The Los Alamitos Derby

A small but intriguing field goes forward in the GIII Los Alamitos Derby later this afternoon. One of the highlights of the short summer meet, it features 5 3YO’s going 9 furlongs for a purse of $150K. Horses that run well could find themselves in any level of 3YO races left this summer, such as the Pennsylvania Derby or even the Travers, or even the Pacific Classic against older at Del Mar with a lights-out performance.

The race begins with Ax Man, who was last seen getting destroyed by Indiana Derby (later today as well) favorite King Zachary in the Matt Winn. He was 1/2 in that race — he’s been the favorite in all his starts and odds-on-in every one but his debut. He’s trained by Bob Baffert. He’s put up two sub-par performances in his career — in the aforementioned Matt Winn and in the 7f San Vincente where he was run of his feet by Kanthaka. It’s possible he didn’t like sprinting and it’s also possible he didn’t care for the Churchill Downs surface. But we have to wonder if he just didn’t feel like putting his best effort forward on either of those days. His other three performances were dominant wins by open lengths. He has three solid works since the Matt Winn. He’ll likely be the favorite again today — how low you’re willing to go on an unreliable, but fast, horse is the question.

Blended Citizen returns from a disappointing Belmont Stakes performance for Doug O’Neil. He previously won the Peter Pan over Core Beliefs and showed the form that earned him a 4th place finish in the Bluegrass. He’s the most experienced runner in the field with 11 lifetime starts and was on an upward trajectory before running into Justify and 12 furlongs. He’s not as fast as Ax Man at Ax Man’s best — no one in the field is — but stands a decent chance to run down the leaders on the long Los Alamitos stretch. I’d be willing to draw a line through the Belmont Stakes performance. Kyle Frey–who has been aboard all year–keeps the mount.

Draft Pick took a while to break his maiden, but when he returned in May from a short break, he did it emphatically. He immediately turned around the next month and took the GIII Affirmed Stakes earning a career-best 92 Beyer Speed Figure in the process. He looks to continue that hot streak today and go for three wins in a row. Trained by Peter Eurton, he is the only runner with experience at Los Al, running in two maiden races here, with 2 third place finishes. He does not seem to have a dislike for the surface — a plus, as everyone else faces a question in this regard. Slight improvement, or a subpar effort from Ax Man, puts him on top.

Once on Whiskey qualifies as the “other Baffert.” He hasn’t run particularly fast and nothing about his workouts are notable. He was last seen finishing 3rd on Derby Day in a 1st level allowance for three year olds. He’s yet to stretchout — something that could favor this son of Bodemeister out of a Mineshaft Dam. He’s a bit of an X-factor, piloted by Flavien Plat, and could make some noise at the end. He won’t be a huge price because of his trainer, but he could be a reasonable mid-to-longshot to include in the late P4.

King Cause is the other “O’Neil.” He’s yet to show the speed necessary to win here today and was beaten by Draft Pick by 10 lengths in the Affirmed. He has some early speed which could challenge Ax Man and set things up for Blended Citizen to make a charge at the end.

Analysis: Ax Man has proven a bit unreliable, and while he can win, I prefer the improving Draft Pick to lay slightly off the speed and make a winning move at the top of the long Los Al Stretch. He’s on a roll and I expect it to continue. Once on Whiskey is intriguing on the stretchout and is playable at 8-1 or better.

The Pennsylvania Derby (GII)

This isn’t the same old Pennsylvania Derby. In fact, it hasn’t been the same old Pennsylvania Derby for the past 5 years. In 2010, after bouncing around the calendar, it landed in its current spot on the racing calendar, the third Saturday in September, which has proven to be very successful. The race is now positioned as a key prep race for the Breeders’ Cup, which is just six weeks out. In addition, the Pennsylvania Derby is four weeks removed from the Travers Stakes and a reasonable seven weeks from the West Virginia Derby, which has helped to secure good fields.

Since this change, the race has a stellar recent record of producing future G1 stars. For example, in 2013, Will Take Charge continued his roll that began in the Travers with a strong win here. He went on to finish second to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then went on to win the Grade I Clark against older horses, including Game on Dude, at Churchill Downs in November. In 2011, To Honor and Serve, a two-time Grade II winner as a two-year-old, returned to the winner’s circle with an decisive win in the Pennsylvania Derby. He would go on to be a two-time Grade I winner against older horses, capturing both the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct and the Woodward at Saratoga. Finally, in 2010, Morning Line won the Pennsylvania Derby. A late developing 3-year-old, he would later go on to win a Grade I against older horses in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.

This year’s race is no exception to the current trend. It has drawn the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who makes his much anticipated return to the races. It also brings in the Haskell winner in Bayern as well as the top two finishers from the West Virginia Derby in Tapiture and Candy Boy.  It should be a competitive race, with many storylines.  On paper, it looks like a three horse race between Chrome, Bayern, and Tapiture, and I expect that it will come down to these three. I see the race coming down to three questions:

1. How will California Chrome (1-1) run off the layoff? 

If he’s at the top of his game, he should be the class of this group. He’s worked well for Sherman, who doesn’t excel at bringing them back (that said, California Chrome is very different than his normal horse). But, it’s a long layoff after a grueling campaign, and he’ll need to bring his best to find the winner’s circle here.

