By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Over the years, the $500,000
Ohio Derby (gr. III) at Thistledown has
danced around the calendar looking for its niche, but since moving to the
fourth week of June in 2015, the race has consistently attracted better fields
and regained Grade 3 status last year, making clear that it's a race on the
With its hefty purse and newfound ideal position on the calendar,
the Ohio Derby has been dominated over the last three years by horses that
started in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes—in addition to winning each
renewal, Triple Crown veterans swept the trifecta in 2017 and the superfecta in
Therefore, it's no surprise that Kentucky Derby starters Flameaway and Lone Sailor are the two favorites for the 2018 Ohio Derby, and I am
of the opinion that Flameaway is the horse to beat. The son of Scat Daddy has been racing steadily since last spring, but
has maintained his form well while winning four stakes races (on both dirt and
turf) while placing in two others. In perhaps his most noteworthy effort to
date, he dueled for the lead through a contested pace in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr.
II) at Keeneland before staying on gamely to finish just 1 ½ lengths behind
champion Good Magic, subsequent runner-up in the Kentucky Derby.
Speaking of the Derby, Flameaway's effort at Churchill
Downs wasn't all that bad. After racing a little bit farther off the lead than
usual (likely the result of trying to keep up with a very fast pace), Flameaway
faded around the far turn and down the homestretch, but he did beat seven rivals
while finishing thirteenth and wasn't asked for much once it became clear he
would finish out of the money, so his margin of defeat is a bit deceptive. Per
Alicia Wincze Hughes of The Blood-Horse,
he also came out of the Derby with a superficial cut on his left hind leg.
Since then, Flameaway has bounced back with four workouts
at Churchill Downs, hinting that he's none the worse for wear despite his busy
schedule. Drawing post position two should give him an opportunity to utilize
his excellent speed to secure good position while saving ground, and while I
wonder if he won't ultimately prove to be at his best running shorter than the
nine furlongs of the Ohio Derby, this isn't the toughest field on paper and a
good trip could make him difficult to run down.
Sailor finished ahead of Flameaway when coming home eighth in
the Kentucky Derby and subsequently improved to fifth in the Preakness Stakes
(gr. I), beaten just two lengths by Justify. But as a deep closer, Lone Sailor
benefited from the fast fractions of the Derby and Preakness, and he also took
advantage of a great setup when finishing second by a neck in the Louisiana
Derby (gr. II).
It's also worth noting that both the Derby and the
Preakness were contested over sloppy, sealed tracks, conditions that Lone
Sailor clearly relishes—his lone victory from ten starts came in an
off-the-turf maiden race over a sloppy, sealed track at Saratoga last summer.
The drop in class for the Ohio Derby might be enough to make Lone Sailor a
contender on Saturday, but unless he receives another good pace setup or
encounters a sloppy track, I think he could have trouble catching Flameaway.
King is the other veteran of the Triple Crown trail, but he never
threatened when finishing seventh in the Preakness Stakes and will need to
rebound while returning to a dry track. Two starts back, he did win the
nine-furlong Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park, but the Beyer speed figure
he received—an 84—suggests that Diamond King might need to step up his game if
Flameaway and Lone Sailor run to their abilities.
On paper, the best of the rest is Core Beliefs, who has cracked the trifecta in all five of his
starts this year while competing against some very good horses. Following a
couple of respectable efforts sprinting at Santa Anita, Core Beliefs stretched
out to 8.5 furlongs and broke his maiden in decisive fashion over the next-out
winner Longden, after which he stepped up sharply in class for the Santa Anita
Derby (gr. I) and finished a solid third against a top field that included
Justify, Bolt d'Oro, and Instilled Regard.
That effort stamped Core Beliefs as the favorite for the
Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) last month at Belmont Park, and while at first
glance his runner-up effort could be considered a disappointment, I was
impressed by how well he ran under challenging circumstances. After stumbling
slightly at the start, Core Beliefs was sent up the rail to engage in a
four-way battle for command through increasingly testing fractions of :23.92,
:47.07, and 1:11.41. Despite this sustained pressure—he never got a breather at
any point—Core Beliefs kicked away from the other pacesetters at the top of the
stretch and briefly opened up a clear lead before growing leg-weary late and
tiring to finish 1 ½ lengths behind the proven graded stakes winner Blended
In terms of speed figures, Core Beliefs fits well in the
Ohio Derby, and the fact that he's run two good races going nine furlongs is
appealing. Less enticing is the fact that he's drawn post position ten in a
large field and could be set for a wide trip while chasing Flameaway and the
other expected pacesetters.
That covers the four favorites, but if you're looking for
a longshot, why not consider O'Kratos?
The son of Paddy O'Prado has never run on dirt and isn't really bred for it,
but he's shown flashes of serious talent over the Tapeta track at Woodbine, where he's compiled a 3-for-4 record. Two starts back, he overcame a slow break
to win a seven-furlong allowance race over the next-out winner Cooler Mike, and
on May 13th, O'Kratos stretched out to 8.5 furlongs for the Marine Stakes (gr.
III) and employed pace-pressing tactics to defeat the talented Machtree in
There's no guarantee that O'Kratos will handle the switch
to dirt—indeed, that could be a significant question mark—but you can't knock
the quality of the competition he's faced, and he actually appeared to have
something left at the finish of the Marine Stakes and was not particularly
hard-urged to maintain his advantage over Machtree. O'Kratos might have a legitimate chance to hit the board (or maybe even win) at 12-1.
So how can we mix all of this together and come out with
winning tickets? I'll take Flameaway
as my top choice while viewing Core
Beliefs and Lone Sailor (in that
order) as the other logical candidates to include in the exotics. O'Kratos might be a riskier
proposition, but his odds should be high enough to warrant inclusion on the
hope that he handles the switch to dirt.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Ohio 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.