Turf Classic Stakes Preview: It is Colonel Liam's to lose
1 1/8th (Turf) Turf Classic (G1), Purse $1 Million, 4+
The $1 Million Turf Classic is the signature race on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby undercard. Over the years, this contest has brought together some of the very best turf distance routers, as they battle for supremacy on Matt Winn’s lawn. Looking over some of the older horses that have found the winner’s circle, you discover some names of some of the best in the business. These include . . . English Channel, Einstein (BRZ) 2x, Get Storm, Little Mike, Wise Dan 2x, Finnegans Wake, Divisidero 2x, Yoshida (JPN), Bricks and Mortar, and last year’s capstone, Digital Age. Those that wear the crown are destined to be in quite a pantheon. A Turf Classic win dictates as such.
Now, let’s find out about this field…
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#1 Masteroffoxhounds (Jky: J. Rosario/Trn: R. Baltas):
The old debate about the quality of SoCal turfers is going to rear its head once again, as we have a few shipping in from that part of the country. This Ricard Baltas entry has some solid bloodlines through War Front and Outstanding (IRE), so much respect there. Since immigrating from Ireland, where he was under the firm hand of both Aidan O’Brien and Jessica Harrington, the now 4-yr-old colt graduated nicely into G2-G3 Co. He won the San Marcos (G2) at 1¼ at Santa Anita, and then followed that with a 3rd place in the San Luis Rey (G3). Clearly a runner that likes to go long, he appears to be a fan of firm ground. Whether he will get that on Saturday is a question (along with the cutback to 1 1/8th distance), and that might make things tough. However, Baltas has an ace, and it is Joel Rosario. He is a jockey that knows how to swing wide into the 4-5 paths late, and he could make the difference if this one can get into the clear.
#2 Count Again (Jky: L. Saez/Trn: D’Amato):
Here is a Canadian homebred from the barn of Phil D’Amato that came to him from trainer Gail Cox. She had him in some distance contests at Woodbine last year, after the track was cleared to run due to COVID-19. Heading to SoCal, the gelding out of Awesome Again won on debut in the Seabiscuit (G2) at Del Mar. That was more than promising. D’Amato made the choice to shut him down for the winter after that, and brought him back to Santa Anita for the San Gabriel (G2) and the Kilroe Mile (G1). Those are 2 fundamentally different races, and ironically, he did better in the shorter one (Kilroe) with a 3rd place finish. That might have something to do with fitness. Now, his conditioner is going to up the distance once again, and send him to Churchill for what is shaping up to be the toughest race of his career. The catalyst could be jockey Luis Saez, who will be riding Essential Quality in the Derby right after this one is complete. If Saez can find a seam late, then it will be interesting to see how this one responds.
#3 Colonel Liam (Jky: I. Ortiz/Trn: T. Pletcher):
I will say this, if Todd Pletcher’s entry is 3/1 come post time in the Turf Classic, that will be a major overlay. Here is a grass runner who is coming in on a 3-race win streak (Grade II Muniz Mem. @FG was last), and appears poised for more. Bettors seem to question his ability, and each and every time he proves them incorrect. He reminds me of a Mark Casse turfer named Catch a Glimpse from a few years back. Try and beat her, she said . . . and it didn’t happen. Irad Ortiz is both artist and backstreet brawler when it comes to turf racing in North America, and when he is on, he is on! This son of Liam’s Map has been waiting for the opportunity, and Pletcher, whose turf record is strong for once, has him headed into the right race. This is a win wager all the way, and I am not seeing anyone who can beat this colt in this spot. I am willing to listen, but it better be a really impressive argument.
#4 Ivar (BRZ) (Jky: J. Talamo/Trn: P. Lobo):
The last time we saw Paulo Lobo’s excellent grass miler, he was attempting to take on some heady European company in the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. At the conclusion of that celebrated race he actually had the highest finish among the American entries, just missing the board. Before that, he was absolutely stellar in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) on the same Haggin Course. It has been a meteoric rise since coming to run stateside from Argentina. Bred in Brazil, he is the son of an accomplished dam named May Be Now. The distance question in this spot is an issue, and so is his fitness level. Coming into such a strong contest as this one, it may be difficult to end up on top. Lobo is quite effective when it comes to readiness, but even he has his limits. Seems like a portal race for entry into future opportunities as his 2021 campaign gets underway.
