This weekend means higher stakes on the Kentucky Derby trail and the Kentucky Oaks trail. Though inclement weather shifted the last of the ten-point Derby preps (the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn) to Sunday, Saturday heralds the beginning of the fifty-point races. Though any horse who wins a prep at this level still has to achieve the daunting task of staying sound until May, the worry about having enough points evaporates. In both previous years that the point system has been in place, fifty points has been easily enough to get a horse into the starting gate.
Two sets of high-stakes Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks preps grace the calendar on Saturday. Paul Mazur looks at the pair at Gulfstream, the Fountain of Youth (GII) and the Davona Dale (GII). Just after those, a pair of three-year-old preps from Fair Grounds will shift into the spotlight: the Rachel Alexandra (GIII) for the fillies, and the Risen Star (GII) for open company. These two three-year-old stakes at Fair Grounds make the focus of this piece.
Both races are scheduled for Saturday, February 21 at Fair Grounds. Horse Racing Radio Network will stream live audio of the Risen Star as well as the Fountain of Youth, Davona Dale, and Canadian Turf from Gulfstream from their website, as well as on Sirius 117.
Updated on February 19 to reflect the planned scratch of J S Bach, who reportedly spiked a fever and will not run.
Race 10: Rachel Alexandra Stakes (GIII), three-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles over the dirt, post time 4:54pm CST
The 2015 edition of the Rachel Alexandra offers a $175,000 purse, as well as 50, 20, 10, and 5 Road to the Kentucky Oaks points to the top four finishers. First run in 1982 as the Davona Dale Stakes, the race was renamed for Silverbulletday in 2001, and then named for Rachel Alexandra in 2011. Rachel Alexandra never won the race named in her honour, but she did win the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) in 2009 on her way to a dominant 20 1/4 length win in the Kentucky Oaks (GI) as well as victories over males in the Preakness (GI), the Haskell (GI), and the Woodward (GI) later that year.
Over its history, the Rachel Alexandra has been a fountain of Kentucky Oaks winners. Six winners of this race have taken home the blanket of lilies: Tiffany Lass (1986), Blushing K. D. (1997), Silverbulletday (1999), Summerly (2005), Believe You Can (2012), and Untapable (2014). Another of the most notable winners of this race fell a length and a quarter short in the Kentucky Oaks. Take Charge Lady (2002) won eight graded stakes, including the 2003 Arlington Matron. As a producer, she already has two champions on her direct female line: she is the dam of Will Take Charge (2013 Champion Three Year Old Male), and the second dam of Take Charge Brandi (2014 Champion Two Year Old Filly, via her daughter Charming).
Untapable opens up her championship season with a convincing win in the 2014 Rachel Alexandra Stakes.
All eyes will be on I'M A CHATTERBOX for this race, but she brings to mind an old adage among horseplayers: why go to the funeral when you skipped the wedding? Last out was your chance on her; she took full advantage of an unpressured lead. This time out, she will not be so lucky. FREUDIE ANNE and HARBOUR ISLAND stand a chance to be right on her, and LOVELY MARIA and PLEASANT TALES seem likely to be within striking distance, as well. Taking a short price on her against tougher horses with a tougher pace scenario seems less than attractive. Instead, look at LOVELY MARIA. Though she failed as the favourite in her only stakes attempt to date, that was in the mud. She faced SHOOK UP in an allowance at Fair Grounds last out, and made a frontrunning score. That gives an idea of her class, though her back lines give a better idea of her pace versatility. She broke her maiden stalking a length or so off early on debut, and finished just a head short against Toutsie Rules in an allowance from off the pace. That was only at six furlongs; she looks like a better filly at two turns. The humans behind her only boost her chances: Larry Jones, 30% on the meet, trains her, with Jones's A-jockey Kerwin Clark aboard. The pair is 15-45 over the last two months with 29-45 in the money, and Clark has ridden LOVELY MARIA all five times out. ANGELA RENEE showed a lot of promise at two, but has been on the shelf since a distant third-place finish behind Condo Commando in the Demoiselle at Aqueduct. If she can find the best form of her two-year-old year, she is in with a shot. She has conjured some sharp speeds for the field, and her stalking style should put her within range of speedsters FREUDIE ANNE, HARBOUR ISLAND, and I'M A CHATTERBOX. She has been working frequently and sharply at Palm Beach Downs since early January, and trainer Todd Pletcher is a sharp 24% with runners off of such lays. More interesting here are the rider change and the addition of blinkers. She switches back to Rafael Bejarano -- who won the Chandelier (GI) in a confident performance the only time he rode ANGELA RENEE. Blinkers on is a move with which Pletcher wins 33% of the time and hits the board 60% of the time -- and, with which Pletcher has a positive ROI. For a trainer who goes off at chalk odds as often as Pletcher does, this stands out. Finally, WEST COAST BELLE deserves another chance. After going off at 2/1 last out, her odds will be longer this time out. She was fourth in the Silverbulletday last out, but only a half length out of second place. I'M A CHATTERBOX seems unlikely to run away like she did last out, and none of the runners in this field appear to have either the class advantage or the pace advantage to do so. It looks likely that the pace will be honest, giving this midpack-to-closing type an honest shot, and she comes here second off a short freshening. WEST COAST BELLE already has a Grade II win at this distance (the Golden Rod last November), which she garnered with Shaun Bridgmohan aboard. Bridgmohan returns today, and has a stellar 71% in-the-money rate with trainer Wayne Catalano over the last two months.
