Kentucky Derby Prep Series – John Battaglia Memorial – By Eric DeCoster

For the second year in a row, the black-type John Battaglia Memorial will award 17 points along the Road to the Kentucky Derby. On a day filled with three 50-point preps, this Turfway Park prep certainly holds much less weight than it’s counterparts, however it is still the final local prep for the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks, which awards 100 Derby points to the winner on the first weekend of March. Highlighting this year’s running of the Battaglia is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up (and winner by mutuel standards), Tiz the Bomb, as well as a handful of minor stakes or allowance winners looking to accumulate their first Derby points.

Turfway Park 3/5/2022, Race 5: John Battaglia Memorial

17 Total Derby Points (10/4/2/1)

1 – Goldeneye (20/1 ML): Following an impressive maiden win last time out at 39-1, Goldeneye was purchased privately in part by prominent owner David Bernsen and transferred to the William Morey barn. In that win he went wire-to-wire in convincing fashion and posted strong figures in the process, which was his second career start after a solid debut sprinting. He’ll certainly have to improve as he faces winners for the first time and also gets stuck with the rail draw, but his one workout leading into this race was very good. All in all, I think there’s plenty of pros and cons with Goldeneye and he feels like a boom or bust type, so I couldn’t blame anyone for using him.

2 – Rich Strike (20/1): A likely longshot in this spot, Rich Strike has placed twice in three starts since being claimed by Eric Reed out of a maiden claiming victory, which saw this horse score by 17 lengths. One of those placings came over this track in the prelude to this race, the Leonatus S. (BT), where he gradually picked up some late pieces from well off the pace but will still well beaten by Erase. While he has shown some ability at times, it’s hard to envision he’ll improve the necessary amount to win as the waters get slightly deeper in the Battaglia on Saturday.

3 – La Belleza Negra (15/1): An extremely intriguing type from the always consistent Rey Hernandez barn, La Belleza Negra, is coming off an 11 length route to break his maiden in late January. Just like Goldeneye earlier, La Belleza Negra was also privately purchased out of his last start, this one by Eclipse Award nominated owner, Gary Barber. In four starts, this son of Cairo Prince has never missed the board, and since returning to the track after two baby races last spring he had a second place effort in maiden company prior to his lone career win. The biggest knock I have on this one is his subpar speed figures, but I’ve always been more of a visual guy myself and therefore La Belleza Negra excites me. Not one I’ll be using on top since I think there’s some other speed types that could likely soften him up too much, but think he might be good enough to hang on for something underneath.

4 – Stolen Base (7/2): In case anyone wondered if Derby points mattered no matter the surface, location, or amount on points awarded, two runners in here were good enough to contend in last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, Stolen Base being one of them. His lone career win came on debut when dirt sprinting at Saratoga, but since then has placed in multiple turf stakes, including the Bourbon S. (G2) behind Tiz the Bomb. Following a 7th place effort two back at Del Mar in the Juvenile Turf, he came off the layoff to run a strong closing third in the $200,000 Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile at Sam Houston as the favorite. The pace didn’t really play into his hand that day and it allowed the top two to get first run and out-finish him. The problem is, that’s likely the same scenario that will play out here – he’ll be coming late, but somebody will already have gotten first run.

5 – On Thin Ice (15/1): Another one who has only a maiden win to their credit, in fact as I’m writing this and counting it out quickly, only three of the twelve horses in the body of the field have more than just a maiden win. As for On Thin Ice, he got off the mark at first asking last summer at Gulfstream on the turf, which was then followed by two straight uninspiring starts at the stakes level on the same surface. His last two runs, both of which came on Tapeta, have certainly been more encouraging and looked to be his best performances on figures heading into this race. He was a closing third in the Grey S. (G3) at Woodbine and then shipped to Turfway for an early January allowance where he was beaten a neck as the favorite by Tawny Port, a Brad Cox-trained colt who ran 5th in the Risen Star two weekends ago. That’s definitely a feather in the cap of On Thin Ice, however the lack of wins is certainly still a concern for me.

6 – Legendary Lore (15/1): This colt is the other runner hailing from the William Morey barn, who sent out last year’s winner Hush of a Storm. Legendary Lore was 3rd in that same allowance ran that On Thin Ice exits, however his form has gotten muddier in the time since then. Last time out on February 11th, he tackled the same exact condition and was 3rd beaten a neck by a rank outsider at even money. This is another one with just a maiden win (surprising, right?), however I will say his maiden win was more impressive than anyone else’s in this field, given it came in one of Churchill Downs’ lucrative maiden special weights against a pretty well-regarded field. The problem is he hasn’t been able to run to that level yet while trying to shed the Non-2 condition in four races, with none of the horses who have beaten him making much of an impression when they stepped up to stakes competition themselves. One who just looks like he can’t get the job done, I’ll pass.

