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From the Churchill present to Kentucky Derby futures

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Before the sun and moon set on the fall meet at Churchill Downs, some important races come this weekend. So does the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

From Thanksgiving leftovers to weekend main courses. The menu this holiday weekend is full of choices, especially here at the home office of racing at Churchill Downs.

Grade 1 Clark Stakes – Friday, 5:56 p.m. EST

Either Maxfield finally gets a Grade 1 victory, or Midnight Bourbon gets over his second-itis. That seems to be the storyline of Friday’s $750,000 feature that is the biggest race of the Churchill Downs fall meet – and really the biggest in America since the Breeders’ Cup.

Maxfield (6-5 morning line) was supposed to be in the conversation for Horse of the Year. He was 5-for-5 before he showed up at the Santa Anita Handicap. Then he lost there. And in the Whitney. And in the Woodward. So through trainer Brendan Walsh, Godolphin decided not to send him up against its 3-year-old champion-in-waiting Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Coincidence or not, Maxfield’s losses have come since he was taken off Lasix in order to be eligible for the big stakes in which he has raced. Or maybe it is just that he faced big-time competition in his losses, all Grade 1s. One of them was to Knicks Go.

Then there is the curious case of Midnight Bourbon (8-5), who has had more seconds than the 265-pound me at the Thanksgiving dinner table. It is hard to fathom trainer Steve Asmussen’s Preakness runner-up has more than $1 million in earnings despite having only the Grade 3 Lecomte on his résumé of stakes victories. He may get the easiest lead he has had as a 3-year-old.

To me, all this tells me to look for value elsewhere. I will turn to 4-year-old Happy Saver (8-1). He cuts back from two losses at 1¼ miles to Friday’s 1⅛, a distance at which he is 2-for-2 for Todd Pletcher. I like him to stalk the pace and redeem my win-place ticket for me.

After a rainy Thanksgiving in Louisville, the weather is forecast to be dry and 42 degrees for the Clark.

Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes – Saturday, 5:27 p.m. EST

If only they ran races on paper. Then Sandstone (8-5) would be singled on every multi-race ticket that includes this 10-4-2-1 points prep for the 2022 Kentucky Oaks.

After gate issues contributed to a losing debut, trainer Kenny McPeek’s Street Sense filly won her last two races by a combined 19 lengths. The maiden breaker might have been more impressive since Sandstone actually was in a serviceable field of eight. Not so in her 10-length victory on Halloween in the Rags to Riches over the same 8½ furlongs as Saturday’s race. She had only three rivals that day, so the result may be misleading.

If jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. and Sandstone do not have their way around the two turns Saturday, then trainer Brad Cox’s potential pacesetter Famed (2-1), an Uncle Mo filly, could break through. Or perhaps Yuugiri (3-1), who was a distant second in the Rags to Riches, takes the hint from Rodolph Brissett’s addition of blinkers and engages Sandstone more competitively this time.

All that seems like an attempt to talk myself into something. I will have my money on Sandstone. Let her prove to me that she is not all that and more.

Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes – Saturday, 5:56 p.m. EST

On a partly cloudy, 51-degree day at Churchill, this could be the most competitive stakes of the weekend.

Classic Causeway is a maiden winner who was third against strong competition last month in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity. Howling Time has won both his starts for Dale Romans. Tiz The Bomb is a three-time winner who makes the move from turf to dirt. Red Knobs hit the board in his last two starts over the same track they will use Saturday. Those four horses distinguished themselves with in-the-money stakes finishes on their past performances leading up to this 10-4-2-1 points prep for the Kentucky Derby.

If Classic Causeway (7-2) were to score for trainer Brian Lynch, he probably would lead the whole way. It helps his new jockey Joel Rosario that this Giant’s Causeway colt drew the rail, especially since the first turn comes quickly in 8½-furlong races at Churchill.

Howling Time (7-2), a $200,000 Not This Time colt, has carried a mid-pack style with jockey Joe Talamo. He was a 3¼-length winner last time out at Churchill in the Street Sense Stakes, a race that has been known to punch above its weight with McCraken, Improbable and King Fury among the winners in the last six years.

