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Kentucky Derby 2020: Limited fans at Churchill Downs for historic race

A very lonely Churchill Downs grandstand. Image via Louisville Courier Journal.

Those are four words I hope to never type together again.  After a 4-month postponement (so that the races could be run with fans in attendance), the 146th Kentucky Oaks and Derby will be contested this weekend without fans in attendance.  The 2020 Oaks and Derby will certainly be very different than any other year.  There will be no thunderous roaring of the crowd as horses break from the gate or battle through the stretch run.  Nor will there be 150,000 voices simultaneously pretending to know the words to My Old Kentucky Home.  On a positive note, it looks like there will also be no rain.  The most important thing, however, remains the same.  The equine talent on display will be second to none.  Despite a reconfigured racing calendar, Churchill Downs has assembled exciting fields loaded with class that will challenge the acumen of any handicapper and water the mouth of gambling degenerates across the globe.  The focus of this piece will be the six races that comprise the two-day pick 6 wager, which last year paid nearly $68,000 for a $2 bet.  No one correctly picked all 6 winners, so that payoff was good for 5 out of 6.  We’ll give the 2020 rendition our best shot:

1st leg – the Grade 2 Alysheba – Race 10 on Oaks Day

McKinzie put on a dazzling display to dust the field by 4 3/4 lengths in this race last May.  A repeat of that performance would put him right back in the Churchill winner’s enclosure today, but the 2020 version of McKinzie has not been on the same level as most of the rest of his stellar career.  By My Standards will also vie for favoritism.  Impressive scores in the New Orleans Classic and Oaklawn Handicap moved the son of Goldencents several rungs up the ladder of the handicap division.  Hard-knocking runner-up efforts behind divisional stalwarts Tom’s d’Etat and Improbable in the Stephen Foster and Whitney respectively did nothing to tarnish his budding reputation.  A bullet half-mile breeze in :46 and 1 last Friday over this surface signified the Bret Calhoun trainee’s readiness for this engagement, and he looms as the most likely winner.  Owendale is certainly capable on his best day, but an expected tepid pace could be his undoing as the front runners should have enough in reserve to hold off his late kick.  Mr. Freeze on the other hand may be the horse best suited to benefit from a rather conservative clip.  His versatility should allow Manny Franco to do as he desires, either control the tempo if no one else pleases or track more honest fractions if Silver Dust, McKinzie or Bodexpress take to the front.  The son of To Honor and Serve has two victories and a third place effort from three attempts at Churchill, so his fondness for the surface could offer value to those looking for alternatives to the favorites.

2nd leg – the Grade 1 La Troienne – Race 11 on Oaks Day

Vexatious ran the race of her life to take down distaff divisional leader Midnight Bisou in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga last month.  It will likely take a replica of that effort to repeat here.  Monomoy Girl makes her 3rd start off an extended layoff.  She has failed to cross the wire first in only one of her 13 lifetime starts.  She has 4 prior victories over the main track in Louisville, and her tactical speed will allow Florent Geroux to lay just off the pace – should Lady Kate run here – or control the tempo from the outset should that daughter of Bernardini scratch in favor of Saturday’s Distaff.  She’s A Julie does have 3 wins over the track herself and can certainly be a danger on her best day, but having Vexatious and Monomoy Girl on a ticket feels like enough here – and far be it from me to shame anyone for making Brad Cox’s champion filly a single.

3rd leg – the 146th running of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks – Race 12 on Oaks Day

Baffert: Distance Won't Be a Problem for Gamine

Gamine blitzkriegs the Test field at Saratoga. Image courtesy of Thoroughbred Daily News.

