By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Another day, another stakes race for 3-year-olds at
Oaklawn Park, another short-priced favorite from the barn of Hall of Fame
trainer Bob Baffert. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered
racing at many tracks throughout North America, it's comforting to know some
things never change.
When 13 sophomores assemble for Saturday's $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes (G2), you can
bet your bottom dollar #4 Thousand Words
will start as the favorite, even while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles for
the first time. A son of Pioneerof the Nile out of the graded stakes-winning
sprinter Pomeroys Pistol, Thousand Words has long been a highly regarded
prospect, selling for $1 million as a yearling.
Under Baffert's care, Thousand Words showed plenty of
grit and potential in his first three starts. Never a flashy type, Thousand
Words instead boasts resilience and determination as his greatest weapons. He
won his debut sprinting at Santa Anita by a hard-fought half-length, stretched
out around two turns to claim the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) by a neck, and
battled through a bit of traffic to claim the Robert B. Lewis (G3) by
three-quarters of a length.
But the quality of competition Thousand Words defeated
during his initial string of success has come into question. The Los Alamitos
Futurity (G2) runner-up Anneau d'Or was a quality 2-year-old, previously finishing
second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), but the Juvenile hasn't been the
strongest race and Anneau d'Or misfired in his only run since the Los Alamitos
Futurity, finishing ninth in the second division of the Risen Star (G2).
Similarly, Robert B. Lewis runner-up Royal Act was
nowhere to be found in the Louisiana Derby (G2), finishing a distant ninth. And
Thousand Words himself came up short when facing tougher company in the San
Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, weakening on the final turn to finish fourth behind
stablemate Authentic, promising maiden winner Honor A. P., and Breeders' Cup
Juvenile winner Storm the Court.
Thousand Words is facing somewhat easier competition in
the Oaklawn Stakes, but stretching out to 1 1/8 miles could be a question mark
since his female family is more about speed than stamina. From a Beyer speed
figure perspective, Thousand Words has the numbers to be competitive, but his
career-best 92 from the Robert B. Lewis isn't unbeatable by any means. A few of
his rivals have posted similar or better figures, and several others could
reach the low-90s with only a little improvement.
Ultimately, what I'm driving at is I'm not overly enthusiastic
about playing Thousand Words at a short price. Yes, Baffert has historically
been super strong at Oaklawn (he's 2-for-3 this year alone), and Thousand Words
is clearly the established class of Saturday's field. But I expect him to drop
from his 5-2 morning line odds, and considering how he misfired in the San
Felipe, I'd want a bigger price before playing him to win.
But logical alternatives are hard to find. I'll oppose #1 Basin and #2 Coach Bahe, who finished third and fifth in the Rebel (G2) at
Oaklawn last month; both received perfect setups from a pace perspective, but
couldn't close ground when the real running began. Remington Springboard Mile
winner #6 Shoplifted is consistent,
but seemingly exposed against this level of competition and more likely to hit
the board than reach the winner's circle. #8
Taishan was a dominant allowance winner running 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn
last month, but he benefited from securing an uncontested lead over a sloppy
track. #9 Digital boasts solid
Beyers, but has weakened from the eighth pole to the wire his two route runs
and might be better going shorter than 1 1/8 miles.
Instead, I'll look to the far outside for potential upset
candidates. #12 Farmington Road and #13 Gold Street offer contrasting
running styles and can vie for victory depending on how the pace unfolds.
Gold Street has already struck once on the Road to the
Kentucky Derby, securing a gate-to-wire victory in the 1-mile Smarty Jones
Stakes at Oaklawn on Jan. 24. He did benefit from setting a slow pace over a
speed-favoring track, a big reason why he was able to score by 2 3/4 lengths
with a 95 Beyer. But it was almost certainly a more accurate portrayal of his
talent than his last-place effort in the Southwest, where the speedy colt got
buried behind runners early on before retreating steadily through the field.
The weather could be the key to Gold Street's chances.
The son of Street Boss is 3-for-3 on wet tracks, winning all by at least 2 3/4
lengths, and 0-for-4 on dry footing. There's rain in the forecast for Saturday,
but it's unclear whether the wet weather will arrive early enough to trigger a
sloppy track for the Oaklawn Stakes. If the track does come up wet, expect to
see jockey Tyler Base send Gold Street to the front and play a game of "catch me
if you can." Even over 1 1/8 miles, Gold Street could prove difficult to reel
in over his preferred footing.
But on a dry track, the advantage could shift to Farmington
Road, who will carry just 118 pounds—six fewer than Thousand Words and Gold
Street. Conditioned by Todd Pletcher, who has gone 8-for-18 at Oaklawn since
2018, Farmington Road has shown flashes of promise since stretching out around
two turns. After breaking his maiden in comfortable fashion at Tampa Bay Downs,
the son of Quality Road tackled 1 1/8 miles in the first division of the Risen
Star Stakes and closed in gamely down the stretch to finish fourth, beaten just
two lengths for the runner-up spot.
The pace of the Risen Star was slow (RacingFlow.com assigned
the race a speed-friendly Closer Favorability Ratio of 11 on their 1-to-100
scale), and it's possible Farmington Road will receive a better setup on
Saturday. Gold Street figures to gun from the gate while marooned in post 13, and
Mine That Bird Derby winner #5 Sir Rick could
be aggressive too. Even if the pace turns out to be modest, Farmington Road might
be able to adapt and stay more involved early on while wearing blinkers for the
Sealing the deal for me is the presence of jockey Martin
Garcia in the saddle. He's been riding strongly at Oaklawn this winter,
striking at a 19% rate while winning with all types of horses. Front runners
and deep closers with both inside and outside trips—Garcia is seemingly riding
all with equal aplomb. I'm optimistic Farmington Road will receive the trip he
needs to challenge, and if he steps forward at all off his deceptively good
effort in the Risen Star, he can spring a 6-1 upset.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Oaklawn
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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.