By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues on Saturday with
the $300,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (gr.
I), a very productive 1 1/16-mile event at Los Alamitos that has been won over
the last ten years by such high-class colts as Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I)
winner McKinzie, Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) winner Mor Spirit, Santa Anita
Derby (gr. I) winner Dortmund, Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Shared Belief,
Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Lookin at Lucky, and Kentucky Derby (gr. I)
runner-up Pioneerof the Nile.
This year's renewal has attracted just six starters, but
they're a very promising group and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a future
star emerge from this field. Let's take a look at each horse in the field....
Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race a record-setting
ten times, including the last four editions here at Los Alamitos, and as "improbable"
as might seem for any trainer to win a Grade 1 race five times in a row, I
expect Baffert to achieve just that on Saturday with Improbable.
Improbable wasn't the flashiest of debut winners,
rallying from fourth place in a small field to break his maiden by a neck
sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita, but with the benefit of hindsight, he
beat a pretty good field that day and showed a lot of determination to prevail
in a long battle down the homestretch while earning a solid 85 Beyer speed
However, it was Improbable's second start that really
caught the attention of handicappers nationwide. Shipping halfway across the
country to contest the one-mile Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs,
Improbable was favored at odds-on to defeat eight rivals, but after breaking
slowly from post position two, Improbable found himself behind horses early on
and he didn't seem completely comfortable while racing right up on their heels.
This might have been problematic for some horses, but Improbable—despite
his apparent discomfort racing in tight quarters—responded perfectly to the
cues of jockey Drayden Van Dyke. When an opening appeared in between horses,
Improbable casually sliced through with smooth acceleration, then shifted to
the outside and took aim at the two pacesetters. Again with something
resembling nonchalance, Improbable swept past the leaders with complete
authority, making a move more commonly seen from Olympic short track speed
skaters than two-year-old Thoroughbreds.
Making Improbable's performance all the more impressive
is that he made these two big moves into fast fractions of :22.27, :44.96, and
1:09.83—in other words, he was really moving and not just making a mild run
into a slow pace. And suffice to say, once Improbable struck the front, the
race was over, as he sustained his rally down the homestretch to pull away and
win by 7 ¼ lengths, earning a 93 Beyer speed figure that stands out as by far
the best in the Los Alamitos Futurity field.
Since the Street Sense Stakes, Improbable has posted four
sharp workouts at Santa Anita, including a bullet five furlongs in :59 4/5 on
December 3rd. I expect him to win the Los Alamitos Futurity with anything
resembling a good trip... and judging from the Street Sense, he might not even
Savagery is the perfect example of a horse offering both
pros and cons from a handicapping perspective. He's graded stakes-placed, but
his lone win came in a maiden claimer. He's run around two turns, but only on
turf. He's got plenty of speed, but has only been the early leader once in five
starts and will be racing without blinkers for the first time on Saturday.
The biggest reason to like Savagery is that there's very
little early speed on paper in the Los Alamitos Futurity, so Savagery figures
to work out an ideal trip racing close to a modest pace. But he was beaten to
the lead in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) by Mucho Gusto and never could get on
even terms after that, coming home in second place, and with the removal of
blinkers on Saturday, I don't really envision him employing bolder tactics this
time around. It seems more likely than not that he'll settle into a stalking
position behind Mucho Gusto, and while that could potentially earn him a good
share of the purse, it could also make it difficult for Savagery to turn the
tables on his Bob Hope conqueror.
Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Dueling has shown flashes
of talent during his brief career, finishing second behind the probable two-year-old
champion Game Winner in a six-furlong maiden race at Del Mar before stretching
out to a mile at Santa Anita and winning by a decisive 2 ¾ lengths. That effort
led to a start in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, where
Dueling ran evenly to pretty much split the field and finish sixth.
It was a big ask to jump straight from a maiden win into
the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and under the circumstances, Dueling's respectable
though unremarkable finish could be considered a step in the right direction.
