The grandstand is empty. The hill is vacant. There is but a smattering of cars in the general parking area. The paddock area is vapid. It’s excessively humid and hotter than hell with nary a hint of rain in the forecast. The postponed, dramatically culled, spring turned summer meet at Keeneland kicked off on Wednesday without fans in attendance. While anything resembling a normal race meet feels eons away, the product on the track is as good as ever – and in this game, that’s what matters most. The 5-day meet, utilizing borrowed race dates from Ellis Park, includes many of the stakes races that are traditionally run during the usual April slate. With the Oaks and Derby rescheduled for the first weekend of September, Keeneland was fortunate enough to secure this cozy spot on the calendar to run the Ashland and Blue Grass – the key local preps for the major entrees 70 miles to the west. Those two springtime stalwarts anchor a Saturday card which includes 4 other graded events, two at the top level.
Saturday, Race 4 – the Grade 2 Appalachian
A short but seemingly well-matched field of 6 sophomore fillies will kick off Saturday’s stakes parade on the Keeneland lawn. Two exiting the Tepin on May 23rd at Churchill offer the most intrigue. The form of that race held together quite nicely as winner Sharing took off across the pond to claim runner-up honors in the prestigious group 1 Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot and two others came back to round out the superfecta in Churchill’s Regret on the Stephen Foster card. Walk in Marrakesh was blocked inside of horses for most of the stretch run that day. She never had a legit chance to accelerate through the lane and checked in 7th across the wire, beaten just over 3 lengths. Jose Ortiz returns to the saddle today, and the smaller field and wide draw will undoubtedly aid her chances tremendously. Alms ran a nice race in the Tepin, finishing a length ahead of her returning foe in 5th, but had no excuse and just wasn’t good enough on the day. The City Zip filly will be more fit today with that effort under her belt as she looks to avenge the lone blemish on her 5 race record. Evil Lyn is a perfect 3 for 3 on the grass, and Mike Maker is always dangerous in situations like this where he moves a horse into stakes company right off the claim. The filly she beat by more than 4 lengths in her last start at Churchill returned to take an allowance race by 2 1/2 at Indiana Grand on Tuesday. The daughter of Wicked Strong figures to race prominently from the outset and tends to get brave when she finds the front.
Saturday, Race 5 – the Grade 1 Madison
Nine fillies and mares will head to the post in this top level 7 furlong contest on the main track. The presence of Guarana, Mia Mischief, and Amy’s Challenge insures a hot pace, which could set things up for either of the very capable closers in here – Sally’s Curlin and Bell’s the One. Bell’s the One looked very strong taking the Winning Colors in Louisville at the end of May, easily dispatching top notch fillies Break Even and Mia Mischief in the process. She has shown a prior affinity for the Keeneland surface, capturing 2 of 3 local starts including the grade 2 Raven Run last fall. That said, the strongest inclination here is that the lightly raced Guarana may just be a one-turn beast. She is 4 for 4 around a single bend counting a six length annihilation of last year’s grade 1 Acorn, with Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in her wake, amongst her conquests. Trainer Chad Brown shipped her straight to Kentucky from Florida with intent. She had an easy prep at Churchill, undoubtedly with eyes on grade 1 prizes here and back in Louisville for the Derby City Distaff on the Derby under card. This one could be quite special.
Saturday, Race 6 – the Grade 2 Shakertown
Tiger Blood will try and take this full field of turf sprinters as far as he is able. However, it is likely that the extra half furlong combined with the class of his pursuers will lead to his undoing. While anything can happen when 14 horses enter the gate ready to race less than 3/4 of a mile as fast as they can, this race feels like it boils down to the quartet of Wildman Jack, Bound for Nowhere, Texas Wedge, and Totally Boss. The latter endured very troubled trips in his two most recent outings – the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint and an allowance prep for this at Churchill at the end of May. If you draw a line through those two debacles, the son of Street Boss is 4 for his last 5, 4 of 9 at the distance, and has a victory and a 3rd place effort over the local sod. He’s been training quite well in anticipation of this, with a :46 and 3 bullet two Saturdays prior shining brightest on the work tab. The 8/1 on the morning line is a buy price indeed. Texas Wedge ran a cracker in the grade 1 Jaipur on Belmont day, hitting the board just shy of the fantastic filly Oleksandra. He should appreciate the cut back in distance and get a decent trip just behind the leaders. Wesley Ward briefly contemplated sending Bound for Nowhere to the Royal Ascot meeting, but ultimately decided against it. As such, The Factor gelding has been training steadily over the Lexington oval since the beginning of May. He owns two triumphs over the Keeneland green including the 2018 edition of this event. His old pal Julio Garcia takes the irons for this attempt, and you can bet the trip will be a good one from a prominent early position. Wildman Jack shipped to Dubai early this year for a tilt on the World Cup card at Meydan where he took down the group 3 Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint prior to the cancellation of his primary intended engagement. The Goldencents gelding returned stateside with his winning form in tow, crossing the wire a nose in front of six others in the grade 3 Daytona at Santa Anita in late May. Mike Smith takes the return call for Doug O’Neill. The savvy veteran may decide to take command early from his inside draw.
