Three Stakes Picks to Close Out July

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

July is set to wind down in style with a bevy of competitive stakes races at Del Mar and Saratoga.

Let's dig in and explore three of the most important events:

Curlin S. at Saratoga

Who is the most talented three-year-old colt entered to race at Saratoga this week? Most will side with Essential Quality, the heavy favorite to win the Jim Dandy S. (G2) on Saturday (see below). But I'm tempted to vote for First Captain, who makes his two-turn debut in Friday's Curlin S. at the Spa.

Sold for $1.5 million as a yearling, First Captain brings a perfect 3-for-3 resume to the table, highlighted by a 1 3/4-length score in the Dwyer S. (G3) at Belmont last month. The fact First Captain is undefeated around one turn is significant when you analyze his pedigree, which is geared top and bottom toward success over classic distances. The chestnut colt is a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of the A.P. Indy mare America, a graded stakes winner racing 1 1/16 miles.

Both Curlin and A.P. Indy are stamina influences, so I can't wait to see how First Captain performs over 1 1/8 miles in the Curlin S. Stretching out around two turns will surely help his chances, but the Shug McGaughey trainee might not find his best stride until he hits 1 1/4 miles—the distance of next month's Travers S. (G1) at Saratoga. I think there's a chance we'll see First Captain nab a lucrative stakes double at Saratoga this summer, beginning with the Curlin.

Jim Dandy S. (G2) at Saratoga

By far the most accomplished runner in the Jim Dandy field is Essential Quality. The champion two-year-old male of 2020 boasts a 6-for-7 resume highlighted by Grade 1 wins in the Belmont S. (G1), Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and Breeders' Futurity (G1). His lone defeat came with a wide trip in the Kentucky Derby (G1), and he ran out of his skin in the Belmont, running down the talented Hot Rod Charlie (who pulled 11 1/4 lengths clear of the rest) to score by a length in the snappy time of 2:27.11.

Most folks will view Essential Quality as a lock to win the Jim Dandy, but I'm not convinced he's 100% unbeatable. This is a steppingstone toward the Travers, and he won't necessarily be cranked for a maximum effort while exiting a hard race in the Belmont.

It's also worth noting classic winners have gone just 1-for-6 in the Jim Dandy over the last decade, with Belmont S. hero Palace Malice pulling out the lone victory in 2013. Along the way, such notable runners as Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tonalist have fallen to defeat at odds of 6-5 or shorter.

In other words, betting against classic winners in the Jim Dandy has been a pretty lucrative strategy. So why not take a shot against Essential Quality with #2 Masqueparade (4-1)? The rapidly improving Al Stall trainee obliterated a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Churchill Downs by 11 3/4 lengths before delivering a gritty victory in the Ohio Derby (G3) at Thistledown.

In the Ohio Derby, Masqueparade showed unwavering tenacity to run down Peter Pan S. (G3) winner Promise Keeper and hold off Lexington S. (G3) hero King Fury and Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) winner Keepmeinmind to prevail by half a length. The son of Upstart just keeps getting better, and one more step forward could put him in the hunt for a Jim Dandy upset if Essential Quality produces something less than his maximum effort.

Bing Crosby S. (G1) at Del Mar

There are plenty of logical contenders to choose from in the Bing Crosby, a six-furlong dash awarding a "Win and You're In" berth to the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). First and foremost, there's #3 C Z Rocket (5-2), runner-up in the 2020 Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). The three-time graded stakes winner has compiled a stellar 9-7-2-0 since being claimed by trainer Peter Miller last April.

Other major players include 2020 Bing Crosby winner #6 Collusion Illusion (4-1), the front-running California-bred #9 Brickyard Ride (7-2), and last year's Del Mar Futurity (G1) winner #8 Dr. Schivel (7-2).  But I'm tempted to oppose them all with #2 Vertical Threat (8-1).

A four-year-old son of Tapiture trained by Richard Baltas, Vertical Threat boasts a perfect 3-for-3 record in dirt sprints. At Del Mar last summer, he dominated the six-furlong Smiling Tiger S. by 5 1/4 lengths, showing a clear affinity for the local oval.

But Vertical Threat's most impressive performance came in the autumn, when he shipped to Mahoning Valley to contest the six-furlong Steel Valley Sprint S. On a day when the track was muddy and stretch-runners largely dominated, Vertical Threat was the only gate-to-wire winner on the card, and he achieved his victory with style. After carving out splits of :22.50 and :45.20, Vertical Threat pulled away impressively to win by 7 1/2 lengths.

Vertical Threat's final time of 1:09.68 produced strong speed figures, including a 112 Brisnet Speed rating that tops the Bing Crosby field. He hasn't run since, but he's been training steadily for his return, even clocking a bullet six furlongs in 1:12 4/5 over the Del Mar main track two weeks ago. At 8-1, I'm willing to bet Vertical Threat can outrun expectations in a big way off the layoff.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the major stakes this week?


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!

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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