Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby: The Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes – By Eric Solomon

Our Kentucky Derby Prep Race Series at In The Money kicks off this weekend with the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. We are planning on offering horse by horse analysis for every North American race that offers points toward entry in the Kentucky Derby. We’ll also have a post race wrap up in the days following each contest. One new wrinkle this year is that the points system has been slightly tweaked. Instead of offering points to the first four finishers in the Derby races, points are now offered to the first five finishers. The added points for some of the minor awards should increase the average number points it will take to get into the body of the field on Derby Day. With the exception of two weekends, there are points up for grabs every week from now until April 15th, when this series concludes with the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. 

Last year’s edition of this race featured one of the stronger fields in recent memory. Smile Happy turned in a strong performance to win the race, however, three horses that finished behind him (Classic Causeway, White Abarrio, and Call Me Midnight), went on to win graded stakes races in their three year old seasons, with Classic Causeway and White Abarrio both winning Grade 1 races. In an interesting footnote, the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, was entered in this race last year, but was scratched.

There’s an interesting group of nine entered in this race, which, on paper, may lack some of the depth that we saw in this spot last year. However, this is the time of year where the legitimate contenders for the Derby begin to separate themselves from the pack. 



Churchill Downs, Saturday 11/26/22, Race 11: The Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

20 Total Derby points (10/4/3/2/1)


1 – Curly Jack (3-1 ML, 100-1 Caesars): He comes into this race as the only runner to have participated in the Breeders’ Cup this year. He finished 5th, 12 lengths behind the winner, Forte, three weeks ago at Keeneland. He earned 10 Derby points back in September when winning the Iroquois Stakes on this course. There were two sharp horses in that race that were impressive winners at Saratoga, Damon’s Mound and Echo Again. Both of those runners came up empty at the top of the stretch though, as he went right on by, and held off longshot, Honed, late. That race wasn’t particularly fast though, and the runner up has come back to run poorly in his next two starts with stakes company.  Both of his career wins have come on this oval. His dam, Connie and Michael, was a winner in her only race on this course and his sire, Good Magic, was second to Justify in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. He’s proven at the track and distance and has a class edge over many of these. He’s definitely a contender in this race today. 

2 – Western Ghent (20-1 ML): D. Wayne Lukas sends out this son of American Pharoah in search of his second career win. He’s started seven times with his lone win coming in maiden claiming company at Saratoga. His bad races have been non-competitive when facing lesser foes. His dam did her best work at one turn, so I’m not seeing a ton of upside here. 

3 – Denington (12-1 ML): He broke his maiden in his 4th career start, winning here in the slop on the first Stars of Tomorrow card last month. He ran well three starts back to be second at Ellis when making his second career start. I feel he had an excuse for his dull effort two back when catching a fast track here on 10/1. He was carried out wide into the first turn after settling nicely behind the frontrunners. He was in tight while in between rivals at the top of the stretch when falling back that day. HIs last race was a much better performance, assuming command off the turn and holding off another runner throughout the length of the stretch. They were well clear of the rest of the field. I see him as a horse that is getting better, but I feel he might have been better suited to the N1X allowance race at this distance, earlier on in the card. 

4 – Gigante (12-1 ML): This son of Not This Time is the first of two runners sent out by Steve Asmussen in this spot. Three of his four career tries have come on the turf, including a daylight win in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs back in September. He broke his maiden going a one turn mile there on the main track in the start prior to his stakes triumph. I thought that race was fairly impressive as he did overcome a significant stumble at the start to handily beat five runners that afternoon. The runner up in that race went on to break his maiden at Keeneland two starts later, so while that wasn’t the deepest maiden field by any stretch of the imagination, there was some quality there. He was too close to a solid early pace in the Bourbon Stakes last month, where he faded to 10th. Outside of Cyclone Mischief, there’s not a ton of early pace signed on to this contest, so I do think he could sit an advantageous trip. To me, he’s the most interesting of the longer priced horses in this race. 

