The Wood Memorial (GI)

It’s the cap to the Aqueduct 3YO season on Saturday with the Wood Memorial.

Racing returned to the main track from the inner dirt on Wednesday and a field of seven goes forward. Five return from the Gotham, won by El Kabeir:

A very impressive performance visually, although the speed figure came back less than stellar. On the whole, the NY preps haven’t been all that strong this year. That said, El Kabeir had already established himself last fall, with a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club, although he still needs to improve to dream of the hitting the board at Churchill Downs.

Of the 4 others who were smoked by El Kabeir in the Gotham, I’d only give a long look to Lieutenant Colonel, who just may have not liked the wet, inner track. It was only his second career start; might be worth it to take a chance on a rebound for a great trainer (Chad Brown) at a long price.

The two shippers, Daredevil and Frosted bring very different resumes. .

Frosted has been hyped all winter, but hasn’t shown elite speed and performance. His Fountain of Youth says it all:

Daredevil had a terrible post in the Juvenile, so tossing that is ok.  And, if you toss that race, his speed profile is great. His biggest question is the 9 furlong distance. Right now, I’d guess he might be a better miler than anything else. If he doesn’t like the distance, El Kabeir might just inherit the win, unless Lieutenant Colonel (or another) improves.

Enjoy the great racing day!

Santa Anita Derby

Blue Grass

The Robert B. Lewis (GIII) & The Withers (GIII)

The Kentucky Derby Trail resumes this weekend with cross-country action from Santa Anita and Aqueduct. Both races feature logical contenders and likely won’t offer strong wagering opportunities. That said, several horses are making their 2015 debut — improvements and regressions are quite possible.

In California, we have the Robert B. Lewis, a Grade III race at 8.5 furlongs, featuring a compact field of only 6. Dortmund is the 4/5 favorite on the morning line and will likely go off at that price or lower. He currently has 10 points, courtesy of his win in the Los Alamitos Futurity this past December, and a win today puts him in good position to make the Derby (although he’ll likely try for many more points through the winter and spring). He has potential to be “any kind,” but he’s still a bit more hype than accomplishment at this time, and hasn’t shown me a tremendous amount of discipline on the track. Taking on “hype machines” is the name of the game, especially in Derby preps, and I’ll try to beat him here.

Dortmund’s main competition seems to come from the head-bobbing second place finisher in the Futurity, Firing Line, who is listed at a morning line of 7/5. I’m a bit bearish on Simon Callaghan-trainees as of late; I’ve seen many not run as expected throughout the past few months. Instead, I’m taking a long look at Rock Shandy, who is a very generous 6-1 on the morning line; I’d expect him to go off somewhere in the 4-1 range. His speed is comparable and he ran well in his dirt debut against the talented Calculator in the Sham. Peter Miller is often aggressive in placing his horses, but Rock Shandy fits well here and will be the play at 4-1 or better. I’d also consider an exacta with Dortmund/Rock Shandy, taking a stand against Simon Callaghan.

Across the country, we have the Withers, another Grade III race at 8.5 furlongs. El Kabeir, the current Kentucky Derby points leader at 21, is a clear standout at 8/5 (I expect him to be odds-on). He’s been a very solid, if not spectacular performer throughout the early part of the schedule, and he’s facing an unaccomplished group today. He has a significant speed advantage, although it’s possible that another will improve to challenge him down the stretch. The jury is still out on Classy Class as a distance horse and I’d certainly stay away at any sort of low-price. I did fear him a bit in the Remsen, but I’m not terribly in love with that race, and his performance wasn’t terrific that day. I think El Kabeir is the main play here, all the way down to 4/5, and I’d use him in multi-race sequences as a comfortable single.

Good luck at the races this weekend!

The Jerome (Grade III)

Attention turns back to the Kentucky Derby trail this weekend, with the GIII Jerome from Aqueduct. 9 3YO’s are entered and will contest a distance of about 8.3f on the inner dirt track. 10 Derby qualifying points will be awarded to the winner — the same as every other 2/3YO prep race until the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth in late February, when the points rise to 50 for the winner (50/2010/5 — 1st through 4th place finishes). The points will rise again to 100 with the final major preps of the spring (100/40/20/10). Note that the 4th place finisher in these races will earn as many points as the winner here.

