Opening day of the Keeneland Spring Meet is always one of my favorite days of the year. The Keeneland Racing office never seems to disappoint as they have put together another deep and challenging program from top to bottom. There are three stakes races on the card, headlined by the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes for three year old fillies, looking to solidify their place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Oaks next year. The festivities get underway at 1:00 (ET) with a full field of two year olds running the traditional 4 and ½ furlong distance on the Headley Course. I’ll be covering the Late Pick-5 today and most of the days throughout this glorious meet. That wager will start with Race 6, scheduled to go off at 3:40 (ET) this afternoon.
Best Bet: Race 9: Punchbowl (#9, 2-1 ML)
Best Price Stab: Race 8: Andthewinneris (#3, 12-1 ML)
I’ll typically be covering the Late Pick-5 sequence from this exciting meet on the ITM Blog, along with posting some updates and thoughts from time to time on Twitter @EricSolomon718. Feel free to reach out!
|Race||Top Pick||A||B||C||Wagering Menu|
|6||4||4,6,8||PK5, PK3, DBL,
All Turf PK-3
|7||2||2||3||PK4, PK3, DBL|
Death, taxes, and Wesley Ward in Keeneland turf sprints. While his record turf sprinters have excelled over this course for the past several years (37% winners in the last two years), a victory with either Kaufymaker (#8), the 6-5 morning line favorite, or Her World (#6), the 3-1 second choice, might not be totally inevitable. I’ll try Mike Maker’s Laugh and Play (#4) on top in this N2X allowance race for fillies and mares. She was average in five starts over the winter on the Tapeta at Turfway. She did clear the N1X condition two back after falling short in her first three tries. She came up empty in her most recent try at this level last month. I’m interested in her because I thought her three turf starts last summer and fall were strong. Maker claimed her Belmont and brought her to the Spa, where she crossed the wire first in a $50K N2L claimer, only to be relegated to second by the stewards. She was very smooth when winning a starter allowance sprint at Kentucky Downs in September. She followed that effort up with a strong second place effort here in October. I like the cutback in distance for her and I think she’s a candidate to return to form when getting back on the lawn. Kaufymaker beat me at short odds when clearing the N1X condition on this course last fall. She’s been on the sidelines since, gearing up for her four year old campaign. Ward’s horses are always able to fire fresh, so she’s going to be very hard to beat, especially if she can build off her last start. Johnny V. has been aboard for both of her victories and he’s back in the saddle today. Her World announced her arrival by beating the boys by open lengths in the Tyro Stakes when making her career debut at Monmouth in August of 2021. She faltered as a heavy favorite in her next three starts, but may have put things together when clearing the N1X condition at Turfway in her last try two months ago. I still believe that she’s more effective on turf than she is on synthetic and she ran well on a good course here when she finished a close third in the Limestone Stakes on this course last spring. I find it very difficult to eliminate either of these fillies.
Race 7: The $400K Lafayette Stakes:
Three stakes winners and another two stakes placed runners make up a strong field of seven three year olds in the first stakes race of the meet. I find this race to be extremely fascinating because five of the seven runners are cutting back in distance in this race, and two are stretching out. I’m going to try to get out of this race using only two runners, making Lugan Knight (#2) my top choice. I really liked his first four efforts to start his career, and I’m willing to forgive his rough start last out in the Gotham. He broke his maiden on this course in the fall, breaking from the rail as a heavy favorite in a twelve horse field. He was buried down inside , just off the leaders and was blocked for a while. When he was able to find a seam, he came through courageously in between horses to outfinish a horse who had better momentum off the turn. He was a game third at six furlongs behind a pair of nice colts, Victory Formation and Two Eagles River. He was steadily gaining on the leaders after a four wide move, but I think that distance was a little too short for him. His win over Arctic Arrogance in the Jerome back in January was a strong effort on the front end, where he was under pressure all the way around the track. He didn’t appear to like the muddy course when he returned in the Grade 3 Gotham last month. A riderless horse caused a few minor issues, where he was the one that was forced to check off heels headed into the far turn. He finished off the board in a large field that day. McCarthy brought him back to Kentucky where he has worked three times since that race. I find it interesting that Luis Saez ends up on him for the first time, instead of Determinedly (#4). Saez rode that one to both of his career victories, and while he hasn’t ridden for Casse a ton, he’s had more business with him over the years than he has with McCarthy. I think he fits the race shape here and should be a candidate