Three Thousand Words About Three Derby Prep Races

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

Sorry to disappoint you, but the title of this post is technically inaccurate. Despite going over the top in writing way, way too many words about the three Kentucky Derby prep races coming up this Saturday, I didn't quite hit 3,000 words.

My preview of the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park came out longest—no surprise there, I knew it would—but despite intending to be more concise in my analysis of the Withers Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, they're actually not that much shorter. In the end, the whole shebang topped out at just over 2,800 words.

But whether my selections win, lose, or draw, I hope you'll find some interesting insights and thoughts on the three races, and I hope you'll join me in sharing your own thoughts on these much-anticipated events. Let's start handicapping!

Withers Stakes (gr. III)

There's quite a bit of quality in this nine-furlong Derby prep, but in my opinion two runners might be a cut above the others, and they are #1 Tax and #5 Lucky Lee.

Both raced three times as juveniles, though they've taken very different routes to reach the Withers. Tax started his career in maiden claiming races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland; under the care of Ben Colebrook, he showed promising sprinting in his debut, then was claimed out of an 8.5-furlong event which he rallied to win by two lengths.

New trainer Danny Gargan brought Tax to Aqueduct for the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) over the same nine-furlong distance as the Withers, and I thought Tax ran an impressive race in defeat. After settling into a pace-tracking position, the son of Arch made a sweeping move to challenge front-running Maximus Mischief for the lead, and while Tax's couldn't quite sustain his bid, he stayed on gamely through the homestretch to finish third, beaten 2 ¾ lengths for victory and by just a half-length for second place.

By making a strong challenge on the far turn, rather than employing a more patient approach, you can argue that Tax might have cost himself the runner-up spot, as he was nabbed from behind in the final strides. But Tax pretty much had to make that move because Maximus Mischief was winging along on a slow pace and wasn't going to be caught without a fight. Actually, despite flattening out in the homestretch, Tax finished fairly fast because the final three furlongs were timed in :36.74 seconds, an exceptional time for a nine-furlong dirt race full of lightly-raced two-year-olds.

Even just the bare fractions are enough to indicate that the slow early/fast late race shape of the Remsen was beneficial to Maximus Mischief, but if you want more formal ratings, assigned the Remsen a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 4, indicating a race that fell within the top 4% of speed-favoring events. Since Tax was trying to rally from behind Maximus Mischief, he was facing a fairly challenging task and I think his effort was even better than it looks on paper-which is saying something since Tax posted a 93 Beyer even in defeat.

In the absence of Lucky Lee, Tax would be my clear choice to win the Remsen... but wow, Lucky Lee has certainly made a nice impression since stretching out to a mile in his second career start. That came in a maiden special weight at Parx on October 14th, in which the favorite was a Jorge Navarro-trained first-time starter Identifier. Now, Identifier is no slouch—he ran a winning race against Lucky Lee, leaving the majority of his rivals behind on the far turn on his way to finishing 16 lengths clear of the third-place runner. And he's reiterated his talent by coming back to finish second in a couple of quality maiden special weights at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West.

But in that October 14th maiden race, Identifier was no match for Lucky Lee. Just as Identifier was opening up on the field—just as he was making a "winning" move—the pace-tracking Lucky Lee casually blew his doors off, sweeping past Identifier in the blink of an eye and cruising home an uncontested winner by 5 ½ lengths. It wasn't even a close fight—Lucky Lee simply bid his rival goodbye and effortlessly left him in a cloud of dust.

Lucky Lee did much the same in a one-mile allowance race at Parx on November 17th, carving out a steady pace on the front end before easily opening up to win by six lengths while the runner-up came home ten lengths clear of the rest. Parx isn't a very fast track, so Lucky Lee's seemingly modest final time of 1:38.85 was actually good for an 88 Beyer.

I encourage you to check out the replays of Lucky Lee's last two races. As good as he looks on paper, he looks even better visually. He's quick out of the gate, and when he settles into stride he seems to carry his head a bit lower than you typically see. Judging from replays he's a fairly imposing physical specimen, and while he's been maybe a little late changing leads in the homestretch, overall he's a very clean and professional runner, staying straight and focused to the wire while winning with his ears up and giving the impression that he has plenty more to offer if needed.

As a son of Flatter out of a Medaglia d'Oro mare, nine furlongs should pose no serious obstacle for Lucky Lee, and he should be able to use his tactical speed to secure a perfect trip stalking the front-running #7 Not That Brady through the early stages of the race. If there's one thing that worries me, it's the recent Daily Racing Form report revealing that Lucky Lee missed his final pre-Withers workout due to poor weather in Florida, but my hope here is that Lucky Lee has enough foundation under his belt that one missed workout won't make a big difference.

