Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

What a day of November racing! We’ve got terrific stakes action from Del Mar, including the G1 Hollywood Derby. But I’m going to turn my writing attention to Churchill Downs for the GII Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes — a little before 6 o’clock Eastern time as the 11th race. It’s a 2 turn 1 1/6 mile route for 2 YO’s with a purse of $200K. When May comes around and the horses line-up for the Kentucky Derby, you’ll always looking for a win over the track — today is the day to get it. I won’t be focusing on it, but there also is the Golden Rod Stakes — with identical conditions for fillies. Oaks watchers should pay attention.

Here’s a preview of all the horses:

  • Gotta Go — He’s had success over the track (2 for 2) although all at one turn. Seems to like the surface and Ian Wilkes loves training these closers. Might just be a steal at 6-1, if you think the pace will be there.
  • DIamond King — He’s fast, but at Parx. In these Derby Trail races, I almost always automatically eliminate these entrants. The class check is too much, only received for the great ones, like Smarty Jones.
  • John TIppman — best lifetime performance last out over this track. Only fast enough for minor awards, but he may give some good value is the Trifecta is your bet.
  • Arrival — he’s a fast last out maiden winner; seems like another usual easy drop, but this is an 800K purchase. But, he’s a drop.
  • Givemeanimit — This guy is dropping down from 3 consecutive G1s; solid 4th (in a field of 13) at 60-1 odds in the Juvenile. In a GII, I really like horses that can perform at the classiest level and he had solid, not spectacular, outings.
  • Enticed — Skipped the Juvenile after a solid 3rd in the competitive Champagne. First time 2 turns — probably not a problem for this son of Medaglia d’Oro.
  • Promises Fulfilled — win over the track and an allowance win at Keeneland. First time 2 turns is a bit more of an unknown. He’s been working out great.
  • High North — a not very fast last out maiden winner; an automatic toss for me.
  • Reride — a bit of a puzzle. Ran great on debut and then returned to win a 2 non-winners of lifetime on soft turf at a mile. Despite these plusses, would seem to need to be faster to have a shot. That’s possible, given his first-time dirt routing.
  • Bravazo — On the board in stakes company in his last two  — that’s the likely ceiling today as well.
  • Quip — Stylish allowance win after a 12-1 maiden score. Always pay attention to these Winstar/China Horse Club horses. But still probably too slow to pull off the win.
  • Tiz Mischief — Another fast out last out maiden winner; unless it’s a special performance, I pass.
  • Lone Sailor — Like Bravazo, he’s been underneath in the last two races — both stakes. Unliked Bravazo, he might have the speed to win this one.
  • Peppered — A Canadian polytrack import. A good performance in the Grey, but it was too slow to win here today at Churchill Downs.


I like Enticed anywhere around 3-1 or higher. The class is there and already showing. I’m also giving long looks to Givemeaminit, dropping from Grade I company.

Good luck at the races!

The Frontrunner (G1)

Nothing feels like fall than 2YO’s routing for $300K in a Grade 1 major track affair. That’s what we have with the Frontrunner Stakes, a 1 1/6 Grade 1 later this afternoon at Santa Anita Park. After a summer filled with 5 furlong sprint after 5 furlong sprint, we’ll get on the America Road to the Kentucky Derby (there’s also a Japan and European Road.) It is a win and you in race into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. We could be seeing several spots in the Derby starting gate today.

A key race to watch: Del Mar Futurity

Bolt d’Oro made a strong move on the turn and caught Zatter at the end.

I’m going to do a method of analysis called “How can they win?” I imagine that the horse won the race — moving like a winner — and analyze what clues were in their past performances. It’s a method to lead to longshots.

Zatter: If he gets an easier pace scenario, but might not even need too much of that.  Talent is there, his maiden race was loaded. Also, Baffert. These races are good to him.

Take the one O one: His solid outing in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf built stamina after two straight sprints. Has a nice maiden score (as the favorite) 2 starts back.

Ayacara: The Desormoux brothers can be sneaky. This horse is already proven routing, but he wins only if he improves or the added distance is to his liking.

