By Sean Morris

Kentucky Derby Day Graded Stakes Picks & Analysis

By Sean Morris
Our comprehensive handicapping of the Kentucky Derby Day Stakes races is right here
Our comprehensive handicapping of the Kentucky Derby Day Stakes races is right here

Our in-house handicapper has put together his detailed analysis of all the Graded Stakes races at Churchill Downs this Kentucky Derby Saturday. All of his selections are below but please read on further down the page for all his handicapping and thoughts about all the races including of course, the Kentucky Derby itself.

We have plenty of special sign-up offers from our partners at BetAmerica, TVG and TwinSpires so if you are looking to open an online betting account for Horse Racing, I'm sure you'll find an offer to suit. The offers are between the race write-ups.

Most importantly to everyone reading this, enjoy Kentucky Derby Saturday. It may be late but we should still see plenty of good action...

Churchill Downs Races 8-10 - Saturday 5 September 2020
Churchill Downs Races 11-14 - Saturday 5 September 2020
  • Race 11 (Distaff Turf Mile)
  • Race 12 (Derby City Distaff)
  • Race 13 (Turf Classic)
  • Race 14 (Kentucky Derby)

Race 8 (G2 American Turf)

It’s hard for me to imagine Smooth Like Strait (#5) getting beat in this race. The last time he was seen over this turf course he registered a dominant victory in the War Chant, and despite that race being ungraded it was a very good field which included one of his main rivals today, Field Pass (#4), who finished third in the race.

Although the margin wasn’t all that impressive - Smooth Like Strait bested Field Pass by just 2 ¼ lengths - the former did a lot of the dirty work pressing a fast early pace before opening up a decisive lead in the stretch that he was never in jeopardy of relinquishing. He then came back to easily take the G3 La Jolla at Del Mar, while Field Pass won a suspect edition of the G3 Transylvania and then finished off the board in the Saratoga Derby. There is a surprising amount of speed signed on for his race, however I doubt it makes much of a difference to Smooth Like Strait, who is among the best in this division and a very likely winner.

Field Pass is a fine turf runner and an honest sort, but my preferred underneath option in this race is Taishan (#1), who tries grass for the first time. The connections of Taishan tried their best to make him into a Derby horse, but aside from a third-place finish in the Oaklawn Stakes earlier this year it just hasn’t panned out.

Considering he’s a son of elite turf sire Twirling Candy and out of a dam that ran exclusively on synthetic and turf, this is really what he’s bred to do. I wish there weren’t as much early zip as there appears to be, but Taishan has proven he can be effective coming from off the pace, too, which he’s almost certainly going to have to do. If he does take to the new surface, I believe he has the talent to possibly overtake Smooth Like Strait.

The only other horse worth mentioning in this race is Fancy Liquor (#8), the less heralded stablemate of Field Pass. I have a lot of admiration for Fancy Liquor, who is as game as they come and a stubborn customer on the lead, but this does not seem like an ideal spot for him given the abundance of pace signed on. It’s likely he gets outsprinted early by a few of these, and he’s completely unproven coming from off the pace, though he did run OK two back in the Transylvania when he was able to sit just off the early leader.

Main:  5     Backup (priority):  1,4,8

Order of preference:  5-1-4-8

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Race 9 (G2 Pat Day Mile)

Perennially one of the most confusing races on the Derby undercard, this year’s edition of the G2 Pat Day Mile is no exception despite its new position on the racing calendar. The likely favorite is Cezanne (#1), who I’m mildly opposed to as he comes out of the Shared Belief at Del Mar, where he finished a close fourth behind Derby contenders Authentic and Honor A. P.

The speed figure that race earned screams fraudulence, as aside from Honor A. P. everyone else in the race posted a career-best Beyer by a good margin. Prior to that race, Cezanne seemed to be a lot of hype and not much substance, so while it’s possible he’s finally living up to his outsized reputation, I think he’s likely to disappoint again.

Echo Town (#2) is the horse I think should be favored in this race. Though he previously seemed like a six-furlong specialist, he was moving like a locomotive through the stretch of the G1, seven-furlong H. Allen Jerkens in his last start, giving the impression that he may actually thrive at this distance. Whereas Cezanne figures to regress off an inflated figure, the number given to the Allen Jerkens may actually be too light. Echo Town did get a great trip in that race, however he has the tactical speed to do so again, and I just think he’s the most reliable runner in this field.

