By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
If it seems like trainer Mike Maker wins the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Stakes (G3) every
time he turns around, that's because—well—he pretty much does.
Held at 1 1/8 miles of the synthetic Polytrack at Turfway
Park, the Jeff Ruby has carved out its own little niche on the Road to the
Kentucky Derby, awarding 20 qualification points to the winner. You won't find
many tried-and-true dirt runners tackling the Jeff Ruby, but even still, the race
tosses up an occasional Kentucky Derby contender. In 2011, Animal Kingdom
pulled off the Jeff Ruby/Kentucky Derby double, and in 2012 Went the Day Well
parlayed a victory at Turfway into a solid fourth-place effort at Churchill Downs.
But mostly, the Jeff Ruby has been an opportunity for
Mike Maker to showcase the depth of his stable. In 2006, the first year the
Jeff Ruby was conducted over a synthetic track, Mike Maker sprung a 48-1 upset courtesy
of With a City. Maker subsequently returned to the Jeff Ruby winner's circle
with Dean's Kitten (6-1 in 2010), Oscar Nominated (23-1 in 2016), Fast and
Accurate (24-1 in 2017), and Somelikeithotbrown (3-5 in 2019).
What's interesting is that all five of Maker's Jeff Ruby
winners had demonstrated strong form on turf prior to their successes over the
Turfway Polytrack. This is actually part of a greater trend; you have to go
back to 2009 to find a Jeff Ruby winner (the synthetic specialist Hold Me Back)
who hadn't shown at least some degree of promise on grass prior to winning
Turfway's signature race.
Maker will saddle a trio of runners in Saturday's renewal
of the Jeff Ruby, and one of them—#12
Field Pass—could be tough to beat. A stoutly-bred son of Belmont Stakes
(G1) winner Lemon Drop Kid, Field Pass showed plenty of potential as a
juvenile. In his maiden victory at Saratoga, Field Pass held off a late charge
from Decorated Invader, who went on to win the Summer Stakes (G1) at Woodbine.
Field Pass similarly went on to compete with aplomb against stakes company,
hitting the board in the With Anticipation Stakes (G3), Laurel Futurity, and
Bourbon Stakes (G3).
Field Pass looked better than ever in his 2020 debut. Somehow
overlooked at 12-1 in the 1-mile Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Field
Pass saved ground throughout, waited behind runners on the far turn, and then courageously
sliced his way between horses to rally and win by a neck. His margin of victory
was narrow, but with an unencumbered run, Field Pass might have won by more.
Judging from his pedigree, stretching out to 1 1/8 miles
should be no obstacle for Field Pass. Drawing wide should keep him out of
traffic, especially since Field Pass has the tactical speed to be involved from
the outset, and it helps that two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz
has accepted the mount. In short, I view Field Pass as the horse to beat.
Maker will also be represented by #3 Fancy Liquor and #7
Victory Boulevard. The latter, a former claimer, could be in deep while
stepping up in class off a series of dirt sprints, but Fancy Liquor could get involved
for the exotics at a big price. The son of Lookin At Lucky debuted on Feb. 2 in
a 1-mile maiden race over the Gulfstream turf course, leading all the way to
win by a head. His speed figures weren't remarkable, but the caliber of
competition Fancy Liquor defeated was noteworthy. Third-place finisher Proven
Strategies had finished fourth in the Summer Stakes (G1) and sixth in the
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), and one start after losing to Fancy Liquor, he
won a similar maiden race against Florida-breds by 3 1/4 lengths.
Beyond the Maker trio, #8 Finnick the Fierce and #11
Invader are the two to fear. Finnick the Fierce fired off a big effort in
the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs last fall, rallying
over a sloppy track to finish second against a tough field. The victorious
Silver Prospector later won the Southwest Stakes (G3), while third-place
finisher Tiz the Law returned to win the Holy Bull (G3) and fourth-place runner
Enforceable claimed the Lecomte (G3) in his next start.
I would normally hesitate to back a horse like Finnick
the Fierce in the Jeff Ruby, since he's never run over a turf or synthetic
track, but a blazing half-mile workout in :46 3/5 on Feb. 27 at Turfway
suggests this son of Dialed In has a good chance to handle the surface switch.
The Polytrack certainly won't be any issue for Invader, a
beautifully-bred son of War Front out of the Group 3-winning Galileo mare Say. Conditioned
by Turfway's leading trainer Wesley Ward, Invader has gone 2-for-2 over the
local Polytrack, breaking his maiden by 12 3/4 lengths on Fec. 4 before
powering to a 6 1/4-length score in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on Feb.
Invader's affinity for Turfway is appealing, and he has
the tactical speed to be right up on the pace under Turfway's leading jockey
Albin Jimenez. He'll have every chance to follow in the footsteps of Somelikeithotbrown
and sweep the John Battaglia/Jeff Ruby double.
Myamanoi, who finished less than a length behind Field Pass in
the Dania Beach, is another runner I'll consider for exotic wagers, along with #6 Halo Again, who won the 1 1/8-mile
Coronation Futurity over the synthetic track at Woodbine last fall.
So how do we turn all these opinions into winning
tickets? I suggest spreading deep in the trifecta, emphasizing Field Pass and
Invader while hoping to catch a longshot or two to boost the payoff:
$0.50 trifecta: 11,12 with 3,5,6,8,11,12 with
$0.50 trifecta: 3,5,6,8,11,12 with 11,12 with 3,5,6,8,11,12 ($20)
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Jeff Ruby
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.