By Gary West
This is the best racing card in the history of Kentucky Downs. But is that understating it? Have we crossed a border, and could Saturday’s be a great card?
This is all based on assumption. I’m not relying on a metric of any kind, I’m not riffling through my files and folders, and I haven’t counted the number of stakes winners or the number of millionaires entered for Saturday in Franklin, Ky.— it’s too late in the evening for all that. I’m looking just at the late Pick 5, the five stakes, races six through 10, and their purses: $2.7 million. But that reverberating number doesn’t quite say it all. Here’s another clanging klaxon: In the first two days of racing, the Pick 5 payoff has averaged $11,987.
Race 6: The $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint
How do you want to play this? Take the rubber band off the bankroll and spread out all over these races, cover them as if with a green tablecloth? You could easily bet a four-figure ticket and not exhaust the possibilities. That’s one of the most appealing virtues of a Pick 5: It can’t be bought. Or shouldn’t be. A prudent approach would suggest a single in at least one of the races, and the sixth could be a possibility for such focus. Moonlight Romance last raced at Royal Ascot, in the Windsor Castle Stakes, where she broke poorly before getting bumped around and rushing into contention; she hung through the final furlong and finished 13th. Actually, though, she performed well: She was beaten only seven lengths despite her troubles, and although 13th sounds dismal she actually checked in about mid-pack. Prior to that, she had romped in a five-furlong maiden race at Belmont, winning in hand. Yes, she’s taking on the “boys.” No problem. Yes, she hasn’t raced in a while. No problem. And make no mistake: This filly is a lightning bolt, and while the field includes some quick juveniles she could very well lead this from start to finish. On opening day of the season, Wesley Ward won with another horse that had last raced at Ascot (Bound for Nowhere). It’s a novel approach, don’t you think, using Royal Ascot to prep for Kentucky Downs? — just kidding, but it could turn out that way. Others to consider: Life Mission, Blame The Frog, Carter Cat and Chattel.
Race 7: The $500,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf (G3)
Here’s something to keep in mind when looking at these stakes. On Kentucky Downs Preview Day at Ellis Park, Aug. 5, the turf was especially kind to speed. Of the five two-turn turf races that day, two were won by horses that led throughout. Beyond that, Mr. Misunderstood “rallied” from 1.5 lengths back and Arklow from 0.5 back after the opening half-mile. The winner of a 2-year-old maiden race came from just two back. In other words, I’m Betty G’s front-running victory in the Ladies Turf Preview might not have been as impressive as it looks on paper, and she’s the 7-2 favorite here. From this perspective, others represent more value and could be more likely to find the winner’s circle. Storm The Hill, who raced five-wide when fifth in the Yellow Ribbon, for example, appeals. Insta Erma hasn’t raced since a poor performance in May, but her best effort easily wins this. And In The Lee is improving; another step forward puts her in the winner’s circle. Selections: Storm The Hill, Insta Erma, In The Lee, I’m Betty G.
Race 8: The $450,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint (G3)
Any Pick 5 ticket must include Lull, who’s undefeated in two races at Kentucky Downs. She won this race a year ago, and in 2016 she won the Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies Stakes. But the group convening for Saturday’s renewal is considerably stronger than it was for this race a year ago. Lull can certainly repeat — she’s an outstanding filly who finished a length back in the Just A Gleam at Belmont — but to do so she’ll have to give her best performance. Speaking of such things, Ruby Notion enters after an extraordinary performance in the Caress Stakes at Saratoga, where she raced within two lengths of a too-hot-to-handle (for the “soft” course) pace and then pounced, winning by two. The Saratoga course that day was a bog, which invites the question of whether it enabled Ruby Notion to give the best performance of her career, or did she actually step forward and suddenly improve five lengths to win at 27-1? Well, the course almost certainly affected the outcome — Ruby Notion loved it — but she could enjoy soft ground again Saturday. Brielle’s Appeal is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma splattered with Saratoga mud, or something like that. She pushed the rapid pace in the Caress and then capitulated, finishing ninth. She’s very quick, as she showed when she won her debut here last year, and will probably be the early leader. On firm ground, she’d be the pick. But firm ground seems unlikely. Selections: Ruby Notion, Lull, Brielle’s Appeal, Con Te Partiro.
Race 9: The $500,000 Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint (G3)
Blind Ambition has strung together four superb efforts, and if he delivers more of the same here he could enjoy the biggest payday of his career. He most recently finished second in the Troy Stakes at Saratoga on soft ground. What an admirable competitor Undrafted is. He’ll be making his fifth start at Kentucky Downs: In 2014, he finished third in the Turf Dash Stakes; in 2015, after winning the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot, he ran second in the More Than Ready Mile; the next year, he finished fourth and last season third in the Turf Sprint. An 8-year-old millionaire, he has proven he can handle just about anything, including soft ground. Could this be the year he wins at Kentucky Downs? Conquest Panthera is another veteran whose versatility makes him a threat. He most recently finished third in the Lure Stakes at Saratoga at 1 1/16 miles. But he has given some of his best performances sprinting. For long shots, consider Vici, who rediscovered his best form on opening day, and Jazzy Times, who’s undefeated since trainer Wes Hawley moved him to the turf. Selections: Blind Ambition, Undrafted, Conquest Panthera.
Race 10: The $750,000 Kentucky Turf Cup (G3)
Oscar Nominated hasn’t raced since June, when he finished five lengths back after a somewhat troubled trip in the United Nations Stakes. But he has run well when fresh, and trainer Mike Maker, the all-time leader at Kentucky Downs, has had considerable success pointing horses at lucrative races here and then hitting the mark squarely. Bigger Picture, compromised by a slow pace in the Sword Dancer, finished third in the United Nations and has proven himself on soft ground. Patterson Cross hasn’t won often — just three times — but has finished close to some of the best turf horses in the country: a head behind Wake Forest, for example, and a neck behind Sadler’s Joy. Patterson Cross could upset if he draws in. Selections: Oscar Nominated, Bigger Picture, Patterson Cross.
Gary West is a Kentucky Downs analyst and a nationally acclaimed turf columnist and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.