Summer vacation is truly over here at the home office of horse racing. Everyone is coming back to Churchill Downs from places near – like Ellis Park – and far – like Saratoga. Thursday was the first day back at school. Saturday night brings the first pop quiz.
Going into the 10th year of the points system that determines the field for the Kentucky Derby, this weekend’s $300,000 Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes for 2-year-olds is again all gussied up as the starting line on the 37-race, seven-month road to a rose-colored finish next May 7. Maybe for the first time in four years, the trail will not be strewn with boulders disguised as a disqualification, a postponement or a positive drug test.
The Iroquois is a lot like a strange hotel that looks great in online photos but comes up short after check-in. That is a verbose way of saying in its 39 previous runnings, it has never produced a Derby winner. Steve Asmussen came closest in 2016-17, when Lookin At Lee finished second in both races.
It has also struck out as a Breeders’ Cup prep, although most of its history was spent at about the same place on the calendar as the championships. The Iroquois was moved to late summer in 2013, and now it is an automatic qualifier for the Juvenile. Yet in the eight years since, only one Iroquois starter has even hit the board in the Breeders’ Cup. That was Not This Time, who won at Churchill Downs and finished a close second to Classic Empire in the Juvenile at Santa Anita only to be retired to stud two weeks later because of a soft-tissue injury.
Not This Time was trained by Dale Romans, whose recent history brings proper context to this weekend. He might be 0-for-11 in the Kentucky Derby and 0-for-10 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but in the last eight years his horses have won the Iroquois four times, finished second twice, third once and fourth twice. Those numbers will be forgotten by next month or next spring, but this weekend they should come in very handy.
After Dennis’ Moment scored in 2019 and Sittin On Go in 2020, Romans looks for a three-peat Saturday night with morning-line long shot Red Knobs (20-1). The $75,000 colt by Union Rags was a bust in his debut this summer on the Ellis Park turf. That was where he was supposed to try against Aug. 20, but his race was taken off the grass. Switched to a fast, main track, Red Knobs prevailed by 6¼ lengths. In time for Saturday’s Iroquois, it might be the best move Romans never made.
Considering all the early speed that is in this 8½-furlong race, Red Knobs could be perfectly poised to strike late. That is precisely what he did last month going the 1½ turns at which a mile is run at Ellis Park. That puts him on even terms with three others in the Iroquois field. Of Saturday’s 11 entrants, only Husband Material (15-1) has gone two full turns, doing so in a wet maiden race last month at Delaware Park and winning by 20 lengths against only two other starters.
While Romans’s record makes Red Knobs a wise bet to hit the board Saturday, this is not to say he will finish first in the Iroquois. A winning time of 1:37.90 off a 1:25.08 split at three-quarters of a mile does not a fast horse make.
Steve Asmussen’s two horses rate better with their speed. For now Stellar Tap (3-1) is known for having won the race that made Asmussen the winningest trainer in North American history. But he was more than that last month. His 1:23.82 performance over seven furlongs was rewarded with a Beyer Speed Figure of 78, no small potatoes for a 2-year-old horse making his first start.
Being a Tapit baby that was bought by Ron Winchell for $250,000, there is every reason to back Stellar Tap in this race. The only problem is that any bettor doing so will not be alone, especially since first-call jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. is keeping the ride. The alternative is the “other” Asmussen.
Winchell dropped even more serious coin – $750,000 – to buy Guntown (9-2), a half-brother to 2014 champion filly Untapable. If he scores Saturday, he will be the fifth graded-stakes winner for his sire Gun Runner, the 2017 Horse of the Year that has produced a freakishly good first crop.
Guntown literally had a rough start to his career when he was slammed by an adjacent horse coming out of the gate at Ellis Park. After closing strong to finish third that day, he came back to the same track and broke his maiden Aug. 13, winning by 4¼ lengths with a decent if not flashy mile time of 1:35.96. That was with Martín García riding. On Saturday, Guntown gets an upgrade to Tyler Gaffalione, who has been the top jockey at Churchill Downs in all four meets of the COVID era.
My tickets will key Guntown over Stellar Tap and Red Knobs with the hope that the public money will drift elsewhere.