Rushie (#9) strikes me as an honest performer, as well. He may not be one of the fastest horses in this field, but he’s run consistently well around two turns in recent starts and should appreciate cutting back to a one-turn mile after chasing Art Collector and Swiss Skydiver in his latest outing in the G2 Blue Grass.

I respect Echo Town and Rushie, but my top pick in this race is the longshot Shashashakemeup (#3). As I alluded to at the top, the Pat Day Mile tends to produce wacky results, and I think this horse is the one that could upset the apple cart this year. He’s coming off a nondescript fourth-place finish in the Iowa Derby, but I think you can excuse that effort since he was running back on relatively short rest and appears to be better around one turn.

The race I’m keying on with him came two back, when he closed strongly at six furlongs on June 21 over this track behind C Z Rocket, an older horse that’s on a tear right now and most recently won the G2 Pat O’Brien at Del Mar. Shashashakemeup was pinched at the start and lagged way behind the field in the early portion of that race, but he rallied well through traffic in the stretch and was gaining on the winner at the finish. Based on that race I think six furlongs is a bit too short for him and I expect this distance to hit him right between the eyes. If he can put forth a similar effort to his last race over this surface I believe he’ll be in the mix at a giant price.

Main:  2,3,9     Backup (priority):  1,5,7

Order of preference:  3-2-9-1

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Race 10

Therideofalifetime (#10) is going to attract the lion’s share of the wagering in the G3 Iroquois and deservedly so. He’s run consistently faster than his competition and is coming out of a far better race, the G2 Saratoga Special, in which he finished a clear second behind the talented Jackie’s Warrior. He’s probably not as good as his maiden win at Keeneland two back makes him look, but I think the Saratoga Special is a fair representation of his ability, which still makes him a standout in this race.

The biggest question he needs to address is the stretch-out in distance. To this point he’s only run at six furlongs, and despite a versatile pedigree I’m not sure he gave the indication in his last race that more ground will be to his benefit. I’m using Therideofalifetime prominently, but at a very short price I think it’s wise to take a few shots against him.

The main alternative I came up with is Midnight Bourbon (#8), one of two trainer Steve Asmussen has entered in this race. This horse was dreadful in his debut in late July at Ellis Park, finishing well behind today’s rival Notary (#11), but he returned to the races a completely different animal on August 22 at Ellis Park, easily defeating a maiden field going a mile. He earned a 70 Beyer Speed Figure for the effort, which should make him plenty competitive in this spot, and perhaps the biggest thing he has going for him is that he’s already proven at this distance. He’s coming back on relatively short rest, but if he can continue to build on his most recent performance I think he’s going to be dangerous.

There aren’t too many more appealing options in this field, but Ultimate Badger (#4) is certainly one of them. A son of Belmont Stakes runner-up Commissioner, it’s definitely noteworthy that this horse was successful in his debut going five furlongs on July 31 at Ellis Park.

His pedigree is geared much more toward stamina, so his 4 ¼-length romp over a wet track in his first start is very encouraging and I’d anticipate him taking a big step forward as he stretches out to a mile. It’s also a positive sign that Joe Talamo sticks with him despite having other options in this race.

Main:  4,8,10     Backup:  1,3,7,9

Order of preference:  8-10-4-1

Kentucky Derby Odds

Race 11 (G2 Distaff Turf Mile)

Newspaperofrecord (#4) is the early frontrunner for comeback horse of the year, if she doesn’t already have it wrapped up. After a sensational juvenile campaign in 2018 that culminated with a win in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf over this very course, big things were expected from her as a sophomore, but nothing went according to plan in 2019 as she lost three straight times as the favorite and wasn’t seen again until 2020.

Miraculously, all she’s done this year is pick back up right where she left off as a 2-year-old, dominating the G3 Intercontinental in her seasonal debut and then running a star-studded field off their feet in the G1 Just a Game in her most recent outing. It’s safe to say she’s back and better than ever, and the icing on the cake is that she seems to relish a softer turf course, which could be the case on Saturday. Regardless of course condition, though, she’s going to be awfully tough to beat as her early speed always gives her a natural advantage on her competition.

I’m a big fan of Juliet Foxtrot (#3) and thought she could’ve benefitted from a more aggressive ride in the G1 Jenny Wiley, in which she finished just behind one of this division’s best, Rushing Fall, but she’s going to need to improve to beat the likes of Newspaperofrecord. It’s not out of the question, but it’s going to be especially difficult on a less-than-firm turf course.