In my opinion, boxing Tax and Lucky Lee is a sizable exacta would be a solid play. But if you want to pin me down and make me pick one, I'll side with Lucky Lee, who made such a nice impression at Parx that I have to wonder if he might be something special.

Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II)

Question: What do Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, Classic Empire, and Enticed all have in common?

Answer: They were all graded stakes winners making their seasonal debuts in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and despite being perceived as clear class standouts, they were all beaten at odds of 0.90-1, 1.00-1, 0.50-1, and 1.90-1. That's four clear favorites getting beaten in the span of just seven years, and a fifth favorite (Frosted) was upset at 1.50-1 in 2015.

The Holy Bull can be a strange race, often favoring the "now" horse over established stars. And that's just one reason why I'm seriously tempted to oppose heavy favorite #8 Maximus Mischief in Saturday's renewal of the 8.5-furlong race.

On paper, the son of Into Mischief is clearly the horse to beat. Only one of his nine rivals has posted a Beyer speed figure as high as 90, but Maximus Mischief has exceeded that number in all three of his starts. He posted a 94 breaking his maiden at Parx, a 98 when winning a seven-furlong allowance race over the same track, and a 97 when scoring a 2 ¼-length triumph in the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct (a race that came back speed-favoring on the Racing Flow scale, as mentioned earlier).

Maximus Mischief's main weapon is his terrific early speed, though under the right circumstances he can ration it out; in the Remsen he settled nicely while pressing slow fractions, then accelerated strongly in the final three furlongs to win clearly in the end.

But there's no guarantee that Maximus Mischief will settle again in the Holy Bull. He was very green in his allowance victory, bearing out sharply early on while fighting the restrain of his rider, and he's been a bit speed-crazy during his morning workouts at Gulfstream Park. His five-furlong workout in :58.02 on January 19th was eye-catching from a time perspective, but Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form reported on Twitter that Maximus Mischief got off to a flying start and clocked the first three furlongs in a blazing :33.13 before tiring through a final quarter in :24.84. He didn't gallop-out particularly well either, easing up through six furlongs in 1:13.22.

Maximus Mischief obviously has a world of talent, and if he relaxes nicely in the Holy Bull it will be tough for anyone to beat him. But drawing post eight with a short run to the first turn means that Maximus Mischief might need to use his speed early on to secure good position, a possibility made even more problematic by the fact that he's surrounded both to his inside and his outside by fellow front-runners. Furthermore, Maximus Mischief will have to tote 122 pounds in the Holy Bull while conceding as many as six pounds to some talented rivals.

But if I'm going to take a shot against Maximus Mischief, who do I pick? #6 Mihos would be the obvious choice after winning the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park last month with a 90 Beyer, but I felt that he benefited from rallying into a pace that pretty much fell apart during the final quarter-mile. Case in point: Trophy Chaser was leading by 2 ½ lengths at the eighth pole before apparently concluding (despite the urgings of his jockey) that the race was over and proceeding to meander through the final furlong in :14.23 seconds, allowing Mihos to get up in the final strides and win by a neck.

Instead, I'm going to side with #2 Federal Case, who races for Gulfstream's perennial leading trainer and two-time Holy Bull winner Todd Pletcher. A son of Gemologist who sold for $180,000 as a yearling, Federal Case began his career under the care of Rodolphe Brisset, showing front-running speed to win his debut in determined fashion going "about" seven furlongs at Keeneland. It wasn't an overly flashy effort, but his closest pursuers (Locally Owned and Sharp Prospect) have both gone on to break their maidens, so the quality of the field was at least decent.

Following that race, Federal Case was sold for $650,000 at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. In his first start for Pletcher, Federal Case was a bit slow to start while facing three rivals in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park, but he recovered to press a steady pace and was relentless down the homestretch to wear down the front-running Frosted Grace and win by a neck with an 88 Beyer. Notably, Federal Case and Frosted Grace were really motoring around the far turn and through the homestretch, running the third quarter-mile in :23.69 and the penultimate furlong in :12.18. It's no wonder that they pulled thirteen lengths clear of their pursuers, and Frosted Grace ran well enough that he's been entered in Saturday's Swale Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park.

