Ax Man Stands Out in Matt Winn Stakes

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

The Triple Crown season might be over (and what a Triple Crown it was!), but that doesn't mean that we have to turn our attention away from the three-year-olds just yet. It could be wise to keep an eye on some of the up-and-coming sophomores who could have a major impact on the division later this summer, and one such promising horse is entered in the $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Of course, I'm referring to Ax Man, who—like the Triple Crown winner Justify—is trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith. There's a lot to like about this son of Misremembered, who kicked off his career with an eye-catching 9 ½ length maiden win sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita on January 1st, earning a 97 Beyer speed figure. That effort was good enough to place him on the Derby trail, but in the February 10th San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), Ax Man wound up dueling hard for the lead through a :44.25 half-mile (blazing over a track that wasn't playing very fast) and tired to finish fourth as the heavy favorite.

Two months later, Baffert regrouped and sent out Ax Man to contest a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita. Racing without blinkers for the first time, Ax Man settled nicely in second place early on before seizing command and drawing off to win by 8 ½ lengths with a 101 Beyer. With his career back on track, Ax Man shipped to Pimlico for the May 19th Sir Barton Stakes and had no difficulty handling a sloppy, sealed track, sprinting to the lead and cruising home an uncontested winner by 6 ¾ lengths, earning a 99 Beyer while leaving the next-out stakes winner Prince Lucky 11 ¼ lengths back in third place.

There's not much speed on paper in the Matt Winn Stakes, and with Ax Man drawing the far outside post position in a field of seven, he should work out a perfect trip setting or stalking a modest pace. He'll be a short price in the wagering, but with that kind of trip, I find it hard to envision Ax Man losing.

Therefore, in order to boost the potential payoffs, let's try to narrow down the remaining contenders and make a nice score in the exotics. Funny Duck is the most accomplished horse in the race by virtue of his 4 ¾-length triumph in the Pat Day Mile Stakes (gr. III) on Kentucky Derby Day, and as a result he may start as the second choice in the wagering behind Ax Man.

But for a couple of reasons, I'm skeptical that Funny Duck can repeat that effort in the Matt Winn. For one, he received a perfect pace setup in the Pat Day Mile, which was a race that essentially fell apart late thanks to an opening half-mile in :45.53 and a second half-mile in :51.63. The top five finishers were racing 12th, 6th, 9th, 8th, and 11th after the first quarter-mile, while the five early leaders faded to finish 6th, 11th, 13th, 10th, and 8th.

Furthermore, the Pat Day Mile was contested over a sloppy, sealed track that seemed to favor horses running on the inside throughout the day. The top three finishers in the Pat Day Mile, Funny Duck included, all saved ground while outside runners struggled to get going. Throw in the fact that the Pat Day Mile was held around one turn while the Matt Winn will be conducted around two, and I think a case can be made that Funny Duck is vulnerable at a short price.

A horse with a better chance to round out the exacta might be Combatant, who broke his maiden going a mile at Churchill last fall by 2 ¾ lengths. The son of Scat Daddy subsequently finished second in the Springboard Mile, Smart Jones Stakes, and Southwest Stakes (gr. III), third in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), and fourth (beaten less than a half-length for second) in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).

That streak of respectable efforts earned Combatant a start in the Kentucky Derby, and while he could only finish eighteenth with a wide trip over a sloppy track, the level of competition plus the ten-furlong distance was probably too much for him. Dropping in class and cutting back to 8.5 furlongs for the Matt Winn could be just the combination he needs to rebound, though his tendency to flatten out after making a big run into the homestretch means that a second- or third-place finish could be the limit of his capabilities today.

The wildcard in the Matt Winn might be Home Base, who has recorded two straight wins sprinting seven furlongs for trainer Michael Tomlinson. That includes a hard-fought Churchill Downs allowance win on May 26th in which Home Base defeated older horses while stopping the clock in 1:22.03, earning a solid 90 Beyer.

What's interesting about Home Base is that he's actually bred to be at his best going two turns—his sire, Street Sense, won the 2007 Kentucky Derby, while his broodmare sire, A.P. Indy, won the 1992 Belmont Stakes and is renowned as a source of stamina. Home Base did finish a good second in a one-mile maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park during the winter, and the improvement he's shown since then suggests that he'll have every chance to handle the added distance of the Matt Winn Stakes. He's also got enough tactical speed to stay close to pace early on, which should set him up for a good trip. Home Base might not be ready to defeat Ax Man, but I think he's got a legitimate chance to edge Combatant and Funny Duck for second place.

In a quest to boost the payoffs in this race, I'll attempt to call the cold trifecta: Ax Man, Home Base, and Combatant, in that order. If you want to box Home Base and Combatant for second and third, that's fine too—if Funny Duck finishes out of the top three, the payoff should still be respectable.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Matt Winn Stakes?


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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

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