000 Iowa Derby (gr. III) is shaping up to be a competitive race.

My thoughts on the Belmont Oaks (gr. I) can be viewed on the America's Best Racing website (click here to read), so we'll focus our attention here on the Belmont Derby and the Iowa Derby...

Belmont Derby (gr. I)

Despite the large field size (11 horses have been entered), there is a remarkable lack of speed in this ten-furlong race. The majority of the horses (and almost all of the U.S. contenders) have done their best running from off the pace, with one notable exceptional being Oscar Performance.

Thus far, the son of Kitten's Joy has been either brilliant or disappointing, with nothing in between. After finishing sixth in his debut at Saratoga last summer, he rattled off three straight wins in impressive fashion, including a gate-to-wire romp in the Pilgrim Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont and a pace-tracking win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).

The beginning of Oscar Performance's 2017 campaign yielded less impressive results; he finished fifth in the Transylvania Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland (compromised by an uncomfortable inside trip while rating off the pace), then ran last in the American Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs while racing on Lasix for the first time.

However, Oscar Performance rebounded sharply when racing without Lasix in the June 3rd Pennine Ridge Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont. After securing a very easy lead (posting fractions of :49.92 and 1:14.74), Oscar Performance accelerated the fourth quarter-mile in :22.72 and the final furlong in a sensational :10.98, cruising to the wire 1 ½ lengths in front while never giving the closers a serious chance to get involved.

Obviously, a different pace setup in the Belmont Derby could help the chances of Good Samaritan and Ticonderoga, who finished second and third in the Pennine Ridge while trying to rally from off the pace, but I don't see any reason to believe that the Belmont Derby pace will be particularly fast. In addition, Oscar Performance defeated Good Samaritan and Ticonderoga while conceding them two and six pounds, respectively; the three colts will all carry 122 pounds in the Belmont Derby, a subtle weight shift in Oscar Performance's favor. If Oscar Performance is able to work out another easy trip setting or stalking slow fractions, I expect to see him unleash another terrific turn-of-foot in the final three furlongs; finishing in :33.70 once again would make it very difficult for any of the closers to catch him.

Trainer Aidan O'Brien won this race last year with Deauville and will send out Whitecliffsofdover and Homesman to contest the 2017 renewal. But whereas Deauville brought excellent form into the Belmont Derby (he was a Group 3 winner that had run in a couple of Group 1 races, including the Epsom Derby), Whitecliffsofdover and Homesman are generally less accomplished and have been competing in easier races, though Whitecliffsofdover did finish a distant third in a Group 1 last year.

Instead, their form (particularly that of Homesman) is more similar to Adelaide, an Aidan O'Brien runner that finished second in the 2014 Belmont Derby behind the U.S. runner Mr. Speaker. That's not to say that Whitecliffsofdover and Homesman can't contend in the Belmont Derby-both warrant respect off their best races-but I don't think they're unbeatable at relatively short prices.

A more intriguing contender might be Yoshida, a Bill Mott-trained colt that has won two straight races by four lengths despite employing two completely different running styles. In a nine-furlong maiden race at Keeneland, Yoshida went straight to the lead, set a slow pace, and accelerated strongly in the final three furlongs to win decisively. Then, in the one-mile James W. Murphy Stakes at Pimlico, a troubled start left Yoshida in last place early on, officially 23 ¼ lengths off the pace (though viewing the replay the distance doesn't appear to be quite that large.) In any case, the change in running style made no difference to Yoshida, who capitalized on a fast pace and a ground-saving trip to absolutely swallow the field in the homestretch, winning under a hand ride with something in reserve.

From a strictly numbers perspective, Yoshida might need to step up a bit, and he has received good trips in his two wins. But visually speaking, Yoshida has looked terrific and gives the impression of being a talented colt with a very bright future. I wouldn't want to leave him off my tickets.

Jockey Mike Smith has been enjoying phenomenal success in graded stakes races and will ride Arklow in the Belmont Derby. The son of Arch is 2-for-2 on turf, including a late-running score in the American Turf Stakes, where he defeated Good Samaritan despite some trouble and a wide trip. He's another colt that has made a strong visual impressive and is a logical horse to consider, though in my opinion there's little separating the late-running U.S. contenders such as Arklow, Good Samaritan, Ticonderoga, and others, meaning that the battle between them could come down to whichever colt receives the best trip.

Iowa Derby (gr. III)

Nine three-year-old colts will contest this 8.5-furlong race, with one of the most prominent being Hence. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Hence launched himself on to the Triple Crown trail with a decisive 3 ½-length win in the Sunland Derby (gr. III) back in March, but Hence disappointed when eleventh in the Kentucky Derby and ninth in the Preakness Stakes. Earlier in the winter he had also finished seventh in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), meaning that Hence has now been beaten by double-digit lengths in three of his last four starts.

A rebound to his Sunland Derby form would certainly put Hence in the mix, but in the Iowa Derby he'll be carrying top weight of 122 pounds, conceding anywhere from three to nine pounds to his rivals.

Petrov is one of the colts that gets in with just 113 pounds on his back, but although he ran well in the Smarty Jones Stakes and Southwest Stakes (gr. III) during the winter, his form has slipped as of late. In the Arkansas Derby he finished ninth after tracking the early pace, while a two-month break and a cutback in distance for the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II) could only yield a non-threatening fourth-place effort.

With all of this in mind, I'll lean against both Hence and Petrov and focus on McCormick and Impressive Edge. The former won an off-the-turf maiden race going nine furlongs at Churchill Downs on May 5th, then cut back to a mile and won an allowance race at the same track by 2 ½ lengths after tracking a solid early pace. Trained by Ian Wilkes, McCormick has the speed to be involved from the start in a race that lacks any serious pace on paper, and horses shipping in from Churchill Downs have generally fared well in the Iowa Derby. At 9-2 on the morning line, I think he offers excellent value.

As for Impressive Edge, he posted a couple of impressive wins sprinting at Gulfstream during the winter before stretching out to nine furlongs in a competitive renewal of the Florida Derby (gr. I), where he finished a solid fourth behind future Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. He then contested the nine-furlong Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park, where he raced wide over a sloppy track and wound up finishing third behind the pace-setting pair of Timeline and Meantime.

These solid efforts in quality races mark Impressive Edge as one of the classier horses in the Iowa Derby field and a logical contender to win the race. The tote board may dictate whether Impressive Edge or McCormick offers better value, though odds aside, I have a slight preference for McCormick given that he's 2-for-2 in dirt routes while Impressive Edge has yet to win a route race.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in this week's stakes races?


One week after guiding the two-year-old colt Serengeti to an impressive maiden win at Santa Anita, jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert teamed up to score another eye-catching victory with the two-year-old filly Diamondsandpearls. The daughter of Congrats, who sold for $1.7 million earlier this year, went straight to the early lead and extended her advantage throughout to win by 6 ¼ lengths under a hand ride, earning a 70 Beyer and a 93 BRIS speed figure. She looks like a future stakes winner in the making!


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic 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.

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