As it has been through the winter and spring, this weekend's theme at Picks and Ponderings remains the number three.
However, instead of three-year-old preps...this weekend features three-turn races.
In another piece, Paul Mazur previews the Charles Town Classic, a three-turn, nine-furlong race over the West Virginia bullring. This piece instead focuses on the twelve-furlong Elkhorn Stakes: three turns over the lawn at Keeneland.
This spring marks the 31st running of the Elkhorn Stakes. As with so many races at Keeneland, its name is geographically inspired. The race takes its name from Elkhorn Creek, an 86-mile long waterway running through several counties in Central Kentucky: Fayette, Scott, Woodford, and Franklin. It began as a nine-furlong grass race in 1986, but was extended to its current twelve-furlong distance in 1996. First given a grade in 1988, it was promoted to a GII in 1990, made a GIII in 1996, and then restored to its GII status in 2008.
As befits a classy turf route, several winners of the Elkhorn have also made their mark at Arlington. Hall of Fame inductee Manila, who won the 1987 Elkhorn Stakes, closed his career with a win in the 1987 Arlington Million (GI). Many horses who have run in the Elkhorn have also run in the Stars and Stripes Stakes at Arlington, and three have won both during their careers. both Vladivostok (1996) and Dark Cove (2013) won the Stars and Stripes later the same year, and Williams News (2001) had won the Stars and Stripes the year before his Elkhorn victory. A pair of Elkhorn winners were also stakes winners at Hawthorne, in the Hawthorne Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap. The very first winner of the Elkhorn, Lieutenant's Lark (1986), won it later that year; Coaxing Matt (1993) had his day at Hawthorne two years later, as a 26/1 longshot for still-active local trainer Neil Pessin.
Morning line odds were not available at original publish time. Updated April 21 to include morning line odds.
Race 9: Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes (GII), four-year-olds and up, one and one half miles on the turf, post time 5:30pm EDT
This year's Elkhorn features a field of eight long-winded grass horses to contend for a $250,000 purse. The likely betting favourite, and squarely the one to beat here, is KAIGUN. This Mark Casse charge has been as consistent as it gets in graded stakes over turf (and even polytrack) over the last few years: from extended sprints all the way to three-turn extravaganzas, you know you are going to get a solid effort from this son of Northern Afleet. The biggest knock against Kaigun was that he was filling out the exactas and trifectas with alarming regularity, but had not won a race since August of 2014. Even that changed last out, in the Pan American (GII), when KAIGUN got his head past Wake Forest for top money. His humans are in cracking form, too: trainer Mark Casse is winning at a 22% clip this Keeneland meet, the same as rider Joe Bravo.
The biggest strike against KAIGUN, and the biggest reason this space goes elsewhere on top (and plans to go two deep on any multi-race tickets), is the pace. KAIGUN is a midpack-to-closing type, and this race does not look like it will have a lot of speed. Particularly since TWILIGHT ECLIPSE has not been sending much lately, A RED TIE DAY could get things very easy up front. IDOLO PORTENO stands to stalk close enough to get first run, and has significant upside in this spot. He comes into the Elkhorn second off the layoff. First off, in the Razorback (GIII), he finished a solid third behind Upstart. Though that race was a mile and a sixteenth on the dirt, he has back form to suggest that this race will suit him well. He won a pair of Group I races in Argentina: one on turf, one on dirt, and both at a mile and a half. Expect Paco Lopez to get IDOLO PORTENO in a good stalking spot, and have plenty of gas in the late stages.
UP WITH THE BIRDS has not won a lot of horse races in recent times; his last win photo came in July of 2014. However, he has a solid chance for a piece underneath here. Though he often rallies from well off the pace, he showed last year in the Canadian International (GI - CAN) that he could sit a little closer than usual. In that race, the same mile and a half distance as today's, he finished a creditable second with John Velazquez aboard. Velazquez returns here. This son of Stormy Atlantic also has a victory at this distance on grass, albeit against Canadian-breds in the 2013 Breeders' Stakes. Though this will be UP WITH THE BIRDS's first start against Thanksgiving weekend, he has a long worktab, and a strong layoff trainer in Graham Motion. UP WITH THE BIRDS has himself fired well enough for a share against classy company first off a layoff, and should be able to do that once again here.
One horse this space will take a stand against is TWILIGHT ECLIPSE. The TWILIGHT ECLIPSE of old would loom a serious threat in this field, but he has not shown nearly as much in recent times. Had he been getting the lead in his recent attempts, he would be a bit more attractive, or at least a bit more of a factor. But, that Mac Diarmida (GII) outing last out was flat, and he has more often been coming from off the pace, even in races in which he did not have to account for speedball Shining Copper also being in the field. Those who think he can rebound may possibly get the price to take a shot, but this space thinks TWILIGHT ECLIPSE will be dead on the board for a reason, and will be passing.
#4 IDOLO PORTENO (12/1)
#7 KAIGUN (5/2)
#2 UP WITH THE BIRDS (3/1)
Longshot: Though #3 A RED TIE DAY (20/1) faces the classiest horses of his career (by a country mile), he should get a favourable setup here. He looks most likely to be the one dictating the pace. Last out, he led at every call of a ten-furlong allowance-optional at Santa Anita. Of course, he faces far tougher horses here, but he could improve. The win last out suggests he is long-winded, and can dig in and get the job done going a route of ground. Though he is six, he also has a bit more upside to improve than horses his age. A RED TIE DAY has only raced twelve times before, and comes in third off an extended layoff. The placing is ambitious, but if Gary Stevens can put this Richard Baltas trainee on the front and on the engine, A RED TIE DAY could make it a red-letter day for anyone who uses him on their tickets.
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