By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
On a very quiet weekend of racing with only one graded
stakes race on the agenda, the event that Kentucky Derby-minded handicappers
will want to keep an eye on is surely the $75,000
Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds.
The six-furlong sprint for two-year-olds serves as a
steppingstone toward the January 19th Lecomte Stakes (gr. III), the
first of Fair Grounds three prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. As a
result, nine talented young runners have turned out to contest the Sugar Bowl,
and it will come as no surprise to see one or two of them embark on the Derby
trail this winter.
The morning line favorite at 7-2, and understandably so,
is #5 Hog Creek Hustle. The son of
Overanalyze unleashed a powerful finish to win his debut sprinting five
furlongs at Ellis Park during the summer, and while he never challenged when
struggling home tenth of twelve in the 8.5-furlong Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) a
month later, he seemed to relish a cutback to seven furlongs for a November 10th
allowance race at Churchill Downs, exploding from well off the pace to win
going away by 2 ½ lengths.
At first glance, that effort looks rock-solid—Hog Creek
Hustle posted respectable speed figures of 84 (Beyer) and 93 (BRIS) while
triumphing clearly over the next-out winners Classy John and Six Shooter. But
it's worth noting that from a pace perspective, Hog Creek Hustle received a
nearly perfect setup. While Classy John was busy carving out fast fractions of
:22.14 and :45.17, Hog Creek Hustled was reserved at the back of the pack, biding
his time. Later in the race, when the leaders were slowing down (and Classy
John was definitely growing leg-weary), Hog Creek Hustle took advantage of
their exhaustion to roll on by.
The fast early/slow late race shape was significant
enough that RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR)
of 99 on their scale of 1-to-100. That's just one percentage point away from
being as closer-favoring a race as you can find.
All this isn't to say that Hog Creek Hustle can't win the
Sugar Bowl—he obviously has talent. It's more to point out that he received a
favorable setup in his allowance win and might not repeat his huge late run if
faced with less favorable circumstances in the Sugar Bowl.
A logical alternative to the favorite is #9 Super Steed, hailing from the barn
of trainer Larry Jones, who has won with four of his first twelve starters at
this Fair Grounds meet. After finishing a close second in his debut at
Keeneland—beaten just a head after a lengthy stretch battle—Super Steed skipped
straight ahead to a 6 ½-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs, a bold move
that most trainers wouldn't employ when the option to stay against maidens
But Jones' creative strategy paid off as Super Steed
delivered a powerful run. After a troubled start, the son of Super Saver
dropped back to tenth place, but produced a big rally around the turn and
through the homestretch, seizing command before the eighth pole and pulling
away to score by six lengths with an 87 Beyer and a 94 BRIS speed figure.
You can make a case that Super Steed received a favorable
pace setup too—the early fractions were fast over a sloppy, sealed track—but
speed was holding up pretty at Churchill Downs that day, possibly offsetting
whatever benefit Super Steed might have gained from a pace perspective. If he
gets off to a better start in the Sugar Bowl Stakes, I think he'll be the horse
...But even though I have a lot of respect for Super Steed,
I'm just as intrigued by #8 Assemblyman,
who should offer significantly better odds. A Godolphin homebred trained by
Michael Stidham (who is winning at a 21% rate so far at Fair Grounds),
Assemblyman's overall form has been muddied a bit by defeats on Polytrack and turf,
which probably aren't his preferred surfaces considering that he's a son of
Speightstown out of an A.P. Indy mare.
In contrast, Assemblyman's lone run to date on dirt was
excellent. Sent off as the 1-2 favorite in a six-furlong maiden race at Penn
National, Assemblyman rewarded his backers with an effortless 7 ¾-length
victory, and his final time of 1:09.50 translated to speed figures of 74
(Beyer) and 92 (BRIS).
In some respects, Assemblyman will need to step up his
game a bit to be competitive against Hog Creek Hustle and Super Steed, but I
see no reason why he can't do exactly that. He was very professional at Penn
National, showing no hesitation racing between horses and then on the inside
during the early stages of the race, and when he was asked for his best he
responded with an eye-catching burst of speed, leaving his pursuers behind
while rolling through the final quarter-mile in a sharp :23.86 seconds.
Furthermore, Assemblyman didn't run badly at all when
finishing second in a 5 ½-furlong turf allowance race at Fair Grounds last
month, falling less than a length short of catching his stakes-experienced
stablemate Credit Swap while leaving the $400,000 auction purchase All American
Hero (from the barn of Mark Casse) 3 ¼ lengths behind in third place.
It's also worth noting that just two weeks ago, Stidham shipped
the Godolphin homebred Classic Fit to win Gulfstream Park's Hut Hut Stakes
after prepping the filly in an allowance race at Presque Isle Downs, which—like
Penn National—is in Pennsylvania. The runner-up in the Hut Hut Stakes?
Stidham's Sweet Diane, who entered off a maiden win at Penn National.
Overall, Stidham seems to have a very deep group of
two-year-olds this year, which is reflected by the fact that he's gone
23-for-99 with his juveniles in 2018. Assemblyman in particular seems like a
promising colt with a future in stakes company, and if he stays at or above his
6-1 morning line odds, I think he'll offer the best value in the Sugar Bowl
field. He's my selection to post the upset, though I'd be tempted to box him in
the exacta with Super Steed in case Larry Jones has a rising star on his hands.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Sugar Bowl
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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.