By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Could an ordinary allowance
race wind up producing the winners of two Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races
this week? It might seem unlikely, but this is horse racing, and stranger
things have happened.
With less than two months
remaining until the Run for the Roses, the prep race action is really heating
up around the world. The Japanese and European routes to the Derby will wrap up
with Wednesday's Japan Dirt Derby (local G1) at Oi Racecourse and Sunday's Ballysax
(G3) at Dundalk in Ireland. But we'll focus our attention on the stateside
action, starting with Wednesday's Indiana Derby (G3) at Indiana Grand and
Saturday's Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland.
Strangely enough, an allowance
optional claiming race held on June 13 at Churchill Downs could have an
outsized impact on both the Indiana Derby and the Blue Grass. Just four horses
contested the 1 1/16-mile race, but the quality of the field was high, and the fractional
times suggest the race was stakes-caliber in nature.
The winner of the allowance event
was Art Collector, an improving son
of Bernardini who has crossed the wire first in his last three starts on dirt.
The rapidly-improving colt is 2-for-2 this season, decisively defeating stakes
performers Toledo, Wrecking Crew, and Acre in a 7-furlong allowance sprint at
Churchill before stretching out in distance for the June 13 allowance race.
And wow, did Art Collector
ever relish the chance to run long! After carving out steady but not
particularly imposing fractions of :24.59, :48.43, and 1:12.46, Art Collector
unleashed a freakish burst of speed, rocketing the fourth quarter in :23.07 and
the final sixteenth in :05.82 to dominate by 6 1/2 lengths. His final time of
1:41.35 missed the track record by just 0.31 and produced an eye-catching 100
Beyer speed figure.
One can argue that Art
Collector received an ideal setup, escaping with a fairly easy lead in a small
field. That's true, but we see horses carve out similar fractions and falter
all the time. In contrast, it's highly uncommon for horses to sprint home in
:28.89 in a dirt route, and Art Collector looked fantastic while doing so,
running straight and true while merely hand-ridden by jockey Brian Hernandez.
Of course, Art Collector's
fantastic finishing speed made it impossible for late runners to have any
chance at victory; RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio
(CFR) of 4 on their 1-to-100 scale, indicating a pace flow highly disadvantageous
to late runners. For this reason, I'm also intrigued by the distant runner-up Shared Sense.
A Godolphin homebred trained
by Brad Cox, Shared Sense trailed the field for six furlongs, but produced a
determined rally down the stretch to finish second over Arkansas Derby (G1)
third-place finisher Finnick the Fierce and
three-time graded stakes performer Necker
Island. Even in defeat, Shared Sense earned a career-best 89 Beyer.
Shared Sense has been
repeatedly compromised by unfavorable conditions this season. If you toss out
his defeats in the War Chant Stakes on turf and the Smarty Jones Stakes over a
speed-favoring muddy track, the form of this stoutly-bred colt looks solid.
Three starts back he produced a determined rally to win a 1-mile allowance race
at Oaklawn, and as a juvenile he competed admirably against a bevy of future stakes
All this leads us back to
the upcoming Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races. Shared Sense and Necker
Island are entered to compete in the Indiana Derby, while Art Collector and
Finnick the Fierce are among the probable starters for the Blue Grass Stakes
(entries will be confirmed on Wednesday),
Both races will be tough
events with large fields, but I'm optimistic Art Collector and Shared Sense are
well-spotted to secure their first stakes triumphs. Shared Sense should relish
the opportunity to stretch out over 1 1/8 miles in the Indiana Derby, a race that
figures to unfold at a favorable tempo thanks to the presence of tried-and-true
front-runner Juggernaut plus the prominent speed horses Earner, Extraordinary,
and No Getting Over Me. Shared Sense fits perfectly in terms of Beyer speed
figures and should have every chance to produce the winning rally.
Art Collector will likely face
a tougher task in the Blue Grass, but there's no reason to think his speed and
finishing power can't win the day. The Blue Grass hasn't come up as tough as it
might have, since many of the nation's established 3-year-old stars are on the
sidelines or targeting other races. The potential field is also lacking in
serious pace players, with Florida Derby (G1) runner-up Shivaree looming as the
only horse likely to challenge Art Collector for early supremacy.
In a field without mush
speed, Art Collector should be able to work out a comfortable trip setting or
stalking the pace regardless of where he draws in the starting gate. Based on
the fantastic impression he made at Churchill Downs last month, I believe the
sky is the limit for Art Collector, an obviously gifted colt poised to develop
into a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
So there you have it—I plan
on playing Shared Sense in the Indiana Derby and Art Collector in the Blue
Grass. Who do you like in this week's Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races?
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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.