Nestled in the horse country of the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, Keeneland returns with what they famously call the "Fall Stars." Only lasting a short time in October, we must enjoy it ... as they have their condition book ready for action! This Friday's 10-race card is sure to be a challenging one for even the most-seasoned handicappers.
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Keeneland Opening Day is a reflection that is welcome and timely … in other words, racing needs this place. We kick off this Late Pick 4 sequence with a Haggin Course route that is what makes KEE, KEE. With a full-field of 12 going 1 1/16th on the turf, you never quite know what is going to happen, especially if moisture enters the picture. Time to get the going sticks out …
When it comes to a spot like this one, traditionally I like to see who Mike Maker is bringing to the table. His record over the past decade isn’t spotless, but it is incredibly impressive in Lexington. This time around he has Dynadrive #5 both dropping in class and back in distance. By Temple City (who stands at Spendthrift) the 4-yr-old gelding was probably in over his head in the Grade 2 Turf Cup at Kentucky Downs. Finishing 9th, well-behind eventual winner and BC bound Imperador, was not that that shocking. Even though this runner has not had much of an opportunity to compete on the turf (2 NYRA 1¼ races were off-track), he still has a more than competent career record of 18/6-5-2. Using him on top makes a ton of horse sense.
As for others to help round out the ticket, I also fancy Graham Motion’s Valid Point #1 and Vicky Oliver’s Kentucky Ghost #4. The former, an alum of Chad Brown’s barn, is a son of Scat Daddy who came to the Maryland- based conditioner late last year. Motion trained him up over the course of the summer and took a shot at entering in the King Edward (G2) at Woodbine. It was a good 1st off-the-bench try, even though the result was disappointing. Getting Tyler Gaffalione should improve the situation, since his Keeneland riding is superior. Look for this one’s class to start to shine through.
As for Oliver’s entry, this might be one of the best grass routers in her stable right now. A 4-yr-old by Ghostzapper, he just could not get up late in the TVG 400k at Kentucky Downs back on 8 September. Failing at such a short price was not positive, but those races are tough, and it will be interesting to see how that experience translates to the Haggin. Normally, KD alumni can do well in certain spots, and do not count out veteran Rafael Bejarano to lead this one home. The value might not be there, but it is essential to have this one on the ticket. Those 3 should get us going from the start … onward!
It is time to rise up for this 2nd Leg, and it brings together a good group of 7, pitting them against one another. The top of the heap on the M/L is no surprise … Mike Maker’s Special Reserve #6. Since coming over to this barn in February, the gelding by Midshipman has 3 wins in 5 starts. Those other 2 races were the Commonwealth (G3) at Keeneland and the Vanderbilt (G1) at Saratoga. Against some tough foes, he fared nicely—pair of 2nds. The real news were speed numbers he posted, which steadily increased. Bettors will be enticed by his ability to take on the likes of Lexitonian and Whitmore.
If there is an “answer” to Maker’s steamroller, then it might be Wayne Catalano’s Aloha West #5. He doesn’t quite have the class rating, but he makes up for it with a tactical style that could be devastating. The “Cat Man,” as he is affectionately known, has been coming to Keeneland for what seems like an eternity. With 3 wins out of his last 4, he sure looks fit as can be. The excellent ownership of Aron Wellman’s Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners is on board, and you know that he invests in winners whenever possible. Hard Spun types are impressive, and versatile, so backing this class riser makes a ton of sense. I want to include both of these runners because they have a ton of upside. That should assist us as we move on.
Selections: 5/6 (2-Deep)
LEG 3: (Race 9: Dirt, 1 1/16th, Darley Alcibiades S. (G1), $400k, 2F)
A mainstay on Keeneland’s Opening Weekend, this race has Kentucky Oaks implications … 10-4-2-1, distributed to those that finish 1st through 4th. Only a couple of entries have ever gone 1 1/16th in competition, so it is always interesting to try and figure out who really is up for stretching out. Those runners are both from Kenny McPeek’s stable—Mama Rina #6 and Penny Saver #10. Both displayed excellent stamina, and the later wired a MSW120k race at Churchill … winning by 9+ lengths. Either of them could make a statement in this all-important contest. I want to include them for that reason.
Sticking with the theme of backing trainers who have uncoupled entries in this race, I rather like Brad Cox’s chances with Juju’s Map #1 and Matareya #7. Both are ladder climbers, and the former by Liam’s Map won impressively at Ellis Park, breaking her maiden in fine style. She posted a strong speed fig on the Albaugh Family entry, and should be pretty game in here as Florent Geroux takes the mount. The Cox charge is a Godolphin homebred with potential to grow as she extends out from an Ellis MSW sprint to a Keeneland G1 route. Joel Rosario is going to take over for Geroux, and this one is a firecracker. Are we looking at the next great Cox-trained filly of this generation? We might … Some might scoff at the speed number, but I would not count out this Pioneerof the Nile 2-yr-old. Much success is headed her way …
Going with 4 in a spot like this one might not seem enough, but it will have to do because around the corner is a very tough Haggin Course contest … we will need all the slots we can muster.
Selections: 1/6/7/10 (4-Deep)
LEG 4: (Race 10: Turf, 1 1/8th, ALLW86k, 3+)
Hold onto to you ball caps, and make sure you are ready for this finale … It is one of the toughest kinds of races that we see on a bi-annual basis from the Keeneland Racing Office. The book on 1 1/8th grass events is that you need a “stayer,” who can handle tough conditions and large fields. Traffic happens on I-64, but also on the Haggin Course. Those jockeys that are lucky and good will have a shot to win the day in the end.
My top selection in here is actually an “AE.” If Mark Casse’s Scarlet Fusion #13 makes it into this race, the colt by Curlin is a bet. He has great breeding coming from Stonestreet, and has Tyler Gaffalione in the irons (if he ends up not riding News Break #8). Even though he has not been seen since Churchill in May and June, I think her works tell the tale. It looks as though her HOF conditioner has just been waiting for a spot to open up, which is a constant battle in this business. Gaffalione knows this one pretty well, and with his tendencies, should be making a big run, late in the game. Watch the scratches and changes … maybe he will get in.
As for any others to include, I like the race time favorite, who is sure to be either Modern Science #2 or Red Hornet #9. Trainer Ian Wilkes and Anna Meah, are dropping both of their runners out of the difficult Dueling Grounds Derby $750k at Kentucky Downs. Neither hit the board that day in early September, but they did flash some moves that could be considered as something promising. I look at either of them to be players in this spot.
I am going to finish with 3 selections, but if the “AE” does not make it in, then I will stick with the top 2 mentioned above. That should round out what should be a winning ticket on this Opening Day at Keeneland!