Kentucky Derby Preview Series – The Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks – by Eric DeCoster

For the second straight year, the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks (aka Spiral aka Lane’s End aka Galleryfurniture.com aka Jim Beam) will provide 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner of Turfway Park’s signature race.

Long ago, this race was one of the nation’s premier Derby and Triple Crown preps, even producing a Triple Crown race winner four years in a row from 1990 to 1993. However, in recent years, since switching to a synthetic surface, the Ruby has lost its luster. In fact, it has done a very good job of producing high quality turf horses, but has failed to act as a key Derby prep like it did decades ago. Last year, the 1-2 finishers of the Jeff Ruby ended up running in the Kentucky Derby (Like the King and Sainthood), but neither made an impression on the First Saturday in May.

There is hope in 2022 though. A very competitive group of 12 has signed on to try and make their way into the Derby starting gate, many of which have quality stakes and graded stakes experience. Leading the way are last out stakes winners Tiz the Bomb and Red Run, as well as graded stakes placed runners Stolen Base, Royal Spirit, and Cabo Spirit. 

Turfway Park 4/2/2022, Race 12: The Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks

170 Kentucky Derby Points (100/40/20/10)

1 – Royal Spirit (10/1 morning line): It’s pretty weird to say a trainer could win a Derby prep on three occasions and be considered underachieving, but that’s the exact situation Todd Pletcher is in. While he’s had three very impressive winners of the Ruby, each of which who were Grade 1 winners at some point in their careers, and a good handful of horses place in the race (Sainthood, Azar, Holiday Promise), he’s also had a fair share enter this spot with a decent chance and then completely flunk. It’s hard to tell which boat Royal Spirit will fall into. Set to make his first start on a surface other than turf, this colt was stakes placed last year as a maiden and was even pre-entered in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) last fall. He was dropped back to the maiden ranks and coasted to an easy victory two starts back before running second, beaten just a neck in the Kittens Joy S. (G3) at Gulfstream against a fairly decent field. He’s a horse with decent, consistent form, but you have to wonder how he’ll handle the new surface and tougher competition.

2 – Stolen Base (7/2): As maligned as Todd Pletcher’s Jeff Ruby Steaks record has been, his fellow ex-D. Wayne Lukas assistant Mike Maker has been dominant. He has sent out the winner of this race six times, three of which came at 23/1+, and has placed just about as much, many of which also came at double digit odds. Stolen Base has a good chance to add to either of those records, just not at that big of a price. This colt has been as consistent as can be for a horse still eligible for a “non-winners of two”, with stakes placings in the John Battaglia Memorial, Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile, and Bourbon S. (G2). In each of those starts he was beaten by horses who run in the Ruby, Tiz the Bomb and Red Run, but many arguments can be made he could’ve finished better with a cleaner trip. My issue with Stolen Base is that I don’t think this will be the race where he works out a clean trip. He will likely be coming from last and be buried towards the rail, and closing without making a wide move at Turfway has always been a challenge. He has the talent to fit and maybe even win, but he’ll have to work it out from far back.

3 – Cabo Spirit (12/1): Shipping in from Southern California, Cabo Spirit will be trying the Tapeta for the first time in his career. The most experienced runner in the field with nine career outings, he exits a hefty defeat at the hands of Forbidden Kingdom in the San Felipe S (G2). Although that performance wasn’t good, two back he was finished second (albeit, beaten 15 lengths) behind Messier in the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3), which I found to be an encouraging run despite the margin of defeat. Where Cabo Spirit clearly thrives, however, is on the grass, where he’s won twice and placed twice more in four starts. This includes a very impressive win in the Eddie Logan S. (L), which has seen the 2nd and 3rd place finishers both be next out winners. Not only that, but he also placed in the Cecil B. DeMille (G3) behind a nice colt of Chad Brown’s named Verbal, and he has seen his strongest career speed figures come on grass. All of this indicates to me he should thrive switching to this surface and getting to face slightly easier company here. One you should certainly consider.