Bolt d’Oro: He wins if he runs back to his previous races and appreciates the extra ground.

City Plan: Won a slow maiden at the meet for horses that can’t win elsewhere at Los Alamitos. But that maiden was at a mile and improvement from pedigree is certainly possible.

Texas Wedge:  One start. 5 1/2 furlongs. In a maiden claiming race. But super fast. If he runs to that maiden score at a much longer distance. He also wins if he’s bet hard — gossip is Peter Miller likes the windows.

Encumbered: When you have a good 2YO, you have to try him routing on the dirt. Two solid wins at a mile on the turf, including the Del Mar Juvenile Turf. If he likes dirt, he’ll run well. If he loves it, he could win the race.

Solomini: Baffert again. Debut win at 6 1/2 is much closer to 8.5 furlongs — stretch out less of an issue. Wins if he backs up that maiden, which can always be a 2nd start issue.

Continental Divide: A Cal-bred — who won the Graduation Stakes –has yet to run the distance. The horse has significant distance potential and he wins if he loves it.


Most Likely Winner: Bolt D’Oro (2-1 ML)

Best mid-shot: Solomini (4-1 ML)

Longshots: Encumbered (8-1 ML)

Good Luck at the Races!

Photo Credit: Joshua Smelser (2011)

Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: Materiality

Despite the highest Beyer figure so far from a 3YO (110 in the Florida Derby), Materiality will likely be double-digit odds on Kentucky Derby day.  It’s a combination of figure skepticism, due to the Gulfstream surface, and also the operation of two well-known “curses.”  First, he was unraced at two. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing at 2. Second, he has only made 3 lifetime starts. Historically, it’s very difficult to win the Derby with only 3 lifetime starts — only Big Brown (2008) and Regret (1915) have done it since 1900.

Still, a 110 Beyer is very fast.  Let’s look at his two Derby preps.

Islamorada Stakes

Materiality’s first 9f prep, the Islamorada Handicap, yielded two Kentucky Derby runners. Stanford came back to run second in the Louisiana Derby.

Florida Derby

Despite his lack of experience, Materiality beats a talented field in the Florida Derby, including Upstart, Ami’s Flatter, and Itsaknockout. As mentioned, his speed figure from this race is highest of the season.

On the whole, Materiality is a fascinating horse. At first glance, he would seem to lack the seasoning to get 10 furlongs in Kentucky, with only 3 lifetime starts and being unraced at 2. However, Pletcher has trained an alternative method to foundation building, running Materiality twice at 9 furlongs at Gulfstream in March. For those willing to buck history, he should offer double-digit value to win on Derby Day.

Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: American Pharoah

American Pharoah is the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby off the strength of his stellar Oaklawn preps, which build upon the foundation of his Eclipse-award winning 2YO campaign. Here’s his road to the Kentucky Derby.

Debut Maiden Race

This was the key maiden race of the summer at Del Mar, featuring upset winner Om, American Pharoah, One Lucky Dane, Calculator, Iron Fist, and Daddy DT. It’s American Pharoah’s only career loss.

Despite still being a maiden, American Pharoah went off favored in the Del Mar Futurity, where he was sharp and ultra-impressive.

Frontrunner Stakes

Next was the Frontrunner, his first distance test at two turns. Passed authoritatively.

Rebel Stakes

An injury sidelined him from the Breeders’ Cup, but Baffert trained him aggressively through mid-winter for American Pharoah’s return in the Rebel at Oaklawn.

Arkansas Derby

He then faced a tougher field in the Arkansas Derby, although it still wasn’t the deepest field. No matter who he beat, he was electric and solidified status as the Kentucky Derby favorite.

American Pharoah has been sensational on the track, and is undefeated around two turns. He has a knack for opening up through the lane, something that bodes well for the stamina test that is the Kentucky Derby. He showed a new dimension in the Arkansas Derby, rating a bit off the lead, which he’ll likely want to do in Kentucky.

