This past weekend’s contest races for both Danonymous Racing and Public Handicapper were concentrated in two places: Blue Grass weekend at Keeneland, and the big closing weekend at Oaklawn. Seven of the eight of them were graded stakes, and even the eighth contained a handful of horses who were familiar faces from the Derby trail. Let’s see how the races went, and how my selections did!
Commonwealth Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, seven furlongs on the synthetic)
In this race, my first choice was Undrafted, and my second was Laugh Track. Since he raced, Undrafted was my contest horse. I expected Undrafted to stalk close to the early lead, and find his form as he returned to his preferred surface.
Dimension broke to the lead early, along with Spring to the Sky and Gunderson. Dimension, clearly on form in this first start off the winter lay, was the only one in that early pack who was able to carry on late, though. He hearkened back to his form and style in last year’s Play The King (GIIT-Can), and held that lead stubbornly. Inside the sixteenth pole, however, he was nabbed by the strong late run of Occasional View, who had been racing a few lengths back in the pack, but made up ground in a big, wide move through the far turn. He pulled even with Dimension, and kicked in to win by a length in that last half-furlong. While handicapping, Occasional View hadn’t been completely off my radar, especially since he was cutting back from routes in his last three races. However, he was also in his first race off a three-month lay, and facing tougher company than he had in his last few. That was enough to knock me off him.
My first choice, Undrafted, didn’t have such a great race. It wasn’t awful, but he still wasn’t able to quite get it together in stakes company. He got bumped at the start, and settled midpack. He ran evenly enough, and passed some tired horses late, but was still only able to get up for fifth, four lengths behind Occasional View. Laugh Track, my second choice, fared a bit better. He had a ground-saving trip early, came out, and accelerated some late. It wasn’t anything like Occasional View did, though, and he never seriously threatened even Dimension. He checked in third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.
Shakertown Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, five and a half furlongs on the turf)
In this race, my first choice was Havelock, my second choice was Gantry, and my third was Hogy. Since he raced, Havelock was my contest horse; he was tough to find any good reason to pick against, given his past affinity for the Keeneland turf.
I noted while handicapping this race that Marchman would at least have to find what he had in his last start (a close third in the Colonel Power at Fair Grounds) in order to have a chance here. He wasn’t a huge bounce risk, since he had strung together good runs before, but wasn’t consistent enough to seem like a good bet that he’d again find form that would give him just some chance. However, that was my loss: Marchman wired this race. He set the pace with Go Blue Or Go Home close behind: which means I pegged perfectly the two horses in this field with the most affinity for the lead. Go Blue Or Go Home faded, as I thought might happen first off the lay. Marchman, however, would not be caught. I thought he’d be slow enough that he’d be swallowed up late, but instead he repelled the late charge of Positive Side along the rail, and scored by a neck. Positive Side, coming off his second place finish in the Colonel Power, did not bounce the way I expected. He started gaining from his midpack position through the far turn, found space to angle over to the rail, and just missed nabbing Marchman. Something Extra, who stalked the pacesetters a couple lengths back in third for almost the entire race, showed decent form in his first start off a nine month lay. He was rolling a bit more late, but was only able to get within a length of Marchman. It was good enough for the show.
My hopes that Havelock would again show himself as the horse for this course did not come to fruition. He was far back early, eight or nine lengths, but that was not in itself strange, since he does tend to close from far back. However, he didn’t fire anywhere near soon enough. He was still just about bringing up the rear once the field turned for home; normally he starts making up distance through the far turn. Havelock was only able to close enough to finish seventh, four lengths behind Marchman. Gantry, my second choice, never really fired either. He stayed in the middle of the pack throughout, and even gained a little ground in the dash for home, but finished sixth beaten 3 1/2 lengths. Hogy, my third choice, actually had a decent run given the bad trip he got. He was over half a dozen lengths back early, much farther back than he normally runs. He made a move through the far turn, but got bumped by No Silent coming through there, which sent him out a bit. He kept closing, though, and crossed the wire just 2 3/4 lengths behind Marchman, in fourth.
Madison Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, seven furlongs on the synthetic)
In this race, I had Eden Prairie as my first choice, and Judy the Beauty as my second. Since she ran, Eden Prairie was my contest horse. Even though I thought Judy the Beauty probably had the best chance to win, I thought the upside to Eden Prairie here was more than enough to justify trying for a price in the contests, and took her as my first choice in both contests.
Eden Prairie shot to the lead early as expected. She was joined by Wildcat Lily, with Cozze Up Lady stalking them outside in third. Through the far turn, though, Judy the Beauty came out around all three of them, and as the field turned for home it was Judy the Beauty and Eden Prairie up front. However, one of them was hitting their best stride, and the other struggled to keep up. Judy the Beauty opened up daylight quickly, and crossed the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front of her closest competition. Eden Prairie tried to keep on along the inside, but several horses had more left late than she did. She ended up fifth, 5 1/4 lengths behind the victor.
