Opening weekend featured thrilling racing action with the return of several Breeders’ Cup winners and results at opposite ends of the spectrum in major preps for the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. Out for a Spin punched her ticket to the Oaks with a shocking victory in the Grade 1 Ashland at 53 to 1 for Dallas Stewart, while the Bluegrass was won by favored Vekoma who took all the late money for trainer George Weaver. There will be no let down in top quality racing this weekend as Friday’s card includes two stakes races, including the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile. Anchoring a fabulous Saturday card with 4 black type events is the Lexington Stakes, which offers sophomore colts their last chance to earn qualifying points for the Derby.
FRIDAY – RACE 7, THE LIMESTONE TURF SPRINT
The new sister race accompanying the Palisades, run on opening day, drew an overflow field of 3yo fillies. Barring multiple scratches, fourteen will take to the post. Snow Blossom, Weabie, Chelsea Cloisters and O’Keeffe have all shown a preference for racing at or near the head of affairs early on, but the bet here is that Play On will prove to be the speediest of this group. The Country Day filly flopped in her debut over the main track here last autumn, but she has done nothing wrong since in taking 3 straight with 2 of those coming on the grass and the other in a race that was rained off the surface. The Brad Cox barn, still gaining prominence after a banner year in 2018, sports a 43% strike rate through the first 5 days of the meet. Play On blazed through opening splits of :21 and :43 on her way to a comfortable 2 1/2 length score in her stakes debut at Gulfstream. Eligible for further improvement in just her 5th lifetime start, she is the top selection here. Chelsea Cloisters took place honors against the colts in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Churchill in November. Wesley Ward chose to bypass another opportunity against the colts in last week’s Palisades and scratched into this spot. The daughter of First Samurai is battling a case of seconditis, but she is clearly capable of beating these home with her best effort. My Gal Betty could be dangerous cutting back to a sprint in her second start back from a Breeders’ Cup layoff. Don’t sleep on Ginger Nut. After checking sharply early in her American debut she rallied to narrowly miss the trifecta by just a nose, beaten 3 lengths by Play On in the Melody of Colors at Gulfstream. John Sadler doesn’t ship across the country often, and he and Joel Rosario are batting 43% together the last two years.
FRIDAY – RACE 9, GRADE 1 THE MAKER’S 46 MILE
Eight-year old Heart to Heart’s “catch me if you can” tactics will be on display for the eighth time over the Keeneland lawn in the 31st running of this great race. The eldest member of a relatively average grade 1 field, the son of English Channel is the defending champion and has never finished worse than runner-up in three prior attempts in this particular race. Morning precipitation will leave the Brian Lynch trainee quite vulnerable in this spot as the three most dismal results on his past performance lines all came over ground labeled “good” or “yielding”. Breaking from the rail, Raging Bull is likely to be the public’s choice. He broke his maiden over this course, is a graded stake winner over ground classified as both “yielding” and “good”, and took home the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby in his 2018 finale. The youngest contestant in this top level event, the son of Dark Angel appears primed to take another step forward in his 4yo debut for arguably the best turf trainer in the game. Delta Prince, Qurbaan and Great Wide Open all offer legitimate upset possibilities. With Javier Castellano back aboard and 4 trips to the winner’s circle in 7 attempts at the mile distance, Delta Prince rates as the most appealing of those. He makes his second start of the year for Jimmy Jerkens after finishing less than 3 lengths adrift of Bricks and Mortar – who looks like the best middle distance grass horse in the country at the moment – in the Pegasus World Cup Turf at Gulfstream this January.
SATURDAY – RACE 7, THE GRADE 3 BEN ALI
There are a number of different ways this one could shake out, but the most plausible scenario involves Flameaway taking his ten rivals wire to wire in this nine panel affair for older horses. The son of Scat Daddy has an off the turf triumph in the Bourbon to go along with his runner-up effort in last year’s Blue Grass over this surface. His class is rivaled only by Solomini amongst his challengers, and the Mark Casse pupil has a decided pace advantage over that foe. He has two solid local breezes since his front-running score in the Challenger at Tampa. Look for Irad Ortiz to dictate the pace from the outset and hold off all challengers in the stretch. Solomini does indeed have class to fall back on, having crossed the wire first in the grade 1 Futurity at Los Alamitos as a juvenile. He got a much needed confidence booster in allowance company at Santa Anita prior to shipping in for this and a likely appearance at Churchill next month. The Curlin colt is certainly a threat if he can regain his early three-year old form. Third Day and Just Whistle rate as the most likely long shot possibilities as both are very lightly raced for older horses and thus, still eligible for significant improvement. Just Whistle also ran the best race of his six race career here back in the fall when breaking his maiden.
