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