One Favorite, One Price Play in Derby Preps

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

The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues on Saturday with a pair of competitive qualifiers on opposite coasts of the country.

The Sam F. Davis S. (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs and the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields have both drawn large fields. Let's dig in and handicap each race:

Sam F. Davis S. (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs

A deep group has assembled for the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis, with #3 Classic Causeway (3-1) looming as a logical favorite. What's not to like? The son of Giant's Causeway held his own against tough competition last season, carving out the pace to finish third in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) before switching to stalking tactics for a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2).

But is Classic Causeway the fastest horse in the Sam F. Davis? Not necessarily. In terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, #8 Shipsational (6-1) has posted faster figures running long, suggesting a mild upset could be in the offing.

A troubled fourth-place finish in the Funny Cide S. at Saratoga stands as Shipsational's only blemish from four starts. Otherwise, the son of Midshipman has been unstoppable. He was particularly sharp at Belmont Park last fall, winning the seven-furlong Bertram F. Bongard S. and the one-mile Sleepy Hollow S. in consecutive fashion.

Shipsational has pacesetting speed, but isn't a need-the-lead type, affording him options for working out a clean trip in the Sam F. Davis. Trainer Edward Barker has won with his lone starter at Tampa this year (the maiden claimer Idaka), and jockey Javier Castellano (10-for-25, 40% riding at Tampa since 2017) has been assigned the mount.

Some folks might point out Shipsational is stepping up in class; so far, he's run exclusively against New York-breds. But it's worth noting Bertram F. Bongard runner-up Senbei (winner of the Funny Cide) came back to dominate two other New York-bred stakes, so it's not like Shipsational has beaten unheralded rivals.

The other question facing Shipsational is the layoff; he hasn't run since October. But Idaka was likewise shipping in from Belmont and returning from a layoff, so there's reason to believe Shipsational will be primed for a peak effort off the break. Certainly his work tab looks solid; he even clocked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 at Tampa last month.

At 6-1, Shipsational looks like a fair bet to upset Classic Causeway in the Sam F. Davis.

El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields

Since the El Camino Real Derby transitioned to Golden Gate's synthetic Tapeta track in 2009, the 1 1/8-mile race has frequently been won by Southern California shippers with promising turf form. Rombauer (2021), Paved (2018), Frank Conversation (2016), Metaboss (2015), Dice Flavor (2013), Daddy Nose Best (2012), and Silver Medallion (2011) all fit this trend quite nicely.

That's why I'm keen to support #2 Mackinnon (8-5) in this year's edition of the El Camino Real Derby. His turf form is impeccable; in five grass runs against quality competition last season, Mackinnon never missed the trifecta. He came to hand nicely during the summer and fall, rallying to dominant victories in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf S. and Zuma Beach S. before finishing a game third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), beaten only 1 3/4 lengths.

But Mackinnon is arguably more than a turf horse. In the Sham S. (G3) over the Santa Anita main track last month, Mackinnon ran well to finish fourth, beaten less than a length for second place. The top three finishers were Newgrange (subsequent winner of the Grade 3 Southwest S.), Rockefeller (previously victorious in the Grade 3 Nashua S.), and Oviatt Class (third in the Grade 1 American Pharoah S.).

From a pedigree perspective, Mackinnon is bred to thrive over artificial footing. American Pharoah broke his maiden in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) on synthetic, while dam sire Scat Daddy sired major winners across all surfaces, including El Camino Real Derby winners Daddy Nose Best, Dice Flavor, and Anothertwistafate.

Throw in the fact trainer Doug O'Neill (2-for-6, 33% at Golden Gate this meet) won the 2016 El Camino Real Derby with the capable Southern California turf runner Frank Conversation, and Mackinnon looks like a standout in the El Camino Real Derby. I expect him to deliver victory at a short price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Kentucky Derby preps?


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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.

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