Two Plays on a Busy Weekend of Derby Preps

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

Although the slate of Kentucky Derby prep races this weekend is a bit lighter than expected due to the indefinite suspension of racing at Santa Anita, there are still three big races on the agenda, with the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) at Tampa Bay Downs being the race that interests me most.

The 1 1/16-mile event presents an interesting quandary; specifically, what do we do with the 5-2 morning line favorite #7 Win Win Win? This son of Hat Trick has shown flashes of pure brilliance, but he's also developed a habit of breaking slowly and has never run farther than seven furlongs. He seems like a horse to play against while stretching out in distance, yes?

Then again, maybe we're looking at an above-average colt with a very bright future. From a pedigree perspective, there's no reason to think Win Win Win can't stretch out around two turns—his dam sires Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones both won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. And Hat Trick, while not exactly a staying sensation, had sufficient stamina to win two Group 1 races going a mile on turf, in addition to a smaller race going nine furlongs.

Win Win Win first showed signs of being something special when he won a 5 ½-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Laurel Park on December 7. After pressing the early pace, Win Win Win seized the lead and unleashed such a devastating turn-of-foot that he could hardly maintain a straight course. In the blink of an eye, Win Win Win was 6 ½ lengths in front, and while Laurel Park is known for producing fast finishing fractions, Win Win Win's fifth furlong in :11.09 seconds and final sixteenth in :05.69 were nevertheless extraordinary fractions.

Win Win Win was subsequently beaten in the seven-furlong Heft Stakes, but he endured a troubled trip that day, breaking slowly from the gate before unleashing a big mid-race move, running the second quarter-mile in approximately :22 1/5. He might have won except that he wound up racing in tight quarters along the rail in the homestretch, eventually finishing 1 ½ lengths behind the three-time stakes winner Alwaysmining.

Following this brief setback, Win Win Win shipped to Florida to contest the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, where he ran a hole in the wind. Another slow start left him eight lengths off the early pace, but then Win Win Win unleashed a tremendous :21 2/5 second quarter-mile fraction to get back in contention. He should have flattened out after making such a remarkable mid-race move, but instead, he blew past the leaders and pulled away to win by 7 ¼ lengths, running the final furlong in :12.15 to stop the clock in the track record time of 1:20.89 seconds. Even over a track that was playing fast, this was a strong performance that came back fast on the speed figure scales.

Since the Pasco, Win Win Win has posted a series of quick workouts at Tampa Bay Downs, including a :59 1/5 breeze from the starting gate on February 24th that was the fastest time of the morning by more than a second. If he can get away from the starting gate more alertly, he doesn't need to employ late-running tactics in the Tampa Bay Derby; he showed in his first two starts that he can be very effective racing close to the lead, so with luck he could find himself racing within a couple lengths of the expected pacesetter #5 Well Defined in the early going. From there, I think Win Win Win's seemingly abundant talent can carry him to victory.

Speaking of Well Defined, he hasn't gotten much respect for his front-running victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs, but he was much the best in a strung-out field that day and should be a threat on the front end once again. Similarly, #4 Dream Maker rates a strong chance after returning from a layoff with a powerful 8 ½-length allowance optional claiming victory at Fair Grounds. Trained by Mark Casse, the son of Tapit had a couple troubled (and ultimately fruitless) runs in Grade 1 company last year, but he's shown plenty of potential and defeated two next-out winners (Courtyard and West Texas) at Fair Grounds.

Meanwhile, I'll oppose the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) fourth- and fifth-place finishers #2 Sir Winston and #1 Admire; neither seemed to do much running in the Gotham, and I don't trust the Beyer speed figures they were assigned, as I personally had the race rated several points slower.

Likewise, I'm tempted to play against #6 Outshine. Trained Todd Pletcher has won four of the last six renewals of the Tampa Bay Derby (and wins with seemingly every horse he ships to this track), but Pletcher's current three-year-olds have been quiet for months. They've gone 0-for-5 in graded stakes races this year, with only one cracking the trifecta, and last year they went 1-for-16 on dirt in graded stakes company, with the lone victory coming from Sombeyay in the Sanford Stakes (gr. III) at Saratoga. Outshine has shown potential, recently returning from a long layoff to win a seven-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park, but he wasn't particularly dominant in that race and this is a pretty big step up in class and distance.

And before we sign off, I would like to briefly share a few thoughts on the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct. The even-money favorite on the morning line is #6 Instagrand, who looked like a star in the making as a two-year-old last year while winning his first two starts by a combined 20 ¼ lengths.

But take note, Instagrand is stretching out beyond six furlongs for the first time and returning from a seven-month layoff. There's also a chance that he'll catch a tough pace setup on Saturday; this front-running colt is one of five or six horses in the Gotham field who figure to be on the move early on, so Instagrand seems unlikely to secure an easy lead.

Lastly, notes that Instagrand received picture-perfect setups last year; they were both assigned Closer Favorability Ratios (CFRs) of "1" on a 1-to-100 scale, signifying events that fell in the top 1% of speed-favoring races. I might argue that they were speed-favoring because Instagrand showed an abnormal ability to finish fast—he ran the final furlong his debut win in :11.19 seconds—but with all the challenges he's facing, even-money seems like a pretty short price.

If you do want to play against Instagrand, I'm intrigued by the chances of #5 Haikal, one of just two confirmed stretch runners in the Gotham field. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Haikal is 2-for-3 so far (with his lone defeat coming by a neck) and showed a lot of determination to rally up the rail and win the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes last month. A lot of horses would have hesitated to run through such a small opening—watching the head-on replay, there was just barely room for Haikal to squeeze through-but this colt maintained a straight course and forged on to win by a neck. If the pace is fast on Saturday, which it should be, Haikal could be the one to capitalize at a nice price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Derby preps?


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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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