to rebound. The other runner that I’ll be using is Hejazi (#3) for Bob Baffert. He’s a $3.55 million purchase that was 4th when he was last seen running in the San Felipe last month. He was saddled by Tim Yakteen that day to preserve his potential Derby Points and remain eligible for the Kentucky Derby. However, he seemed to be flat in the stretch, running like a horse that might be better suited to one turn racing. His last two one turn efforts were very fast, and would likely be quick enough to put this field away. My hesitation is that Baffert doesn’t love shipping here. Outside of Breeders’ Cup Weekend, he hasn’t had a winner here in over five years. With racing at Churchill in a race like the Pat Day Mile being off the table at the moment, this race would be a nice prep for a race like the Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard. I’ll side against both Gulfport (#1) and Corona Bolt (#5) in this race. Gulfport was ultra-impressive in his first two starts, but he faltered as the favorite in his next three starts. Steve Asmussen has not had a wealth of success locally over the last two years, winning with only 7% of his starters in that span. His runners coming off a six month layoff or more at Keeneland are just 1 for 16 over the last five years. I think he’ll need this race, but it certainly could set him up well for the Pat Day Mile next month. Corona Bolt has been really sharp in his six furlong races, winning handily and Churchill and Oaklawn in those starts. He tried two turns in the Southwest Stakes in between those two efforts, where he finished a dull 6th. While I think he will be effective at this distance down the road, I think there’s other speed to make him work hard, and I see him as being vulnerable in the final furlong here.
Race 8: The $400K Grade 3 Kentucky Utilities Transylvania Stakes:
This Grade 3 contest for three year olds on the turf might be one of the better betting races this afternoon. I see there being a lot of speed signed on in this race, which should benefit a closer. Both Carl Spackler (#11) and Dude N Colorado (#12) have some decent early foot, but they’re hung out in tough post positions. I’m looking for a closer and the most accomplished on is Andthewinneris (#3). He was the winner of the Grade 2 Bourbon Stakes here in the fall, despite drawing post 12 that afternoon. He was able to get to the three path for the first turn and settled toward the back of the pack that day as an aggressive pace was developing in front of him. He came with a six wide sweep to win going away in that race. His effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf wasn’t bad, as he was stuck in behind horses for the majority of the race. He finished with interest among a logjam of horses to be seventh. He faltered on the dirt in the Gun Runner Stakes, but was very sharp on a soft course at Sam Houston in the Texas Turf Mile. He ran a career best speed figure on the course that was probably closer to good or yielding that evening. I think that’s going to be closer to the condition of the course today. He was hit fairly hard coming out of the gate at the Fair Grounds where he was a beaten favorite in stakes company there in his most recent effort. He was closing into a significantly slower pace in that race, while racing on a less than ideal course. I’m looking for a bounce back effort today. Nagirroc (#9) is the only other graded stakes winner in the field, earning his Grade 3 victory in the Futurity Stakes when sprinting this fall at Aqueduct, He ran solid races to finish close thirds in both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and the Eddie Logan. He was the best American runner in the Breeders’ Cup race, as the top two finishers were the two European invaders. I think he’ll be sitting midpack in his first start as a three year old. Graham Motion will certainly have him ready to fire off the bench. Carl Spackler was too good to ignore in his last start, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream by a whopping 8 and ¾ lengths. You don’t see too many turf horses win like that in this country, so there’s definitely some quality here. Chad Brown has had a lot of success with horses sired by the Lope de Vega, and this may be another high quality runner of his. This is a deep field though, and the post is no picnic. I suspect he’s going to be bet down under his 3-1 morning line, so vertically, I don’t see him as good value. However, he’ll be on the bulk of my multi-race tickets. On deeper tickets, I’ll include both Webslinger (#2) and Wonderful Justice (#4). Webslinger is another dangerous closer that is worth using in this spot. He’s run two sharp races this season, clearing the N1X condition and narrowly losing to Dude N Colorado in the Colonel Liam Stakes at Gulfstream last time out. He gets a considerable post advantage over his rival this afternoon, and I think the race shape is more favorable for him as well. Wonderful Justice was the winner of the Black Gold Stakes, the same race where my top pick was 4th. He stalked a slow pace as Reckoning Force had a loose lead up front. He methodically passed that one while holding off a late charging rival to his outside. He’s undefeated for Brad Cox, who calls on Florent Geroux, who was aboard for his maiden score, to ride him again.
