By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
It's shaping up to be a quiet weekend for racing in North
America, not surprising after the all-out excitement of the November 1-2
Breeders' Cup World Championships. And since final entries and post positions
have yet to be drawn for the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) in Japan, you can all
celebrate—you'll be spared my lengthy analysis of international runners you've
never heard of!
Instead, let's turn our attention toward the 2020
Kentucky Derby. I thought now might be a good time to share a few meandering
thoughts I've had in recent days about promising juveniles and the Derby trail
Without further ado...
Cup races produced unusual times, Beyer speed figures
Going over the results of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and
Juvenile Fillies, I was struck by the stark difference in the winning times.
The Juvenile Fillies, which featured a quick early pace, absolutely fell apart late
and produced a final time of 1:47.07. In contrast, the Juvenile—which unfolded
at a more modest early tempo—held together better down the lane and produced a
significantly faster final time of 1:44.93.
This large difference should have been reflected in the
Beyer speed figures, but this wasn't the case. Based on the charts published in
Andrew Beyer's book Beyer On Speed, Juvenile
winner Storm the Court should have
earned a figure approximately 30 points higher than Juvenile Fillies victor British Idiom. Instead, Storm the Court
was assigned an 87, while British Idiom received a 79.
Looking at all the Beyer figures for November 1, it
appears the Beyer team may have split the track variant, determining that the
Santa Anita main track sped up as the day progressed. And I should add that I
don't necessarily disagree with the figures—when you try and make the math work
for a 30-point difference, you wind up with speed figures that don't make a
whole lot of sense.
But for my personal handicapping purposes, I'm tempted to
disregard the official figures, retain a single track variant, and take the
30-point gap with a grain of salt. To make my personal numbers work, I'll lower
the figure for the Juvenile Fillies to 70. Yes, this would mean the top four
finishers all regressed off their previous form, but that correlates with what
I saw visually on track. The early pace was destructively fast, and the top
four finishers were staggering down the lane. Over the slow and tiring track, I
believe they did regress.
In contrast, I'll assign Storm the Court a 100 Beyer. This
does mean that the top three finishers all improved their speed figures
sharply, but I don't think this is as big a stretch as it seems. Storm the
Court clearly ran out of his skin. Runner-up Anneau d'Or, a powerful debut winner on Tapeta at Golden Gate
Fields, obviously thrived in his first run on dirt. And third-place finisher Wrecking Crew, a son of the stoutly-bred
long-distance runner Sky Kingdom, may have improved while stretching out in
distance for the first time.
The official Beyer figures might wind up being better
indicators of long-term potential than my adjusted figures; for example, I
fully expect the Juvenile Fillies participants to bounce back with better
numbers when facing less challenging circumstances down the road, in which case
the 79 gives you a better idea of what to expect next time out.
But I also believe the performances of Storm the Court
and Anneau d'Or may have been underappreciated. Over a slow and tiring track,
they held together surprisingly well in the homestretch. Brisnet actually
assigned Storm the Court a speed rating of 102, which lends some credence to my
In any case, it's going to be an interesting winter on
the Derby trail!
Flat outran expectations
There's a reason why Japanese challenger Full Flat was an 89-1 shot in the
Breeders' Cup Juvenile. On paper, the son of Speightstown appeared overmatched,
even though his pedigree suggested he would enjoy the switch from turf to dirt.
Yet when the dust settled on November 1, Full Flat
emerged in fifth place, ahead of the two favorites while beaten just a neck for
Full Flat is hardly the first Japanese challenger to
outrun expectations in an American dirt race. Master Fencer was disregarded at 58-1 in the 2019 Kentucky Derby,
but rallied faster than anyone down the homestretch to cross the wire seventh, just
2 ¼ lengths behind the eventually upgraded winner Country House. Nor was the quirky
Lani disgraced during his 2016
Triple Crown campaign, finishing ninth in the Derby, fifth in the Preakness,
and finally third in the Belmont Stakes, where he was beaten just 1 ½ lengths.
Here's the scary part—there are better horses than Full Flat,
Master Fencer, and Lani in Japan. Full Flat is hardly a standout from his
juvenile crop. Master Fencer had been beaten by several other prospects on the
Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. Lani was promising, but no match for Gold
Dream, who continues to race on at the Grade 1 level in Japan.
This leads to an obvious question—what will happen when a
truly top-class Japanese three-year-old tackles the Kentucky Derby? I'm tempted
to believe the right colt could spring a massive upset at Churchill Downs,
particularly as racetracks in North America shift toward deeper, slower racing
surfaces similar to the dirt tracks in Japan.
Suffice to say, I'll be keeping a close eye on the Japan
Road to the Kentucky Derby this winter.
Stakes form took a hit
Last week wasn't a memorable one for horses exiting the
September 14 Iroquois Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs. While Iroquois winner Dennis' Moment had an excuse for his
last-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile—he stumbled severely at the
start—Iroquois runner-up Scabbard was
decidedly flat when finishing fourth in the Juvenile, beaten 7 ¾ lengths. And the
Iroquois form took another hit on November 3 when third-place finisher Lebda faded to finish last in the
Nashua Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct.
The Iroquois was a highly-rated race on the speed figure
scales, with Dennis' Moment earning a 90 Beyer and a 98 Brisnet speed figure.
But until further notice, it might be wise to call the strength of the race
Hall broke records at Aqueduct
Speaking of the Nashua Stakes, how impressive was the
victory by Independence Hall? Coming
off an easy maiden win at Parx Racing, Independence Hall parlayed a
pace-tracking trip into a blowout 12 ¼-length victory at Aqueduct.
By every metric, Independence Hall ran a huge race. His
margin of victory was a record for the Nashua Stakes, and by sprinting the
final quarter in :24.42, the son of Constitution recorded a fast final time of
1:34.66, also a stakes record.
For his effort, Independence Hall earned a 101 Beyer, the
highest assigned to any juvenile so far this year. If there's one area of his
performance you can knock, it was his run down the homestretch—he wasn't very
professional, weaving around in reaction to the whip. But it's clear this
Michael Trombetta-trained colt has an abundance of talent, and he'll be a fun
prospect to watch.
Now it's your turn! What are your thoughts on the Derby
trail as we head into winter?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
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.