I am still undecided as to my final Derby selections, thus diligently following workouts and awaiting the final composition and position of the Derby field before making a decision. For now, I am thoroughly enjoying the Keeneland meet, which ends on Friday. As a relatively new handicapper, I have, for the first time, followed one meet almost exclusively, race after race over a period of a few weeks, and while you would think after that time, picking winners would be relatively predictable, these past few days have seen a number of off-the-wall picks coming in for big payoffs (Slew’s Tizzy and Starbase as quintessential examples, and Jade’s Revenge in the Ben Ali today).
Friday’s first race at Keeneland is a $50K maiden for two-year-old fillies, and surprisingly, I have had good success betting this kind of race. The Patrick Byrne-trained Racing Quality, with Robby Albarado up, has four excellent workouts from the gate, and is extremely well bred (Elusive Quality-Racey Player, out of A.P. Indy). With Julien Leparoux up, Yayi looks to be a solid contender out of the red-hot stable of Dale Romans. She is out of the unraced Exploit mare Bad Religion who is a half-sister of G3 winner Popol’s Gold. Kent Desormeaux gets the ride on C.J.’s Leelee, whose trainer Ken McPeek is having an exceptional meet. She’s had two excellent workouts over the Keeneland surface. I also like Miss Mesa, whose sire Sky Mesa had his first winner yesterday with Twenty Eight Hours; her workouts are even better than his, and with Edgar Prado up, she looks live. If any of these four are scratched, I will also be looking at Steven Asmussen’s Sky Mom, who is the only previous starter, finishing a length behind Elocution on April 7. Her dam Swiftly Classic is a full sister to Canadian-bred stakes winners Classic Alliance and Sky Alliance. Asmussen also trains Dubit, with Garrett Gomez up, whose sire El Dubai has 17% success with first time starters. Thank God Keeneland has the 10 cent superfectas! I’ll just box the 1-5-6-8 for $2.40.
In race 6 (a 58K allowance race for n2x at 1-1/16 mile turf), Essential Edge takes a huge class drop from G2 and gets blinkers in this second try since a six month layoff. Shadwell Stable’s British import Makderah—a Danehill filly trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and with John Velazquez up—looks to be the class of the field, despite more than six months off. She’s been out of the money only once in seven starts, but interestingly, she’s never won or placed in races over 1 mile. I may use her in the superfecta, but will only make that decision after seeing her warm-up. Ballymore Lady is also early favorite, but I’m not crazy about the fact that she’s only worked once since her last race 48 days ago. I’m looking for value today so I’m tossing her. However, I really like Bill Mott-trained Nunnery who is moving up in class, but coming off a wire-to-wire win on turf at this distance at Gulfstream last month. Her two workouts at Keeneland have been excellent but as the early speed horse, she may not be able to hold on. Scarlet Butterfly is the other filly to show early speed, and she is taking a class drop, after finishing second to odds-on favorite J’ray in the G3 Bayou Breeders Cup Handicap at Fair Grounds in February. In her last race, Scarlet Butterfly set the pace but gave way in the stretch to finish out of the money. Jockey James Graham should hold her just off the early lead if she is to have a chance. Natural Beauty just missed against similar sixteen days ago here at Keeneland after a bumpy, wide trip on Polytrack, so if the rain continues and the race is pulled off the turf, she could score big at morning line 12-1. A backup choice in the superfecta is Shug McGaughey’s Criminologist with Edgar Prado up. She’s done well at this distance both on and off turf, and in her sixth place finish four weeks ago at Gulfstream she was only two lengths back from the winner Hopes and Dreams going slightly longer. I’m looking at the 1-3-5-7 boxed.
Race 8 is a 65K allowance race for older horses going 6 furlongs, and it marks the first race for High Cotton as a four-year-old. He was up (Rushaway, Sir Barton) and down (G2 Arkansas Derby, G1 Travers, G3 Pegasus) last year, but appears to be training well at Keeneland for Todd Pletcher; Garrett Gomez is up. First call jock John Velazquez chose the other Pletcher horse, Vicarage who has been working out at Churchill Downs; he finish poorly in his last race over polytrack here in October, the G3 Phoenix Breeders Cup, so I’m not looking for big effort out of him. On the other hand, Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Museeb has no graded stakes experience, but made a very successful transition from turf to polytrack here April 7 at 7 furlongs, and has a sharp workout since. Rafael Bejarano again gets the mount. Connections also last raced over this track in October when he posted big speed number in OC80/n3x. This year he’s been working out extremely well and could be ready for another big race for Robby Albarado. Bobby Frankel’s First Word has four excellent (“effortless”) workouts here in April, and comes off a big speed number win at the Fair Grounds in March—in my mind, he is the horse to beat. Box 3-4-5-6 for the superfecta.
In the G3 Elkhorn Stakes (race 9) I will secretly root for Jazil, who won at this distance in last year’s Belmont Stakes, but how will he take to turf? Stamina is not the issue for him at all, and his recent workout partner Mustanfar finished third in Thursday’s Ben Ali Stakes. The 10-1 longshot, Michael Matz’ trained Bee Charmer beat two others here—Transduction Gold and Hard Deck—over this track and distance last October, and has Edgar Prado up—always a plus. However, he was badly beaten in January by Ramazutti, the Todd Pletcher trainee who finished fourth behind Jambalaya in the G3 Pan American Handicap at Gulfstream on March 31, and should get some play here. However, Ramazutti has never won at this distance in six previous tries—maybe limitations of his breeding? I’ll pass on Pletcher’s horse in favor of Matz’ longshot. Cloudy’s Knight with Julien Leparoux up looks live, after three good performances this year at Fair Grounds—two in graded stakes, including a ½ length loss to Einstein in the G2 Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap—and previous success (3 out of 4 in the money) at the 1-1/2 mile distance. Garrett Gomez rides Always First who has had two solid races since leaving Neil Drysdale for Thomas Voss, but only two recorded workouts this year so I’m hesitant to invest in him—will wait for the post parade to decide. Ascertain had a strong win here on April 7 and could pull an upset. I’ll box 1-3-8-12 for the 10 cent superfecta.
In the final race, I like Lattice, the Bill Mott-trainee who broke his maiden first-time out on March 30 at Gulfstream; Edgar Prado is up again and looks like a “sure thing”—did I just say that?!? Pleasant Strike—yet another Pletcher-Velazquez horse—also looks live, after finishing sixth behind Twilight Meteor and Sedgefield in the Hallandale Beach Stakes in February, and has been training well at Keeneland. I may bet Crusader Rabbit, not only because of Michael Matz and Corey Nakatani connection, but also the silly name—reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s killer bunny! He’s never tried grass, but Matz does a good job making transition. I’ll go for another longshot, Get Rich Quick, to complete the superfecta. He broke his maiden last time out at Fair Grounds, and has four solid workouts at Keeneland leading up to this race. Box 2-3-5-12.