By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Get ready! The 2023-24 Road
to the Kentucky Derby gets underway this Saturday with the running of the
$300,000 Iroquois S. (G3) at Churchill Downs.
If it feels like we're
standing on the precipice of something exciting, that's because we are. Next
year marks the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, a significant milestone
adding an extra layer of importance to the already legendary race. Who will win
the 150th Kentucky Derby? There's no way to know yet, but there's a chance the
winner is competing in the Iroquois.
Nine horses have entered the
Iroquois, which offers slightly different conditions than last year. The
distance has been shortened from 1 1/16 miles to one mile, which makes it a
one-turn race instead of a two-turn race. And the top five finishers will earn
Kentucky Derby qualification points on a 10-5-3-2-1 basis, shifting from the
10-4-3-2-1 split used in 2022.
There are many viable win
contenders in the entries, but I'm on the #8
Risk It (2-1) bandwagon. The son of 2017 Horse of the Year and hot sire Gun
Runner impressed in his Aug. 19 debut at Saratoga, wiring a six-furlong maiden
special weight by 4 1/2 lengths.
Risk It's performance was
impressive on the clock. He was the fastest out of the gate and set fractions
of :22.60 and :46.00 before finishing nicely (final two furlongs in :12.14 and
:12.61) to complete the race in 1:10.75, earning decent speed figures of 79
(Beyer) and 91 (Brisnet).
I'm optimistic we haven't
seen Risk It's best yet. He has the pedigree to stretch out over at least one
mile, so tackling a longer trip in the Iroquois offers potential for
improvement. He enters off a bullet five-furlong workout in 1:00.46 at
Saratoga, so he should be ready for another sharp run. And Risk It is
conditioned by three-time Iroquois-winning trainer Steve Asmussen, who has
named dominant Churchill Downs jockey Tyler Gaffalione to ride.
Ultimately, I view Risk It
as the type of colt who can develop into a 2024 Kentucky Derby candidate, so I
have to back him in his first Road to the Kentucky Derby foray. I think this
Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm colorbearer is an exciting
prospect with a bright future.
Who should we use underneath
Risk It? We could go a lot of different directions, but one of the most
intriguing contenders is #2 West
Saratoga (8-1), a son of Preakness S. (G1) winner Exaggerator. The gray
colt lost his first four starts sprinting against maiden special weight
competition on the Kentucky circuit, but improved with every try and actually
ran okay when second in a seven-furlong dash on July 21 at Ellis, beaten only
by next-out Hopeful S. (G1) runner-up Timberlake. The distant third-place
finisher, Can Group, flattered the form by returning to win his next start.
West Saratoga likewise
returned to win. In a one-mile maiden special weight on Aug. 5 at Ellis Park,
West Saratoga dashed to the front and held off stretch-running Generous Tipper
to win by 1 3/4 lengths in the solid time of 1:37.57. Generous Tipper pulled 13
3/4 lengths clear of the third-place finisher and returned to win his next
start over the same track, distance, and class level by 7 1/2 lengths, so it's
safe to say West Saratoga beat a good horse.
Speed figures share the perspective
that West Saratoga ran well in his maiden win; he earned an 81 Beyer and an 86
Brisnet. His 1-for-5 career tally might scare off some bettors, but West
Saraotga is improving by leaps and bounds and can't be counted out of the mix
while stepping up in class for the Iroquois. The fact he's already won racing
one mile adds to the appeal.
#3 Union Roll (5-1)
and #7 Gettysburg Address (12-1),
debut winners from the high-profile barns of Todd Pletcher and Brad Cox, are
other logical contenders. But so too is #9
Patriot Spirit (7-2), who debuted in a seven-furlong maiden special weight
at Colonial Downs last month. The son of two-time Grade 1 winner Constitution
tracked quick fractions from second place before taking over to dominate by six
lengths in 1:23.03.
In terms of Beyer and
Brisnet speed figures, Patriot Spirit is as fast as or faster than Union Roll
and Gettysburg Address, so he can't be dismissed from trifecta consideration
even while shipping in from Virginia. In fact, he's my third choice in this
1st: Risk It
2nd: West Saratoga
3rd: Patriot Spirit
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Iroquois?
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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.