Happy Derby Day! Let’s look at a few spot plays around the Churchill card for Derby Day, with one bonus pick at Belmont.
Distaff Turf Mile (G2) – Churchill Race 7 (F&M, 8 furlongs, turf) – I can’t say I have a ton of interest in opposing both #2 Miss Temple City (9-5) and #6 Roca Rojo (3-1) after they were separated by a nose (in that order) in the G1 Matriarch in December at Del Mar. But both are prepping for bigger objectives later on and run today on six month layoffs (though for trainers in Graham Motion and Chad Brown that can get one ready off the bench). If we prefer one, it’s Roca Rojo, who has a 3.5 length win in the Athenia on soft turf from the fall. However, there is one horse we want to be a part of the play, #1 Linda (5-1). I think she might drift up a point or two from there anyway, but she ran a sneaky good race last time in the Honey Fox, stalking the slow pace while wide while Celestine wired the field after setting moderate fractions. While she did lose to Mississippi Delta (who saved more ground) that day, Linda should move up on a wet track and was making her first start off the bench in that race. Further, Linda has two good races on less-than-firm turf last fall including a win in the Mrs. Revere on this course.
Which of the Whitham 5-1 shots has a better chance today – Linda or McCraken? We think Linda.
Pat Day Mile (G2) – Churchill Race 8 (3 yo, 8 furlongs, dirt) – This is a wide open race with a lot of pace but our top pick is still #4 Uncontested (5-1), who turns back out of the Rebel Stakes for this spot. He’s been reportedly training very well for Wayne Catalano, has speed, and a big win over a sloppy track in the Smarty Jones. He also ran a big race going 8.5 furlongs setting a fast pace over this track behind McCraken in the Kentucky Jockey Club in November. #1 Local Hero (5-1) turns back out of the Fair Grounds Derby preps and is logical but might have his hand forced on the fast pace from his inside draw (note, however that the rail was very good on Friday so be sure to monitor that moving forward on Saturday – on Friday’s track, he would be tough). #8 Wild Shot (4-1) turns back out of the Blue Grass but was awful in that race while setting a moderate pace that I don’t entirely trust him though we have been fans of his before. #5 No Dozing (5-1) “checked hard 1st turn” per the short comment in the Lexington and while he did steady a bit, he also settled back behind a fast pace in a race that fell apart. They are the main players, but we wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss #12 Bobby on Fleek (10-1), a NY-bred who won a 6-furlong state-bred allowance race last time for Chad Brown. This is a pretty big jump up in class for a horse that has always been well-regarded. Perhaps the placement speaks confidently, and (assuming a fair track), he should get a good trip stalking in the clear (I wouldn’t read too much into his poor finish in his lone wet track race; he chased Syndergaard through blazing fractions in a race that preceded a long layoff). We’ve mentioned a lot of horses in here, but Uncontested is the one we most want to bet.
American Turf (G2) – Churchill Race 9 (3 yo, 8.5 furlongs, turf) – #2 Big Score (6-1) won the Transylvania last time at Keeneland and we’ll take him right back in here. He didn’t fire in the Breeders Cup but had run some big races before that last year and returned with a nice win, running down a loose on the lead Holiday Stone. He’s well drawn today and should get a good trip and won’t be any lower than the third choice in the betting. The favorite is likely #4 Oscar Performance (7-2) who was rated last time. We’d expect him to go right to the lead today (though he’ll have to deal with Conquest Farenheit) and the Breeders Cup winner is a threat, but he should have run better last time. Note, he does have a big Pilgrim win on yielding turf from the fall at Belmont. Don’t sleep on #6 Arklow (12-1) who won a Keeneland maiden special weight by 3.5 lengths with a solid figure and will be a big price. #10 Good Samaritan (5-1) ran a huge race, maybe the best race, in the BC Juvenile Turf after a terrible trip. He can certainly win back here off the bench but will be a short price off the long layoff.
Churchill Downs (G2) – Churchill Race 10 (3/up, 7 furlongs, dirt) – #2 Masochistic (5-2) is the favorite and the speed, but he set a slow pace and should have won last time in the Triple Bend. We have a feeling he’s not as good as he once was and want to look elsewhere on top. Here’s a big longshot: #14 Bluegrass Singer (15-1), our top selection. It’s a bit of a stretch, certainly after his fourth place finish in the seven-furlong Sir Shackleton on April 1st, but that race fell apart and he was forging the very fast pace. His two races before that were pretty good and he’s well drawn on the outside in a race where all the secondary contenders have some flaws. It’s a spread race in mutlis where we will also use #9 Limousine Liberal (10-1), who was part of a strong pace last time at Keeneland (though he’s always run better there). #8 El Kabeir (6-1) ran well in a speed-dominated race at Gulfstream and should improve in his second start for Bill Mott. I suppose if #5 Clearly Now (6-1) runs back to his last race, his allowance win at Gulfstream on April 1st, but he hadn’t run that race in almost two years, so I’m a little skeptical that he’ll repeat it here. #1 Awesome Slew (4-1) won the Commonwealth last time, but did have a good trip behind a solid pace. He can win but will be a short price. We’re going to try to get Bluegrass Singer into the number at a big price in a great rice.
Turf Classic (G1) – Churchill Race 11 (3/up, 9 furlongs, turf) – This is always a great race, serving as last appetizer before the Derby. We’re all about #2 Divisidero (4-1) – shocker. He’s had a bunch of wide trips and then last time, in a loaded allowance at Keeneland that could have easily been a Grade 2 stakes race, he got totally stopped at the top of the lane, shut off for a key stage of the race, and when he got room, was moving very well late in what was an obvious prep for this race, which he won last year. We don’t want anyone of the Muniz, which was slow, on the quirky Fair Grounds course, and we think a level below this one. #6 Bal a Bali (6-1) can win, but will have to deal with soft turf and he might be better at a mile than 1 1/8 miles. #7 World Approval (6-1) has some good races going longer than this one but had a good prep last time and always gets a good trip because of his tactical speed. #8 Beach Patrol (5-1) makes his second start against older horses after a win in the Hollywood Derby in December. He was a good second in the GP Turf Handicap in February pressing a strong pace. He can definitely win this race, but it’s a much tougher spot than that last one. #12 Ballagh Rocks (10-1) is a usable longshot. He’s been steadily improving for Bill Mott and should like the 9 furlongs of this race more than the 8 furlongs of the Makers Mark Mile at Keeneland where he was a fast-closing fourth. In multis, however, we are going to lean on Divisidero.
Fort Marcy (G3) – Belmont Race 11 (3/up, 9 furlongs, turf) – Like the Turf Classic at Churchill, here is another race that should yield starters for the Manhattan on the Belmont card. The morning line favorite for Chad Brown is #8 Time Test (2-1), but his form seems better on firm turf and at distances longer than this one. Meanwhile, our pick is #9 Highland Sky (5-1), who ran a big race in his 2017 debut, a Gulfstream allowance on February 25th and is poised for a big season for Barclay Tagg. He should appreciate getting back out to 9 furlongs and his one yielding turf start was a hopelessly wide run in the 2015 BC Juvenile Turf, a race that is much better than it looks on paper.