Opening weekend at Keeneland, with its stakes-laden Fall Stars cards, takes place this weekend.
We will have picks for all nine graded races at Keeneland Friday through Sunday, and detailed analysis of the Woodford Stakes (G2). The Woodford is as classy a turf sprint as you'll see in the United States outside the Breeders' Cup. Particularly since the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint will be a more traditional turf dash and not a gallop down the Santa Anita hill, it should be a key prep.
As with so many of the stakes races at Keeneland, the Woodford Stakes takes its name from a place nearby. Keeneland itself is not in Woodford County, but renowned Thoroughbred breeding farms including Lane's End Farm, Ashford Stud, Three Chimneys Farm, and WinStar Farm call it home. The Woodford Stakes has been run at Keeneland since 1997, though it was named the Nureyev Stakes for its first six runnings. It earned a Grade 3 designation in 2009, and then got a well-earned upgrade to a Grade 2 for this year. It has been contested at five and a half furlongs on the turf since its inception, except for 2015 when it washed to the dirt due to rain.
Last year's edition of the Woodford featured an exacta of Chicago mainstays: 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner MONGOLIAN SATURDAY held off the late run of old warrior HOGY. Both of them are part of this year's nine-horse field. Also among the Chicago locals in this year's edition is the 2014 Woodford runner-up MONGOL BULL, still with owner/trainer Bradlee Rainwater, and trying to do three years ago one better.
These are not the only familiar Chicago faces to do well in this race. One horse bred in the Land of Lincoln has won the Woodford: durable mainstay Fort Prado won the 2007 running, and also finished third the next year. Other winners of the Woodford who have also made their mark in local stakes include Chamberlain Bridge (2008), winner of the 2010 Arlington Sprint, and Havelock (2011, 2013), winner of both the 2011 Arlington Sprint and the 2012 Hanshin Cup (G3).
MONGOLIAN SATURDAY holds off a furious late rally from HOGY to win the 2016 Woodford Stakes.
NBC will broadcast live from 5:00pm-6:00pm EDT on Saturday; this broadcast will feature the Shadwell Turf mile and Claiborne Breeders' Futurity from Keeneland, as well as the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) from Belmont. Free live streams of Saturday's graded stakes races at Keeneland, just as with all races there, run both on the Keeneland website as well as on the Horse Races Now mobile app. Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast on their website as well as on Sirius satellite radio channel 93 from 4:00pm-6:00pm EDT; this broadcast will feature graded stakes action from both Keeneland and Belmont.
Selections for the Woodford Stakes, the Shadwell Turf Mile, the First Lady, and the Bourbon are for turf only. Morning lines for the Woodford Stakes were unavailable at publish time.
Race 5: Woodford Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (G2), three-year-olds and up, five and a half furlongs on the turf, post time 3:25pm EDT
COMMEND comes in here off a second-place finish in the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint (G3), and has tables to turn on HOGY from that spot. But, at this shorter distance, COMMEND has a good chance of turning those tables. COMMEND is still an up-and-coming turf dasher, but what he has shown so far has been strong: two back he posted a sharp victory at this distance against N2X company at the Spa, and last year he finished second beaten just a head in the Quick Call at this distance. His running style should give him the jump on HOGY, and being a bit more forward tends to be a positive in turf sprints at Keeneland. Though the Bill Mott trainee loses rider Jose Ortiz (who stays in New York to ride on Jockey Club Gold Cup day), COMMEND has a solid second at Keeneland last year with Jose Lezcano in the irons, and Lezcano takes the call here.
HOGY, second in this race last year, has a claim once again. The eight-year-old gelding has been in as good a form as ever this year, and won the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint (G3) last out in his first start for new trainer Mike Maker. That was six and a half furlongs, but HOGY can cut back. He is 17: 7-5-2 at more traditional five and five-and-a-half furlong turf dashes. With BUCCHERO, INDY HILL, and LATENT REVENGE all likely to show speed (and even longtime closer MONGOL BULL showing early speed in some of his recent starts, oddly enough), HOGY should get some pace to chase. His biggest weakness is that he gets there a little too late sometimes, and his recent success means the price will be short to make that gamble. But, with Florent Geroux back in the irons and honest fractions to run at, it would be no surprise to see HOGY do last year one better.
MONGOLIAN SATURDAY has been a bit on-and-off since his Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1) win two years ago. But, the son of Any Given Saturday has done his best work at Keeneland, with not only that Breeders' Cup win but also his win in the Woodford last year. He comes in with solid recent form, having finished a close second last out behind Pure Sensation in the Turf Monster (G3). Javier Castellano, who took the riding call that day, returns here. Interestingly enough, MONGOLIAN SATURDAY has shown a bit better pace versatility this year than he had before. With so many of his better efforts earlier having come from right on or very close to the pace, both his Turf Monster second and his Parx Dash (G3) second three starts back had him rallying from well off the front end. With so much other speed in this race, that strategic shift could pay dividends for MONGOLIAN SATURDAY this Saturday.
#6 MONGOLIAN SATURDAY
Longshot: Trainer Chris Hartman tried to make a dirt router out of #7 BALANDEEN: a sensible path, as he is a son of Bernardini and he finished second behind McCraken in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill last year. Yet, his first two career wins came sprinting on dirt, and he has once again shown promise when Hartman dialed him back in distance. He won the six-furlong Tom Ridge Stakes at Presque Isle Downs against his own age group. Though he faltered next out in the Karl Boyes Memorial (his first try against older), the sophomore tried a turf dash against older last out at Churchill, and finished second behind his older and saltier stablemate Rivers Run Deep. A run back to that effort gives BALANDEEN a shot to finish in the frame against these even saltier foes, both in terms of speed and in terms of the rate-and-rally style. And, he has a right to improve: Corey Lanerie, the hottest jockey in Kentucky right now has the call on BALANDEEN. If you can get Lanerie at a price, why not ride with him?
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for this weekend's graded stakes at Keeneland. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment, or tweet us at @picksponderings!
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Racecourse. 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.