Who knows what to do with Daddy Is a Legend (#2), who is talented enough to win this race but is coming off a dreadful outing at Ellis Park in her 2020 debut. It’s perhaps worth noting that Florent Geroux, a regular rider of Juliet Foxtrot, opts to stick with Daddy Is a Legend, but she’s going to need to bounce back and then some to have a shot at winning this race. It’s also evident from her running lines that she prefers a firmer turf course, which may not be in the cards.

The only other mare I would consider using in this race is the “other” Brad Cox, Beau Recall (#8). She actually won this race last year and although she was terribly disappointing last out in the G2 Yellow Ribbon, she really didn’t have much chance given the lack of pace in front of her. Two starts back she finished a strong second behind Newspaperofrecord in the Just a Game, and if she gets back to that level of performance she’s not without a shot.

Main:  4     Backup (priority):  2,3,6

Order of preference:  4-3-6-2

Race 12 (G1 Derby City Distaff)

Serengeti Empress (#8) is the filly to beat in the G1 Derby City Distaff. While it may appear there’s not much separating her and Bellafina (#9), who was beaten a length by Serengeti Empress in the G1 Ballerina, I think the difference between the two is stark. Serengeti Empress set an absolutely blistering pace Ballerina and held on gamely to stave off Bellafina, who got a perfect trip.

Disciples of pace handicapping understand that despite the narrow final margin, there’s a wide gulf between these two in terms of ability. I’ll concede that Bellafina surprised me by finally running well outside of California, but I much prefer Serengeti Empress and the two are going to be in the same neighborhood price-wise.

I have the utmost respect for Serengeti Empress, but her presence in this race is part of the reason my top pick is Sally’s Curlin (#6), as she’s going to ensure a swift pace. Sally’s Curlin came off a bit of a layoff last out in the G1 Madison and got absolutely zero chance to make an impact on the race given the way the pace unfolded.

I still thought she closed strongly in the stretch as she was able to make up some ground, but a fifth-place finish was all she could muster behind those tepid early splits. I expect her to be much tighter this time around and she’s going to get the setup she needs given her late-running style. She seems to have an affinity for Churchill Downs and the value should be abundant as she appears considerably slower than her competition.

Ce Ce (#10) is a tough call in this race. She’s always struck me as more of a sprinter, so the turnback in distance should be right up her alley, but she’s also proven to be effective around two turns, which makes her rather dull recent efforts all the more concerning. She’s clearly talented enough to win, but she may not be in great form at the moment and is going to be a short price.

I thought I would like Bell’s the One (#8) more after a troubled trip in the Madison, but I couldn’t elevate her above ‘priority backup’ status. Like Sally’s Curlin, she was compromised by the lack of pace in the Madison and she was shuffled a bit around the turn, however she seemed to flatten out in the late stages of the race and finished just ahead of Wildwood’s Beauty (#3), who is not a top contender in this race. Bell’s the One’s smashing win two back in the G3 Winning Colors hinted at big things to come in her 4-year-old season, so it’s possible she rebounds and even moves forward in this spot, but I’m starting to think she’s not truly G1 caliber.

Main:  6,8     Backup (priority):  1,4,10

Order of preference:  6-8-4-10

Race 13 (G1 Turf Classic)

There’s a lot to dissect in this race, which is decidedly not a vintage edition of the G1 Turf Classic. For starters, and maybe I’m banging my head against a wall yet again, I’m completely against Factor This (#1) in this spot, who is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line.

There’s no denying this guy has a nose for the wire, but no horse has been more fortunate than him in 2020 as he’s repeatedly taken advantage of inside-favoring turf courses. I think he’s completely dressed up off his recent races, and he’s going to have to contend with other serious speed as he takes a big step up in class. At a short price I think he’s one to avoid entirely.

I will be using Rockemperor (#3), who may vie for favoritism with Factor This, but I’m not entirely sold on him, either. He actually finished well behind Factor This in the G2 Muniz Memorial to begin the year, though that race was contested on one of the aforementioned biased turf courses, and he seems to have appreciated stretching out to a mile and a quarter in his last two starts.

He looks like he’s going to be tough based on his last race in the G1 Manhattan, in which he finished a close second behind his stablemate Instilled Regard, but Rockemperor got an absolutely dream trip and aside from the winner I don’t think that field was very strong. He can win, but he’s not going to offer much value.

