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The fall meet at Keeneland begins on Friday with a spectacular opening weekend of racing highlighted by 8 Win and You’re In Breeders’ Cup qualifiers. Crowds should be strong all weekend long buoyed by plenty of out-of-town visitors from Missouri for the football game on Saturday night. The weekend kicks off with a strong 10 race card co-anchored by the upgraded Grade 2 Phoenix for sprinters and the Grade 1 Alcibiades for two-year old fillies. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key races from Friday’s card:
The 1st race is a two-turn main track event including seven lightly raced juvenile fillies. More Mojo is out of the nice race mare Deb’s Charm who ran 3rd here in the 2003 Alcibiades. She should appreciate stretching out around two turns and will likely be forwardly placed exiting two sprints at Saratoga. Gio Game is one of only two entrants with route experience as she crossed the line 3rd behind Significant Form, who was disqualified from that victory and then came back to beat a solid field in the Grade 3 Miss Grillo on Sunday at Belmont. The primary question for Gio Game is how she will handle the main track as she is bred for the grass, being by turf champion Gio Ponti. She did finish 2nd over a main track labeled good in her debut at Saratoga. The morning line favorite at 9-5, she does appear to be the one to beat in the meet opener.
Race 7 is an excellent betting race with a full field of 12 colts and geldings scheduled to go 9 furlongs on the turf course. Holiday Bonus and Surprise Twist are the co-favorites on the morning line at 4/1. Holiday Bonus has been a consistent performer all year having run no worse than 4th in 7 starts without a victory. He is cutting back in distance off a solid 4th place effort in the Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs. Surprise Twist is more lightly raced, with only 4 lifetime starts. He has never finished off the board and most recently filled the show position, just behind Holiday Bonus (albeit with a more difficult trip) in a similar allowance spot at Saratoga. Two of the more intriguing long shots in here are Lookin for Eight and Harlan Strong. Lookin for Eight is also lightly raced with just 4 lifetime starts, but trainer Mark Casse thought highly enough of him to run in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth earlier this year where he finished 5th of 10. He was given a lengthy break after that attempt and reemerged on the grass at Saratoga where he endured an awful trip in his turf debut. With a better trip here, he can offer some value by returning to the promising form he showed earlier this year. Draw a line through Harlan Strong’s last race, run over a muddy track he clearly detested. Prior to that, he ran 3rd after stumbling at the break in a decent stake race at Monmouth. He picks up Robby Albarado and looks like a solid contender against this group.
The Grade 2 Phoenix offers a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint to the winner of the 8th race, and there is a litany of speed signed on for this 3/4 mile dash. Whitmore looked like the class of the east coast sprint division earlier this year when he reeled off 5 straight, culminating with a half length decision over this race’s defending champion A.P. Indian in the Maryland Sprint on Preakness Day. Since then, however, he has tailed off form, finishing 3rd in his last two with deteriorating speed figures. A return to his early season form would make him the horse to beat in here, but given the sub-par efforts he has put forth recently, there are several others offering more intrigue. Limousine Liberal’s stalking style is well suited to the expected pace scenario. He always shows up with a good effort over his home track, and he has been freshened since filling the show spot in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt early in the Saratoga meet. Favorite Tale was one of the top sprinters of 2015, finishing 3rd in both the Vanderbilt and Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but he regressed in his next two starts and went to the sidelines for 18 months. He returned last month at Parx with a runner-up finish against Pennsylvania-bred stake company. Surely he needed that race, and he could be a strong player here if he is able to recapture that 2015 form. Given the relative uncertainty surrounding the top choices, this should be a good spot to get a decent price. Uncontested spent some time on the Derby trail early this year, but has now reverted to sprint distances for Wayne Catalano. He won an optional claiming event at Churchill three weeks ago at this same 6 furlong distance. The Tiz Wonderful colt has been firing bullets over the Keeneland surface in the morning since late summer, and he won his debut here by 6 widening lengths last fall. He could light up the tote board at 15/1 on the opening line. It’s the Journey ships in from Maryland for Mike Trombetta off 4 straight wins by comfortable margins. This is certainly a step up in competition for the Mineshaft gelding, but he seems to be improving and may well be up to the task.
The victor of the Grade 1 Alcibiades, Friday’s 9th race, earns a spot in the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. A field of 10 will take one lap around the main track oval in the day’s penultimate race. Bet She Wins may prove to be the most appropriately named of these. After hitting the gate and bumping another horse at the start, she moved forward from 8th place to be more than 9 lengths ahead of her nearest competitor as she crossed the wire in the Arlington Washington Lassie. That very impressive effort will likely see her favored here in her first start on dirt. Kelly’s Humor won the Ellis Park Debutante for Brad Cox, and she is the only filly in the field with two-turn experience on the main track having most recently finished 2nd in the Grade 2 Pocahontas at Churchill. She draws leading rider Javier Castellano away from Cox’s other entrant, Sassy Sienna. Pacific Gale could be a promising play as she does possess some early turn of foot in a field without much pace. She sat 2nd, just a length behind a sub :45 half mile, in her 3 1/2 length victory in Monmouth Park’s Sorority Stakes. We’ll see if she can get brave and stretch that speed around a 2nd turn. Heavenly Love returns to the main track after an authoritative victory on the grass at Kentucky Downs. Her pedigree is more inclined to dirt racing, and she looks like another solid contender in what appears to be an evenly matched field on paper.
Best of luck to everyone attending the races on opening day. Be sure to check back here each day for previews of all the great racing action at Keeneland.