This Key Race Can Produce Three Winners This Week

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

Eight talented 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 good ground.

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 lawn.

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) at Keeneland.

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 at 83-1.

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 level.

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 home Candidate.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the turf stakes for three-year-olds 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.

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