Handicapping a Competitive Ohio Derby

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

One of my favorite races of early summer is the $500,000 Ohio Derby (G3) at Thistledown. As the first major stakes for three-year-olds taking place after the Triple Crown, the lucrative race typically attracts a competitive field dotted with Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness S. (G1) alumni.

Saturday's renewal of the Ohio Derby is no exception. The 1 1/8-mile prize has drawn eight entries, including three horses exiting the Kentucky Derby. Sorting through all this talent is easier said than done, but we'll give it our best shot.

The most accomplished horse in the field is doubtlessly #5 White Abarrio (7-2). As a juvenile, the son of Race Day won his first two starts against maiden and allowance company at Gulfstream Park before finishing third in a deep edition of the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) at Churchill Downs.

Returning to Gulfstream for his sophomore season, White Abarrio has no trouble trouncing a deep field in the Holy Bull S. (G3), beating next-out Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner Simplification and future Belmont S. (G1) winner Mo Donegal by 4 1/2 lengths. Then in the Florida Derby (G1), White Abarrio rallied from a couple lengths behind a hot pace to score by 1 1/4 lengths.

But White Abarrio came home slowly while drifting down the homestretch of the Florida Derby, and he subsequently faltered to finish 16th by a wide margin in the Kentucky Derby. He's adding Lasix for the Ohio Derby and is eligible to bounce back against an easier field, but White Abarrio may have less long-term upside than some of his Ohio Derby rivals, and the fact he's 4-for-4 at Gulfstream and 0-for-2 elsewhere is cause for pause.

#8 Classic Causeway (6-1) is another accomplished Ohio Derby entrant. The speedy colt finished ahead of White Abarrio when second in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and he led essentially all the way in both the Sam F. Davis S. (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) during the winter at Tampa Bay Downs.

But Classic Causeway regressed sharply in the Florida Derby, finishing last after carving out the fast early pace, and he subsequently finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby. After two sound defeats, the son of Giant's Causeway needs a form turnaround to challenge in the Ohio Derby, though it's encouraging to note he's been posting quick workouts in advance of his first start for trainer Kenny McPeek.

If you're concerned about the question marks surrounding White Abarrio and Tawny Port, then perhaps you can join me in supporting #7 Tawny Port (3-1) as the most likely winner. Conditioned by high-percentage trainer Brad Cox (who won the 2019 Ohio Derby with Owendale), Tawny Port ran an admirable race in the Kentucky Derby, launching a rally from 14th place before flattening out to finish seventh, beaten only 4 3/4 lengths.

Tawny Port's form leading into the Kentucky Derby was rock-solid. He finished fifth against a deep field in the Risen Star S. (G2) at Fair Grounds, counting future Kentucky Derby top-three finishers Epicenter and Zandon among his conquerors. Then Tawny Port switched to the synthetic Tapeta track at Turfway Park for the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), where he employed pace-tracking tactics to finish second behind four-time stakes winner Tiz the Bomb. Notably, next-out Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike finished 3 1/2 lengths behind Tawny Port in third place.

The Jeff Ruby was an admirable effort, but Tawny Port wasn't finished on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Back on dirt for the Lexington S. (G3) at Keeneland, Tawny Port rallied gamely from eighth place to defeat Iroquois S. (G3) winner Major General by one length.

Tawny Port has run well over a wide variety of racetracks and surfaces, so he's clearly capable of taking his game on the road. He's trained forwardly since the Kentucky Derby (even clocking a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Churchill Downs), and he'll be guided at Thistledown by three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz. In short, what's not to like?

Also worthy of respect in the Ohio Derby is #4 Ethereal Road (4-1). The close Rebel S. (G2) runner-up couldn't quite keep pace with Tawny Port when finishing fourth in the Lexington, but on May 21 he was much the best in the Sir Barton S. racing 1 1/16 miles at Pimlico, rallying from behind a solid pace to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

In terms of Brisnet Speed ratings, Ethereal Road hasn't run quite as fast as the Tawny Port, White Abarrio, and Classic Causeway. He also missed a scheduled start in the Belmont S. (G1) due to a quarter crack. But he bounced back to breeze a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 on June 13 at Churchill Downs, and if any of the Kentucky Derby alumni falter on Saturday, Ethereal Road can steal a spot in the exacta or trifecta.


1st: Tawny Port
2nd: White Abarrio
3rd: Ethereal Road
4th: Classic Causeway

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Ohio Derby?


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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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