By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
How time flies! It seems like yesterday we were hashing
out the controversial outcome of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, and now here we are
just two days away from the start of the Road to the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
The much-anticipated series kicks off on Saturday with
the $200,000 Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at
Churchill Downs. The Road to the 2020 Kentucky Oaks will also get underway with
the $200,000 Pocahontas Stakes (gr. II) for
In addition, the Iroquois and the Pocahontas offer "Win
and You're In" berths to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup
Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), respectively, so there's a lot on the line this
Let's dig in and come up with a couple of plays for the
Stakes (gr. II)
For years, prominent Kentucky trainer Kenny McPeek has
quietly been working magic in the Pocahontas Stakes. Every year since 2013,
he's saddled exactly one filly in this 1 1/16-mile "Road to the Kentucky Oaks"
prep race. None were favored, yet every last one finished in the trifecta,
including the 2015 and 2016 winners Dothraki Queen and Daddys Lil Darling.
The impressive part is how similar these fillies looked
on paper. Five of the six had already run around two turns prior to the
Pocahontas, usually on grass. Dothraki Queen and Daddys Lil Darling shared
another common trait—they debuted without Lasix, but added the medication for
Adding Lasix has been a strong angle for McPeek in recent
years, particularly when saddling juveniles stepping up in class. Remember
Cairo Cat, winner of the 2018 Iroquois Stakes (gr. III)? And Restless Rider,
dominant winner of the 2018 Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I)? They were both McPeek
runners racing on Lasix for the first time.
All this is a roundabout way of saying I'm excited to
play #6 Morning Gold in the
Pocahontas Stakes. Although she's never run on dirt, she's pretty much a
perfect match for the profile of a ready-to-roll McPeek juvenile.
Morning Gold debuted in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special
weight on grass at Saratoga, where she raced in fourth place early on behind
extraordinarily slow fractions of :25.61, :52.15, and 1:16.75. The situation
was so extreme that RacingFlow.com eventually assigned the race a Closer
Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 1 on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a race that
fell within the top 1% of speed-favoring events.
Under the circumstances, Morning Gold performed well to
rally and finish second behind the pace-tracking winner Sweet Melania. Even
better, Morning Gold left the pace-tracking, next-out winner Lucky Jingle 4 ¾
lengths behind in third place.
With this promising debut under her belt, Morning Gold
had little difficulty scoring a gate-to-wire victory over the same distance at
Saratoga on August 11. With Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz in the
saddle for the first time, Morning Gold powered clear to score by 5 ¼ lengths.
Notably, the third-place finisher—Micheline—came right back to win the Sorority
Stakes going a mile on turf at Monmouth Park.
Morning Gold's proven success racing around two turns
should come in handy in the Pocahontas, where she's one of just two fillies to
boast this experience. Jose Ortiz will retain the mount, and Morning Gold will
race on Lasix for the first time this Saturday. As a daughter of Morning Line
out of an Indian Charlie mare, Morning Gold is bred to handle dirt just fine,
so the surface switch shouldn't be a concern, especially since Morning Gold has
tactical speed and has drawn in the outer half of the field. With luck, she'll
never even have to deal with kickback.
The best part is that Morning Gold's lack of experience
on dirt figures to boost her odds. Although she's listed as the 3-1 co-favorite
on the morning line, I expect her odds to drift up a bit, and I'm looking
forward to playing her in the Pocahontas.
Stakes (gr. III)
One-hit wonder, potential superstar, or something in
between? You can make a case for placing #8
Dennis' Moment in any of these categories, but one thing seems certain—he's
the most exciting young runner entered to race anywhere in the country on
Sold for $400,000 as a yearling, Dennis' Moment received
plenty of wagering support in his debut at Churchill Downs, but the Dale
Romans-trained colt clipped heels while trying to challenge for the lead and
lost his rider. On the bright side, Dennis' Moment remained on his feet and
showed great mental maturity to stay focused of running and rally under his own
power to cross the wire in a photo finish for "victory."
Off this troubled but promising debut, Dennis' Moment was
favored at 9-10 to win a seven-furlong maiden race on July 27 at Ellis Park,
and he delivered on those lofty expectations with a stellar performance.
Breaking like a rocket from the starting gate, Dennis' Moment casually assumed
the lead through fractions of :22.92 and :45.84 and effortlessly widened his advantage
on the turn. At the top of the stretch he was eight lengths in front, and he
more than doubled his margin in the final furlong, ultimately prevailing by 19 ¼
This jaw-dropping performance came back fast from a Beyer
speed figure perspective. Dennis' Moment's final time of 1:21.95 missed the
track record by less than three-fifths of a second and produced a 97 Beyer, the
highest assigned to any two-year-old so far in 2019.
From some perspectives, you can argue Dennis' Moment might
be vulnerable to regression in the Iroquois Stakes. RacingFlow.com assigned his
maiden win a CFR of 1, so technically the race came back as an extremely
Normally I would play against a short-priced front-runner
emerging from a speed-favoring race, but I'm tempted to make an exception with
Dennis' Moment. The speed-favoring nature of his maiden win wasn't the result
of a slow early pace—quite to the contrary, Dennis' Moment went out quick in
his debut, posting back-to-back :22.92 quarter-mile fractions.
Instead, the speed-favoring nature was the result of Dennis'
Moment's extraordinarily fast finish. The talented colt sprinted the third
quarter-mile in :23.97 and the final furlong in :12.14, powerful fractions for
a young two-year-old.
Juveniles who can finish genuinely fast on dirt are an
uncommon commodity, and when they can produce a fast finish off an honest pace,
you have to wonder if you're looking at a potential star. Certainly Dennis'
Moment's recent workouts suggest he's something special—he's posted three
straight bullet workouts at Churchill Downs, clocking five furlongs in the
increasingly fast times of 1:00 1/5, :59 3/5, and :58 4/5. As a son of Tiznow
out of an Elusive Quality mare, the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Iroquois
shouldn't be an issue, and drawing post eight should allow him to work out a
Granted, there won't be a ton of value in playing Dennis'
Moment on top. But if you can identify the right horses to use underneath in
the exotics (perhaps #4 Rowdy Yates and
#2 Letmeno, the 1-2 finishers in the
Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes?), you might be able to boost the payoff into a more
In any case, I'm excited to see what Dennis' Moment can
accomplish on Saturday. If he romps to another dominant victory, we'll be
looking at the early favorite for the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pocahontas and
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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.