Tiz The Bomb (3-1), a $330,000 son of Hit It A Bomb, broke his maiden with a 14-length win in a race taken off the turf this summer at Ellis Park. He was then moved to the grass by McPeek, and he came from off the pace for gritty wins at Kentucky Downs and Keeneland. That led to the controversial Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Oh, gosh, not that again. Tiz The Bomb became a trivia answer. He was the “winner” for bettors despite finishing second to Modern Games, who raced for purse money only after a rogue veterinarian scratched him from the mutuels for no good reason. McPeek will be looking to see if the rising numbers Tiz The Bomb has produced on the turf will translate Saturday to the dirt.

Red Knobs (15-1) is a deep closer who rallied to finish third at Churchill in both the Iroquois and the Street Sense after breaking his maiden in an off-the-turf race in August at Ellis Park. With Ricardo Santana Jr. riding, the Union Rags colt gives Romans a one-two punch to go with Howling Time.

Of the horses who have yet to hit the board in stakes, Mannix (20-1) intrigues me as yet another deep closer. Now in Mark Casse’s stable, this colt by the Galileo stallion Australia won his U.S. debut on the new synthetic track at Gulfstream Park last month. Before that he was third in his three starts in Ireland for trainer Fozzy Stack. The triumphant rivals in Mannix’s first two starts have found the winner’s enclosure since. Stuck in post 14 on Saturday, Mannix will have ground to make up, but he is used to doing that. If he were to find the winner’s circle, here is hoping someone breaks out that great Lalo Schifrin theme song from the TV series for which he was named.

Frankly, though, lone speed belonging to a rail horse looks too good here. I will key Classic Causeway in tickets with Howling Time and Tiz The Bomb – and with Red Knobs and Mannix deeper in exotics.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager – Thursday, noon, to Sunday, 6 p.m. EST

Las Vegas bettors will not waste their money on this, especially since it is not available in Nevada. (See the last paragraph of this column.) They might waste their time scoffing, since that is something that is readily available in Nevada.

I, too, was one of the scoffers. Sort of like I was before I figured out how to bet on preseason football. Mark Midland, my boss at Horse Racing Nation and one of the creators 23 years ago of the KDFW, convinced me that the Churchill pari-mutuels are not only a good bet, but the “all other 2-year-olds” option might be the best play.

It is an option that, with the excommunicated Bob Baffert horses Corniche and Messier included, might end up as short as 4-5 by closing time Sunday. So what possible carrot can that be at the end of the stick?

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” Mark said on my racing podcast this week, “because most people look at a 4-5 shot or a 6-5 shot on the surface and say, ‘Well, I’ll only kind of double my money.’”

Midland explained this is all about Dutching.

“In the 2021 future wager, if you bet $10,000 on the ‘all others’ at $1.30 (to one), you would actually have $10,000 bet to win $23,000. And so you would have $13,000 sort of spread. You’re trying to basically lock in almost like fixed odds, or you’re essentially trying to Dutch the race and lock in a profit or guaranteed money.”

History backs Midland’s strategy. Last year, for instance, only five of the 22 individual horses named in the first pool made it to the gate in the Derby. Essential Quality was the best of them, and he finished fourth as the favorite. Medina Spirit cashed as one of the 14 “all others.”

It is not so much a case of having one horse at 4-5 but 14 of them. The individuals left to fill the other spots present options for hedging in the five months between November and May.

“In your bet hypothetically of $10,000 to win $23,000, you still have $13,000 left to play with. So as you go into those later pools, maybe some of these favorites that you’re concerned about, like an Essential Quality, maybe you’ll come in, bet a few bucks at 7-1 or 5-1 or go to Vegas and get him at 9-2.”

Mark admitted this is not for everyone. A $2 bettor will find no appeal in locking up a pile of money for more than five months. But for those who poo-poo the KDFW, he provided food for some wagering thought. Especially for the moneyed horseplayer.

Time marches on. And on. And on.

Friday marks 113 days since Gov. Phil Murphy signed fixed-odds horse wagering into law in New Jersey, yet there is still no fixed-odds horse wagering. Friday also marks 761 days since Nevada and Churchill Downs stopped doing business with one another. Carry on.

And happy Thanksgiving.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted 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 analysis of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager with Horse Racing Nation and Derby Wars CEO Mark Midland. Trainer Brian Lynch discusses his 2-year-old Derby prospect Classic Causeway, who is racing in Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Las Vegas handicapper Richard Eng offers his picks for graded stakes being run this holiday weekend. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

 

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