Triple Crown Veterans Have Advantage in Ohio Derby

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 rise.

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 2015.

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.

Lone 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.

Diamond 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 Citizen.

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 determined fashion.

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

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