Second went to Better Lucky. who surprised me here as she hasn’t shown much sharpness off the lay. She did cut back in distance here from her previous races, though, which probably helped. She made a wide move through the turn and closed with some strength, though couldn’t get more than 2 1/2 lengths from Judy the Beauty. Apropos, who stalked a couple lengths off, struggled a bit to find room coming into the stretch, but was able to get in for third, beaten 4 3/4. Heir Kitty, last early, didn’t quite have enough in her closing run; she was only able to get up for fourth, a nose in front of the fading Eden Prairie.
Jenny Wiley Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the turf)
In this race, I had Discreet Marq as my first choice, Centre Court as my second, and Fitful Skies as my third. Since she did not scratch, Discreet Marq was my choice. I wasn’t sure if she was going to get that early lead or stalk close to it, but either way, she had shown the ability to run gamely in Grade I company.
Discreet Marq put up another nice race here. She didn’t have the best start (she, Cloud Scapes, Hard Not To Like, and Centre Court all bumped early), but she was able to get up near the front, and then settled in to stalk Cloud Scapes’ early fractions. I had expected Cloud Scapes to try to stalk early, but her connections must have been trying a new style. Cloud Scapes gave it up through the far turn, giving Discreet Marq the lead, though Centre Court was then right on her to challenge. Discreet Marq got the best of her, too, just in time to face challenges from Abaco on her outside and Hard Not To Like on her inside. Hard Not To Like, in mid-pack most race, found enough room to get through and past Discreet Marq, and ended up taking the race by a length. Abaco had great momentum, and it looked on first watch that she nipped Discreet Marq at the wire. However, the photo showed Discreet Marq had gotten her nose up on the wire just barely before Abaco; she held the place.
My second and third choices both missed the board, but neither finished far up the track. Centre Court made a run, and briefly got her nose in front down the stretch, but had a whisker less late run than the top three and Emotional Kitten did. She finished in fifth, 3/4 length behind Hard Not To Like. Fitful Skies settled back early, in front of only the deep closer Abaco, but no further back than she has been able to handle before. She did gain a bit on the lead in terms of distance late, but never fired enough to improve her position. She finished ninth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths.
As a final aside, I did note in my preview that whether or not I was correct about this race, it would be a joy to watch. It was. All ten horses in the field fought, and no one looked completely out of it until very late in the game. The top five horses all crossed the wire within a length of each other; the last-place horse, Class Included, only finished four and a half lengths behind the winner. This is exactly the sort of thing that’s beautiful to see in any race, but especially a race intended to be of the highest calibre. This year’s Jenny Wiley certainly fit that bill.
Blue Grass Stakes (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the synthetic)
In this race, I had Dance With Fate as my first choice, Harry’s Holiday as my second, and Coastline as my third. Since he raced, Dance With Fate was my contest horse. For as big a field as the Blue Grass attracted, Dance With Fate was a surprisingly easy top pick for me to make: he is a true synthetic-track horse, the pace looked favourable, and he had shown the ability to stay at the distance. I knew I wasn’t going to get that too-good-to-be-true 12-1 morning line on him. I predicted he’d go off at 7-1 or 8-1; his final odds were a bit less, 6.4-1.
Dance With Fate ran exactly the way I expected he would. He was near the rear early, about a half dozen lengths off the pace. That pace was set by Pablo Del Monte and stalked early by Bobby’s Kitten, Extrasexyhippzster, Harry’s Holiday, and Coastline. He started making up ground through the far turn, despite having to go extremely wide; Medal Count was just inside of him, also having made a similarly wide move around the field through the far turn. Most of the speed contingent faded badly as the stretch approached; the only one still standing as the field came for home was Pablo Del Monte. Dance With Fate found his next gear passing the eighth pole, though, and pulled past Pablo Del Monte then. It took a bit longer for Medal Count to do so, but Pablo Del Monte grudgingly gave up second inside the final sixteenth. Dance With Fate pulled away to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Medal Count, with Pablo Del Monte another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Pablo Del Monte still had the rest of the field very well-beaten; he was still over five lengths in front of fourth-place Big Bazinga.
Playing the angle of synthetic horses was a smart way to go in this race. The top five horses (Dance With Fate, Medal Count, Pablo Del Monte, Big Bazinga, and Coltimus Prime) each had at least one win on synthetic (and, on Polytrack specifically), and at least two starts on synthetic surfaces. The highest-ranking horse with no synthetic starts was sixth-place Gala Award, whose three previous career starts all came on the Gulfstream turf. My second- and third-choice horses both had significant synthetic experienced, but managed to underscore the weakness of the Spiral Stakes this year. Harry’s Holiday and Coastline both got close to the pace early, but faded badly through the far turn. Harry’s Holiday finished 13th beaten 28 1/4 lengths, ahead of only Vinceremos. Coastline was 10th, beaten 16 1/2.