Again, there wasn't anything especially eye-catching about Federal Case's performance, but just like in his maiden run he was gritty and focused. He doesn't have any particular quirks or antics; in both of his races to date, he's run straight and true down the homestretch and gives the impression of being a professional, talented colt. He might need to step up his game a little bit to contend for victory in the Holy Bull, but he would hardly be the first Pletcher-trained three-year-old to make that kind of a jump in a Derby prep race at Gulfstream Park.

For good measure, Federal Case gets into the Holy Bull carrying just 116 pounds, and he'll have the services of top jockey Javier Castellano, who is winning at a 22% rate at Gulfstream. I hope to see Federal Case settle behind the leaders early on while saving ground from post two, and from there I think he'll have every chance to spring the upset.

Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III)

In my opinion, the condition of the track at Santa Anita could be the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the Robert B. Lewis. With plenty of rain in the forecast, there's a good chance that we'll wind up with a sealed, "wet fast" track, and when this occurs we're essentially transported back to 2011, when Santa Anita had just gone back to dirt and the track was as fast as any you'll ever see.

Need proof? Check out the results on January 12th at Santa Anita, when the track was sealed and wet-fast. In race one, a $40,000 claimer set fractions of :21.33 and :43.88 and won a 6 ½-furlong sprint in gate-to-wire fashion. In race two, the capable Savagery won a six-furlong allowance optional claiming race on the front end while posting fractions of :21.99 and :44.59. Race three? A $30,000 maiden claimer set fractions of :21.86 and :44.37 going seven furlongs and pulled away to win by 4 ½ lengths. The fourth race was a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight, and the winner somehow held on despite posting early fractions of :21.09 and :43.89.

A similarly fast and speed-favoring track would make #5 Mucho Gusto tough to beat in the Robert B. Lewis, not that he necessarily needs any help. Trained by Bob Baffert, who has won this race six times (including three renewals since 2013), Mucho Gusto has never been headed during the first six furlongs of a race, winning his debut and the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) in front-running fashion before setting the pace and ultimately finishing a clear second in the 8.5-furlong Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I), beaten only by his highly-regarded stablemate Improbable. If the track plays as I expect it to, Mucho Gusto should be long gone.

His main competition from a speed figure standpoint is #4 Gunmetal Gray, a late-running son of Exchange Rate who will have Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle. But while Gunmetal Gray boasts strong form lines against quality competition (including a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes last fall), I was a little disappointed by his performance in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita last month. On a day when heavy favorite Coliseum blew the start and the speedy Much Better did his best impression of crashing into a proverbial brick wall at the eighth pole, Gunmetal Gray capitalized on a final furlong timed in :14.10 seconds to rally from last place and win by a length over a track that was favoring closers all day long.

Granted, Gunmetal Gray won the race and you can't knock that, but the final time was slow and produced a Beyer of just 82. That's just two points faster than #6 Nolo Contesto ran while winning a quality one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita last month, and I'm inclined to think this John Sadler's trained colt might have more upside and a better chance to win the Robert B. Lewis than Gunmetal Gray.

Following a troubled fifth-place finish in his debut, which really wasn't a bad effort by any means, Nolo Contesto showed significant improvement while stretching out in distance. With top jockey Joel Rosario in the saddle, he got caught wide on the first turn, but soon settled into a pace-tracking position and unleashed a sustained rally to wear down the front-running Omaha Beach and win by a half-length, with the rest of the field eight lengths behind.

Notably, Nolo Contesto and Omaha Beach finished fast, running the final two furlongs in :12.32 and :12.85 seconds, and due in part to a speed bias the race came back with a CFR of 8 on the Racing Flow scale. To put it another way, Nolo Contesto ran a huge race to overcome his wide trip and run down the more favorably-positioned Omaha Beach.

As a son of Pioneerof the Nile—runner-up over a sloppy track in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and sire of such mud-loving stars as Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Midnight Storm—Nolo Contesto is bred to handle a wet track, and in a race that isn't exactly packed with front-runners, he should have enough tactical speed to secure an ideal trip stalking Mucho Gusto. Joel Rosario retains the mount, and for all these reasons I view Nolo Contesto as a much better play than Gunmetal Gray.

Of course, if the track is genuinely fast and speed-favoring it's going to be tough for Nolo Contesto to run down Mucho Gusto, but a straight Mucho Gusto/Nolo Contesto exacta could be an appealing play, and depending on how the tote board unfolds he might even offer value in the win pool. I'd want 4-1 or better (I really think Mucho Gusto should win this), but if you like Nolo Contesto I wouldn't talk you out of him at that price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the three Kentucky Derby prep races this weekend?


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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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