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
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
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.