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
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
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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.