It is back to business as usual in the US as the search continues for this year’s Kentucky Derby and Oaks winners.
This weekend we have a Derby and Oaks preps, the return of Bellafina and a race that, although it offers no official Derby points, was a stepping stone for eventual Derby winner Nyquist in 2016.
Sam F. David Stakes (G3) – Tampa Bay Downs – 09/02/19
The only place we can start in this race is with the return of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Knicks Go. The Ben Colebrook trained colt stunned punters and pundits alike last year to land the Grade One Breeders’ Futurity at odds of 70/1 after a slightly underwhelming start to life. This earned him a place in last year’s Juvenile race at Churchill Downs where he was sent off 30/1 outsider but sprang well, hit the front early and was only just pegged back by the ever impressive Game Winner.
The three-year-old ended last year with a run in the Grade Two Kentucky Jockey Club but was unable to replicate the form of his previous two runs. He finished well down the field in 11th place but there are plenty of excuses for his misfire. Noises from inside the stable suggest that the run came too soon for the son of Paynter following two quick-fire, demanding performances. Connections also cited the sloppy going as a somewhat swallowable excuse for such a poor performance in context to his previous two.
It is not always the most solid base for backing a short priced favourite but by all accounts Knicks Go has breezed incredibly well recently, suggesting that his most recent performance was more than likely the exception and not the rule.
Moving down the betting slightly we find So Alive as the current second favourite. We can all agree that his two wins - his first on his debut and his second last time out at Tampa Bay – were impressive. He came from way off the pace to win on debut and showed resilience last time out to hold on for the win. The horse clearly has something about him. However, in between those two wins was a disappointing sixth place finish in an Allowance Optional Claimer at Churchill Downs. Now, connections have blamed the sloppy conditions, and I am aware that I have already defended Knicks Go’s excuses on a sloppy track, but that was in a Graded event and this was in a much lower class of competition. There are horses that just do not go on the slop, but it is difficult to put much faith behind a horse that failed to adapt to conditions against opposition that, if we are to take his Derby contention seriously, he should have put away without much difficulty, rain or not.
Third in in the market we find the first of the two Godolphin runners. Kentucky Wildcat has had a slightly mixed career thus far with a record of 1-0-1 from three starts. Last time out did feel a little like the son of Tapit’s coming-of-age race but it is hard to fully get away from his two previous runs. His sixth place debut finish was reasonable enough in a race won by eventual Grade One second Code Of Honor and his second outing then saw him finish third in a Belmont maiden. These are by no means disgraceful performances but equally they are not performances that scream Kentucky Derby contender.
This may be a sweeping generalisation but the case with most Godolphin horses tends to be overhyped and under-priced, and this goes two-fold in the US. So desperate are Sheikh Mohammed and his team to land the elusive Kentucky Derby, they seem to edging towards quantity over quality. For this reason both Kentucky Wildcat and Cave Run, who also has claimed only a maiden from three starts, can be rules out at bad prices.
Drawn in stall 10 is the half-brother to 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Still Dreaming. This three-year-old is well bred and lightly raced, with just two career starts. The first of which was slightly disappointing as he was sent off even money favourite but could only manage a fourth place finish. Perhaps he just needed the run though as he improved drastically on his next outing demolishing - albeit a distinctly average - maiden field by three lengths.
This colt undoubtedly has the pedigree to claim the spoils not only here on Saturday but possibly further on down the line. At this moment in time however, one faintly impressive maiden win does not constitute value for money at what looks to be around the 8/1 mark and for this reason it would be more advisable to avoid than to back.
At a bigger price one that catches the eye is Going For Gold. This Rober Hess trained colt was originally entered in the Grade Two Holy Bull at Gulfstream last weekend but was scratched late on. It seems as though connections deemed the race a little too difficult and were on the lookout for a slightly easier contest. This race is unquestionable that with only one graded winner amongst the entrees. Clearly Hess and his team fancy this horse’s chances of qualifying for the big race and that is definitely something to take note of. The son of Atreides has contested two races in his career – one at 5 1/2f and one at 6f – and has been beaten by a total of 0.55 lengths over the two.
Another outsider also worth a mention is Kathleen O’Connell’s Well Defined. Sometimes in a race full of naivety and untapped potential, it is the wily old fox that manages to plot his way around and take the spoils. Okay, so ‘wily old fox’ may be a bit of a hyperbole as, like all the other contender, this son of With Distinction is also three-years-old, but he has already had six starts - the joint most in the field – including a run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and recently in the Mucho Macho Man Listed Stakes. While neither of these runs yielded any prize money, the gelding is no stranger to the winners’ enclosure as he claimed two wins from his five starts as a two-year-old.
Verdict: It is almost impossible to look past that favourite Knicks Go as the winner of this race. If the horse produces anything close to ability on show in either of the Breeders’ Futurity or Breeders’ Cup Juvenile then this should be a formality.
If you are looking for an each way bet then it is definitely better value looking further down in the betting. Second and third in are definitely horses with lots of potential but I would be much more inclined to take a chance on a selection like Well Defined, who already has two victories to his name – the joint most in the race – than an unproven sort that has flashed potential.
Going For Gold also looks to have strong place claims and could be way over priced at the bottom end of the market.