#5 Domestic Spending (Jky: F. Prat/Trn: C. Brown):
The last time that this router took to a turf course it was a resounding success in the Hollywood Derby (G1) in November at Del Mar. That was a tight finish against Smooth Like Strait #7, but jockey Irad Ortiz made it happen. He has switched mounts to the presumptive favorite in this spot, so the chore of riding this Klaravich kingpin off the bench falls to Flavien Prat, not a bad sub at all. Still, the Chad Brown “KS” son of Kingman (GB) is going to draw into what is shaping up to be a dogfight. Not only does he face a strong stablemate, but he will be up against probably the best North American grass runner in this division. Brown gets his mounts ready, but I am sure he is looking towards NYRA events that are set to roll out at Belmont and Saratoga by the summer. Major test, probably the most serious of his career to this point . . .
#6 Digital Age (Jky: J. Castellano/Trn: C. Brown):
We don’t often have a defending champion that did not get to serve in that capacity for a whole year. That is certainly the case with those entrants that won on Kentucky Derby Day back in September. This is the other Chad Brown runner, and he also comes from the able-bodied ownership group of Klaravich. Ever since this son of Invincible Spirit (IRE) won the Columbia S. 75k at Tampa back in 2019, he has progressed into the “Graded” ranks as well as anyone. Brown has sent him into some tough contests, and he has always performed reasonably well. The win last September in this very race was the best of his career. Although he ran poorly in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland, the beginning was a mess. Also, going that distance didn’t suit anyway. Off the bench he could be a live wager since he does have a record of coming into spots like this one. With Javier Castellano riding, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wowed the crowd and took this one all the way. Never, never, never bet against him in a race like this. I have seen too many upsets where he was involved. A pair come to mind . . . Hard Not To Like and Ironicus come to mind!
#7 Smooth Like Strait (Jky: U. Rispoli/Trn: M. McCarthy):
Cannon Thoroughbreds own this homebred who is out of Midnight Lute. The colt is not one of those SoCal routers that is afraid to take on his Eastern brethren. In fact, he has a win over the track at Churchill, and Mike McCarthy is sending him back in hopes that he can replicate that particular effort. His bread-n-butter is rating close to the lead, and he likes to get moving early. Pressing the pace sets him up for a run down the lane. Umberto Rispoli knows this well, having been in the saddle several times in a row with this one. He has the ability to go longer than a mile, but he has yet to try that distance this year. Second off-the-bench, his first try of 2021 was in the Kilroe Mile (G1), and that was barely a miss. If he can extend out, he might be able to set some distance from Ortiz’s mount, who will be gunning for him towards the conclusion of what promises to be quite a battle. I like him, especially when compared to the other SoCal imports, but not enough to place him on top.
#8 Cross Border (Jky: R. Santana/Trn: M. Maker):
Trainer Mike Maker scratched this Three Diamonds distance specialist back at Keeneland, and he was clearly thinking that this spot would be preferable. The conditioner was judicious about sending him into the proper contests, since he has only run once since finishing a game 3rd in the Pegasus WC Turf (G1). The results in the Pan American (G2) at Gulfstream that followed were the same. What maybe needs to be focused on is the question of what distance is right for this 7-yr-old son of English Channel. Perhaps the 1 1/8th is just right? He has not won a race since last August at Saratoga, so it is safe to say that he is long overdue. I am not crazy about the move to have Ricardo Santana ride. He might be one of the most impatient jockeys when it comes to grass events. Still, he did a tremendous job last October at Keeneland, that he might surprise you. The competition is going to be fierce as the wire approaches, and I would say that the minors are once again in this one’s future. Sad to report that . . .
#9 Ride a Comet (Jky: T. Gaffalione/Trn: M. Casse):
In the recently run Makers’ Mark Mile (G1) at Keeneland, it looked like my selection of this son of Candy Ride (ARG) was going to pay dividends at a nice price of 9/1. Mark Casse’s trainee just needed some more ground, but he didn’t have that luxuary in such a race. Brown’s Raging Bull was triumphant. The John Oxley-ownership group (what a power couple when he gets together with Casse) is now ready to see their charge run again, and they are hoping the distance addition will help. It might, but then again, this is a much tougher test because of who is drawn in here. Getting Tyler Gaffalione to ride once more is excellent news, and he can be massively impactful with his settling skills. With some “give” to the ground, it is going to be difficult to know just how this horse will react. His level of fitness appears sound as can be, so that is an asset as well. Maybe watching the tote board on this one will prove decisive. I would be willing to consider some kind of WP wager on him if he can drift toward 7/1 or even 8/1. You never know, until you know . . . pithy, eh?
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