By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
On Aug. 14 at Saratoga, a
seemingly ordinary seven-furlong allowance race produced an outcome that may
have an outsized impact on a pair of graded stakes this weekend.
Six weeks out from the
Breeders' Cup, talented three-year-olds will take center stage in a handful of
rich events. For colts and geldings specifically, there's Saturday's $1 million
Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing and Sunday's $400,000 Oklahoma Derby
(G3). Both races have drawn strong fields filled with proven stakes competitors,
but might a couple of unheralded runners from the above-mentioned Saratoga
allowance steal the shows?
Let's dig in and find out!
Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing
Even though #9 Medina Spirit (2-1) is expected to
scratch, the Pennsylvania Derby is still shaping up to be the best race of the
week. Six of the nine remaining entrants in the 1 1/8-mile test are proven
graded stakes winners, while two others have scored at the stakes level.
#7 Hot Rod Charlie (5-2)
will likely start as the favorite. The consistent son of Oxbow won the
Louisiana Derby (G2) during the spring before placing in both the Kentucky
Derby (G1) and Belmont S. (G1). In the latter race, Hot Rod Charlie carved out
a testing pace before settling second behind division leader Essential Quality,
with Preakness S. (G1) hero Rombauer 11 1/4 lengths back in third place.
The Pennsylvania Derby will
provide Hot Rod Charlie with an opportunity to claim his first Grade 1 win.
It's an achievement he nearly nabbed in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell S. (G1) two months ago;
Hot Rod Charlie actually battled across the Haskell finish line in front by a
nose, but was ultimately disqualified for drifting in and causing #8 Midnight Bourbon (5-1) to unseat his
Speaking of Midnight
Bourbon, the Preakness S. (G1) runner-up bounced back nicely from the Haskell to
finish second in the 1 1/4-mile Travers S. (G1) at Saratoga, beaten only a neck
by Essential Quality. But Midnight Bourbon did enjoy a perfect trip setting
uncontested fractions of :24.18, :48.96, and 1:14.49, and I'm not sure he'll receive
as favorable a setup in the Pennsylvania Derby. Hot Rod Charlie also has speed and
put it to good use in the Louisiana Derby, where he out-dueled Midnight Bourbon
to win by two lengths.
Among the two favorites, I
prefer Hot Rod Charlie. But ultimately, I have to take a shot with #3 Speaker's Corner (12-1) as my top
choice, even though he's the only non-stakes winner in the field.
A beautifully bred son of
Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense out of a mare by Preakness hero Bernardini,
Speaker's Corner showed promise in two starts against maiden special weight
company last year. After finishing third in his debut at Saratoga, the
Godolphin homebred rallied gamely to win a seven-furlong event at Belmont Park.
His beaten rivals included Smarty Jones S. and Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up
Caddo River, Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner Greatest Honour, Wood Memorial
(G2) winner Bourbonic, Travers S. (G1) third-place finisher Miles D, and Manila
S. winner Original.
subsequently spent 10 months on the sidelines before returning to action in a
seven-furlong allowance at Saratoga—yes, the allowance we mentioned in the
intro. Showing improved tactical speed while tracking quick early fractions,
Speaker's Corner was full of run down the homestretch, seizing command and
powering clear to dominate by 5 1/4 lengths.
Stepping up sharply in class
and distance for the Pennsylvania Derby will be a challenge for Speaker's
Corner, but he might just be up to the task. The Bill Mott trainee has already
beaten good horses and may receive a favorable pace setup if Hot Rod Charlie
and Midnight Bourbon hook up early on. If Speaker's Corner actually starts at
12-1 (I have my doubts), I believe he'll offer solid betting value in this
Oklahoma Derby (G3)
Speaker's Corner wasn't the
only horse returning from a long layoff in the Saratoga allowance. Oklahoma
Derby entrant #6 Defeater (12-1) was
exiting from a six-month break, and while the son of Union Rags failed to
challenge Speaker's Corner, he did run a gallant race in defeat. After breaking
slowly, Defeater unleashed a sharp mid-race move while racing wide to reach
contention. He understandably flattened out a bit down the lane, but still held
second over the capable sprinter Mahaamel.
This effort marked Defeater's
first start since February, when he closed ground furiously to finish second in
a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds, beaten just half a
length after gaining 5 1/2 lengths through the final furlong.
Slow starts have been a
trouble spot for Defeater, who has never got off to a particularly alert break.
But I'm excited to see what his stretch-running talents can accomplish in the
Oklahoma Derby. The chestnut colt has been training sharply and figures to
improve in his second start off the layoff, opening the door for a competitive
effort. Arkansas Derby (G1) winner #1
Super Stock (7-2), Texas Derby winner #3
Warrant (5-2), and West Virginia Derby (G3) hero #7 Mr. Wireless (3-1) are all accomplished rivals with obvious win
credentials, but there's a fair amount of speed in the Oklahoma Derby field,
and Defeater may receive just the setup he needs to spring a surprise.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the graded stakes 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.