Race 9: The $600K Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes:
This is the race in the sequence where I’m going to take a stand by trying to beat the Breeders’ Cup Winner, Wonder Wheel (#2). She’s a perfect 2-2 on this course, winning a pair of Grade 1 races here. While I respect her versatility, as she ran two entirely different races to win those trophies, I was disappointed with the effort she put in at Tampa in the Suncoast Stakes in February. She looked like a horse that hadn’t made that much progress yet from two to three years old. Meanwhile, Punchbowl (#5) has been ultra-impressive in her two starts at Oaklawn. She passed the two turn test with flying colors last month, leading all the way while setting solid fractions. She did have an easy lead, and some of Brad Cox’s three year olds that have put up big figures in races like that have regressed in their next starts. However, I think the regression has been more of a function of a more competitive pace battle instead of a typical bounce. Other than Wonder Wheel, I don’t see any real threat to stop her from taking the early lead. No one else really wants to go, so I think she’s going to be very dangerous with Flavien Prat dictating the terms up front. I think she’s faster than Wonder Wheel. While I love the pedigree of Julia Shining (#4), she’s an interesting horse that hasn’t seemed to figure things out yet. Luis Saez has had to ride her early and often in all three of her starts. While she still might have the highest ceiling of this group, I think in this race, at this distance, Punchbowl has a distinct advantage.
If I can get out of the first four legs, I would like to have some coverage in this nine furlong maiden special weight contest for three year old fillies that will wrap up the afternoon. I think Robin Sage (#1) is interesting in this race at 20-1 on the morning line. She’s a Kitten’s Joy filly that is making her first career start on grass after a pair of races at this maiden allowance level at Turfway. Her debut was dull, but she looked better last out when apprentice Walter Rodriguez put her on the front end. She faded late to finish third that day, but showed considerable improvement. There is hardly any speed signed on for this race, and she has the fast track to the front end. This apprentice was very sharp this winter at Turfway, winning the riding title and earning mounts from high profile connections like Wesley Ward. Trainer Robert Medina has been about a 10% winning training over the last few years, however, he has won with 19% of his starters on the turf over the last year. Dacita was one of my favorite fillies to watch race and her first foal, Doral (#10) makes her third career start today. She was narrowly defeated in her first two tries, losing by a neck both times. Junior Alvarado follows her from South Florida to Lexington to ride for Bill Mott. She paired her first two Beyer Speed Figures and now could be sitting on a better effort in her third career start. Heckled (#6) debuted at the Fair Grounds at the end of February and ran a solid third that afternoon as the favorite. Joel Rosario will take the call for Michael Stidham in her second career try. The dam won twice overseas in long distance races on a synthetic course. She has produced a pair of talented turf runners already, most notably, the 2020 Del Mar Derby winner, Pixelate. The dam of both of her offspring all won for the first time in their third career starts, so this filly might need one more race before she’s at her best. However, all three runners improved in their second time out and I’ll expect her to do the same. Rosy Tomorrows (#15) is going to need some help to get into this field, and if she does, she’ll need some racing luck while likely racing from the 12 hole. However, I liked her debut a lot at Gulfstream where she faded in the final stages after battling for the lead. She’s another Kitten’s Joy filly, so I think she’ll improve going longer distances. If she doesn’t get in, I’ll replace her with the first time starter, Costa Bella (#5) for Eddie Kenneally. Luis Saez sees fit to take the call on the Justify filly. She was sold for less than half of the stud fee, which is not an encouraging sign. However, Kenneally must have seen something that would tell him that she could handle debuting in a race like this.
Pick-5: $0.50 Base Wager, $60 Ticket:
I’ll be building this caveman ticket around Punchbowl (#5, R9) in the Central Bank Ashland today. I think at this moment she’s better than both Wonder Wheel (#2, R9) and Julia Shining (#4, R9), both of which should take some money. I think there are playable longshots in the other four legs of this sequence, including Laugh and Play (#4, R6, 6-1 ML), Lugan Knight (#2, R7, 8-1 ML), Andthewinneris (#3, R8, 12-1 ML), and Robin Sage (#1, R10, 20-1 ML). If I can get a few of them home, I think the sequence could pay kindly on this first day of racing 2023.
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