Surprise! The leaves haven't turned yellow yet, it's still hot and humid this week, but the Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Road to the Kentucky Oaks both begin on Saturday at Churchill Downs, with the Iroquois Stakes (G3) for open two-year-old company, and the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) for juvenile fillies. Both races offer points to the top four finishers, allocated 10-4-2-1: so, far short of a bid to the big race in May, but a useful buffer if a horse who is good now remains sharp through their sophomore spring.
In addition to Kentucky Derby points, the Iroquois and the Pocahontas also offer Win and You're In bids to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) to their winners.
Race 9: Pocahontas Stakes (G2), two-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, post time 4:53pm EDT
The Pocahontas Stakes, inaugurated in 1969 as a Thanksgiving Day event, was named after Pocahontas, daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan. Originally run at seven furlongs, the race was stretched to a mile and pushed earlier in the fall in 1982. In 2013, the Pocahontas moved to the then-new Churchill Downs September meet, and was extended to its current distance of a mile and a sixteenth. This coincided with its addition as a Road to the Kentucky Oaks race, the first one on the calendar. As it turned out, the winner of that first Kentucky Oaks Trail edition of the Pocahontas ended up making a bit of a splash on the trail when all was said and done: Untapable won the 2014 Kentucky Oaks. In 2018, Serengeti Empress won the Pocahontas in a 19 1/2 length romp; this year, she won the Oaks. Another notable recent winner of the Pocahontas was Daddys Lil Darling (2016). She started her career on dirt, but went on to do her best work at ages three and four on the lawn, including a win in the 2018 Modesty Handicap (G3) at Arlington.
Trainer Brad Cox has a pair of runners in this race who give him a strong hand. PORTRAIT made her debut going a mile on the lawn at Ellis, rallying from well off the pace to finish a promising third. Switched to the dirt for her second start on August 25, she sat closer to the pace, stalked, and drew off to win easily. Now she stretches back out to two turns, something her mild debut should help give her the bottom to tackle. PORTRAIT'S versatility is also a strong positive; she has good races in both stalking and closing styles. Rider Shaun Bridgmohan was in the irons for both of those outings, and should be able to carve out a good trip for her again in the Pocahontas.
The other Cox entrant, BRITISH IDIOM, has a bit less seasoning than her stablemate but still comes in with a strong chance. She debuted as the favourite in a restricted maiden special weight race at Saratoga, limited to horses who had sold or RNAed for $45,000 or less in their most recent auction, and did exactly what she was supposed to do. She sat close to the pace and kicked clear to win by open lengths. The horse who ran 3 1/2 lengths second, Miss Marissa, has already come back to win. BRITISH IDIOM needs to answer the two-turn question, but being by Tapit son Flashback, out of a mare who was a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles at age two, she has every right to answer that question in the affirmative.
Speaking of questions that need to be answered, MORNING GOLD makes her dirt debut in this race. However, she has run two good races over 1 1/16 miles on the lawn at Saratoga: Second on debut in a maiden special, then a comfortable victory second out. A good second is a particularly good debut given that MORNING GOLD is trained by Ken McPeek, who often does not have his horses cranked first out and does far better second out. It's also nice that even though she wired her maiden victory, she stayed engaged from off the pace on debut. She has the versatility, she has the stamina...dirt is the question, but being by Morning Line out of a mare from the family of Seeking the Gold, it would be no surprise to see her take to it. And, McPeek comes to Kentucky in the fall ready to roll: he won the Iroquois last year, and won the Pocahontas in both 2015 and 2016.
#3 PORTRAIT (3/1)
#7 BRITISH IDIOM (4/1)
#6 MORNING GOLD (3/1)
Longshot: You don't always see live horses go from the claim box to a graded stakes, but when you do, Mike Maker is often responsible. He and owner David Staudacher claimed #1 SHADILEE (10/1) for a hefty $75,000 out of a five-and-a-half-furlong maiden race at Saratoga on August 18. The bad news is, she lost the condition. The good news is, she romped with enough confidence to suggest that she has an onward-and-upward future. She passed horses in that debut, always a good thing to know a horse can do. And, though she makes a stark stretch out in trip, the pedigree shines for it: SHADILEE is by Declaration of War out of an unraced Tapit daughter of She Be Wild, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) at a mile and a sixteenth.
