Mission is Hardly Impossible in the Jockey Club Derby

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

You have to give the New York Racing Association some credit. By inaugurating three new stakes races worth a combined $2.05 million and scheduling them for Saturday, September 7, they've taken a typically quiet post-Labor Day racing weekend and turned it into a can't-miss showpiece that will be broadcast live on NBC Sports.

The feature race of the afternoon is the $1 million Jockey Club Derby, a 1 ½-mile grass race for three-year-olds that serves as the third and final leg of the New York Racing Association's new "Turf Trinity," a rich series featuring the Belmont Derby (G1) and Saratoga Derby as its first two legs.

At first glance, the Jockey Club Derby might appear to be a rubber match between #3 Henley's Joy, who prevailed in the Belmont Derby, and #1 A Thread of Blue, victorious in the Saratoga Derby. The two colts both have their virtues, and of the pair, my preference is for Henley's Joy.

My logic is straightforward. In the 1 3/16-mile Saratoga Derby, A Thread of Blue benefited from securing a completely uncontested lead over a firm, fast turf course. After waltzing along on the front end through slow fractions of :23.62, :48.54, and 1:12.32, A Thread of Blue had plenty left in the tank to accelerate the final three-sixteenths of a mile in :16.59 seconds, a blazing fraction that compromised the chances of late runners like Henley's Joy.

Speaking of Henley's Joy, he endured a tricky setup in the Saratoga Derby. After breaking from the rail, he got shuffled back slightly in the run to the first turn and wound up racing in ninth place, some seven lengths off the pace. Given the slow early/fast late nature of the race, Henley's Joy had no realistic chance to rally and win, so he deserves some credit for gaining 2 ¾ lengths in the final furlong to finish fifth.

The key to Henley's Joy is that he's a grinder. He doesn't have the blazing turn-of-foot needed to unleash a huge rally from the back of the pack. Case in point? He's gone 3-for-3 when racing less than two lengths off the lead at the first call and 1-for-9 when rallying from farther behind. When Henley's Joy is able to assume a forwardly-placed position—as was the case in the Belmont Derby—he can relentlessly sustain his run and out-grind his opponents to the finish line.

There's hardly any speed entered in the Jockey Club Derby, so it's possible A Thread of Blue could shake loose on another uncontested lead. But with luck, Henley's Joy won't be far behind, and the 1 ½-mile distance could be a great equalizer. As a son of Kitten's Joy, Henley's Joy should relish the opportunity to stretch his legs over this extended distance.

But although I respect Henley's Joy and expect him to turn the tables on A Thread of Blue, I don't view him as the most likely winner. I'll certainly use him in multi-race wagers (along with the similarly pace-compromised Saratoga Derby runner-up #8 Digital Age), but for win purposes, I'm excited to play the European shipper #9 Spanish Mission.

If the Jockey Club Derby becomes a test of stamina, Spanish Mission shouldn't be found wanting. The son of Noble Mission was a decisive winner of the 1 5/8-mile Bahrain Trophy (Eng-III) at Newmarket two starts back, edging Nayef Road by four lengths over a good-to-firm course.

Spanish Mission subsequently performed well under challenging circumstances in the 1 ½-mile Qatar Gordon Stakes (Eng-III) at Goodwood. Racing over a rain-softened "good" course that wasn't his preference, Spanish Mission didn't get the clearest run down the homestretch, but nevertheless battled on to finish third by a neck against Nayef Road and Aidan O'Brien's capable Constantinople.

Spanish Mission could have been a realistic contender for the 1 ¾-mile St. Leger Stakes (Eng-I) on September 14 at Doncaster, the third leg of the British Triple Crown. But prompted by a search for firm turf, Spanish Mission's connections have instead elected to send their colt to Belmont Park for the Jockey Club Derby, where he's one of just two runners in the field to have previously negotiated 1 ½ miles.

Spanish Mission's proven stamina is an asset, and he would be an appealing play even if he were trained by Joe Blow. But quite to the contrary, Spanish Mission is conditioned by David Simcock, who has compiled an extraordinary record of success with his North America shippers.

Consider the following—since 2011, Simcock has compiled a 19-5-1-4 record in North America. His five victories have come with Trade Storm (winner of the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile), Sheikhzayedroad (winner of the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes), I'm a Dreamer (winner of the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes), Desert Encounter (winner of the Grade 1 Canadian International Stakes), and Caspar Netscher (winner of the Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes). None of Simcock's winners were favored, and betting all 19 of his runners to win would have yielded a hefty +68% ROI.

In other words, when Simcock ships a runner to North America, it's wise to sit up and take notice. Spanish Mission appears well-spotted to outrun his inconsistent America rivals and nab a rich prize over a distance favorable to his stamina.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Jockey Club 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.

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