Interesting on the undersides, though not on top, is FOREVER UNBRIDLED. To her credit, she is a mid-pack type, and will be helped along by the pace on the front end. She also likes the Fair Grounds: she broke her maiden there two back, and clunked along for second behind the runaway I'm a Chatterbox last out in the Silverbulletday. Her speeds rank a bit slow for this field, and trainer Dallas Stewart's one win in the last 51 graded stakes he has entered hardly inspires confidence. However, she gets Brian Hernandez back from her last two starts; he has been 60% in the money with Stewart over the last two months. To round out those exotics, the pace-aided horse for the course FOREVER UNBRIDLED should be your filly.
#5 LOVELY MARIA (5/1)
#6 ANGELA RENEE (5/1)
#4 WEST COAST BELLE (6/1)
Longshot: For a long shot, let's look to the C-stringer from the Larry Jones barn: #2 WHITE CLOVER (20/1). She broke her maiden in a sprint washed from turf to dirt back in December, finished second in a dirt sprint allowance there, and then tried seven and a half furlongs on the turf last out. She finished off the board for the first time in that race, and Jones brings her back to the dirt here. In terms of pace, she should be able to stalk it, and should not get embroiled if the pace gets too hot. In terms of distance, it will be her first try at two turns. She is full to GI winning dirt router Ermine, and all five winners her dam has produced other than WHITE CLOVER have won a route at least once. This suggests a stretch should serve her well. This filly will have to take a clear step forward to contend, but if she stays near her 20/1 morning line, her trainer and her blood suggest enough upside to take a swing.
Race 11: Risen Star Stakes (GII), three-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles over the dirt, post time 5:24pm CST
This year's edition of the Risen Star features a purse of $400,000, as well as 50, 20, 10, and 5 Road to the Kentucky Derby points for the top four finishers. Inaugurated in 1973 as the the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes, this race was renamed in 1989 to honour Risen Star. Risen Star won this race in 1988, following it up with victories in the Louisiana Derby (GIII) and the Lexington Stakes (GII). Third behind Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby (GI) that year, the Louie Roussel trainee returned to his winning ways to take the Preakness and the Belmont that year. He took the Belmont by a dazzling 14 3/4 lengths, faster than every Belmont Stakes winner up to that point save one: his sire, Secretariat.
Never has the winner of the Risen Star won the Kentucky Derby, though Master Derby (1975), like Risen Star, won the Preakness. Other otable winners of this race other than its namesake include 2007 Champion Older Horse Lawyer Ron (2006) and 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (GI) winner Mucho Macho Man (2011). The race has also had its share of curious winners, such as 135/1 stunner Ive Struck a Nerve (2013), and perennial bridesmaid Dollar Bill (2001), who finished second or third in nine graded stakes (including the 2002 Hawthorne Gold Cup), but won just one graded stakes race in his career.
Mucho Macho Man prevails in the 2011 Risen Star Stakes.
