Kentucky Derby Day is full of traditions, one of which is the Turf Classic taking its place on the schedule as the lead-in for the run for the roses. As long as they’ve had a turf course at Churchill Downs, they’ve run the Turf Classic – though you may be surprised that it’s only been since 1987. Grass stars like Manila, Paradise Creek, Lure, English Channel, Wise Dan and Bricks and Mortar have shined on the winners’ roll call. Race 11 positions the Turf Classic among all the late-day multi-race wagers and a daily double roll into the Kentucky Derby.
COLONEL LIAM is a Grade 1 winner in 2021, while IVAR, DOMESTIC SPENDING and defending champ DIGITAL AGE were Grade 1 winners in 2020. All other starters in this race have won at the Grade 2 level. There is no fluff in this field.
SMOOTH LIKE STRAIT appears to be lone speed and should control a very modest tempo. Deep closers likely will be compromised by the slow tempo.
The 1-1/8 miles distance is key, necessitating a fitness beyond a mile and a sharpness more acute than the long-distance grass horses possess. Two factors in the recent results bear that out: 8 straight winners have finished 1st or 2nd in their most recent race (including 6 of the last 8 runners-up as well); and 4-year-old and 5-year-olds have won 5 in a row, as well as a 24-10 all-time edge over their elder brethren. You want horses in form now and in their primes of their careers.
COLONEL LIAM, SMOOTH LIKE STRAIT and RIDE A COMET are the only entrants exiting 1-2 finishes this year. DOMESTIC SPENDING does come off a win last November, but only 1 of the last 8 winners (Yoshida, 2018) was making his first start of the year like this. If you narrow it as simply as this position, you could make a strong case for COLONEL LIAM, SMOOTH LIKE STRAIT and RIDE A COMET.
COLONEL LIAM won the year’s premier turf event so far, Gulfstream’s Pegasus World Cup Turf, and won Fair Grounds’ best grass race in his follow-up. He’s 4, in form, and has championship connections in Todd Pletcher and Irad Ortiz Jr., who team up in the Derby with Florida Derby champ Known Agenda.
SMOOTH LIKE STRAIT has the aforementioned pace advantage, but it’s notable that Santa Anita shippers are just 1-for-33 in Derby Day grass races the past 8 years. Keep that in mind as well with late-running COUNT AGAIN, who will be compromised by the pace, but has been a sparkling closer this year when he fires.
RIDE A COMET, though 6, has made 15 starts and was as good as he’s ever been when second in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile last out at Keeneland to Raging Bull, who would stack up well with either of the Chad Brown trainees in this year’s Turf Classic field, namely DOMESTIC SPENDING and DIGITAL AGE. Both will be making their first starts of the year at potentially underlay prices. DIGITAL AGE has won a race on Derby Day 2 straight years, taking the American Turf at age 3 and this same event last year when held in September at age 4.
IVAR is a bit up and down, but his best was strong in Kentucky last Fall. Notable is his poor Churchill try last May off the long layoff. IVAR may be better-suited a race or 2 into his form cycle, but his best is quite good.
Most Certain Exotics Contender:
COLONEL LIAM fits what you’re looking for, is in peak form, and should be capable of staying in touch with the slow pace.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender:
MASTEROFFOXHOUNDS goes for trainer Richard Baltas, whose grass horses have been on point in California, including a victory in the Grade 3 San Francisco Mile last weekend at Golden Gate. Jockey Joel Rosario was a grass maestro at Keeneland last month.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll):
$50 exacta COLONEL LIAM over RIDE A COMET. $50 daily double COLONEL LIAM with KNOWN AGENDA.