Race 10: Iroquois Stakes (G3), two-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, post time 5:26pm EDT
The Iroquois Stakes is named after the first American-bred Thoroughbred to win the Epsom Derby. Iroquois, a 1878 son of Leamington out of Maggie B. B., then went on to win the St. Leger at Doncaster later in his three-year-old year. Local mainstay Straight Line, for trainer Harvey Vanier, won the Iroquois Stakes in 2002, the year before he won the Ack Ack. Straight Line was the previous namesake for the race at Arlington now known as the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes. Another Chicago-area trainer, Larry Rivelli, has also found success in the Iroquois. He has won it twice: in 2015 with Cocked and Loaded, and in 2017 with The Tabulator. Other prominent horses to have won the race since its inception in 1982 have included Harlan's Holiday, Tiz Wonderful, and Court Vision.
The name on everybody's lips is DENNIS' MOMENT, after a 19 1/4-length romp at Ellis Park. After setting the pace, taking a bit of early pressure though appearing to go well within himself, he just kept widening...and widening...and widening. That was a seven-furlong sprint on the dirt. The stretch to two turns shouldn't pose a problem for DENNIS' MOMENT, who has strong two-turn breeding on both sides. But, the question is how he does in a tougher field, with what's likely to be more than just token pressure early, since zippy JUGGERNAUT, tenacious ROWDY YATES, and rail-drawn ZYRAMID will make it hot up front. Perhaps DENNIS' MOMENT will either go faster than them early, or he'll prove he can rate and sweep clear. But, at a short price, it makes sense to look for prices who have already proven that they can pass horses.
FLUTE MAKER, as usual for a McPeek horse, needed his debut but blossomed second-out, romping in the Saratoga slop on August 21. He sat just off the pace, and drew off to win by 11 1/2 lengths. Of course, these winners originally intended for dirt will be tougher, and he'll have to prove he can handle fast dirt as well. But, the ability to sit off horses is a strong point in his favour. The stretch from seven furlongs to the mile and a sixteenth should suit him as well, as he is by Sky Mesa out of a Pleasantly Perfect half to Filimbi. And, as also commented above in the discussion of the Pocahontas, McPeek tends to point for this fall meet, especially with his two-year-olds. For an honest price, there's a lot to like.
SCABBARD is another who should be coming from off the pace. He has already answered the question of whether he likes Churchill Downs, winning his six-furlong debut over the course on June 28, coming from last in a seven-horse field. He returned in the Saratoga Special (G2) on August 10, rallying for second behind the talented Green Light Go, well clear of the rest of the field. With all the pace signed on for this, it should play right into SCABBARD's late-running style. How well he will take to the distance is the biggest question: he is by sire More Than Ready, a positive, though most of his female family has been sprinters. But, with a positive pace setup and a known liking for the course, he fits right into the Iroquois.
#6 FLUTE MAKER (8/1)
#3 SCABBARD (5/1)
#8 DENNIS' MOMENT (8/5)
Longshot: The name Ken McPeek has popped up several times already, both in the Pocahontas section and with the top selection for the Iroquois, FLUTE MAKER. Let's make one more visit to his barn, since he has another live one in the Iroquois: #10 JANUARY WON (15/1). If this name sounds familiar from last week, it's because he was entered in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, but scratched. The synthetic track pedigree was a question; now he stays on dirt. He hasn't run at Churchill yet, but his debut was a good one over the Saratoga dirt, rallying from toward the rear of a small field to win an auction-restricted maiden special at Saratoga. As rarely as the barn wins first-out, his first-out winners do tend to hold good form. And, JANUARY WON has a strong pedigree for the stretch out to two turns, being by Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner New Year's Day out of a Pulpit mare whose female family is replete with route form on both dirt and turf.
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