By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
When analyzing the field for Saturday's $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at
Tampa Bay Downs, I'm struck by the fact that there is plenty of early speed entered
in this 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race.
Certainly the front-running sprinter #2 Going for Gold, making his first start beyond six furlongs, will be a major player on the front end while breaking from post two and
adding blinkers. #9 Well Defined will
also race with headgear for the first time, which could help this speedy son of
With Distinction return to the front-running tactics that secured him a 7 ½-length
win in the Florida Sire In Reality Stakes last September. And #10 Still Dreaming, while not a
one-dimensional front-runner horse, likes to race close to the pace and should be
involved from the outset while breaking from the far outside post position.
All this could potentially prove problematic for the
expected favorite #3 Knicks Go, who
is set to make his 2019 debut after enjoying a productive two-year-old campaign
last year. Knicks Go knows of only one way to run, and that is fast from the
get-go. That style reaped great dividends in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at
Keeneland, which he won in gate-to-wire fashion by 5 ½ lengths, and he
subsequently showed that he doesn't absolutely need the lead when employing pace-tracking
tactics to secure second place in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), where he
finished behind only the future two-year-old champion Game Winner.
The Juvenile marked a career-best effort for Knicks Go. He
posted a 90 Beyer while coming home a length in front of future Kentucky Jockey
Club Stakes (gr. II) Signalman, with the rest of the field another six lengths behind.
My only concern is this—did Knicks Go's big performance knock him out?
The reason I wonder is because Knicks Go seemingly ran
his heart out in the Juvenile. He was absolutely dead-game in the homestretch
while trying to hold off Game Winner's late charge; indeed, Knicks Go was
trying so hard that he couldn't even maintain a straight course, drifting
outward gradually (and then sharply) through the lane. It had to be a draining effort,
and when Knicks Go returned three weeks later to contest the Kentucky Jockey
Club, he failed to threaten after pressing the pace and retreated to finish
eleventh, beaten 18 lengths.
Maybe he was coming back too soon, or maybe he didn't
care for the sloppy, sealed track. But Knicks Go regressed sharply off his
Juvenile effort, and I wonder what kind of performance we'll see from him in
the Sam F. Davis. His layoff since the Kentucky Jockey Club should do him good,
but the pace scenario of the Sam F. Davis could be challenging, especially for
a horse who will tote top weight of 124 pounds. His work tab is also a little
slim; he's been training fast (including a bullet five-furlong move in :58 2/5
on January 26th), but he's only posted three workouts in preparation
for Saturday's race. Since Knicks Go will be favored, perhaps at a short price,
I'm inclined to take a shot against him.
One runner who could benefit from a quick pace is #6 Kentucky Wildcat, a beautifully-bred
son of Tapit out of the Grade 1-winning Ghostzapper mare Better Lucky. He's
shown steady improvement since his debut at Saratoga last summer, where he finished
sixth behind Code of Honor sprinting six furlongs. When Kentucky Wildcat
stretched out to 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park, he ran evenly to finish third
behind the capable King for a Day, and he stepped up his game again when
tackling a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct on December 1, winning by half a
length over the eye-catching next-out maiden winner Country House.
I was particularly impressed by Kentucky Wildcat's maiden
victory at Aqueduct because he didn't enjoy the best of setups. He was caught
wide around the turn while trying to rally into slow fractions of :24.68 and
:49.14, but he actually struck the front by the time the field turned for home
and he was quite game holding off Country House through the homestretch.
RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 8 on their
1-to-100 scale, indicating that front-runners had the advantage from a pace
perspective, so I thought Kentucky Wildcat ran very well to rally and win with
his wide trip.
Notably, the race also came back fast on the Beyer scale;
Kentucky Wildcat received an 86, and the strength of the field was reiterated when two
of the also-rans (Midnight Curfew and Baffin Bay) joined Country House in
winning their next starts.
If Kentucky Wildcat is able to settle kindly behind a
fast pace in the Sam F. Davis, I think he'll take another step forward and
contend for victory in his stakes debut. He'll be carrying just 118 pounds, six
less than Knicks Go, and with five workouts under his belt since the start of
the year, he should be fit and ready to roll for the high-profile owner/trainer
team of Godolphin and Tom Albertrani. He's my choice to post the upset.
Another runner that I would seriously consider is #4 Cave Run, who races for Godolphin
and trainer Eoin Harty. As a son of Street Sense out of a Bernardini mare, Cave
Run is bred to thrive running long, so it was noteworthy that he won his debut
sprinting six furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs by 6 ¼ lengths, earning an 86 Beyer.
Subsequently, Cave Run seemed to take a step backward
when finishing a distant third in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, but that was
a fast race (the winner threw down a 99 Beyer while breaking the track record)
and Cave Run made a noteworthy middle move into the teeth of a :22.42 second
quarter-mile, gaining three lengths to run that fraction in approximately :21.90
seconds. It's understandable that he flattened out from there, and I'm tempted
to think that he could step up his game significantly if he runs a more even
race while stretching out around two turns on Saturday.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Sam F. Davis
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the fifth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.
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.