What an incredibly splendid renewal of North America’s marquee race for three-year old fillies.  The density of this field bellies the incredible talent at the top.  Most view this as a two horse race between Swiss Skydiver and Gamine, and while a stretch long duel between those two is highly anticipated, one could certainly make the argument that as many as four of these fillies are needed to breathe easy from start to finish.  Gamine will most certainly take this race by the throat from the moment the gates pop open, and the only opponent that can come close to matching her early speed is Swiss Skydiver.  If a wicked pace duel ensues, Speech should be waiting right in the garden spot to pick up the pieces.  The Michael McCarthy lass was brilliant winning the Ashland at Keeneland in July, running a slightly faster Beyer number than Swiss Skydiver earned for her runner-up finish against the boys in the Bluegrass.  Earlier this year she was a mere nose shy of upsetting Gamine in a two-turn allowance at Oaklawn.  She understandably regressed when yielding to Swiss Skydiver by 4 lengths in the Santa Anita Oaks, but bounced back with aplomb 5 weeks later in Lexington.  Disregard her chances at your own risk.  Also worth mentioning is Donna Veloce, a somewhat surprising entrant having not raced since early March.  After a dazzling debut effort at Santa Anita last fall, she missed by just a neck (to champion British Idiom in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies) and a half length (to the once highly regarded Bast) in a pair of grade 1 events to close out her juvenile campaign.  Her most recent effort was quite impressive as she bested none other than Speech by 4 1/4 resounding lengths after stumbling at the start of the Santa Ysabel.  The lengthy layoff – and the presence of two powerhouse heavyweights – insures that she will not be favored for the first time in her career, but she fired fresh both in her maiden voyage and her 2020 debut.  She has been training exceptionally well at Del Mar – thus providing trainer Simon Callaghan the confidence to drop the entry in a test like this – and similar to Speech, should sit a nice trip just behind the public’s top selections.

4th leg – the Grade 1 Derby City Distaff – Race 12 on Derby Day

Serengeti Empress will be a most deserving favorite in this spot.  She is 2 for 3 at the distance with her only loss by a mere half length to the champion Covfefe in last year’s Test at Saratoga.  The Tom Amoss protege enters this challenge off a sensational performance in the Ballerina at that same track.  She’s spent the majority of her career around two turns, likely the result of an Oaks victory on this very track last May.  However, the extended sprint distance seems to be what really hits her right between the eyeballs.  She can dictate the tempo gate to wire, and things become even more comfortable up front if Eddie Kenneally chooses to run Lady Kate in the La Troienne on Friday.  Ce Ce is the most interesting alternative, cutting back from top level route races to one turn for the first time since her 2020 debut in February.  She has enough tactical speed to be close enough to threaten Serengeti Empress should that primary adversary grow leg weary in the stretch.

5th leg – the Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic – Race 13 on Derby Day

Rockemperor feels like the best horse in here, but his aversion to winning is a problem.  United (along with Zulu Alpha) is arguably the best male turf horse in the country, and this son of Holy Roman Emperor’s nose loss to that rival at Santa Anita in May ranks as arguably the best past performance in this field.  That said, he’s finished behind 3 other horses in this race within the last 13 months, and a horse that is only 2 for 12 lifetime is not one on which to load up on faith.  Factor This has captured his last 4 trips to the post for Brad Cox, including a 10 panel affair over soft ground at Ellis Park last time out.  That effort should give him plenty of stamina to see out one less furlong today.  Mr. Dumas owns 3 triumphs in 4 attempts over the Churchill sod.  Spectacular Gem is the only horse to defeat him over the course, having done so going a mile at the end of June.  A repeat victory over soft ground at Ellis has the Can the Man colt sitting on two straight wins at a mile since returning from a 4 month layoff.  Can he fight with Factor This from the outset and extend his speed an extra furlong?  Somelikeithotbrown has thrown down two straight triple digit Beyer figures since returning to the lawn in June.  Of all races in the sequence, this feels like the one to spread pretty deep.

6th leg – the 146th running of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby – Race 14 on Derby Day

Tiz the Law tests out a sloppy Churchill main track. Image via Coady Photography.

Don’t get caught trying to reinvent the wheel here.  Tiz the Law has absolutely dominated the competition all year long and only appears to be getting stronger by the day.  Barring anything unforeseen, he will turn the Run for the Roses into an absolute cakewalk.  His tactical speed allows Manny Franco to place him wherever he chooses, and he can take command and draw away at any time.  He is already proven at the distance, having conquered the Travers at Saratoga just last month – in facile fashion.  If the son of Constitution happens to stub his toe, then Honor A. P. is the next most likely winner.  He has the right combination of pedigree and running style to get the distance, and he proved his class by finding the wire first comfortably in the Santa Anita Derby.  The jury is still out on the rest of this group at this distance, but we only need to find a winner to cap off the pick six.  Tiz the Law should head to Baltimore a heavy favorite for the Covid Crown – where his stiffest competition will likely come from the Oaks winner.

The Ticket:  $2 PICK SIX using McKinzie, By My Standards and Mr. Freeze with Vexatious and Monomoy Girl with Swiss Skydiver, Gamine, Speech and Donna Veloce with Serengeti Empress with Rockemperor, Factor This, Mr. Dumas and Sacred Life with Tiz the Law – $2x3x2x4x1x4x1 = $192

Best of luck to all and enjoy the races.

Article written by Chad Lashbrook