A Golden Moment at Churchill Downs

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 juvenile fillies.

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 Saturday.

Let's dig in and come up with a couple of plays for the feature events:

Pocahontas 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 the Pocahontas.

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.

Iroquois 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 Saturday.

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 lengths.

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 speed-favoring event.

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 clean trip.

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 appealing range.

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 Iroquois Stakes?


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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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