It is hard to imagine Oklahoma City being a stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby. But it worked out that way last year for Steve Asmussen. Sort of.
The Hall of Fame trainer sent maiden winner Combatant into the Springboard Mile, saw him bet up to a 2-1 favorite, and then watched him come up short, finishing second to Greyvitos.
Nevertheless, Combatant used the Springboard as – here it comes – a springboard. He was the only horse from last year’s race that made it to the Derby.
Fast-forward to this weekend, when Asmussen tries again – and then some. He will saddle five of the 11 horses in the $400,000 Springboard Mile on Sunday at 8:52 p.m. EST at Remington Park. It is the last of the 2-year-old points preps for the 2019 Kentucky Derby; the rest will come next year when this crop turns 3.
Although Asmussen will attack the race with numbers, only one of his five is expected to get much action at the betting window. Bankit (3-1), the second choice on the morning line, comes back from a 5¾-length victory in the $250,000 Sleepy Hollow Stakes. That was a one-turn mile for New York-breds nearly two months ago at Belmont Park.
The colt by Central Banker out of a Colonel John broodmare got the attention of Winchell Thoroughbreds last March, when he was bought for $260,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales in Florida. So with five races already to his credit including three black-type stakes, how is Bankit not the favorite?
Instead, it is another shipper – maiden winner Epic Dreamer (8-5) – that finds himself atop the morning line. Chalk it up to a big workout last Friday at Remington Park, where this son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Orb was clocked at 47 1/5 seconds over four furlongs. It was the fourth time this fall that Epic Dreamer fired a morning bullet. Kelly Breen trains him, and Javier Castellano flies in from the east coast to get what is expected to be a front-running ride.
But it has been seven weeks since Epic Dreamer broke his maiden with a two-turn, 8½-furlong victory at Belmont Park. Translation: There has to be some live value elsewhere in this race.
It is easy to believe that, starting from the rail, Epic Dreamer will not be alone on the lead, especially with speed horses Kaziranga (15-1) and Marquee Prince (10-1) breaking closest to him.
Six Shooter (8-1) has won twice for trainer Paul Holthus, who makes his fifth straight jockey change by calling on Alex Canchari. This Trappe Shot gelding backed into a victory last month when he was the beneficiary of a race being taken off the turf at Churchill Downs. The question now is whether that winning mile has any currency at Sunday’s higher class.
Tobacco Road (15-1) is one of the other Asmussens that will be in his third Derby prep, having finished fourth in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs and ninth in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Although this Quality Road colt has his fourth jockey in as many races, Ramón Vázquez and Asmussen have combined for 13 wins out of 35 races over the past two weeks. He is worth including on vertical bets.
But the real value may come from Dunph (10-1). Trained by Mike Maker and ridden by up-and-coming 22-year-old jockey Reylu Gutiérrez, this gelding by Temple City disappointed with a fade to ninth in last month’s Kentucky Jockey Club. But that race was on a sloppy track. Draw a line through that and consider only his first two races on fast tracks. Dunph won them by 8½ and 7¾ lengths, pulling away each time. Dunph is also 100-1 in the Derby futures at William Hill, the same odds as Epic Dreamer.
The way Derby prep points work, the Springboard Mile may be little more than a proving ground for second-level 2-year-olds. Let’s be real here. The likes of Game Winner do not mess around with these races that award only 10 points to the victor when there are more win-and-you’re-in preps for the big boys come March and April.
Still, that is all the more reason for horseplayers to look at races like these. Think about it. If Game Winner were to have shown up in Oklahoma, there probably would not be 11 horses in the field, and the real value would have vanished.
Racing notes and opinions
How is it that a 6-year-old gelding that has not won in more than 14 months is the favorite for the $200,000 Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale Stakes on Saturday at 5:06 p.m. EST at Gulfstream Park? Look no further than the name of the trainer and the surface on which they are racing. Chad Brown on turf. He trains Projected (4-1), loser of his last six, although he has hit the board in his last seven. But is there enough speed in this race to satisfy this closer? Maybe not. Todd Pletcher’s Man O’ War winner Hi Happy (9-2) is a pace chaser looking to bounce back from a ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Kiaran McLaughlin’s closer Qurbaan (5-1) won the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga but also gets his third jockey in as many U.S. races. Oh, back to that lack of speed. Glorious Empire (12-1) could get a loose lead breaking from the rail. He set the pace in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Turf only to run out of gas in the final turn against a tougher bunch of horses. This time, with jockey Edgar Prado replacing Julien Leparoux, he should benefit from a cut back in distance from 1½ miles to nine furlongs. And even though this is a decent field of 14 horses, Enable will not be coming out of that gate. Glorious Empire looks like the value play here.
The comeback continues for Audible (2-5), the odds-on favorite at Gulfstream Park in the $100,000 Grade 3 Awesome Again Stakes on Saturday at 2:01 p.m. EST. Shut down for six months because of an injury after finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt won a $200,000 seven-furlong stakes during Breeders’ Cup weekend. Of the other five horses in the field for this weekend’s 8½-furlong dirt race, only Sightforsoreeyes (8-1) has even been in a U.S. Grade 1 race. This one looks like an easy tune-up for Audible as he is prepared for next month’s $9 million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Ballots arrived Thursday for the Eclipse Awards, including the Horse of the Year – an impossibly tough choice between Triple Crown star Justify and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod takes up the discussion Friday with Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert. It continues on the podcast in two weeks with Elliott Walden and Kosta Hronis, the respective owners who saw Justify and Accelerate through their 2018 seasons. I do not yet know how I will vote, and I have until Jan. 2 to decide. Something tells me I will be using every day between now and then to fret over it.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert discussing his success this year with 2-year-olds. The Daily Racing Form’s Peter Thomas Fornatale talks about the evolution of turf handicapping and the upcoming Pegasus World Cup. Both Baffert and Fornatale also weigh in on the Horse of the Year debate between Justify and Accelerate. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “F.” The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.