One of the great things about Kentucky Derby Day is the undercard of fantastic stakes action and big fields. Saturday, Churchill Downs will present an undercard featuring the traditional pre-Derby stakes races: the Twin Spires Turf Sprint, the Humana Distaff, the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, the Churchill Downs, and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (which we all hope NBC actually shows this year). Here's look at some of the horses that stood out to me while handicapping the undercard.
Race 6: Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint
I can't stand turf sprints. At one point I liked to play these kind of races due to the large fields and unpredictable results. Now, I hate them because of the large fields and unpredictable results. I honestly can't remember the last time I felt good about any selection I've made in turf sprint with the exception of the 6 ½ furlong events on the Santa Anita downhill turf course. But your standard, garden variety five furlong turf sprint? I might as well have my dog make my selection.
So with that confidence boosting thought, here's a quick and rough take of the 6th race on Saturday, the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint:
I bet against 5-Chamberlain Bridge (2/1) in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and he came back to bit me in the rear end. I won't make that mistake twice. This seven-year-old gelding has banked over $1.6 million in over a career that has seen him win 15 times in 27 five furlong turf sprints. At Churchill Downs he sports a sterling 5-4-1-0 record on the lawn. His race in the Grade 3 Shakertown at Keeneland last time out wasn't his usual performance, but he didn't run well in that same race in 2010. He just missed winning this race last year and I think he's the one to beat in this spot.
If I'm looking for a bit more in terms of odds, 2-Regally Ready (3/1) is on a run of excellent form since last November, a span of time that includes a big win on the Churchill turf course. He'll need to take this field all the way around the track but he's definitely got the burst to get to the front in the early stages. Can he withstand serious pressure from the other speed types? Tough to tell, but he's won most of his recent races while battling on the front-end so there's no reason to think he can't pull it off.
Race 7: Grade 1 Humana Distaff
Evening Jewel, Amen Hallelujah and Hilda's Passion highlight a field of eight for the Humana Distaff, a seven furlong sprint for fillies and mares four-years-old and up.
The Humana field does not possess a lot of early speed which will probably give a huge advantage to 7-Hilda's Passion (6/5), a filly that dominated the Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie and Grade 2 Inside Information at Gulfstream this winter. It's no fun picking chalk plays, but she looks the best of the bunch.
My upset play in this spot is the 6-Twelve Twenty Two (8/1), a six-year-old mare that ships in from Sunland Park for her first try against graded stakes company. There's no question this mare is outclassed by many in this field but she possess a good turn of foot and is taking a cut back in distance after two straight wins at a mile. Fitness shouldn't be a problem and if the favorite falters at all in the stretch, she might have the chance to pull off the upset. Additionally, that last race at Sunland, the listed Harry Hanson Handicap, saw both the second and third place fillies come back to win at next asking. Runner-up American Story won at Hollywood Park in an OC 62k/N2X, and Hayley's Halo blew away a field of seven in the listed Czaria Stakes at Sunland. Obviously, these weren't Grade 1 fillies that she beat at Sunland, but they at least were winners.
Given Twelve Twenty Two's class deficiencies, I would expect those 8/1 morning line odds to drift up just a bit; I'll try to find to play here as an upset possibility or the exotics.
Race 8 - Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile
How is it that 7-Fantasia (GB) (10/1) hasn't won more races since coming over from Europe? Every single race she gives a good account of herself and she possesses an absolutely killer late kick. She finished 2nd in the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland a couple of weeks ago after making a hard charge from the back, but like many of her races, she doesn't seem to want to pass anyone inside the final furlong.
The filly to beat in this race, in my opinion, is 6-Aruna (4/1), a Graham Motion trainee that hasn't lost in three starts since shipping to the U.S. from France last September. She's been on the bench for a while (November 20th) but she's been working like a champ in the mornings since late March. Over the last five years, Motion has brought a horse off of a 61-180 day layoff into a graded stakes race 28 times with 5 wins, and his numbers are a lot better if you simply look at the turf races (4-for-16, 25%, $1.77 $2 ROI).
If Aruna gets enough pace to run at, and I think she will, she should be rolling towards the leader in deep stretch.
Race 9 - Grade 2 Churchill Downs
One of the more oddly named stakes races around - it's not the Churchill Downs Sprint, or Churchill Downs Handicap, or anything else in that range. It's just "The" Churchill Downs.
By this time on Saturday's card we should have a pretty good idea as to how the main track at Churchill is playing. If speed is performing well, especially inside speed, I think a colt like 3-Apriority (4/1) makes a lot of sense in this spot. Apriority doesn't need the lead but he's got a good amount of tactical speed and he should be able to sit right off the cheap speed (9-Delong Road (50/1)) before making his move at the top of the stretch. He showed he could compete with top sprinters when he finished 2nd in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 9th, and it would be no surprise if he uncorked a big one in this spot.
If speed is not playing well on the main track, I will be more than happy to lean towards 12-Here Comes Ben (10/1) for my top pick. While he disappointed in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile as the favorite last November, Here Comes Ben simply loves races at this distance (5-4-1-0) and at Churchill Downs (6-3-1-1). The layoff doesn't concern me too much as he won at Keeneland in April of 2010 after a similar stretch on the bench. If he gets enough pace, he should have a shot.
Race 10 - Woodford Reserve Turf Classic
I really only have one request from NBC / Versus this weekend: please show us the Woodford live. If I have to watch another Derby broadcast where Tom Hammond is talking on camera while horses are running a race behind him, I think I might lose it. I'm just sayin'.
The hardest race to handicap on the undercard was easily the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Seventeen horses entered the race (14 in the gate with 3 AEs) in what appears to be an ultra-competitive renewal of one of the best races, historically, on the Derby undercard.
Like a couple of these undercard races today, the Turf Classic is not loaded with a early speed horses, something that really highlights the attractiveness of 1-Little Mike (6/1), the winner of the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap in early February. The problem with Little Mike is that he hasn't done anything of note at a distance other than a mile and he's going to have to go longer in this spot, something that might be enough to keep him out of the winner's circle.
If Little Mike can't get the nine furlongs, then I think the race will probably set-up the best for a horse that has the ability to sit near the lead in the early stages. 4-Moryba (BRZ) (12/1) fits the bill of a horse that can lay close to the early speed while still possessing a solid finishing kick in deep stretch. Additionally, he's won races at 12 furlongs, 10 furlongs, and today's distance of 9 furlongs; that's the kind of versatility I love to see in a turf runner.