Finally, while the competition at Oaklawn was not the deepest, American Pharoah beat plenty of quality horses during his 2YO Southern California campaign. However, it’s worth noting that he may have benefited from being separated from Dortmund, a bonus of both horses sharing a trainer in Baffert.

The Blue Grass (GI)

The Blue Grass Stakes (G1) caps a terrific card on Saturday on opening weekend from Keeneland. It’s one of three destinations this week — Santa Anita and Aqueduct are the others — for Kentucky Derby contenders.

It starts what should be a banner year for the Lexington, Kentucky racetrack, which hosts the Breeders’ Cup at season’s end. Last fall, Keeneland installed a new dirt track, replacing the artificial dirt surface. As a result, the Blue Grass once again serves as a destination for horses that expect to compete for top honors in Louisville in four weeks.

Carpe Diem, #3 in my Derby rankings (prior to final preps, which started last week), leads the way. He’s even money on the morning line. I expect that he’ll be 3/5 or even lower by post time. Here’s why:

  • He’s run faster than any other horse in the field.
  • He’s won over this track in a very impressive performance last Fall.
  • He’s cost $1.7 million and he’s bred for distance.
  • His comeback in Tampa was sharp and confident.

I fully expect a top notch performance from Carpe Diem, likely earning his first triple digit Beyer and romping by open lengths against the rest of the field.

Of the other contenders, someone will have to improve to even come within a few lengths of Carpe Diem. Ocho Ocho Ocho, who at one time was #5 in my Derby rankings, had a disappointing comeback in the San Felipe last month. He’d need to fully turn it around; the ship out of the west coast — presumably to get away from Dortmund — doesn’t inspire a tremendous amount of confidence. Gorgeous Bird, inspired a great amount of hype when he won a 1st-level allowance at Gulfstream. But that speed figure from that race came back low, and he was rather dull in the Fountain of Youth.  Classy Class has been a bit of a puzzle throughout the winter. I’m excited to see him away from the inner dirt at Aqueduct. Danzig Moon was an impressive maiden winner in February at Gulfstream, but failed to back that up last time he met Carpe Diem in Tampa.

Image: Missing8519, Copyright 2007.


5 Weeks Out: Florida Derby, Lousiana Derby, UAE Derby

Three final preps for Kentucky Derby contenders today. Each race not only awards 100 points to the winner, but also 40 points to second and 20 points to 3rd. So, the top 2 finishers qualify and the 3rd place finisher is well-positioned, especially if he has some  points already.

We are five weeks from the Kentucky Derby, a relatively standard amount of rest for contemporary thoroughbreds. It was once a “curse” that no one could win the Kentucky Derby off 5 weeks rest, but that was been debunked in recent years.

Florida Derby

It’s a rematch between Upstart and Itsaknockout, who tussled in the Fountain of Youth.

It’s a deeper field today, with my eyes squarely focused on Materiality, who has emerged as a Kentucky Derby contender based on his performance at 9 furlongs in the Islamorada Stakes. That’s was at the same track and at the same distance as today. A win here and he becomes a threat to the curse of Apollo; he made his winning debut in early January.

Louisiana Derby

Stanford who ran in the above Islamorada Stakes with Materiality certainly rates a decent chance. His 95 Beyer is still faster than anything that International Star has run this year. As usual, Pletcher is splitting up his very talented army among the east and midwest.

War Story is generating some buzz, but as of now, he hasn’t been fast enough to win a race of this level. He certainly could improve — as could any 3YO this time of year — but I prefer to see it on the track.


There are also significant Kentucky Derby points on the line in Dubai with the UAE Derby. My Johnny Be Good ships over from Tampa, which is good because he’ll give us a sense of comparison after the race.  Here’s a video of the Al Bastakiya, the local prep for today’s race, in which Mubtaahij defeated Sir Fever.

Mubaahij already has a bit of a rivalry — renewed tomorrow — with Maftool.

Enjoy a great day of racing!

Kentucky Derby FAQ

A guide to the Kentucky Derby. Covers age and field size, fastest “2 minutes,” purse, surface, and distance.

Can a horse of any age race in the Kentucky Derby? 

