Will Messi Upset the Northern Dancer Stakes?

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

It doesn't take long for the racing action to rebound following the end of the Del Mar and Saratoga meets. Last weekend may have been quiet, but this coming weekend is a big one with eleven graded stakes races on the schedule, including six at Woodbine.

One of the most intriguing is the $300,000 Northern Dancer Stakes (gr. I), a 1 ½-mile turf race that has attracted eight starters. On paper, the horse to beat is absolutely Hawkbill, who boasts top-class Group 1 form in Europe and has a thoroughly North American pedigree that suggests he'll be well-suited to Woodbine. The son of Kitten's Joy won the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I) going ten furlongs on soft ground at Sandown last summer, and his efforts this year include a couple of group wins at 1 ½ miles and a strong runner-up effort in the Longines Grosser Preis von Berlin (Ger-I) at Hoppegarten a month ago.

Given that Hoppegarten is not unlike Woodbine in terms of size and length of homestretch, we have every reason to believe that Hawkbill will enjoy the wide, sweeping course at Woodbine, which is much larger than most turf courses in North America. The Northern Dancer Stakes has historically been a race in which European invaders have excelled--in fact, four of the last five European-based horses to start in the Northern Dancer have prevailed--and it would come as no surprise if Hawkbill adds his name to that list.

That said, I do hesitate to declare Hawkbill as unbeatable at a short price. We've seen a number of talented European runners ship in to contest Grade 1 races in North American this year, and for the most part they have faltered. Erupt and Idaho could only finish fifth and sixth while well-regarded in the Sword Dancer Stakes (gr. I). Sistercharlie, Uni, and Key To My Heart were all beaten in the Belmont Oaks (gr. I). The talented Rain Goddess was well-beaten in the Beverly D. Stakes (gr. I), Called To The Bar, Homesman, and Whitecliffsofdover couldn't catch Oscar Performance in the Belmont Derby (gr. I), and Fanciful Angel, Deauville, and Mekhtaal all failed while launching a three-pronged assault on the Arlington Million (gr. I).

Several of the above-mentioned horses ran well in their respective races, but the point is that North American runners have done well defending their home turf in major races this year, and Hawkbill--despite his obvious credentials--is shipping in to face a group of locals that might be better across the board than they've been given credit for. Throw in the general concerns that come whenever any horse ships a long distance, along with the addition of Lasix, and you can make a case that Hawkbill is too short a price at 3-5 on the morning line.

For these reasons, I'm tempted to take a shot with Messi. The seven-year-old German-bred gelding is lightly raced for his age (just 25 starts), and while he doesn't win very often, he's shown a distinct affinity for larger turf courses with wider turns. He's 2-for-4 over the 9.5-furlong inner turf course at Belmont Park (with his two defeats being third-place finishes in graded stakes company), and he's 1-for-1 at Woodbine, having won the 10-furlong Sky Classic Stakes (gr. II) last summer.

Messi's form this year isn't eye-catching at first glance, but if you dig deeper there are reasons to believe he could be poised for a huge run in the Northern Dancer. In his 2017 debut, he was third by just 1 ¼ lengths in the Fort Marcy Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park, beaten by Smooth Daddy and Time Test (both accomplished runners) over a yielding turf course that produced a very slow pace and final time. Two months later, Messi faced an extremely competitive field in the United Nations Stakes (gr. I) at Monmouth Park, and his ninth-place finish was forgivable considering that he was beaten by the likes of Bigger Picture, Can'thelpbelieving, Beach Patrol, Itsinthepost, and Oscar Nominated--they've all come back to win or place in graded stakes company.

Most recently, Messi finished a strong third in an 11-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Saratoga, beaten just a neck in a performance that has looked better and better with the passing of time. The top two finishers--Muqtaser and Infinite Wisdom--led the way early on through very slow fractions of :52.21 and 1:16.93 while Messi lingered at the back of the pack, some seven lengths off the pace. Despite chasing progressively faster quarter-mile fractions as the race went on, Messi rallied strongly to just miss winning while running the final three furlongs in the sharp time of :34.26.

The strength of that race was further indicated when Muqtaser won an allowance race at Saratoga and finished a close third in the Kentucky Turf Cup (gr. III), while Infinite Wisdom came right back to win the John's Call Stakes at Saratoga. Considering that Messi might have been the best horse in that Saratoga allowance race, I'm excited to see if he can build on that effort in the Northern Dancer Stakes.

The biggest question mark for Messi might be the distance of the Northern Dancer, as he's generally spent his career running shorter distances and was soundly beaten in his only previous run at 1 ½ miles. Then again, the pace of the Northern Dancer Stakes figures to be quite modest, turning the race into a test of finishing speed rather than stamina, and as Messi showed at Saratoga, he can unleash a powerful stretch run under the right circumstances.

At the very least, Messi is a strong candidate to include in the exacta underneath Hawkbill, and if the odds are right (his 4-1 morning line odds are appealing), I think he could offer the best value in the win pool as well. For the trifecta or superfecta, I would also consider Johnny Bear, a son of English Channel that recently won the OLG/OR Halton Stakes going 1 ½ miles on the turf at Woodbine. He'll be facing a tougher field than he's accustomed to, but he's got enough tactical speed to stay close to the pace and could put himself in the perfect position to hang on for a spot in the exotics at 15-1.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Northern Dancer Stakes?


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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