Backing the Iroquois Favorite? I’m Willing to Risk It

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 competitive contest.


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.

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