Two Plays for December Derby Preps

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

The Road to the Kentucky Derby will take a couple of sharp turns on Saturday, December 7 when Aqueduct and Los Alamitos host the $200,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) and $250,000 Remsen Stakes (G2).

Both races offer Kentucky Derby qualification points, and both can boast impressive rosters of winners over the last dozen years. Since 2007, Into Mischief, Pioneerof the Nile, Lookin At Lucky, Shared Belief, Dortmund, Mor Spirit, and McKinzie have all prevailed in the Los Alamitos Futurity, while Court Vision, To Honor and Serve, Overanalyze, Honor Code, Mo Town, and Catholic Boy have been among the future stars to prevail in the Remsen.

Only time will tell if the 2019 editions of the Los Alamitos Futurity and Remsen Stakes will produce stars of similar caliber, but the fields certainly look promising on paper. Let's dig in and come up with a couple of plays:

Los Alamitos Futurity (G2)

Trainer Bob Baffert has won all five editions of this race since it moved to Los Alamitos in 2014, so it's natural to assume his promising up-and-comers #3 Thousand Words and #4 High Velocity will be tough to beat. The latter is more accomplished, having won the seven-furlong Bob Hope Stakes (G3) in gate-to-wire fashion, but the inexperienced Thousand Words is the horse handicappers will be talking about.

Purchased for $1 million as a yearling, Thousand Words is a son of Pioneerof the Nile out of the multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter Pomeroys Pistol. This classy combination of stamina and speed produced a winning debut on October 26 at Santa Anita. Favored in a 6 ½-furlong dash, Thousand Words settled a couple lengths off a fast pace before rallying to edge the promising Thunder Code by a half-length, earning a solid 88 Beyer speed figure.

Thousand Words has trained sharply for the Los Alamitos Futurity and will race with blinkers for the first time, a highly successful angle for Baffert, who strikes at a 34% rate with such runners. But while Thousand Words is an obvious contender, he figures to face a stiff challenge from #1 Anneau d'Or.

From a pedigree perspective, Anneau d'Or is bred top and bottom to thrive over classic distances. A son of noted stamina influence Medaglia d'Oro, Anneau d'Or's dam is Walk Close, winner of the 1 3/16-mile Modesty Handicap (G3) on grass at Arlington Park. In turn, Walk Close is a daughter of Tapit, who has sired three winners of the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (G1).

Anneau d'Or was an impressive debut winner running a mile on grass at Golden Gate Fields, powering clear down the lane to score by eight lengths over next-out winner Final Final. Anneau d'Or then switched to dirt for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and handled the huge class jump with aplomb. After rating in third place early on while racing wide, Anneau d'Or rallied boldly around the far turn and battled down the stretch on even terms with eventual winner Storm the Court. While Anneau d'Or crossed the wire a head behind in second place, for all practical purposes he ran every bit as well as the winner.

Prominent speed figure makers disagreed on the strength of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Anneau d'Or received a modest 87 Beyer, but an eye-catching 102 Brisnet speed rating. As I noted a few weeks back, I'm tempted to upgrade the Beyer figure for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and credit the top finishers for coming home relatively fast over a deep and tiring track.

Granted, it could still be tough for Anneau d'Or to deny Baffert's 1-2 punch. But I think the long homestretch at Los Alamitos will favor Anneau d'Or's stamina-oriented pedigree, which certainly served him well over the testing track conditions for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. With a bit of luck while breaking from the rail, Anneau d'Or can track High Velocity and get the jump on Thousand Words when the real running begins.

Remsen Stakes (G2)

There's a staggering lack of speed in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes. Nine horses have been entered, but not one has ever set the pace in any race over any distance. Who will secure the early lead in this field full of patient pressers and closers? Your guess is as good as mine.

I do suspect #8 Alpha Sixty Six will be prominent from the outset. Conditioned by two-time Remsen-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, Alpha Sixty Six is likely better than his bare form suggests.

Alpha Sixty Six ran a deceptively big race in his debut on September 7 at Belmont. Favored in a 6 ½-furlong maiden sprint, Alpha Sixty Six stayed within striking range of a modest early pace, then closed gamely into fast finishing fractions to win by a neck. The runner-up finished eight lengths clear of the rest, and Alpha Sixty Six sprinted the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about :30 flat, a strong fraction. The slow early/fast late race shape led to assign the event a Close Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 9 on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a notably speed-favoring race.

Unfortunately, Alpha Sixty Six didn't get a chance to show his best when stepping up in class and distance for the one-mile Champagne Stakes (G1). When the gates opened, Alpha Sixty Six—breaking from the rail—brushed with longshot Truculent, who took a left-handed turn out of the gate. This caused Alpha Sixty Six to duck inward and lose his momentum. By the time he settled back into stride, he had conceded the front-runners about five lengths.

Despite this setback, Alpha Sixty Six gradually worked his way back into contention while racing wide around the turn. In the stretch he briefly ran up on the heels of eventual third-place Big City Bob, prompting jockey John Velazquez to hit the brakes and guide Alpha Sixty Six still farther outside. Plenty of horses would have given up at this point, but Alpha Sixty Six re-rallied with interest. While he ultimately crossed the wire in fifth place, he missed the runner-up spot by just three-quarters of a length.

As a son of Liam's Map out of a mare by Giant's Causeway, Alpha Sixty Six should have sufficient stamina to handle 1 1/8 miles. John Velazquez retains the mount, showing faith in this $400,000 yearling purchase, and Pletcher will remove the colt's blinkers in search of an improved performance.

I'm optimistic Alpha Sixty Six will get off to a better start in the Remsen and settle within a couple lengths of the early pace. From there, the resilience he showed in the Champagne should make him tough to pass in the Aqueduct homestretch.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Derby preps?


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

Recent Posts

More Blogs