Maker Holds Strong Hand in Kentucky Turf Cup

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

Pretty much every year, or so it seems, the $1.7 million Kentucky Turf Cup (G2) at Kentucky Downs manages to defy expectations.

Maybe it's the rich purse, which annually attracts a large and competitive field. Maybe it's the race conditions: 1 1/2 miles over an undulating European-style turf course. Whatever the reason, only one favorite has prevailed in the last nine editions of the Kentucky Turf Cup, and that winning favorite (Da Big Hoss in 2016) was nabbing the Kentucky Turf Cup for the second straight year.

Now, we don't want to give the impression that the Kentucky Turf Cup churns out shocking upset winners every year. To the contrary, eight of the last nine winners started at single-digit odds. But favorites often fall to defeat against rivals offering at least marginally better prices.

We'll bank on that outcome unfolding in the 2023 Kentucky Turf Cup. The slim morning line favorite is #11 Therapist (7-2), an eight-year-old gelding who has turned his career around since being claimed in January by trainer Mike Maker. It should be noted that Maker has won five of the last eight editions of the Kentucky Turf Cup, and he saddled at least one trifecta finisher during his three losing years in that timeframe.

Therapist won his first two starts under Maker's care, including the 1 1/2-mile Pan American S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park. A couple of defeats followed, after which Therapist delivered a career-best performance in the 1 3/8-mile United Nations S. (G1) at Monmouth Park. Despite dropping as many as eight lengths behind a modest pace, Therapist charged boldly down the homestretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Therapist has turned in a trio of bullet workouts since the United Nations and looms as a logical win threat. But we prefer the chances of his older stablemate #2 Red Knight (4-1), who has likewise been on a hot streak since transferring to Maker's care.

As an eight-year-old in 2022, Red Knight won his first two starts for Maker, nabbing the 1 1/2-mile Colonial Cup before shipping to Kentucky Downs for the Kentucky Turf Cup. Overlooked as a 12-1 longshot, Red Knight rallied gamely from ninth place to beat three-time Grade 1 winner Gufo by a nose. That effort marked Red Knight's second exacta finish in the Kentucky Turf Cup; he ran second in 2020 when trained by Bill Mott.

Red Knight finished off the board in the Sycamore S. (G3) and Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) to wrap up 2022, but he's been better than ever at age nine. He kicked off 2023 with a comfortable score over next-out Mac Diarmida S. (G2) winner Value Engineering in the 1 1/2-mile William L. McKnight S. (G3), then parlayed a head defeat in the 1 1/2-mile Elkhorn S. (G2) into victory in the 1 3/8-mile Man o' War S. (G1). The Man o' War runner-up, Soldier Rising, has come back to place in two more Grade 1 stakes.

Shortening up to 1 1/4 miles for the Manhattan S. (G1) saw Red Knight slip to fourth place, and he closed ground too late when finishing third behind Therapist in the United Nations, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. Stretching back out over his preferred 1 1/2-mile trip figures to help Red Knight's chances in the Kentucky Turf Cup, and his proven affinity for the unique Kentucky Downs course may lend him an advantage over Therapist, whose lone start at Kentucky Downs yielded a fourth-place finish in a one-mile allowance last year.

There's another positive in Red Knight's favor: he'll be ridden by jockey Tyler Gaffalione, who has won more races at Kentucky Downs (42) than any other jockey since 2018. For all the reasons we've outlined, Red Knight is a compelling choice to spring a mild upset against Therapist and defend his Kentucky Turf Cup title.

For the minor awards, we'll highlight the third and final Maker trainee in the main body of the field, #6 Me and Mr. C (10-1). The six-year-old Florida-bred gelding has stepped up his game in recent starts, rattling off three consecutive stakes wins on turf and synthetic. He was particularly sharp in the 1 1/4-mile KY Downs Preview Turf Cup S. at Ellis Park last month, charging home between rivals to defeat 2022 Louisville S. (G3) winner #14 Cellist (10-1) by a neck in 1:57.94, equaling the course record.

Me and Mr. C is improving by leaps and bounds and may have upside for further progression while stretching out over 1 1/2 miles. Jockey Gerardo Corrales has compiled a solid 13-for-80 (16%) record riding at Kentucky Downs since 2018, so there may be a realistic chance for Maker to sweep the Kentucky Turf Cup trifecta.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky Turf Cup?


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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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