He'll be staying in Grade 1 company on Saturday, but this is obviously a much
easier spot than the Breeders' Cup, and Dueling will be reunited with the Hall
of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who was aboard for Dueling's maiden score.
In terms of running style, Dueling has never been closer
than fourth at the first call of a race, but against this small field, I wouldn't
be surprised if Smith puts Dueling into the race a bit sooner, especially while
racing with blinkers for just the second time. Overall, I get the feeling that Dueling
might have a bigger engine under the hood than any of us realize—we've seen
glimpses of his potential—and if he puts everything together in the Los
Alamitos Futurity, I think we'll see him finish on the board.
King of Speed:
The most experienced runner in the field with seven
starts under his belt, King of Speed wasn't disgraced while finishing fourth in
two dirt sprints early in the season, but he's shown significant improvement
since stretching out in distance and switching to turf, winning the Del Mar
Juvenile Turf Stakes and the Zuma Beach Stakes before finishing twelfth over a
yielding turf course in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).
As a son of Jimmy Creed out of an A.P. Indy mare, King of
Speed is bred to handle dirt, so perhaps his improvement throughout the summer
and fall had more to do with stretching out in distance than any special
affinity for grass. But then again, he benefited from a terrific pace setup in
the Zuma Beach Stakes, and he didn't run particularly fast in the Del Mar
Juvenile Turf while defeating a field of somewhat questionable quality. As a
one-dimensional deep closer, I think King of Speed could be compromised by the
expected modest pace of the Los Alamitos Futurity, so for these reasons I'll
play against him on Saturday.
Generally speaking, trainer Richard Mandella isn't known
for sending out ready-to-win first-time starters—according to DRF Formulator,
Mandella has gone 0-for-23 over the last five years with two-year-old males
making their debuts. That's why it was noteworthy when Extra Hope unleashed a
big finish to fall just a half-length short of victory in his debut on August 4th
at Del Mar, and since then Extra Hope has reiterated his talent while giving
the impression that he still has room for improvement.
Extra Hope was actually beaten in two more starts
following his debut, but gaining that experience seemed to do him good. When he
added blinkers and stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in a maiden race at Santa
Anita on October 21st, he responded with a big step forward,
tracking a modest pace before powering clear to win by 8 ¾ lengths with a
career-best 82 Beyer speed figure.
Extra Hope subsequently cut back to seven furlongs for
the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III), and while that was surely less than ideal—Mandella
had hoped to keep the colt running around two turns—Extra Hope ran well to
finish an even fourth, beaten 2 ¼ lengths for victory and less than a length
for second place. The return to 1 1/16 miles should help his chances, and he
has shown enough tactical speed in his last two starts to suggest that he won't
be too far off the pace on Saturday. As with Dueling, it's not hard to think
that the best is still to come for Extra Hope, and considering the talent he's
already displayed, that makes him a very intriguing prospect.
In the event that Improbable should misfire, Baffert
might still pick up a fifth straight Los Alamitos Futurity courtesy of Mucho
Gusto, who—like Improbable—is unbeaten in two starts. Purchased for $625,000 back
in May, this stoutly-bred son of Mucho Macho Man was an eye-catching debut
winner at Los Alamitos on September 20th, when he set a fast pace
and pulled away to win a six-furlong maiden race by four lengths. Two months
later, he stepped up in class for the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita
and again went straight to the lead, out-battling Savagery from start to finish
to prevail by 1 ½ lengths with an 86 Beyer speed figure.
Although Mucho Gusto has never run farther than seven
furlongs, his pedigree suggests that two turns won't be an issue, and in a
field without much speed on paper, Mucho Gusto looms as the most likely
pacesetter and might be able to secure a relatively uncontested lead. From
there, it could be easier said than done to run him down, and while I do prefer
the chances of Improbable, I think Mucho Gusto is clearly the most likely
2nd: Mucho Gusto
4th: Extra Hope
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Los Alamitos
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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.