No. The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 3YO horses. High-class horses generally race from about 2YO to around 5YO or 6YO. There are exceptions to this rule, especially if a horse is a gelding. Most horses running in the Derby made their debut at 2YO; in fact, it’s almost a requirement. Since Apollo won the Derby in 1882, no horse has won without a race at 2. You don’t need to win at 2 – just get the experience and (likely) growth.

Because the race is restricted to 3YO, a horse only gets one chance at Derby glory. It’s far from the end of racing – many opportunities exist for horses that may either peak later or missed the Derby due to injury. But it’s a one-shot deal. While horses can’t repeat, trainers can and do. You’ll often see the same trainers around – Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher come quickly to mind.

Is there a limit to the number of horses that can run in the Derby? 

Yes. In 1975, after 23 horses ran in the centennial Kentucky Derby in 1974, Churchill Downs limited the Derby field to 20 starters, using earnings as a qualifier. In 1985, Churchill Downs switched to Graded Earnings, which are earnings that are won in the highest classes of races. However, purses aren’t a perfect proxy for quality – for example, the Delta Jackpot, is a GIII race with a Grade 1 level purse ($1 million). As a result, in 2012, Churchill Downs switched to a qualifying points system.

Even still, 20 is a very large number. It’s not that rare for a race to have the maximum — the typical limit for a U.S. horse race is 14 starters. In practice, fans often see fields that are much smaller, about 8 horse per field. In the Derby, there is more potential for chaos and trouble. It’s crazy at the start and creates a whole slew of bad trips – horses that had winning chances but were blocked in traffic. The large field also adds another level of complexity to understanding the races. It’s no coincidence that it’s the race that I (and most handicappers) spend the most time on each and every year. And, it’s wonderfully exciting to watch, filled with storylines and a good chance for drama each year.

Isn’t it just two minutes? That’s so fast.

Yes. It is one race, lasting just about 2 minutes. That’s it. The Derby might just be the quickest major sporting event in the world, far shorter than, for example, the Super Bowl or World Series or Daytona 500. Yes, there are other races on the day, including the top horses from the other divisions (i.e. turf, older, fillies & mares), but the Kentucky Derby itself happens very quickly. A badly timed bathroom break could force you to miss the entire race.

However, this is a bit misleading. Every thoroughbred born in the United States has Derby dreams, and for those with the talent to match, the process of reaching the Derby begins early and takes years. Qualification forms a regular season of sorts, ranging from September of the previous year until mid-April. I prefer to think of the Derby not as a quick one-shot race, but instead as the culmination of years of preparation and the final stage of a long-term process.

None of this should dampen just how exciting those two minutes actually are. It is the most exciting two minutes in sport.

Is the purse large for the Kentucky Derby?

Yes. It is $2 million and is the largest purse for a race restricted to 3YO.

  • Kentucky Derby: $2 Million
  • Preakness $1.5 Million
  • Belmont Stakes $1.5 Million
  • Travers Stakes $1.25 Million
  • Arkansas Derby: $1 Million
  • Bluegrass Stakes: $1 Million
  • Florida Derby: $1 Million
  • Santa Anita Derby: $1 Million
  • Wood Memorial: $ 1 Million
  • Haskell Invitational: $1 Million
  • Pennsylvania Derby: $1 Million

(Races for $1M or more restricted to 3YO. All are Grade 1, except for the Pennsylvania Derby. Purse data from 2014)

What surface is the Kentucky Derby run on?  The Kentucky Derby is contested over dirt, as opposed to grass, or turf, or a synthetic surface. According to the Churchill Downs website, this is comprised of:

3” Sandy Loam Cushion
5” Sandy Loam Cushion Compacted
12” Clay Base
25” Sandy Loam/Natural Soil

(Sandy Loam is made up of sand, silt, and clay and is apparently great for gardening.)

I stuck my hand in the track when I visited Churchill Downs to see if I could gain understanding. Unfortunately, it just felt like dirt.