With value in mind, my top pick in this race is another Chad Brown trainee, Sacred Life (#8). He wasn’t beating much in his latest outing in the Oceanport at Monmouth Park (though those horses aren’t pushovers, either), but the comment line from that race, which simply says “stormed home,” is succinct and accurate.

He got very little pace to run at yet absolutely exploded in the stretch, drawing off to a four-length victory that could’ve been more if he wasn’t eased up on nearing the wire. We’ll see how quickly this turf course dries out after lots of rain earlier in the week, but if it does come up on the softer side that’s only going to bolster the chances of Sacred Life, who loves some cut in the ground. Either way, I think he’s in raging form right now and he should get a fantastic setup.

The other horse I’m intrigued by at a price is Mr Dumas (#6). He had no chance to reel in his stablemate Somelikeithotbrown (#9) last out in the G2 Bernard Baruch as that one was allowed to set a very measured pace, but he still closed well and finished just a length behind the winner. The pace scenario should be completely different in this race, with Factor This, Somelikeithotbrown, and Spectacular Gem (#10) all figuring to vie for the early lead, and I think Mr Dumas is starting to come into his own as we enter the second half of his 4-year-old campaign. It’s also worth noting he won the G3 Commonwealth over “good” ground on this course last year, so any residual moisture will be to his benefit.

Main:  3,6,8     Backup (priority):  2,4,9

Order of preference:  8-6-3-9

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Race 14 (G1 Kentucky Derby)

It’s been a war of attrition in the lead up to the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby, and we’re left with a field of just 16 after a rash of defections has made this an extremely top-heavy field. As much as I’d like to be against Tiz the Law (#17) on the basis of value - he’s going to be the overwhelming favorite - I just can’t do it. He’s been terrific this year and has even exceeded expectations after showing tremendous ability as a 2-year-old.

There were some concerns that he was beating up on softer competition earlier in the year and may not like a mile and a quarter, but he addressed those question marks emphatically with his win in the G1 Travers last out, for which he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, easily the best in this field.

My only quibble with him is that the lone blemish on his otherwise sterling resume occurred over this very track last year in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club. It may have been that he didn’t care for the wet track, but it also could be that he’s not as effective when he has to ship. Based on his dominant Travers victory, however, it’s going to take a lot of regression for him to get beat.

While we aren’t getting the Tiz the Law/Art Collector showdown the racing world was eager to see, I do think Honor A. P. (#16) is a worthy challenger to the favorite. He left a bitter taste in the minds of bettors after he came up short in the ungraded Shared Belief as the 1-5 favorite, but bear in mind that these connections, namely his trainer John Shirreffs, are old school: the Derby has always been the goal for Honor A. P., and I doubt we were seeing his ‘A’ game in that race. One start prior he easily handled Authentic (#18) in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, and I’d expect that version of Honor A. P. to show up on Saturday, if not an even better one. I still don’t think that vaults him past Tiz the Law, but it’s well within the range of possible outcomes.

The biggest surprise to me after handicapping this race is that I came away liking Attachment Rate (#15) a lot more than I thought I would. It seemed to me earlier in the year that he was a middling Derby prospect at best, but I believe he’s taken a noticeable step forward in recent starts, particularly last out in the Ellis Park Derby when he finished second behind Art Collector.

He pressed a fast pace in the Ellis Park Derby, went wide around both turns, and still stayed on well in the stretch, though he was no match for the winner. Without Art Collector in this race, I think Attachment Rate is the next best thing as he didn’t run much worse than him last time, and I expect him to perform even better at his home base of Churchill Downs. I don’t think he’s a viable win candidate, however he’s absolutely capable of hitting the board at a big price.

Beyond these three there’s really no one I’m itching to bet. The well-traveled Ny Traffic (#15) is my pick for fourth. Although he finished behind Authentic last out in the G1 Haskell I thought he may have run the better race, and he continues to progress as this year rolls along for the up-and-coming Saffie Joseph, Jr.

Speaking of Authentic, I don’t want any part of him or his stablemate, Thousand Words (#10). They’re guaranteed to take significant money because they’re trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, however I think they’re both coming in off rather phony wins and will be hard-pressed to duplicate those results. I’d even prefer a horse like Max Player (#2) to them, who maybe isn’t quite as fast but has demonstrated an aptitude for this distance. As always, this should be a fun race.

Main:  17     Backup (priority):  16

Order of preference:  17-16-13-15

 

Most Likely Winner:  Tiz the Law (Race 14)

Best Value:  Shashashakemeup (Race 9)

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