There is no shortage of early speed in this year's edition of the Risen Star. HERO OF HUMOR, who forced the front-end issue with TIZNOW R J and Runhappy in the Lecomte, returns this time around. In addition to the return of TIZNOW R J, both BIG BIG EASY and ST. JOE BAY have done their best work along the front end. The front end has lost one of its contingent with the scratch of J S BACH, but there should still be a pace to chase. IMPERIA returns for the first time since November 29, when he finished second behind El Kabeir in the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII). That race was at the same distance as the Risen Star, suggesting this son of Medaglia d'Oro can get the distance. Though he has been on a layoff for almost three months, trainer Kieran McLaughlin has a 23% win rate with runners off of similar lays, and he has a solid worktab stretching back to New Year's Eve. IMPERIA should be ready to fire. With big-money jockey (and 21% route winner) Mike Smith in the irons and plenty of pace to attack late, he looks like the class of the field and the one to beat.
Among all the runners in the Risen Star, TIZNOW R J stands to benefit the most from the scratch of J S BACH. Last out, in the Lecomte, he survived the early fractions better than anyone else on the front end and fought on for a creditable third. He will need to be able to survive some pace again given the return of HERO OF HUMOR, and the presence of both BIG BIG EASY, and ST. JOE BAY -- but with the scratch of J S BACH, TIZNOW R J becomes the clear class of the front end. This runner appeals because of the tenacity he showed in both his maiden win and in the Lecomte, the ability to stay engaged even if he does not get on the lead early (as evidenced by his second start, in which he overcame a slow start and clipping heels to finish third), and because of the affinity for the Fair Grounds strip he has shown in his last two starts. The pace setup will not be optimal, but if one of the frontrunners survives, TIZNOW R J has shown the most to suggest that it will be him. Finally, KEEN ICE stands to be motoring late. Though the scratch of J S BACH hurt him more than most, there should still be pace to run into, with HERO OF HUMOR and anyone who decides to take him on. He finished a late-running fifth in the Holy Bull (GII) at Gulfstream, his first race since finishing third in the Remesen (GII). In that race, he ran the fastest final sixteenth in the field, and was the only one in that field who did not lose ground between the stretch call and the wire. There should be more early zip in this race than in the Holy Bull, and Fair Grounds tends to be more friendly to closing types than Gulfstream did. In terms of speed, KEEN ICE put up his career top Brisnet figure in that Holy Bull effort, but it was not a huge jump -- instead, it was the next reasonable step in a gradual progression. If he takes another step forward second off the lay, he will be tough at a nice price. One other interesting thing to note about KEEN ICE is the rider, James Graham. He had ridden WAR STORY in his last two starts, but jumps ship here. Graham has been firing at 22% on the Fair Grounds meet, with 55% in the money, and his local expertise should only help KEEN ICE.
Two who look worth taking a swing against here are INTERNATIONAL STAR and WAR STORY, the 1-2 finishers in the Lecomte. Neither are completely without a shot, especially since they have both shown that they like to come from off the pace. Still, the outside draw (post 10 of 10) will not likely do INTERNATIONAL STAR any favours, and James Graham's switch away from Tom Amoss's WAR STORY in a big race when Graham had been WAR STORY's regular jockey does not inspire confidence. Could either be a factor? Sure. But, IMPERIA seems the fastest and classiest of the off-pace crowd, and KEEN ICE has no shortage of upside for a better price than either INTERNATIONAL STAR or WAR STORY.
#5 IMPERIA (7/2)
#2 TIZNOW R J (5/1)
#8 KEEN ICE (8/1)
Longshot: To invert a common phrase: sometimes, what's good for the gander is good for the goose. Just as in the Rachel Alexandra, Larry Jones sends an attractive long shot out in the Risen Star: #3 BLUFF (12/1). He drew some outside gates and had troubled, wide trips his first two times out. Finally, things came together for him on January 22: he drew the 4 gate, stalked the pace early, and drew off to win easily. This field will be a class test, but BLUFF has the tools to succeed at a long price. Just a reasonable step forward from his last speed puts him right in the running. He has a win going two turns over the course, and he has shown absolutely no desire to go to the lead -- a strong suggestion that he will stay out of the likely collapse on the front end. Finally, trainer Larry Jones's 33% win record (with positive ROI) and 60% in the money record with last-out maiden winners suggest his skill at placing horses who are just figuring it out. For a long price, it is worth trusting Jones and playing BLUFF in exotics at least.
All videos courtesy of Youtube.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Race Course. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.