5 – Red Route One (7-2 ML, 100-1 Caesars): Asmussen’s other runner is looking to rebound after a tough trip in the Street Sense Stakes in the slop here last month. He was third beaten seven lengths in Grade 1 company at Keeneland when finishing behind next out Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Forte, and another promising two year old, Loggins. He struggled in the slop while getting a less than ideal trip in the Street Sense last out. On one hand, he finished in front of the morning line favorite, Instant Coffee (albeit by a very slim margin), and the dominant winner of the Street Sense, Two Phil’s, in his effort in the Breeders’ Futurity. On the other hand, his only career win came on the turf, and his best effort on the dirt was a finishing seven lengths behind the race winner. I have some mixed feelings on this one, and while he certainly could win this race, I think there will be greater value elsewhere. 

6 – Freedom Trail (6-1 ML): This New York invader boasts two starts and two wins on his brief resume, coming off a solid score in the Awad Stakes at the end of the Belmont at Aqueduct Meet last month. He broke his maiden on debut in his first try there in September. His dam was strictly a turf horse, racing seven times without winning, despite running credible races. Freshman sire Collected, has had 13 horses race at two turns on the dirt so far, with only one of them finding the Winner’s Circle. His workouts on the main track look solid enough to think that he can hang with this group, and his trainer, John Terranova, has strong numbers with runners going from turf to dirt (18% winners over the last five years). 6-1 feels a little light for a horse trying something new for the first time, but if those odds float up a little bit, I think he’d be worth taking a chance with.

7 – Hayes Strike (10-1 ML): He’ll make his 6th career start this afternoon, coming in off a second place finish in the Street Sense Stakes last month. He had a decent trip that day, tucking in behind the early action where seven horses scrambled for the lead in the early stages. He made a solid middle move to get into third on the turn, and leveled off late as the winner pulled clear while on the wrong lead. He remains eligible for a N1X allowance race and hasn’t really progressed enough for me to get excited about backing him in this spot. While his performance wasn’t decent last out, I think his finish was more of a function of other horses not showing up on a wet course.

8 – Instant Coffee (5-2 ML, 85-1 Caesars): He announced himself as a runner when winning on debut when going seven furlongs at Saratoga in September. His Beyer Speed Figure of 85 for that effort holds up well at this level and two of the runners that he vanquished in that race have come back to win in their next start. However, it’s also worth noting that both of those runners were able to break their maidens in off the turf maiden special weight contests where the fields were not nearly as deep as the maiden allowances carded for the main track. He made his next start in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, where he was no match for the likes of Forte and Loggins. Cox opted to skip the Street Sense Stakes last month to target this spot for this son of freshman sire, Bolt d’Oro. He’s trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Luis Saez, and this duo has teamed up to win 26% of their races together over the last five years. The connections and his maiden score will likely result in him going into the starting gate as the favorite, however, he still has some things to prove before taking a short price on him. I’ll try to beat him today.

9 – Cyclone Mischief (8-1 ML): He enters this race off a maiden special weight victory at Keeneland in his second career start last month. The field he beat there was not a particularly strong group, especially for that track. However, he does look like one of only two horses that appears to be interested in going for the early lead. Unlike some of his shorter priced rivals, he owns a two turn win on the main track and he draws a field with a favorable pace scenario. While I prefer others, I do believe that he has a chance in this race, and if odds go over his 8-1 morning line figure, I’d consider taking a small chance on him. 


The verdict: 1-4-6

On paper, this year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile looks like it was one of the stronger runnings in recent memory. Curly Jack is the only runner in this group to have competed in that race, finishing 5th that afternoon behind four very nice race horses. He’ll be the first horse to run back since that race, so his performance here is worth paying attention to. I think a strong effort from here goes toward validating the form of that race. I respect the graded stakes win at the distance on the course and the fact that he’s won both of his starts on this oval. He feels like the horse to beat in this race. 

While I think both are capable, Red Route One and Instant Coffee are not yet proven commodities, making it hard for me to take either of them at short odds in this race. Instead, I’ll look to both Gigante and Freedom Trail as better priced alternatives that could take a step forward while switching from turf to dirt. Both runners are impressive stakes winners on turf, and this looks like as good of a time as any to try to determine if they truly belong on the Derby Trail. 

We’ll have coverage of every North American Derby Points Race, along with plenty of coverage leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6th, 2023. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.

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