By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The Road to the Kentucky
Derby resumes this weekend with two early-season prep races: Saturday's
$150,000 Jerome S. at Aqueduct and Sunday's $100,000 Sham S. (G3) at Santa
Let's dive in and handicap
Jerome S. at Aqueduct
Eight horses have assembled
to contest the one-mile Jerome S., the second of five Road to the Kentucky
Derby qualifiers taking place at Aqueduct between December and April.
The first leg of the series
was the Dec. 3 Remsen S. (G2) contested over 1 1/8 miles, and while the victorious
Dubyuhnell has opted to skip the Jerome, the Remsen form is nevertheless
represented by game runner-up #6 Arctic
Any way you slice it, Arctic
Arrogance is a formidable Jerome favorite. He ran his heart out in the Remsen, setting
the pace over a sloppy track before battling on to finish half a length away
from victory. The Remsen was a fast race, and Arctic Arrogance pulled 11 1/4
lengths clear of third-place finisher Tuskegee Airmen, a previously undefeated
Arctic Arrogance's Remsen
run wasn't a fluke. Two starts back, he led virtually all the way to win the
one-mile Sleepy Hollow S. at Aqueduct by 4 1/2 lengths. Cutting back to one
mile (and dropping down in class from a Grade 2) should make Arctic Arrogance
tough to catch in the Jerome.
The only problem, and it
might not be a huge problem, is the fact the Jerome is absolutely stuffed with
speed on paper. #2 Circling the Drain, #3 Valenzan
Day, #5 Andiamo a Firenze, and #8 Narciso Dali have all done their
best work while setting or pressing the pace, so Arctic Arrogance risks getting
caught up in a duel for early supremacy.
Perhaps this can tilt the scales
in favor of #1 Neural Network, who
showed tractability in his debut sprinting seven furlongs against New York-bred
rivals at Aqueduct. Neural Network raced wide and settled as many as 2 1/2
lengths off the pace before finishing fast down the homestretch (final furlong
in :12.60) to trounce his pursuers by five lengths. This effort was flattered
when third-place finisher Drake's Passage returned to win his next start over
the same track and class level.
Neural Network is trained by
Chad Brown, who has been known to debut very good horses at Aqueduct. Preakness
S. (G1) winners Cloud Computing and Early Voting both got started at Aqueduct,
as did Brown's Kentucky Derby (G1) starters Shagaf and My Man Sam. With the
exception of the Wood Memorial, Brown has won each of Aqueduct's Road to the
Kentucky Derby qualifiers at least once, so it's common for Brown to saddle
live contenders in these winter prep races.
I'm optimistic Neural
Network has a lot of upside, and he figures to work out a favorable trip in this
speed-laden field. He's my pick to spring a surprise against Arctic Arrogance.
Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita
Hall of Fame trainer Bob
Baffert has won the Sham eight times, including the last three editions. Odds
are Baffert will pick up a ninth victory on Sunday, considering he trains four
of the six entrants in this one-mile race.
The favorite will almost
assuredly be Baffert's #2 National
Treasure, and for obvious reasons. National Treasure ran well in a couple
of starts on the Road to the Kentucky Derby last fall, finishing second in the
American Pharoah (G1) and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). Only two
horses have defeated National Treasure: Cave Rock and Forte, both multi-Grade 1
winners and likely Eclipse Award finalists.
But I'm going to think a
little outside the box and back #3 Speed
Boat Beach instead. The Florida-bred colt has compiled a decent record on
turf, sandwiching victories in the five-furlong Speakeasy S. and the one-mile
Cecil B. DeMille S. (G3) around a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Turf Sprint (G1).
But as a son of Breeders'
Cup Classic (G1) winner Bayern out of a mare by Kentucky Derby runner-up
Pioneerof the Nile, Speed Boat Beach is bred to shine on dirt. Even better, he
broke his maiden in resounding fashion on dirt, wiring a 5 1/2-furlong maiden
special weight at Del Mar in the track-record time of 1:01.86. Finishing second
that day was Hejazi, who came back to run third (3 1/2 lengths behind National
Treasure) in the American Pharoah.
Returning to dirt may
trigger a career-best performance from Speed Boat Beach, so I believe he can
upset his more heralded stablemate National Treasure.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in this week's Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers?
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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.