4 – Rich Strike (20/1): One-for-six lifetime and a colt who has ran in both of the local lead-ins to the Jeff Ruby, Rich Strike will be coming from way out of it on Saturday. After breaking his maiden by 17 lengths in September and being claimed out of that start, Rich Strike really hasn’t ran a bad race in three of four starts for trainer Eric Reed. He ran in the money two and four starts back, including the Leonatus S. (L) in January, and last time out outran his 20-1 odds to finish fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial (L), beaten only three lengths. While he’s certainly exceeded expectations, both race setup and a clear trend of being third or fourth-best at all times doesn’t give me much hope he can win here.

5 – Tawny Port (6/1): An intriguing type and the lone starter from the Brad Cox barn, Tawny Port‘s record, especially locally, might make him a candidate to pull a mild upset in this spot. He began his career two-for-two, both victories at a mile at Turfway, before shipping down to Fair Grounds to run a mundane fifth in the Risen Star S. (G2). He actually matched up well on figures with this bunch in his win two back, and you can’t help but like that he gets back to an easier level for this race and already has quality experience. My biggest problem with Tawny Port is that he hasn’t beaten any horses of stakes quality to this point, so that is a question he’ll have to answer, but there’s intrigue in every other part of his running lines.

6 – Great Escape (15/1): The lone Brisset runner following the defection of BlackadderGreat Escape will be making his second start of 2022 after a solid runner-up effort in an Oaklawn allowance in February. On that day he found himself setting the pace for the first time in four starts, leading most of the way before being run down in the stretch. It is worth noting that the two horses who’ve ran back from that six horse race failed to win, and the winner of that race, Call Me Jamal, has struggled when attempting the stakes level. Going back to his two-year old campaign, he broke his maiden in career start number two. Going 7 furlongs at Churchill Downs, he stalked and drew off to win by about two lengths, posted a strong figure, and most importantly beat Giant Game, Call Me Midnight, and Epicenter (yes, that Epicenter). He followed that up with a ninth in the Breeders Futurity (G1), where he had an awful trip. My biggest positive on Great Escape is the surface change, as his pedigree suggests plenty of surface versatility. I’ve laid out plenty of pros and cons with Great Escape, and honestly I don’t know what to do with him, but at the end of the day I feel he’s an “avoid at your own risk” type.

7 – Tiz the Bomb (2/1): The morning-line favorite and local prep winner, Tiz the Bomb sports a fitting resume but has also struggled to run back to his juvenile form in 2022. Last year, this Ken McPeek trainee went three-for-five with two (three?) stakes wins, one being the Bourbon S. (G2), and of course his impressive, late closing runner-up effort in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), where he was considered the winner by mutuel standards. However, this year has not been that kind to him. He reappeared from the Juvenile Turf in the Holy Bull S. (G3), where he was 7th, beaten 20 lengths, as he returned to dirt for the first time since he broke his maiden. As he made his first synthetic surface start in the aforementioned local prep, the John Battaglia Memorial (L), last time out, he made a sweeping move on the turn and outlasted Stolen Base to win by a dying neck. As good as he has been throughout his career, his three-year old year has been disappointing to me, but maybe that is will still be enough to win here. Can’t ignore, but can’t be your only “A” either.

8 – Red Run (6/1): Steve Asmussen already found himself one Kentucky Derby contender in Epicenter, and he’ll look to add another this with well-bred son of Gun Runner. It’s not news to define Gun Runner’s success, but Red Run is actually out of a full sibling to Breeders Cup champ, Untapable, and was also Gun Runner’s first offspring to ever win. After scoring that win last May, this colt went on a lengthy losing streak and never really threatened in multiple stakes tests. However, he bounced back with a nice runner-up effort in a Churchill Downs allowance and then got back in the winners circle in January when taking out the Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile (BT), his second career turf start. You couldn’t help but appreciate the win that day, and although he has no synthetic experience, his turf form makes him a player here. He should also relish the chance to get out to 9 furlongs for the first time. Another enticing piece in an increasingly tricky puzzle.

9 – Dowagiac Chief (8/1): We’re on to the ninth horse in the field, and I could see six of those mentioned so far taking this race out. Make this number seven. Very much a boom or bust type, he has won three times and missed the board in the five others. He broke his maiden at Kentucky Downs in start number four before running a solid fifth, beaten just four lengths, in the Bourbon S. (G2), where he finished behind both Tiz the Bomb and Stolen Base. After an allowance win in December at Fair Grounds, he then ran fourth in the Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile (BT), and most recently scored an easy, open length victory in the Black Gold S. (BT) at Fair Grounds. He didn’t beat much in that spot but did put together a fairly solid speed figure and will likely get a pretty solid trip in the Jeff Ruby. I don’t like that he’s struggled to get the better of similar company to this throughout his career, but if he can slow down the pace enough he can certainly hit the board.