Some horses who qualified for the Derby may have done it by gaining points on synthetic surfaces. Three races offer points towards the Derby with a race over an artificial surface – The Grey at Woodbine, The El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields, and the Spiral at Turfway park. This raises the possibility – as was the case with Animal Kingdom’s win in 2011 – that a horse may not have run on dirt coming into the Derby.

Screenshot 2015-03-21 13.00.34

There are no turf races that offer points for the Derby; however, it’s not uncommon to see a 3YO horse try dirt in the winter after showing talent on the turf earlier. Stamina (sometimes) moves well between surfaces. But you have to show it on the dirt – fake or real – before Derby Day to qualify.

Why is 10 furlongs important?

A furlong – the standard distance measure in American horse racing is 1/8 of a mile. So, a furlong is about halfway around the track at the local high school. 10 furlongs, or 1 ¼ miles, on dirt, is a bit of a legendary distance nowadays in horse racing. The ability for a horse to maintain speed over the distance of 10 furlongs is a testament to its breeding and training. It is a champion’s distance. It is very rarely run anymore, and 3YO colts get two chances – in the Kentucky Derby and in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August. It is also the distance of several races for older horses, and importantly, the distance of the $5M Breeders’ Cup Classic, which often pits the best of the 3YO crop against older horses.

How many horses have run 10 furlongs on dirt prior the Derby?

None. No horse has had the opportunity to run this distance before – the longest race was likely the final prep at 9f. The ability to “get” this distance is part of what makes this race so exciting. So, there’s always uncertainty, even for the most well-bred of animals. The extra distance may not sound like much, but after running over a mile at high speed, every horse is tired and seeking the finish line. It is often these final yards that decide a horse race and the Kentucky Derby is no exception.

The stretchout to 10f for 3YO takes time. Debuting 2YO in April at Keeneland run only 4.5f. The Hopeful, a G1 event for 2YO’s in August, is contested at 7f and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 8.5f. The early preps are at this same distance, with the final preps at 9f. No horse will have tried 10f before the Derby.


The Sunland Derby (GIII)

An added bonus to the Kentucky Derby trail with the Sunland Derby on Sunday afternoon (5:40 MT). 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner. With the scratch of Lord Nelson, it would appear to be a one horse race. Firing Line, fresh off a triple-digit speed figure, ships in from California for a seemingly easy purse and Derby points.

But there is some significant cause for worry. Firing Line was outgamed by Dortmund in the Robert Lewis.

Dortmund was rallying in spectacular fashion, but Firing Line was also stopping. Plus, I’ve noticed a propensity for Callaghan-trainees to be a bit “short” on stamina in big-time races. Firing Line has been impressive, and very well may prove me wrong, but I’d recommend against taking a low price here.

The difficulty, however, with the vulnerable favorite, is still finding the upset winner. The best shot comes from Asmussen-trainee and Fair Grounds shipper, Tiznow RJ, who showed potential in his stakes debut in the Lecomte. He performed far better in that race than you’d expect from only a maiden winner. However, he regressed next out in the Risen Star, finishing far back of International Star. To win today, he’d need to improve, but that’s certainly not out of the question this time of year. He’ll be my pick to upset Firing Line, who will likely be 3/5 or lower.

Why Two is slightly intriguing — won a stakes at Turf Paradise, but earlier broke his maiden at Santa Anita. Certainly not out of the question to set pace and hold on underneath.

Enjoy the race!

Saturday, March 7: Gotham (GIII), Tampa Bay Derby (GII), San Felipe (GII)

Three Kentucky Derby points races this weekend, with action from Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs, and Santa Anita. Races are all scheduled to go off within an hour of one another.

Gotham Stakes, Grade III, Aqueduct, 4:50 ET, Saturday.

I don’t know what to make of the Withers, in which Far from Over blew the break but came barreling with a head full of steam to win. Visually, it was an odd race; speed-wise, it was about average.

Three runners from that race are in today’s field, including likely favorite El Kabeir, who despite the seemingly bad loss, has still managed to be quite consistent speed-wise.

