A slight touch of normalcy returns to central Kentucky this weekend as Keeneland begins the spring meet on its traditional place on the calendar — four weekends prior to Oaks and Derby. Uncle Andy has signed off on allowing a smattering of fans to attend, and those “lucky” enough to grace the grounds will pass through the gates at the equivalent of a $10 across-the-board wager . . . for general admission. Leaving that kind of cash at the entry will require some bargain hunting in order to earn a decent return on investment. We’ll focus our time here on trying to unearth some appealing long shots in the six graded stakes races that anchor the Saturday card.
Race 6: the Grade 2 Appalachian
Finding value in a short field can be a tall task. Sometimes, it makes more sense to keep it simple rather than engage in a creative search for hidden clues that may well be best kept hidden. Flown is the only filly in this field with a win over the Keeneland lawn, and she just so happens to be the longest price on the morning line. Brendan Walsh is adept at developing young horses as they gain experience, and James Graham is perhaps the most under appreciated rider on the grounds. Furthermore, progeny of Kitten’s Joy flourish on the grass and tend to improve with age and several races under their belt. Expect this daughter of the champion sire to outrun her odds.
Race 7: the Grade 3 Commonwealth
Mike Maker tends to make most of his hay playing in the weeds, but he still bats a very respectable percentage on the main track — finding the winner’s enclosure at an 18% clip. He got Special Reserve right back to the head of affairs — after claiming him off of a victory over a sloppy Oaklawn strip — when his new charge captured an optional claimer over a fast surface in Hot Springs just three weeks ago. This is a confident move wheeling him back rather quickly and stepping up the class ladder. The Commonwealth field is not very intimidating as far as graded events at Keeneland go, and the son of Midshipman appears to have enough early lick to gain good early position as there isn’t much speed signed on for this one. He’s certainly worth considering as the longest shot on the morning line.
Race 8: the Grade 2 Shakertown
It’s not often you’ll find a 50/1 shot touted in these posts, but the sticker shock at the gate has forced us to bargain hunt in today’s piece. While one might expect offspring of a Triple Crown winner to similarly excel over classic distances on the main track, progeny of American Pharoah have perhaps shown themselves best when sprinting over the turf. American Butterfly finally gets his opportunity to do just that today. The four-year old Wayne Lukas trainee hit the board in 10 of 17 starts on the main track, so the consistency is there. His only try on the green stuff came at the end of a long campaign last year against tough company going two turns on Derby Day in the American Turf. He showed interest early after encountering some trouble at the start, only to pack it in late. It was his third start in six weeks, and going a route of ground has never been his forte, so grace can be given. His work tab is now littered with bullets, and he should be ready to fire his best shot in his third start off the layoff. He’s shown an ability to make up ground late in the past, so an expected hot pace and shortening up to 5 1/2 furlongs could suit him well. There are multiple reasons he’s 50/1, but at that price there’s enough to like here.
Race 9: the Grade 1 Ashland
This Oaks prep is probably the toughest place to find value in the stakes sequence of today’s card. Curlin’s Catch, second longest shot on the morning line, gets the nod. The daughter of Curlin improved markedly when first switched to the main track in south Florida this winter. She backed up her maiden victory with a stakes win at Tampa by 4 1/2 widening lengths. Draw a line through her non-effort in the Davona Dale. She was bumped at the break, and the incident clearly through her off her game. Mark Casse has given her ample time to regroup, and she presents a sensible, well-priced alternative to two heavy favorites heading to the starting gate for the first time this year.
Race 10: the Grade 1 Madison
The pace outlook for this premier level sprint appears tepid on paper. That likely scenario makes Mundaye Call, the co-second longest shot on the morning line, quite intriguing. Brad Cox is as capable as anyone getting horses well prepared off the bench, and this talented daughter of Into Mischief ran very well over this ground last summer in her first effort under his care. She did tail off markedly in two subsequent starts after scorching the track in the Audubon Oaks, where she earned a field topping 100 Beyer speed figure. Perhaps she just needed more time to recover from that massive effort. She’s now been given that, and has every right to revert back to her stellar summer form.
Race 11: the Grade 2 Blue Grass
Only one horse in the field has been as far as the nine panels of the classic Derby-prep distance, and Rombauer handled the added ground of the El Camino Real Derby with aplomb, scoring by a neck in his sophomore debut. While he was no match for champion Essential Quality or Keepmeinmind (who both return here as well) in the Breeders’ Cup, he didn’t run terribly either. It may be unlikely that he gets the pace he needs to set up his late, steady run, but we know he can get the distance and he did actually earn his best Beyer number over this course in the Breeders’ Cup. There’s a reason Mike McCarthy shipped him across the country instead of staying at home to run in the Santa Anita Derby, and it’s probably worth something at 15/1.
Enjoy a spectacular day of racing with Derby preps from coast to coast. Best of luck and Happy Easter!