10 – Optigogo (30/1): Behold! A toss! Optigogo does have fairly good synthetic form, including a third in a stakes at Woodbine last fall, but his form since then has been lackluster. He was well beaten, without an excuse, in a December allowance at Tampa before somehow reversing that form into a win in the some condition two starts back. Last time out, he shipped out to Santa Anita and ran a well beaten ninth in the Pasadena S. (L). On top of all this, his deep closing style will be heavily hindered in the Jeff Ruby. Bad figures too. If I’m to point out a single positive, he should really like getting to go 9 furlongs for the first time.

11 – Constitutionlawyer (50/1): Before we dive into this guy, it’s time for a tangent. I wasn’t in love with this morning line from the outset, but 50/1 on Constitutionlawyer is just brutal in my opinion. Yes, he did run very poorly in the Withers S. (G3) last time, but he had his fair share of excuses in that race. He wasn’t able to make the lead and had to really chase a very quick pace throughout. When you look at where everyone who finished directly behind Early Voting in there came from, it’s pretty easy to understand why this horse was out of gas early. He was good enough to earn a strong figure two starts back when breaking his maiden at this distance powerfully. Even before that, he was running decent races behind the likes of Mo Donegal and Courvoisier, two Derby points race winners. While I don’t think he’s the most likely winner, this morning line implies a distant last coming from Constitutionlawyer, which I’d be plenty shocked to see. He has good distance experience, should get over the surface just fine, has some very tough back class, and his running style is benefitted by a big lack of other early speed. If you can look past his last start (I can), he fits.

12 – Blackadder (SCRATCHED): An unfortunate scratch as he looked to be a real player, Blackadder will instead be running in next Saturday’s Blue Grass S. (G1).

13 – Swing Shift (15/1): The other Todd Pletcher colt entered in this race, Swing Shift will draw in following the defection of Blackadder. This same jockey-owner-trainer combo guided Sainthood to a very good runner-up performance in this race last year, and Swing Shift does bring a resume with some parallels to that one. In late January he debuted on Pegasus World Cup day, where he scored by about a length while going 7 furlongs and putting forward a very strong speed figure. In his most recent run, he was the favorite in an allowance going the Jeff Ruby distance of 9 furlongs and could only manage third, beaten 12 lengths. The dynamics of that race were tricky. After being right up on the lead in his maiden win, he was forced to take back as a speedy sprinter stretching out to two turns went out and set a brutal pace that Swing Shift had to chase. This allowed for two deep closers to take advantage and roll to a 1-2 finish, while this colt could only manage show money. He had very valid excuses last time out and I think he can sit a pretty nice stalking trip despite the outside post. His pedigree, being by Midnight Storm, also might mean a step forward as he hits the Tapeta for the first time. I don’t think he’s good enough, but there’s definitely valid reason to believe in Swing Shift on Saturday.

The Verdict: 3-7-2

This was one of the toughest races I’ve handicapped, not just on this Derby trail, but in 2022 in general. I would only be surprised if Rich Strike or Optigogo won, otherwise the other ten runners could cross the wire first and it would make sense to me. However, I need to take a stance somewhere, and therefore I’ve landed on Cabo Spirit. There’s nothing I love more than a horse that is well bred for a surface getting on it for the first time, and with Cabo Spirit‘s very good turf experience and numbers against very quality competition, I have a strong feeling he’ll take to the Tapeta, get a helpful stalking/mid-pack trip, and get up in the stretch. Underneath, I have no idea. I really like Stolen Base on form but don’t think he gets a good run of the race, and Tiz the Bomb has been too consistent to ignore. The ultimate lesson of this race is spread, spread, spread. Use anything you think may have a chance, because that horse very well could be the winner. In terms of the Kentucky Derby, this feels like it has the potential to be a wild scramble to the wire, and the lucky two who get their noses down first and second will find themselves in the starting gate on the First Saturday in May.

 

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