Lieutenant Colonel had a solid debut at a mile at Gulfstream and very well may be the best in this field. A win here would be nice, but he still is “blocked by Apollo” — no horse has won the Derby without a start at 2YO since Apollo in 1882. It’s not a given, but it is, according to Slate, the oldest curse in American sports. Pletcher enters three for Mike Repole — Blame Jim seems the best shot, although I like the multiple entries — this time of year anything is possible.

Tampa Bay Derby, Grade II, Tampa Bay Downs, 5:23 ET, Saturday.

Carpe Diem, who I thought was the best 2YO overall last year, makes his much awaited 3YO debut. His last race was a good 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he closed late.

A big win should stamp Carpe Diem as the East Coast Derby favorite. He could run huge. Ocean Knight ran impressively in winning the Sam F. Davis, the local prep for this race, and hasn’t done anything wrong in his short career. And, anything is possible — he has that very important start at 2, saving him from Apollo’s curse. Danzig Moon should appreciate the extra distance here, which is promising considering how well he’s performed so far. Certainly has an outside shot, especially with the Casse/Oxley connections. Souper Colossal reportedly will run here instead of the Swale — ultra-impressive last summer at Monmouth. He tries the class test once again after a disappointing 7th in the Juvenile.

San Felipe, Grade II, Santa Anita, 6:00 ET, Saturday

The chart comment for Dortmund in the Robert B. Lewis was “fought back rail, game.” That is, perhaps, the understatement of the year. Passed by almost a length by Firing Line, he rallied in a way that horses rarely do, showing incredible stamina. Granted, Firing Line stopped bad, but this is still something you rarely see.

If Dortmund runs back to that race, he should win and keep his undefeated record intact. But, if he slips a little, three other contenders — each with questions — may finally defeat him. Ocho Ocho Ocho has done everything right so far in his career, including a win in the Delta Jackpot. A son of Street Sense, he still managed to win impressively while sprinting — something I always like to see as it shows both versatility and winning resolve. He’ll need a move forward; something not impossible off the layoff. Bolo has been great on the turf at Santa Anita so far, and he certainly has earned the right to try the dirt. File his start in the “you have to find out” category. If he takes to the dirt, he could very well stamp himself as a contender. The Gomper, despite two straight odds-on losses, shows up here. He hasn’t earned this, but is here based on potential, not performance. In contrast, Prospect Park has earned his way into this race. Once breaking his maiden, he moved forward nicely in beating The Gomper and others in a first-level allowance. He’s certainly one to watch, especially if Dortmund shows any effects of that big effort.

Image: Kathy, Copyright 2004.

The Risen Star

The first Kentucky Derby qualifying race this weekend is the Fountain of Youth and the 50-20-10-5 Point Values. I wrote about it earlier today.

The second Kentucky Derby qualifying race is a bit later this afternoon at the Fairgrounds with the Risen Star. Two defectors from the postponed Southwest with JS Bach (update: scratched) and War Story. It makes perfect sense to run here, unless you had shown clear favoritism for the Oaklawn surface. These two are now chasing many more points; not only to the winner, but also for the top 4.  Both of those two are reasonable contenders in a relatively open race. Imperia relished the dirt last out, but would need to be a top form to capture this one. He very well may need a race.

Also, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Gold Cup, was International Star, who won the Lecomte over this track. He fits on speed as a reasonable contender, although I have a hunch we’ve seen the best that this horse can accomplish. That could be enough to win today, although likely not with improvements probable. Instead, I much prefer Tiznow RJ, who ran much better than I thought he would in the Lecomte. With the seasoning under him, he seems primed for a huge effort today Bluff was an impressive maiden winner, but hasn’t shown the speed needed to win this race.

As for the re-drawn and rescheduled Southwest Stakes from Oaklawn, the addition of Hillbilly Royalty is fascinating. He was super sharp earning a 93 Beyer in an allowance here two weeks ago. It’s a fast turn around, but he seems sharp and reschedule/ defections make this race very winning. He also likes to reward his believers as he already has two double-digit odds wins to his resume as well, winning on debut at 14-1 and in an allowance at 13-1. He’ll be a good deal lower that that on Sunday, but could still be a reasonable 4/1.