This shouldn’t suggest however that the points earned in these early races aren’t important. 20 horses will qualify for the Derby — and those who run well in the later preps will be among the top qualifiers. However, at the bottom end of the qualifying range, a few cobbled together points in the fall and winter could be the difference between qualifying and not qualifying, especially if that horse runs up the track in the later preps.

Here a list of the horses that have already earned Kentucky Derby points who are running in the Jerome:

  • El Kabeir: 11

That’s it. With a win here, El Kabeir would now amass 21 points, which is more than the minimum amount needed to qualify for the Derby the past two years. So, with a win, he would pretty much come close to guaranteeing his spot in the Derby field — a fairly nice position to be in at this point in the season. As for anyone else in the race, they’d likely need to couple a good performance here with a stronger performance down the road to make it to the gate in Louisville.

On paper, El Kabeir, who I liked at 7-1 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, seems a clear standout. He moved forward back on a dry track and around two turns, but likely won’t get those conditions tomorrow:

Screenshot 2015-01-02 12.11.43

This lowers his projected speed figure, and unless El Kabeir rates a bit, the outside post might prove a bit tricky. Calvin Borel was set to ride, but won’t due to the passing of his sister-in-law. Hopefully, a skilled local jock will pick up the ride, one who understands the nuances of navigating a sloppy inner track.

The weather-risk is enough to make me look elsewhere, although the remainder of the field is fairly unaccomplished. Ostrolenka, who ran well in NY-bred stakes, didn’t far too well last out in his open-company debut in the Remsen. He could turn it around today, especially against this mostly unproven field, but he’ll have to prove it to me a bit more before getting any action at this level. He also struggled in his lone start over a wet track (although it was his debut.) I like Nasa a bit, and not only because these connections are the same as Smarty Jones, one of my favorite horses of all-time, who also happens to be the sire.

Back in 2003, Smarty Jones won the PA Nursery Stakes as well, although it was a bit more authoritatively than Nasa, who earned an 86 Beyer in winning by 2 1/4 lengths:

Screenshot 2015-01-02 11.43.18

Smarty, of course, would go on to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and lose to Birdstone in the final furlong of the Belmont. Like Nasa, he made his open stakes debut at Aqueduct in the first week of January (schedule changes have replaced the ungraded Count Fleet with the G3 Jerome):

Nasa will be stretching out for the first time, which offers some potential for improvement with Smarty Jones as his sire and Seattle Slew as his damsire. He’s a tough read, but should be helped by the wet track surface, always a plus. Given the likely wet track and the fact he should enjoy the extra ground and very well could be good value at a price, and certainly it is more than reasonable to use him in exactas with El Kabeir.

Ackeret is the final contender worth mentioning. An impressive allowance winner last out over a wet, fast track at Parx, he’s another that will be stretching out for the first time. He’s by freshman sire Mach Ride, himself a graded stakes winner sprinter, but it’s far to early to responsibly make predictions on his sire’s stamina. I typically like to wait a race with his trainer on the stretchout, especially moving from 6f.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how the public bets the Jerome given the rain. If concerns about the rain raise El Kabeir’s price to 5/2, he’s a solid play, but I’d be surprised to see him priced that high at post time. Nasa certainly seems a reasonable play at 5-1 or better. I’ll use these two in multi-race wagers (P3, P4), and I’ll leave anyone else off the tickets. Good luck at the races this weekend!

Image: Naoki Nakashimi, Copyright 2010.

Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2)

Classy 2YO’s going 8.5 furlongs today at Churchill Downs in another step on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Many contenders in this race, including a couple horses that have run well in the juvenile turf stakes (International StarImperia), now making the obligatory dirt-routing try.  They could win, but I’d rather not share the gamble with the connections. Lord Nelson (#9, 5/2) returns to routing for Baffert. I loved him on the cutback and out of the Frontrunner, but don’t share the same enthusiasm against this field today. He was far the best on paper in that race, and looked it while dominating on the track. But the angles and condition don’t favor him nearly as much here, and I’lll let him beat me.

Instead, I’ll focus on El Kabeir (#5, 7/2) who finds a dry track for the first time since his maiden win today. I’m willing to throw out the two off-track tries and hope for 3-1, which would be very fair.  He’ll take off blinkers and hopefully rate and get a ground-saving ride from Borel. If he runs to that maiden, he should win today and stamp himself as a contender to return here in 6 months for the Derby. He’ll be a win bet for me. Good luck!