7 – Droppin G’s (30/1): There’s a really interesting story behind Droppin G’s. He debuted at Turfway in December for a maiden $15,000 tag for trainer Jonathan Thomas (30% win rate), where he ran 3rd and was claimed by Cipriano Contreras (15% win rate). Run again a month later for a $30,000 tag and once again finishing 3rd, he was claimed once more by Ohio-based trainer Jerry Antonuik (4% win rate). All Antonuik was able to do was move this horse up off two very strong conditioners to an open maiden special weight and pull of a wire-to-wire upset. Droppin G’s has made one start since, running in the same February 11th allowance as Legendary Lore and finishing only a neck behind him. It is worth noting that he had to come from well off the pace for the first time in his career, which he handled well, and that versatility may bode well for him here.

8 – Erase (5/1): One of a very formidable twosome from the Brad Cox barn, Erase won the local lead-in to this last time out in the Leonatus S. (BT). It was a very convincing wire-to-wire score, the same style of running that saw him break his maiden as well. This is certainly a step up from his last outing but you had to admire how easily he did it. My biggest concern comes with getting the lead, because in his two losses he was unable to secure the front end early on and it seemingly led to his defeat. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities he can get there in the Battaglia, however there’s definitely speed to his inside that will make it a challenge.

9 – O P Firecracker (12/1): This colt also exits the Leonatus S. (BT) where he ran an even fourth without ever really threatening the top three. He was entering that spot off of about a two month layoff from an impressive maiden score at Churchill Downs going 1 1/16 miles, so that could easily be used as an excuse for a good, not great, effort last time out. He lost his first two starts at the maiden special weight level but made a good impression, the problem is the horses who beat him haven’t been able to excel at these levels when they made the steps themselves. Just feel like he’s a cut below on this day.

10 – Tiz the Bomb (5/2): I don’t have an extensive list of Battaglia starters over the years, but I can confidently say Tiz the Bomb is the most accomplished runner this stakes has seen in it’s history. The winner of the Bourbon S. (G2), runner-up in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), and earner of over $600,000 already, trainer Ken McPeek is chasing Derby points with this colt on a surface he will likely thrive over. Last time out he floundered around the Gulfstream oval in the Holy Bull S. (G3), and although we’ve never seen him on a synthetic surface it is likely he’ll be fine over it with his excellent turf form. I think it’s fair to try and take Tiz the Bomb down given how short his price will be and that there is viable options, but in any multi-race wagers you could either single him or use him with one other and feel content.

11 – Bloodline (7/2): The chief challenger to Tiz the Bomb in my opinion, Bloodline exits a pair of career best efforts leading into the Battaglia. This Brad Cox trainee ran a very solid second in the Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile S. (BT) finishing in front of Stolen Base. That day he was also provided with an excellent ride from Marcelino Pedroza, who rides back in this spot. Two back, he won an off-the-turf non-winners of two at Fair Grounds against weaker. Given his success on the grass last month and his clear talent displayed in his victories, I think he has a big chance to put in a big performance here with a great stalking trip. It’s also worth noting that he is bred on the same Uncle Mo-over-A.P. Indy cross that saw Turnerloose switch surfaces and win the Rachel Alexandra S. (G2) a couple weeks ago for the same trainer. Can lightning strike twice?

12 – Grael (20/1): The lone runner make their 2022 debut, Grael is exciting a well beaten fourth in a first-level allowance on grass back on December 4th. Two back, he won a mile maiden on the grass at Kentucky Downs in what was a visually impressive performance, however the figure came back rather weak. The same can be said for his two career losses, and given he didn’t fire overly well off the layoff into his last race, as well as the outside post and surface switch, I really don’t expect much from Grael.

Also-Eligibles

Quick notes on the two also-eligibles. Amicable (30/1) exits two defeats in stakes at Turfway and his only win came in an Indiana-bred maiden back in August. Winter Son (30/1) broke his maiden two starts ago at Mountaineer, but came back to finish a well-beaten fourth in a claimer just one week ago.

The Verdict: 11-10-3

I’m allowing myself to take a stance against a likely heavy favorite in Tiz the Bomb with Bloodline. Even though I expect the Brad Cox-trained colt to be second or third-choice, he’ll still fall anywhere between 7/2 to 5/1, which is more than okay with me. One price I think might be worth looking at in otherwise a chalky-looking race is La Belleza Negra (#3). Rey Hernandez has a really good strike rate at the stakes level and I thought his run last time out showed enough improvement to where he’ll thrive third start back from a layoff in the Battaglia. As previously mentioned, it’s wise to use Tiz the Bomb in any multi-race wagers or exotics either alone or with another horse, and I’m planning to do that with Bloodline.

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