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
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.
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.
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
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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.