(The Sam F. David Stakes is worth 10 Kentucky Derby entry points for the winner, 4 for second, 2 for third and 1 for fourth)
San Vincente Stakes (G2) – Santa Anita – 10/02/19
While there is no official Derby qualifying points available in this race, it does have the look of a de facto prep race and has in the past been a stepping stone for eventual Derby winner Nyquist, as well as Preakness winner Exaggerator.
With the current fourth favourite for this year’s Kentucky Derby Instagrand unlikely to fulfil his entry here, this race looks to have opened up nicely for the remaining entrants.
Godolphin will be hoping that this can be something of a redemption race for their main Derby hope Coliseum. After putting away a maiden field with ease on debut, the lightly-raced three-year-old then struggled next time out up in grade in the Sham Sham Stakes. Perhaps we can take that performance with a pinch of salt as it was won by the highly rated Gunmetal Grey or perhaps we should inspect the race with a more critical eye. While finishing sixth in the Grade Three event, Colisuem recorded an Equibase Speed Figure of 94, which is just two short of what he posted on debut. That suggests that even had he run to the ability he demonstrated on debut, he still would have finished down the field. This horse was supposed to be Godolphin’s breakthrough three-year-old. They have sent the son of Tapit to Derby specialist Bob Baffert with the explicit purpose of winning this race. Maybe it is difficult for the juggernaut operation to admit, but perhaps this is just not the horse they thought it was. The figures certainly suggest that it isn’t.
Interestingly, Baffert also has another entry in the race in Dessman, who is owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum – cousin to Godolphin owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Dessman has run just the one time and recorded an impressive 7 ½ length victory in a Santa Anita maiden. Exactly how good a field he faced is unclear but a Beyer Speed Figure of 80 suggests that it wasn’t the strongest.
Looking to prize victory from the hands of Baffert is the battle hardened Savagery. Despite being the same age as both the Baffert contenders, this Peter Miller trained colt has already seen the racecourse more times than both of them combined. With a grand total of eight races the son of Bellamy Road can certainly say he has earned his stripes as a three-year-old. He has also put in some pretty respectable performances in his short career, notable his second in the Grade Two Bob Hope Stakes – where he recorded an Equibase Spped Figure of 100 - followed by a fifth place finish in the Grade One Los Alamitos Futurity. Unlike the other contenders in this field, Savagery has rubbed shoulder with the best having been beaten by horses such as Mucho Gusto and Improbable in graded stakes. And yes, perhaps they have been a level above for the colt but he will be better off for the experience as he showed last time out when he recorded a comfortable 3 ½ length victory in an Allowance Optional Claimer.
Sparky Ville is another worthy of a mention as he, similar to Savagery, has already mixed it with the top three-year-olds. He has two career wins to his name but also has a Grade Two second and a Grade Three third. The son of Candy Ride actually got the better of Savagery when winning the Sunny Slope Stakes at Santa Anita in October, but the form was reversed in the Bob Hope Stakes as they finished second and third.
Verdict: The focus pre-race will likely be on the battle between the two Bob Baffert colts Coliseum and Dessman. Either one of these has the potential to blow away the field and announce themselves as a serious Derby contender. Equally though, they could both flop, as Coliseum has done once already, and leave the race there for the taking. The more interesting battle is probably the third bout between Savagery and Sparky Ville. They have finished second and first and then second and third the last two times they have met and there is probably not an awful lot between them. However, with the benefit of a run already this season – and an impressive one at that – the vote narrowly goes to Savagery.
Las Virgenes Stakes (G2) – 09/02/19
Bellafina. What more is there to say about this race? From a betting standpoint, this race looks to be something of a dead duck. After a lacklustre performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at the back end of last year, questions were asked of the daughter of Quality Road. At the beginning of this year they were well and truly answered in the Grade Two Santa Ynez. The three-year-old filly dismantled the Santa Anita field to record a striking 8 ½ length victory and cut her price from around 16/1 to no bigger than 4/1 for the Kentucky Oaks.
The current Oaks favourite will go off a very short price on Saturday and if you are looking to have a bet then maybe taking a look at the 4/1 on offer for Simon Callaghan’s filly to win the big race in May is worth a little punt.
It looks as though Bellafina will face four rivals in California on Saturday and the main challenge could emerge from Enaya Alrabb. This Doug O’Neill daughter of Uncle Mo was last seen in the Grade One Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos where she finished runner up to American Pharoah’s half-sister Chasing Yesterday. On top of her maiden win, which she achieved on her second start, that is pretty solid form and in any other Oaks prep race she would be in with a serious chance. Unfortunately, it looks as though she is going to run into what is indisputably the best female three-year-old we have seen on the track this year.
There are still points up for grabs however and pointing a horse towards this race may not be the worst idea for owners. Due to the presence of Bellafina it was never going to attract a huge amount of runners but that does not reduce the amount of qualification points on offer. Even if first place is out of reach, there are still four points for second, two points for third and one point for fourth and with just the five runners attracted there are some cheap Oaks points on offer.
Verdict: It is unthinkable to fathom anything other than a Bellafina victory here, although I wouldn’t particularly recommend backing her at such a short price. If you have a lot of money that you would like to turn into a little more money, then this is probably as good a bet as you will find. But for the smaller stakers out there it may be worth looking for a different angle such distance betting.
(The Las Virgenes Stakes is worth 10 Kentucky Oaks entry points for the winner, 4 for second, 2 for third and 1 for fourth)