Northern Spur Stakes (three-year-olds, 1 mile on the dirt)
In this race, I had Sheltowee’s Boy as my first choice, and Fabulous Kid as my second. Since he did not scratch, Sheltowee’s Boy was my contest horse. I noted that Bourbonize was the class of the field, and may like the cut back in distance, but didn’t think the pace was going to quite set up well for him. I thought Sheltowee’s Boy would likely stay a little closer to the pace, and have a better chance of picking off Fabulous Kid, Knock Em Flat, or maybe Unstoppable Colby.
It was Sheltowee’s Boy who got too far back early. It was Bourbonize who didn’t, and Bourbonize who picked the frontrunners off.
The fractions were decent: not blistering, but not crawling either. Fabulous Kid got up front early, and Knock Em Flat stalked just behind — something the latter had not done with any success in previous races. (Unstoppable Colby, the other horse I thought had any chance of wanting to be near the early lead, never got near and never contended.) Fabulous Kid had the lead for most of the way, but just didn’t have enough late to carry the field wire to wire. He faded a bit down the stretch, and crossed the wire a length behind the winner. Bourbonize, never further off the pace than about five back, was wide through the turn. Still, he started making up ground as the field turned down the long Oaklawn stretch, and pulled past Knock Em Flat just as Knock Em Flat was overtaking Fabulous Kid. He ran a race that was just right for the field, and won by a neck over Knock Em Flat. Fabulous Kid crossed another 3/4 length back, in third.
Sheltowee’s Boy was too far back late. He was second to last early, ahead of only the far outclassed Northern Merit, and didn’t start his run until too late. He gained ground down the stretch, and finished fifth just 2 1/4 lengths behind Bourbonize, but kicked into gear too late to ever threaten the top three finishers.
Oaklawn Handicap (GII, four-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had Golden Lad as my first choice, and Will Take Charge as my second. These were made before the scratch of Moreno, but Golden Lad looked like an even better possibility to beat the favourite once Moreno scratched since it left him only Right to Vote to dispatch with on the front end.
The pace shook out just as expected early. Right to Vote set the early fractions, with Golden Lad stalking about a length back. Carve and Prayer for Relief stalked further back, and Will Take Charge and Revolutionary brought up the rear. That’s the shape which more or less remained until the far turn. Will Take Charge made his move around the field coming into the stretch, but went into Golden Lad: he brushed Golden Lad a bit at first, got off him, and then pushed him into Revolutionary as he made his move past. Despite all the bobbing and weaving, Will Take Charge managed to pull ahead late, and cross the wire 3/4 length ahead of the gaining Revolutionary. Carve, who had pulled from his stalking place to contend for the lead early in the stretch, didn’t quite have as much left as the top two; he finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Will Take Charge. There was a stewards’ inquiry into that stretch run, and the riders of both Golden Lad and Revolutionary also lodged claims of foul against Will Take Charge. After over five minutes of deliberation, however, the stewards allowed the results to stand.
Golden Lad didn’t fade badly, but he was never able to pick up the pace after the bumps from Will Take Charge. Whether Will Take Charge stopped Golden Lad from being able to improve his placing is a matter that can be debated, but he definitely lost momentum as a result of that bumping down the stretch. He ended up finishing fifth, 3 1/4 lengths from the winner.
Arkansas Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had Ride On Curlin as my top selection, Conquest Titan as my second, and Commissioner as my third. Since he raced, Ride On Curlin was my contest horse. I expected there to be gangbusters early speed, and a winner to come from off the pace. It turns out, the winner did come from off the pace, though not as far off as I thought.
Unsurprisingly, Bayern and Thundergram shot out to the lead; Bayern was in front, and Thundergram stalked close behind, egging him on. Danza and Strong Mandate were right behind them early, with the rest farther back. This is notable, in that after so many of Ride On Curlin’s recent races had been run on or near the pace, Jon Court actually took him back this time to make a late run! He wasn’t deeply back, only about four lengths, but it was refreshing to see him off the pace. He got into a decent spot despite having been bumped by Thundergram at the start. Approaching the turn for home, Bayern and Thundergram veered a little farther from the rail, opening a hole. Danza and jockey Joe Bravo, who had been hanging out there the entire time, knew a good thing when they saw one; they shot through that hole, and pulled away to a 4 3/4 length victory. Ride On Curlin, with only space outside, pulled outside of Danza, Bayern, Thundergram, and Tapiture. He came down the stretch down the centre of the track, and was able to catch everyone but Danza despite covering that added distance. Bayern held on for third, half a length behind Ride On Curlin.
Conquest Titan tried to make a move coming into the stretch, but it didn’t work out as well as hoped. Borel got Conquest Titan to the rail and saved ground, and coming into the stretch it looked like he was trying to come through behind Danza. However, he lacked the late energy to improve his position, and lost ground on the leaders late. He finished fifth, beaten 10 1/4 lengths. Commissioner, my third choice, was never much of a factor at all. He was anxious before the race, never improved from his position near the back of the pack, and only passed the badly tiring Thundergram and Strong Mandate. He finished sixth, 11 lengths behind Danza.