This weekend is a huge weekend of racing: three 100-point Kentucky Derby preps, some serious route action at Gulfstream, the world’s richest horse race, and the return of Blinkers Off’s favourite horse: the one and only Palace Malice!
This is also the weekend that Blinkers Off is visiting New York City, and taking a visit to Aqueduct. Look for some Big A fun coming up soon — for right now, though, it’s time for a breakneck tour through this weekend’s big races!
Appleton Stakes (GIII, 1 mile on the turf)
Selections: Mr. Online (4), Kharafa (2)
Mr. Online is one consistent turf miler. His last out he finished second behind Reload in the Canadian Turf, and he has finished either first or second in his last nine races. There’s nothing in the pace scenario that indicates his early speed style will be thwarted; look for him to pull off yet another strong finish. Kharafa may possibly be early speed, though he may also rate just off of it. He is coming off of a lay since his last start in November, but has shown the ability in the past to come off of a layoff strong. This is his first stab against graded stakes company, but he is fast enough to contend here. His works are sharp, which should indicate he is ready to race the way he’s shown he is capable of — which is as good as anyone here.
Skip Away Stakes (GIII, 1 3/16 miles on the dirt)
Selections: War Dancer (2), Nikki’s Sandcastle (7)
War Dancer has done most of his racing on turf, but has shown a versatility in style that will serve him well here — he has won from speed, stalking, or deep closing positions. There’s enough early speed here that he should stalk or close here. He has mostly run turf races, but has won at 1 1/4 miles on turf — showing he has the stamina to do this race. His only longer route on dirt was in the Travers last year, where he was 6th beaten 6 by Will Take Charge, but he faces easier here. Nikki’s Sandcastle, like most of the quality horses in this field, is another one who has raced more recently in the turf than the dirt. However, his style of coming from mid-pack or deeper to close suits this race, which is full of early speed. He’s on a class drop here from the recent fields he has gone against, and has been gaining on the competition at 1 1/8 miles, so the extra half-furlong should serve him well here.
Pan American Stakes (GII, 1 ½ miles on the turf)
Selections: Amira’s Prince (7), Suntracer (4), Admiral Kitten (5)
Amira’s Prince hasn’t missed the board at this distance: he won an allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream last year by three lengths at 1 1/2 miles, and also came in second beaten just a nose at the distance while carrying 135 pounds — eighteen more than he carries here. His last out, the Gulfstream Park Handicap in which he finished third behind Lochte, was his first race off a ten-month lay; he stands to improve here. Illinois-bred Suntracer and Admiral Kitten are both deep closers, who will be helped by the presence of obvious rabbit Joes Blazing Aaron in the field. Suntracer is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Mac Diarmida, where he rallied late. The 1 3/8 miles of that race was short for him; look for him to do better here with the extra furlong. Admiral Kitten is coming off a fast closing neck win in the Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston. He has never raced 1 1/2 miles before, but finished second by just a head in last year’s American Derby at Arlington, at 1 3/16 miles on the turf. He’s a consistent closer who fires every single time on the turf, and looks to be more than ready to handle twelve furlongs.
Florida Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
Selections: General a Rod (6), Wildcat Red (1), Constitution (4)
General a Rod and Wildcat Red have been duking it out down in Florida all fall, and they stand to fight again this time. With the extra half furlong compared to the Fountain of Youth, Wildcat Red’s pedigree-related distance considerations may come into play, but I said that about the Fountain of Youth as well and he surprised me. General a Rod and Wildcat Red are both very fast horses who have proven themselves to be ultra-game in long speed duels, and this should serve them well here in a race where they’ll have to fend off each other, the close-stalking Constitution and Cairo Prince, and possibly Spot and East Hall coming in from a bit further back. I give a slight nod to General a Rod over Wildcat Red on pedigree, but they’re both great choices who love the speedy Gulfstream track. If one of the other horses might spoil their party, I look to Constitution. He won the AOC OF DOOM over Tonalist and Mexikoma back in February, showing he can knock off quality horses, and the combination of Pletcher and Castellano is often one you can take straight to the bank.
