By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Get ready, everyone! A huge three-day weekend of racing
awaits with three Kentucky Derby prep races on the agenda-the Lecomte Stakes
(gr. III) at Fair Groudns, the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, and the
Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
All three races have drawn interesting and competitive
fields. Let's take a look at each one....
Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds
On paper, this looks like a two-horse race between Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme, and while Instilled
Regard is the more accomplished and experienced of the two, my preference is
for Principe Guilherme. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the promising colt is
2-for-2 so far with a pair of very easy wins at Churchill Downs and Fair
Grounds, including an 11 ¼-length romp in an allowance optional claiming race
over this track and distance last month.
Granted, Principe Guilherme is drawn wide in post twelve
and might have to settle just off the lead on Saturday, as he'll be facing a
couple of other speedy colts and might get beaten to the lead for the first
time in his career. Then again, the expected scratches of Wonder Gadot and
Ciaran should move Principe Guilherme in a couple of slots, and the way he
finished in his first two starts (winning with complete authority) suggests we
could be looking at a very talented colt.
Regard took a big step forward last time out when finishing a
close third against Solomini and McKinzie in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I),
a race in which he was placed second via disqualification. A repeat of that
effort would put him in the mix, but I hesitate to back him fully since good form
at Los Alamitos doesn't always translate to other tracks and he might have been
flattening out at the finish.
One longshot that intrigues me is Kowboy Karma, who hails from the barn of Larry Jones, a trainer
that has scored three previous victories in the Lecomte. A brief glance at
Kowboy Karma's record suggests that he might wind up best as a sprinter, but he
did finish a good fourth in the one-mile Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park
(in which the graded stakes winners Good Magic and Enticed ran second and
third), and Kowboy Karma underwent throat surgery following his most recent
race, which could help him breathe better and potentially enhance his stamina.
I think he's a major player to finish in the top three.
Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct
If races were run on paper, then Firenze Fire would be pretty much a shoo-in to win the Jerome
Stakes. After all, he is by far the most accomplished horse in the Jerome
field, having won the above-mentioned Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park
while defeating Good Magic, Enticed and Kowboy Karma. Like the Jerome, the
Champagne was a one-turn mile, and a return to that level of form would make
Firenze Fire tough to beat.
On the other hand, the son of Poseidon's Warrior was
soundly beaten in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last time out, and in
preparation for the Jerome he has turned in just three slow workouts, with the
timing of them being a bit inconsistent due to several days of cancelled
training at Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Even trainer Jason Servis seems a bit
concerned about Firenze Fire's fitness, telling the New York Racing Association
Press Office that "We still entered but the training hasn't been ideal."
In contrast, Coltandmississippi
has been training smoothly in Florida and could have an edge in fitness.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, the son of Pioneerof the Nile was fifth in the
one-mile Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park last time out, but he had a bit
of a tough trip that day while racing over a sloppy track and has won two of
his other three starts. Coltandmississippi will be equipped with blinkers in
the Jerome, which should help him focus, and I believe he's found the perfect
spot to make his graded stakes debut. Not only could he be poised to work out a
nice trip on or near the lead, he's facing a field that has been compromised by
the interrupted training and poor weather in New York, and I think that's a
recipe for victory.
Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park
The clear favorite here should be Mourinho, who ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert, who
has enjoyed a string of much-publicized success in Oaklawn's major Kentucky
Derby prep races. But while Mourinho is fast and enters off a solid runner-up
effort behind the talented Greyvitos in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Del
Mar, I'm not convinced that Mourinho is unbeatable in this spot. For one, his
races thus far hint that he might wind up best as a sprinter, and although it
could prove insignificant, the Smarty Jones Stakes is one race that Baffert has
yet to win-his lone starter, Toews On Ice, finished sixth in 2016 at odds of
Since Mourinho could be a similar price but doesn't seem
unbeatable, I'll take a shot with Combatant.
The Steve Asmussen-trainee had a bit of a troubled trip last time out in the
Remington Springboard Mile, having to wait in traffic during a key point on the
far turn, but still ran a huge race to finish a clear second behind Greyvitos.
As a son of Tapit, the distance of the Smarty Jones
shouldn't be any issue for Combatant, and I expect him to improve with
experience and maturity. With the right trip, I think he can pull off a mild
upset in the Smarty Jones.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Derby
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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.