By the time the Iroquois starts at 10:11 p.m. on what promises to be a comfortably dry Saturday night, summer will seem a distant memory. The winner will be looked at as a Derby hopeful, scoffed at as a Derby trail flash and, if history is any indication, forgotten on Derby day.
So what? The Iroquois is best consumed in the moment. Besides, who is really making a trip to Louisville just to stay in the Hotel Iroquois?
Racing notes and opinions
The Iroquois may not be a prism through which to find a Derby winner, but its companion race for 2-year-old fillies is quite the opposite when it comes to the long view toward the Kentucky Oaks. The Pocahontas on Saturday at 9:39 p.m. is also a $300,000 Grade 3 race going 8½ furlongs. Three of its winners – Sweet Alliance (1976), Untapable (2013) and Serengeti Empress (2018) – went on to finish first in the Oaks. Ontheonesandtwos (5-2), a maiden winner that failed as a favorite in stakes company her last two times out, is the morning-line favorite. Hidden Connection (9-2), a debut winner last month at Colonial Downs, also figures to attract a big chunk of the handle. Unlike the Iroquois, this race does not have much early speed; Mark Casse’s Nyquist filly Lemieux is the primary candidate to lead early. Ignoring that pace picture, my play will be on Kneesnhips (8-1), a turf closer that won her debut at Ellis Park before finishing a troubled but impressive third last out in the Bolton Landing Stakes at Saratoga. How impressive? She was forced so wide in that $120,000 race on yielding turf that she had an outrider parked near the outside rail flinching to make sure his pony did not get in the way. Ten days later she produced a bullet work on the Saratoga dirt, so trainer Tom Amoss is taking a shot in this qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. She cost only $30,000, and she is not by Curlin but instead by a sire, Connect, who is by Curlin. Those are reasons Kneesnhips should carry a big price. The way she finished her last race, though, and Amoss’s recent hot streak suggest he could do with this filly what he did with Serengeti Empress three years ago. If the morning line is right, Joyrunner (10-1), a Laura Wohlers-trained Gun Runner filly that went 2-for-2 at Indiana Grand, will also get a sprinkling of my dollars.
The two autumn meets at Churchill Downs probably will be comprised of nothing but dirt races. The turf course has been undergoing a complete rebuilding this summer, and it was never expected to be ready for the September meet that began Thursday and ends Oct. 3. There is still some thought that a few races could be put on the new course during the fall meet that runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 28, but the weather would have to break just right. For what it is worth, it has been a relatively tame summer without a lot of rain and with manageable heat and humidity. Then again, that is coming from someone who endured four summers in Las Vegas and only moved to Kentucky in April.
Speaking of surfaces, Gulfstream Park is scheduled to formally christen its Tapeta course with a $24,000 claiming race Thursday, making it the first track to card three different types of circuits – dirt, synthetic and turf. The current condition book lists up to 12 possible races next week on the artificial track, including three Thursday, three next Friday, three next Saturday and three on Sunday, Sept. 26. There are no stakes among those races, and eight are shown as substitutes. Horseplayers trying to get an edge on the new surface might be well-advised to pay attention to the workout videos posted free on XBTV. (Yes, XBTV is affiliated with 1/ST Bet, which is a VSiN sponsor. But it is not like it gets a lot of run in this column. So there.)
Too soon? No matter what the race, the reply is “never” for futures players. Take the 2022 Dubai World Cup. Betfair, Paddy Power and Sky Bet, all of which are co-owned by Flutter, have hung odds in England for 12 horses. Essential Quality (7-1) is the favorite followed by Benbatl (8-1), Knicks Go (10-1), Life Is Good (12-1), Magny Cours (12-1), Mystic Guide (12-1), Happy Saver (16-1), Salute The Soldier (20-1), Maxfield (20-1), Hypothetical (20-1), Chuwa Wizard (25-1) and Capezzano (100-1). Players may also bet any of these horses to finish second or third at one-fifth the win odds. At this point more than six months before the $12 million race, they all look like underlays.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features former NFL quarterback Shaun King, the VSiN host who is also a longtime horseplayer. Thoroughbred owner and handicapper Marshall Gramm talks about the edges he has gained as a computer bettor. Las Vegas oddsmaker Paul Zilm handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.