Favorites Appear Formidable at Kentucky Downs

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

The lucrative race meet at Kentucky Downs is underway, with the Saturday card shaping up to be a major highlight. Five stakes events worth a combined $3.2 million are on the slate, including the $1 million Kentucky Turf Cup (G3) and the $700,000 Runhappy Turf Sprint (G3).

Both races have drawn large and competitive fields, though bettors seeking longshot winners might be disappointed—the favorites look formidable. We might even see some record times, considering how the turf course has been blazingly fast and course records have been falling left and right.

Let's dig in and unlock some winners!

Kentucky Turf Cup (G3)

In theory, the 1 1/2-mile Kentucky Turf Cup should be a thrilling rematch between its last two winners: #5 Arklow (9-2), who captured top honors in 2018, and #10 Zulu Alpha (7-5), who defeated Arklow by 3 1/4 lengths in 2019.

But theory so often falls by the wayside in horse racing, and I'm skeptical whether the anticipated showdown will come about. With the exception of a runner-up effort in the Louisville (G3), Arklow has struggled this year, failing to challenge in three of his four starts. A slow pace compromised his chances in the July 18 United Nations (G1) at Monmouth Park, but in the end Arklow never really got going, trailing the leaders by at least five lengths at every call while settling for fourth place.

In contrast, Zulu Alpha has thrived this season, sandwiching victories in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), Pan American (G2), and Elkhorn (G2) around a narrow runner-up effort in the Pan American (G2). Conditioned by Mike Maker, who has won four of the last five editions of the Kentucky Turf Cup, Zulu Alpha has posted a bevy of triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings while trouncing his rivals over distances ranging from 1 3/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles.

I was particularly impressed with Zulu Alpha's triumph in the July 12 Elkhorn. The 7-year-old gelding had no business winning after settling eight lengths off the pace through slow splits of :25.56, :52.02, 1:18.14, and 1:43.20. But even as the pace accelerated sharply down the homestretch, Zulu Alpha unleashed a wicked turn-of-foot, sprinting the final quarter-mile in approximately :22 2/5 to defeat pacesetter Postulation by three-quarters of a length.

A repeat of this performance should land Zulu Alpha in the winner's circle under hot jockey Tyler Gaffalione, who has gone 5-for-15 (33%) to start the meet. For the exotics, Arklow is bound to receive support, but why not consider the chances of #12 Hierarchy (10-1)?

A son of five-time Grade 1-winning turf router Point of Entry, Hierarchy has shown gradual improvement since being claimed by Joe Sharp in June 2019. He's been especially strong as of late, rallying to victory in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs before finishing second in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Stakes at Ellis Park. In the latter event, Hierarchy came charging strongly from off the pace to finish second by half a length against five-time stakes winner Factor This, who returned to finish second in the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) on Kentucky Derby day.

Hierarchy has never tackled 1 1/2 miles, but his pedigree and past performances suggest the added distance won't be an issue. A Zulu Alpha/Hierarchy exacta strikes me as a promising play in the Kentucky Turf Cup.

Runhappy Turf Sprint (G3)

Maturity has done wonders for #4 Totally Boss (9-2), who looms as the horse to beat in the 6-furlong Runhappy Turf Sprint. Trained by Rusty Arnold, the bay gelding went 2-for-10 during his first two seasons of racing, but came to hand as a 4-year-old and put together an excellent 4-for-6 campaign in 2019.

Totally Boss was particularly effective on the Kentucky circuit, winning four of his five starts while missing by a troubled nose in his lone defeat. The son of Street Boss displayed a clear affinity for Kentucky Downs when employing pace-pressing tactics to win the 2019 Runhappy Turf Sprint by 1 1/4 lengths under jockey Florent Geroux, with graded stakes winner Leinster and Imprimis among his beaten rivals.

Totally Boss appears poised to defend his Turf Sprint title while returning to Kentucky Downs. After encountering traffic in his 2020 debut, Totally Boss fired off a big effort in the 5 1/2-furlong Shakertown (G2) at Keeneland, unleashing a powerful rally to fall a head short of catching Leinster. Stretching out over six furlongs in the Turf Sprint should be right up his alley, and Totally Boss will reunite with Geroux, a 20% winner at Kentucky Downs since 2015.

To me, this sounds like a recipe for victory. Totally Boss should be poised for a peak effort in his third start of the season, so at 9-2 I view him as a great win bet and a horse to single in multi-race wagers. How about a cold Zulu Alpha/Totally Boss double?

Now it's your turn! Who do you like at Kentucky Downs this weekend?


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!


Congratulations to Betty S on winning our sixth annual Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge! Considering the extra effort Betty put in to score the unexpectedly extended version of this contest, I can't think of a more deserving winner. Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page to view the final results!

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.

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