Saturday, Race 7 – the Grade 1 Ashland
Six sophomore fillies line up in this ultimate acid test for the Kentucky Oaks. It is unlikely anyone will want to run with Venetian Harbor early, and that makes her exceedingly dangerous. If left alone, she will almost assuredly take this field gate to wire. However, Tonalist’s Shape and Speech might be capable of applying just enough pressure to open things up a bit. Speech has had the pleasure of competing against the two best fillies in the division in her two most recent trips to the post. She missed Gamine – who ran off the screen in the grade 1 Acorn on Belmont day – by just a neck in a two-turn allowance at Oaklawn on Arkansas Derby day. You can forgive her for the speed figure regression in her next attempt, a runner-up effort that fell 4 lengths short of Swiss Skydiver in the Santa Anita Oaks. She ships into town with two bullets in the chamber, and a repeat of that Oaklawn performance might very well be good enough to win this. Bonny South’s reputation was flattered earlier this week when stablemate Shedaresthedevil breezed by 5 open lengths to find the winner’s enclosure in the Indiana Oaks. The daughter of Munnings has been off since her Fair Grounds Oaks victory, and she will need a rapid pace up front to set up her late kick. Trainer Kenny McPeek claims one of the major reasons he is running Swiss Skydiver in the Bluegrass is due to his supreme confidence in Envoutante in her first attempt amongst graded company. We’ll see if the move pays dividends.
Saturday, Race 8 – the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley
Rushing Fall is the unquestionably the brightest diamond amongst this stellar collection of jewels. It would be a sincere pleasure to watch her collect a grade 1 victory for the 4th consecutive year. There is only one concern with her – the aforementioned heat and humidity. The daughter of More Than Ready prepped in New York, has been training in New York, and will be shipping in on top of this race with no time to acclimate. From a wagering perspective, value lies with those that are more accustomed to the current climate. Juliet Foxtrot has been training with the Brad Cox string in Louisville for the last month. She surrendered the lead in deep stretch of the grade 3 Mint Julep at Churchill and gained some much needed fitness from that effort. Expect a much improved daughter of Dansili today. Secret Message got up in the final strides to take that same race in Louisville by a neck margin over the returning La Signare. The Graham Motion hot streak cannot be ignored, and the price should entice. While she has yet to secure a premier level notch in her belt, Toinette’s 8 wins from 12 outings is an enviable record to say the least. The Scat Daddy filly seized her tune-up for this engagement in facile fashion. She owns an allowance victory over this course and distance ahead of the likes of La Signare to go along with a neck defeat of Rushing Fall to make her 2 for 2 at this particular distance. The outside draw will give Flavien Prat options, and this one is capable to say the least.
Saturday, Race 9 – the Grade 2 Blue Grass
A hodgepodge group of 13 lines up for the 96th running of Keeneland’s annual Derby prep. Shivaree will likely set the early pace from his rail draw. His 2 latest results suggest he is not without a chance against this group. Runner-up in the Florida Derby behind division leader and Belmont winner Tiz the Law, he took a brief respite prior to returning in a much hyped allowance race at Gulstream won by Sole Volante, the Sam Davis winner and second in the Tampa Bay Derby over the winter. A close-up third on that occasion, further improvement and additional stamina will be required of him today. Art Collector may be well fancied by the punters off his impressive allowance score at Churchill on June 13th. Six lengths further back at the wire that day was none other than Shared Sense, Wednesday’s Indiana Derby champion. A repeat of that performance could well do the job, but the son of Bernardini had things his own way through leisurely fractions that day and ended up running a blinder that will likely be difficult to repeat in this spot. Man in the Can got the best of Dean Martini in another allowance event in Louisville last month. That foe came right back to take the Ohio Derby. The Ron Moquett charge is 4 for 5 lifetime and totes 3 straight trips to the winner’s circle and a bullet :59 and 3 breeze into this Derby qualifier. Mr. Big News jumped forward on a sloppy surface in Hot Springs to win the Oaklawn Stakes. He needs to prove he can compete with this type of quality on a dry race track. Basin is one of 2 grade 1 winners in the field, having earned that accomplishment in last summer’s Hopeful at Saratoga. He has yet to return to the winner’s circle. Taken out of his preferred role and forced to chase a loose on the lead Charlatan in the slower division of the Arkansas Derby, that performance is likely better than it looks on paper. He’s had ample time to recover since that effort and his training suggests he could be primed for a big effort getting some class relief in this spot. Rushie cleaned up the trifecta behind the top 2 Californians in the Santa Anita Derby. He should not be dismissed. Enforceable is worth a play if the price is right. His best effort puts him in the mix, and he’s been training in the sweltering humidity of Ocala, so he should be as well suited as any of these to handle the conditions. The lone filly in the field, Swiss Skydiver, absolutely belongs. Perfect in her last 3 outings against the best fillies of her generation (save for Gamine), she has certainly earned the right to challenge the boys for the Blue Grass crown. A forward position early on should insure the right trip, and she’s run the most consistently impressive Beyer figures of any horse in the race. She needs only to run her race to become the first filly to win the Blue Grass Stakes.
All Stakes Pick 6 Ticket:
Race 4 – 3, 4, 6
Race 5 – 5
Race 6 – 2, 8, 9, 10
Race 7 – 2, 3, 6
Race 8 – 1, 2, 4, 6, 8
Race 9 – 7
Best of luck.