The new year may be three days old by Saturday, but it is the Grade III Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct that kicks off the year as far as the Kentucky Derby trail is concerned. To start the new year on the Kentucky Oaks trail, make sure to read Paul Mazur’s preview of the Santa Ynez Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita.
The Jerome Stakes, in its 145th running this year, was originally run at Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx. It has been run at distances ranging from a flat mile all the way to two miles, and contested at Jerome Park, Morris Park, Aqueduct, and Belmont through its history. The race is named after Leonard Walter Jerome (1817-1891). By trade he was a financier, but he was also an instrumental figure in horse racing in New York City. With August Belmont, he established Jerome Park. That racetrack opened in 1866, the year the first Jerome Stakes was run. In addition to it being the first site of the Belmont Stakes, it was also the site of the first formal outdoor polo match played in America, as the Westchester Polo Club had established and based itself there. Jerome Park remained a going concern until 1890, when it was condemned by the City of New York to build a reservoir. Since 1940, the land around the reservoir has been a city park.
The Jerome Stakes is the second-oldest American thoroughbred stakes race still in existence; the only older is the Phoenix Stakes (GIII), currently run at Keeneland. Through its history, some illustrious horses have won the Jerome Stakes. Aristides, who won this race in 1875, won the first Kentucky Derby that same year. Fair Play, sire of the great Man o’ War, won the Jerome in 1908. Preeminent runner and sire Bold Ruler (1957), five-time Horse of the Year Kelso (1960), and two-time champion sprinter Housebuster (1990) also count the Jerome among their career wins.
The race had been a Grade II as recently as 2014, but was adjusted by the American Graded Stakes Committee to a Grade III for 2015. Despite that move, this year’s edition of the Jerome still drew a field of nine horses, all vying for a share of a $200,000 purse. In addition, the spoils for the Jerome Stakes continue to include Road to the Kentucky Derby points; it is the first race of the new year to do so. 10 points go to the winner of this race, with 4, 2, and 1 for the second, third, and fourth place finishers.
Morning lines were unavailable at original publish time. This was edited to add them on January 1.
Saturday, January 3
Aqueduct Race 8: Jerome Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, one mile and 70 yards over the dirt, post time 3:48pm EST
EL KABEIR turned heads second out with a ten-length maiden win at Saratoga. He showed two less-than-excellent outings over off tracks in the Champagne (GI) and the Nashua (GII), but returned to gamely stay in front of Imperia to win the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) at Churchill Downs last out. EL KABEIR’s ability to handle a Classic distance is suspect at best given his breeding, but that is not the question in the Jerome. In fact, this is a turnback in distance; that win last out came at 1 1/16 miles. He faces a somewhat easier field, which weighs in his favour, and he is the speed of the speed unless another horse takes a big leap forward. Still, there are several others in the field who may at least try to keep him honest on the front end: NASA, OSTROLENKA, and GENERAL BELLAMY most likely among them. With the likely stalkers in addition to the outside post draw, the short price makes EL KABEIR a bit less exciting than he would otherwise be. In light of that, consider ROYAL BURGH to spring the upset. He is the less-heralded Pletcher entry behind OSTROLENKA, but the one more likely to benefit given the pace scenario. He faltered in the Remsen last out, but broke his maiden at 1 1/16 miles at first asking. In that maiden win, he sat a few lengths off of Curlino and then just outgamed him come the wire. Curlino validated that form next out, winning a maiden special at Churchill by daylight. Given the style of his maiden win, he should be able to sit away from any of the runners trying to give EL KABEIR a hard time on the front end, and have the chance to strike late when they tire out. The cutback in distance from the 1 1/8 miles of the Remsen to the mile and 70 yards of the Jerome should suit this son of Street Sense, and and new rider Manuel Franco is firing at a respectable 14% on the Aqueduct meet.
On class, the “obvious” choice to round out the trio of selections seems to be NASA; he won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes sharply last out, and has plenty of two-turn blood despite his most prominent sibling being crack sprinter (and full brother) Centralinteligence. However, he has been able to hit the undersides at best from off the pace, and does not stand to gun to the lead over EL KABEIR unless the latter fails. NASA makes a lot of sense for undersides, but is less than attractive on top — especially given trainer John Servis’s subpar record in graded stakes races. Instead, consider an off-pace type from a trainer who typically does very well at Aqueduct: Rudy Rodriguez trainee ACKERET. Rodriguez has a sharp record in graded stakes — 24% — and is also a 22% winner with runners who prevailed last out. ACKERET comes into this race off a clear win in an allowance at Parx last out, and showed there that he could muster plenty of speed to contend with this bunch. He will have to run back to that performance, if not improve, in order to take down the Jerome. However, his style fits well to be able to pick up the pieces should EL KABEIR get more than he can handle up front and outside. He won his maiden race from a midpack position, and was off the pace in his allowance win as well. He shows no tendency to get tied up in speed battles as yet. Finally, he gets a rider change to Irad Ortiz: 21% on the Aqueduct meet, and riding as sharply as anyone within the last year.
#2 ROYAL BURGH (8/1)
#9 EL KABEIR (2/1)
#7 ACKERET (4/1)
Longshot: #5 NOW WE ARE FREE (20/1) races for the first time since an allowance win on November 7. He flopped in his first outing at Saratoga in July, but won second out, on the stretch to two turns. That was a massive class drop from maiden special at Saratoga to a $25,000 maiden claimer at Laurel. However, he took another step forward next out, winning an N1X allowance optional at Laurel last out as a 20/1 outsider. He does have a regular worktab since late November, right along the lines of what he was putting up leading into his two wins. He also runs for trainer Michelle Nevin: 35% (11/31) on the Aqueduct meet, and 26% with runners coming off of similar-length lays as NOW WE ARE FREE. His running style also attracts interest, as well. He stalked a couple of lengths off the pace in his maiden win, showing that he can sit off the speed. Furthermore, he has also shown serious tenacity: he overcame a stumble at the start in his maiden win, and was able to re-rally after losing the lead in his allowance win. This is a significant class rise for him, but he has enough in both his performances and connections to make him attractive at the likely long price.
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