By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Prior to the running of the
$500,000 American Turf S. (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, there
was buzz that the race would rank among the best of the busy weekend. A stellar
field of 13 three-year-olds started in the 1 1/16-mile grass prize, and a
thrilling finish saw the top three finishers separated by half a length.
Those top three
finishers—Webslinger, Far Bridge, and Major Dude—are entered in three different
turf stakes this week. And if handicappers are correct that the 2023 American
Turf was an above-average race for its grade, then it's easy to envision it
turning into a key race that produces a bevy of next-out winners,
including—perhaps—three this week.
Let's check out the races in
which Webslinger, Far Bridge, and Major Dude are competing:
Pennine Ridge S. (G2) on Saturday at Belmont Park
three-year-olds are slated to race about 1 1/8 miles over the Belmont Park
inner turf course in the Pennine Ridge, a local steppingstone toward the
Belmont Derby (G1). Inaugurated in 2014, the Pennine Ridge has compiled a
decorated roster of winners during its brief history, with Breeders' Cup
Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Oscar Performance and Travers S. (G1) hero Catholic
Boy among the notable victors.
One of the most accomplished
horses in the 2023 Penning Ridge field is #4
Silver Knott, a Godolphin colorbearer conditioned by internationally
renowned trainer Charlie Appleby. Appleby's stellar 23-for-54 record in the
U.S. and Canada includes a staggering nine Breeders' Cup victories, six of them
achieved since 2021.
Silver Knott nearly gave
Appleby another Breeders' Cup win when he traveled to Keeneland for last year's
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but the bay colt failed by a nose to outkick
Victoria Road and settled for second place.
It's hard to knock Silver
Knott's Breeders' Cup performance, given that he rocketed his final
quarter-mile in approximately :22.12 and finished ahead of graded stakes
winners like Nagirroc, Mo Stash, and the above-mentioned Major Dude and
Webslinger. And while Silver Knott disappointed in his 2023 debut, finishing
11th in the historic 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket, it's possible he didn't
handle the soft ground—last year, he finished a distant third in the Champagne
(G2) over soft ground, sandwiching that defeat between Group 3 stakes wins over
I would consider Silver
Knott a lock to win the Pennine Ridge if not for the presence of #8 Far Bridge, a beautifully bred son
of English Channel out of the Kitten's Joy mare Fitpitcher. I believe Far
Bridge is one of the most talented young turf horses in training, as I outlined
after he effortlessly swallowed 11 rivals to win a $75,000 allowance optional
claimer at Gulfstream Park.
Far Bridge suffered his
first defeat from three starts when beaten a nose in the American Turf S. (G2)
at Churchill Downs last month, but I thought he ran well under tricky
circumstances, rallying through tight quarters along the inside to narrowly
miss against the wide-rallying winner Webslinger.
Far Bridge has drawn the far
outside post position in the Pennine Ridge, setting the stage for an
unencumbered journey. On his best day, I believe he has a sharper turn-of-foot
than Silver Knott, so I'm optimistic Far Bridge can use his acceleration to get
the jump on Silver Knott and snatch top honors in the Pennine Ridge.
Audubon S. on Saturday at Churchill Downs
If I like Far Bridge to beat
Silver Knott in the Pennine Ridge, then I have to like #7 Webslinger to beat an
easier group of rivals in the Audubon racing 1 1/8 miles over the Churchill
Webslinger may have been a
22-1 longshot when he beat Far Bridge in the American Turf, but there was
nothing unremarkable about his form. The Mark Casse trainee won the Nownownow
S. at Monmouth Park as a juvenile, competed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf
(finishing 11th by four lengths), and entered the American Turf off top-three
finishes in the Colonel Liam S. at Gulfstream Park and the Transylvania S. (G3)
In both the Colonel Liam and
the Transylvania, Webslinger was gamely gaining ground down the homestretch,
even while squaring off against tough competition. In the Transylvania, for
example, he finished two lengths behind Mo Stash (fourth in the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile Turf) and one length behind 2022 Futurity (G3) winner Nagirroc, who
came right back to nab the James W. Murphy S.
Webslinger has already
defeated three of his six Audubon rivals, and his proven affinity for the
Churchill Downs turf course is a positive. He's clearly the horse to beat while
dropping into the ungraded ranks for the Audubon.
Penn Mile S. (G2) on Friday at Penn National
The Penn Mile has been known
to produce upsets. Force the Pass (2015) and Moon Colony (2019) sprung 9-1 surprises
in the one-mile grass contest, while Wow Whata Summer (2022) shocked the world
But I don't see the 2023
Penn Mile producing an upset. In fact, I'll be a bit surprised if anyone
manages to take down #2 Major Dude (8-5).
The morning line favorite won the Pilgrim S. (G2) as a juvenile and nabbed the
Kitten's Joy S. (G3) during the winter at Gulfstream, so he's already proven on
a couple of occasions that he's capable of competing at the graded stakes
Major Dude's last two races
have been his best. He joined the Road to the Kentucky Derby with a respectable
runner-up finish in a fast renewal of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on Tapeta,
beaten only by next-out Kentucky Derby runner-up Two Phil's. Lacking enough
qualifying points to guarantee a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate,
Major Dude instead opted to enter the American Turf, where he tracked the early
pace before battling on down the homestretch to finish third by half a length
against Webslinger and Far Bridge.
Major Dude is sticking to
turf for the Penn Mile, and four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz
retains the mount. What's not to like? His credentials are strong, and he's
coming out of a key race.
The only horse I can
envision giving Major Dude a fight is #8
Candidate (5-2), who beat Major Dude by 1 3/4 lengths in the one-mile Dania
Beach S. in January at Gulfstream. But Candidate subsequently finished behind
Major Dude in the Kitten's Joy, and a sixth-place finish in the Transylvania
ranks as his most recent start. He's eligible to bounce back with a stronger
showing in his first start as a gelding, but Major Dude has improved since
their meeting in the Dania Beach, so I'm inclined to think the Penn National
will produce a reprise of the Kitten's Joy outcome, with Major Dude leading
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the turf stakes for three-year-olds this week?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contest page—there's a new challenge every week! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)
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.