Three Races, Three Picks at Del Mar

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

Although Saratoga figures to attract most of the attention this week thanks to its stakes-packed Saturday card, I would be remiss for failing to highlight the excellent day of racing Del Mar has assembled for the same afternoon.

Eleven races are on the agenda, and there's something for everyone. Kentucky Derby contenders, unraced 2-year-olds, older Grade 1 stakes performers—the card features plenty of a variety and promising horses, so let's dig in and review three of the most interesting races:

Race 2: Shared Belief Stakes

With #1 Uncle Chuck slated to scratch in favor of a start in next week's Travers (G1) at Saratoga, you can bet #5 Honor A. P. will be an overwhelming favorite to win this 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race.

I suppose you could argue Honor A. P. might not be fully cranked for a peak performance in the Shared Belief. After all, he's already qualified for the Kentucky Derby thanks to his impressive triumph in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), which saw him cruise to the finish line 2 3/4 lengths clear of next-out Haskell (G1) winner Authentic. Why tighten the screws for the Shared Belief when the race is merely a steppingstone toward a greater goal—the coveted Kentucky Derby?

But even something less than Honor A. P.'s best might be sufficient to win the Shared Belief. This son of Honor Code is abundantly talented and has shown steady improvement under the patient care of trainer John Shirreffs. In the Santa Anita Derby, Honor A. P. threw down impressive speed figures—a 102 Beyer for starters, but also a 108 Brisnet Speed rating coupled with triple-digit Brisnet E1, E2, and Late Pace ratings. It's rare for a horse to earn triple-digit numbers in every Brisnet category, so for Honor A. P. to achieve this feat is a testament to his impressive ability.

With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle, Honor A. P. can keep his positive momentum going in the Shared Belief. The lightly-raced #6 Cezanne—a $3.65 million auction purchase under the gun to pick up Kentucky Derby qualification points—might put up a fight in his third start for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. But I expect Honor A. P. to land in the Del Mar winner's circle, quite possibly preceding a career-defining triumph on the first Saturday in September.

Race 3: Maiden Special Weight

You can always count on Baffert to debut talented 2-year-olds at Del Mar each summer. His 6-for-23 (26%) record last year was excellent, though it paled in comparison to the otherworldly 12-for-19 (63%) record Baffert compiled with juveniles during the summer of 2018.

Baffert's first 2-year-old starter of the meet—actually, his first of the year—will come with #5 Freedom Fighter in Saturday's third race, a five-furlong maiden dash. Though Freedom Fighter sold for just $120,000 as a yearling, he's bred to be a fast and early-maturing sort capable of winning on debut. Sire Violence won the CashCall Futurity (G1) as a juvenile and sires a lofty 20% debut winners, while dam Canadian Ballet was a stakes-winning 2-year-old who matured into an accomplished turf sprinter, competing in two editions of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

Owned by the extensive partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Golconda Stables, Siena Farm, and Robert E. Masterson, Freedom Fighter has shown plenty of speed in the mornings at Del Mar. He breezed five furlongs from the starting gate in a bullet :59 2/5 on July 10 and most recently cranked out another bullet move on July 25, going a half-mile from the gate in :47 flat. Drayden Van Dyke has the mount, and while Freedom Fighter is slated to face some promising rivals—chief among them #8 Vittorio, a $750,000 auction purchased conditioned by the successful trainer of 2-year-olds Simon Callaghan—all signs suggest Freedom Fighter is sitting on a winning debut.

Race 10: Bing Crosby (G1)

When I first examined the field for the 6-furlong Bing Crosby, I was keen to play against expected favorite #4 McKinzie. The four-time Grade 1 winner was scheduled to cut back in distance to just 6 furlongs—the shortest journey of his career—while simultaneously making his debut at Del Mar. Considering McKinzie has finished out of the money in two of his three runs this season, opposing him in the Bing Crosby seemed like a logical strategy.

But then it was announced that McKinzie will scratch, a development that makes the Bing Crosby somewhat less appealing from a betting standpoint. McKinzie was bound to start at odds-on, so his absence will significantly lower the prices available on the remaining nine starters.

Without McKinzie in the mix, favoritism could fall to the 3-year-old #9 Collusion Illusion, who is 4-for-4 sprinting after cruising to victory in the 6 1/2-furlong Lazaro Barrera (G3) at Santa Anita last month. #6 Fashionably Fast also warrants respect after finishing second behind McKinzie in the 7-furlong Triple Bend (G2), which snapped a six-race win streak for the 5-year-old California-bred.

But the horse I'm really intrigued to play is #3 Desert Law. A somewhat delicate 6-year-old trained by Carla Gaines, Desert Law was in great form last summer, dominating Santa Anita's six-furlong Thor's Echo Stakes with a 100 Beyer before rallying to finish second by just half a length in the Bing Crosby.

Desert Law recently returned from a 10 1/2-month layoff to finish a deceptively strong third in the 2020 Thor's Echo. Reserved in last place behind fractions of :22.33 and :45.06, Desert Law showed late interest to rally and finish third, beaten two lengths. Desert Law has trained sharply in the interim, so with a prep run under his belt, he can take a step forward and challenge for an upset victory.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like this week?


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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

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