2. Which Bayern (7-2) will show up?

He’s an enigma. His Travers performance wasn’t unexpected, given the history of the Haskell/Travers double, but it wasn’t his first flop as the favorite. He also took tons of money and failed in the Arkansas Derby and the Derby Trial (although he did cross the line first in the Trial). He very well could re-break at the top of the lane, but, in my view, it’s still a significant if.

3. Will Tapiture (5-1) find trouble?

Tapiture, an immensely talented colt who is already a millionaire, has had a knack for trouble finding him. It happened at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes –and then it re-appeared again in West Virginia. That said, his performance to get up at Mountaineer in the West Virginia Derby was superb, especially given all the trouble he had in the stretch. He’s run several terrific efforts, and on pure talent alone, could be the best of this bunch


Here’s Tapiture’s Rebel Stakes and West Virginia Derby:

After a brief diversion to second-level stakes with the Matt Winn and the WV Derby, Tapiture has earned the right to take on the best again. This is something that I love to see, and combined with what I’ve seen visually on the track, I think the best value bet will be Tapiture to win at 7-2 or better. I’ll take the chance that he’ll put forth a grown-up effort today and earn a solid win on his way to the Classic.

Listen to the podcast all about the PARX P4, which includes the PA Derby. Check back later for the final P4 tickets from Jason and I.

Image: Shinya Suzuki, Copyright 2011.

5 questions for the Smarty Jones Stakes (GIII)

There’s very little need for an introduction to the career of Smarty Jones, who was the biggest people’s champion of the 21st century. He won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at then-Philadephia Park against fellow PA-bred by a commanding 15 lengths before going on to stay undefeated and capture the first two legs of the Triple Crown. His lone loss was in the Belmont before an early retirement prematurely ended his racing career.

Although Smarty Jones was retired by this point in his 3-year old season, the 3-year old division picks up again in a race named for him. Over the next 5 weeks, it will be one last hurrah before the divisions merge for good for the Breeders’ Cup, and I’ll start focusing more on 2-year old stretching out.  Today’s race is the first of five graded stakes routing restricted to 3-year olds.  The others are:

  • September 6:  Super Derby, Louisiana Downs, GII, 9f, $500K
  • September 20: Pennsylvania Derby, Parx Racing,  GII, 9f, $1M
  • September 28: Oklahoma Derby, Remington Park, September 28, GIII, 9f $400K
  • October 4: Indiana Derby, Indiana Downs,  October 4, GII, 8.5f, $500K

The top finishers of today’s race could return for the $1M Pennsylvania Derby in a little less than 3-weeks. Here are the key questions for today’s Smarty Jones stakes:

  1. How does the Monmouth form of several contenders carry over to Parx? Monmouth and Parx are very different surfaces, with almost the opposite bias. The switch could very well help some horses and hurt others, depending on their style. Albano and Just Call Kenny both recently ran in both the Haskell and the Pegasus and, if the speed transfers or improves, are very serious win contenders.
  2. How much will Classic Giacnroll appreciate being at his home track? As Ainslie points out (as discussed in All Day Racing Talks), running at a horse’s home track, when the horse is otherwise a contender, can be a significant advantage. If he does, he certainly figures as an strong off-the-pace threat.
  3. Is Ain’t Got Time’s last race repeatable? It was fast, but it was also likely misleading. Easy front-running score at a much easier level on a different surface at Delaware.
  4. Who will appreciate the slight cut-back in distance? Several horses ran longer in difficult company last time out and now run at a little over a mile (around 8.3f). The extra stamina may prove vital in the stretch of a tiring track. ProtonicoJust Call Kenny, Joint Custody, Albano, and Classic Giacnroll all ran 9 furlongs last time out.
  5. Will Protonico improve off of his solid effort in the Curlin Stakes and what effect will the re-addition of blinkers have? The Curlin Stakes produced the Travers winner in V-E day, who moved forward significantly off that race. Protonico has been consistent twice-out for Pletcher, but a bit too slow to find winner’s circle without improvement. Pletcher puts the blinkers back on today, a move that doesn’t inspire much confidence based on his limited track record (0 for 11).

What I’m thinking of playing:

Albano certainly stands out on paper. He was solid throughout the winter and was dominant in the Pegasus. It’s tough to accept less than 3-1 on him, though, and I think he’ll be lower than that. At a price, I’m interested in Classic Giacnroll at home and the lightly-raced Just Call Kenny, with the sizzling Paco Lopez aboard. I’ll take a stand against Protonico, who will likely be overbet with the connections and also the inconsistent Almost Famous

Check out the 1st episode of All Day Racing Talks here.

Image: Jean, Smarty Jones, Copyright 2009.