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
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
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
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
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
Lastly, RacingFlow.com 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
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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.