SATURDAY – RACE 8, THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
Seeknthegiantpearl, Student Body, and Morticia are all front-end types, but none possess the type of blazing speed you typically see in turf sprints. Morticia is certainly the classiest of this group, and she has shown on occasion the ability to run a field off their feet. A win in the grade 3 Franklin County over this course and distance is her greatest achievement, and Ortiz will look to call on that class to get her back to the winner’s circle. Peter Miller has shipped a number of his charges into this meet with purpose, looking to escape the calamity in southern California. He has already won and placed with just 5 starters through the first 5 days. Surrender Now just might be a budding star for a trainer that collects grass dash victories at a 34% clip. She won a stake race over the main track as a juvenile by eight lengths, but appears to have found her true niche on the lawn. Johnny V. should be able to sit the perfect trip in the garden spot tucked in behind the early leaders and take control when the real running begins.
SATURDAY – RACE 9, THE GRADE 3 LEXINGTON
This mile and a sixteenth affair over the main track offers 20 last ditch qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby to the winner. Anothertwistafate and Sueno are the two colts in this field positioned to take advantage of that added bonus and punch their ticket to Churchill Downs in three weeks if they can find the winner’s enclosure here. Sueno is a consistent sort that always manages to be around at the end. He beat Rebel winner Long Range Toddy home when second in the Southwest and followed that up by hitting the board again in the Louisiana Derby. Finding his way into the minor awards again looks most plausible. Anothertwistafate parlayed three open length victories over the synthetic surface at Golden Gate into a narrow defeat in the Sunland Derby. The Scat Daddy colt scorched a half mile in :46 and 4 in preparation for this assignment, and Javier Castellano will use that tactical speed to his advantage in this field. It wouldn’t be a complete shock to see him decimate this field and head to Louisville looking like a legit Derby contender. Wesley Ward is looking to steal this race with Hawaiian Noises. The son of Super Saver has scored in three straight sprints, and he will take this field as far as he is able with Johnny V. in the irons. Zenden exits the most key race of this group and offers great value if his morning line price of 6 to 1 were to hold. He took the Tampa Bay Derby field a long way before succumbing late due to his own wicked pace. Tacitus exited that contest and shipped to New York to capture the Wood Memorial last weekend, while show finisher Win Win Win rallied late to punch his Derby ticket with a runner-up finish in the Blue Grass. Tyler Gaffalione picks up the mount on this son of Fed Biz, and if he can capably measure his speed this colt could show marked improvement in his second start around two turns.
SATURDAY – RACE 10, THE GRADE 1 JENNY WILEY
Any regular reader of this column knows that the world stops when Rushing Fall enters the starting gate. The brilliant daughter of More Than Ready looks to join truly rarefied air with that splendid race mare and legendary broodmare Take Charge Lady as the only two fillies with perfect records in four Keeneland stakes. With only one very minor blemish in an otherwise impeccable seven race career, the e Five Racing color bearer opens her 4yo campaign over her favorite surface just as she did a year ago. This game often reminds us that there is no such thing as a sure thing, but one must assume that Chad Brown would not be leading Rushing Fall into the Keeneland paddock if she was anything less than 100% fit and fully prepared for the challenge that lies in front of her. Indeed, her primary rival appears to be from her own barn in the form of Rymska. The French mare has the benefit of two outs this year, including her conquest of the Grade 2 Hillsborough at Tampa last month. No doubt a worthy adversary, she will still need to find her absolute best to contend with Keeneland’s newest queen.
SATURDAY – OAKLAWN PARK RACE 11, THE ARKANSAS DERBY
This is the last Kentucky Derby prep race of the year – with enough qualifying points on offer to secure starting spots for both horses in the exacta. A field of 11 includes the winners of both divisions of last month’s split Rebel stakes, Long Range Toddy and Omaha Beach. Both horses took significant steps forward in those efforts, with Long Range Toddy besting favored Improbable by a neck, and Omaha Beach just nosing out champion Game Winner. While Richard Mandella’s charge has improved materially since his transition to the main track, Omaha Beach is likely to encounter significant early pace pressure from the stakes winning sprinter Gray Attempt. It may be wise to avoid backing him at short odds and instead watch how he deals with the company and the added ground in this nine furlong test to gauge his readiness for the ten panels that await in Louisville. Improbable picks up Jose Ortiz and a set of shades after a wide trip here last month. The young champion jockey’s hand will be forced to get involved early due to the rail draw, and like Omaha Beach, the son of City Zip must prove he can withstand that pressure and the extra half furlong. Long Range Toddy is third choice on the morning line and drew the far outside post. The race should set up perfectly for crafty veteran rider Jon Court, and the Steve Asmussen charge certainly offers the most value given the post draw and the expected pace scenario. Whomever emerges will surely be battle tested for the big dance in three weeks.
Best of luck at the windows this weekend.