Crescent City Derby Stakes (three-year-olds, Louisiana-bred, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt)
Selections: Youve Got a Friend (9), Gold Appointment (7)
Youve Got a Friend is likely to get up on or near the early speed in this race. This is his first attempt at 9 furlongs, but he has been gaining on the ield at a mile and a mile 70 yards, so he should be ready to go here. His speeds are decent for this field. His trainer is hot this meet, and he retains the same jockey who has been on him his entire consistent (7-1-3-3) career. Gold Appointment is likely to get stalking, not too far off the lead. He is trying a route for the first time after three maiden races in sprints, but has been working very well at the Fair Grounds and does have some stamina in his pedigree, being by a son of Unbridled and out of a Slew O’Gold mare. His first two efforts were lackluster, but last out he scored a big maiden win in his first race on the dirt. He retains his jockey from his maiden win last time out, and looks like a live longer shot here.
New Orleans Handicap (GII, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
Selections: Palace Malice (8), Mister Marti Gras (2), Normandy Invasion (5)
Palace Malice returns to a longer race after his victory in the Gulfstream Park Handicap three weeks ago. He breaks from the same post he did in that last race: the seven gate, as the 8 horse with one scratch inside him. The only worry with him is whether that fight in his last race took too much out of him to race three weeks later. However, he consistently has enough speed to take this field, and had a big run in the Blue Grass last year on just two weeks’ rest. Mike Smith, who piloted him to a win at this distance in last year’s Jim Dandy, has the mount. Mister Marti Gras is in here second off his winter lay, coming off a ninth-place finish in the Mineshaft. There is a decent amount of early speed here; if it falls apart, and he has freshened up a bit to race second off the lay, he could be the one who comes in to pick up the pieces. He has certainly run fast enough to do that before, and may again if he finds what he found in the Hawthorne Gold Cup two outs ago. Normandy Invasion hasn’t won a stakes race yet, but is coming off a very sharp allowance victory (albeit against much easier company) last time out. He has seen some success at this distance, finishing second by a nose in the 2012 Remsen and second by 3/4 length in last year’s Wood. His last race was sharp, his works have been good, and he can rate from off the pace as long as he catches up fairly close early. He’ll be a threat.
Louisiana Derby (GII, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
Selections: In Trouble (9), Intense Holiday (1), Vicar’s In Trouble (6)
Look to In Trouble to be on or near the early speed. There’s no shortage of early speed in this race, but In Trouble proved in the Gotham last time out that he can fight gamely to stay on the front. The Gotham was his first race off of a five-month lay, and the race he fired last out was not anomalous compared to his last one before that lay. Look for him to improve here — and be the speed horse most likely to take it all. Intense Holiday drew the rail in his first race back after his nose win in the Risen Star. The rail isn’t the best place for him, given his come-from-behind style, but assuming he gets some racing room, he should have the speed necessary to overtake the early speed if it falls apart, or one horse doesn’t get the lone, defining speed. Vicar’s In Trouble is another one of the speed horses in this race, who will need to get on the speed early if he has any hope of winning this race. If the Risen Star last time out was a regression, he should be able to get up there, and then some. He has shown an affinity for the Fair Grounds, having won both his career races over the dirt there, in addition to that third in the Risen Star.
Dubai World Cup (GI UAE, 2000 metres (about 1 ¼ miles) on the Tapeta)
Selections: Prince Bishop (1), Red Cadeaux (14)
Prince Bishop has raced mostly at Meydan over the last few years. In 2012 and 2013, he ran in a few preps before his big race (Round 2 and Round 3 of the Al Makhtoum Challenge), but never came in better than third. This year? He won both. Those two prep races were at 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/4 miles — perfect lengths to assure he is in form for this race. Red Cadeux, last year’s second place finisher in the Dubai World Cup, draws the 14th post out of 16. However, he has shown some adeptness at overcoming outside posts. Last year, in the Melbourne Cup, he finished second beaten 3/4 length from the outermost post: post position 23. He may be most suited to even longer races than this one, but his performance last year combined with his ability to overcome a post position in the next county over make him a viable contender here.
UAE Derby (GII UAE, three-year-olds, 1900 metres (about 1 3/16 miles) on the Tapeta)
Selections: Asmar (9), Giovanni Boldini (5)
There are two horses in this race who look like they have a really good chance of taking it: Asmar and Giovanni Boldini. Asmar did not ship to Meydan — he’s local, and hasn’t had to deal with the stress of shipping. He is proven at this distance; his last out, he won at this distance by six lengths over Emirates Flyer. Giovanni Boldini is not proven yet at this distance, but has proven he can race well off of a long ship; he shipped from Ireland to the United States for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf last year, and finished second beaten only half a length by Outstrip. His trainer, Aiden O’Brien, has taken down the last two UAE Derbies; Giovanni Boldini is his first-stringer here, and O’Brien will doubtless have him ready to handle the distance.