Traditionally the first major Grade 1 race on the calendar for older dirt horses, quite often in recent years the Donn Handicap has served as an unofficial prep for U.S.-based runners looking to make the trip overseas for the Dubai World Cup. This year, 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice is looking to use this race as a springboard to glory on World Cup night in late March.
As the only Grade 1 winner on dirt in the race, Keen Ice is unmistakably the star attraction in this renewal of the Donn. The race also features the top two finishers out of each of the local preps, the Harlan’s Holiday and Hal’s Hope. Gulfstream Park’s leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, is represented by no fewer than three runners.
The Pace Projector is predicting a situation that benefits horses racing on or near the lead, which may work in favor of the two likely pacesetters, Valid and Financial Modeling.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Madefromlucky (5/1): This guy really started to come into his own during the latter half of 2015, winning the Peter Pan and West Virginia Derby in the aftermath of the Triple Crown trail. After a disappointing effort in the Pennsylvania Derby, he rebounded nicely in his final pair of starts last year, twice exceeding 120 on the speed figure scale with his runner-up finishes in the Discovery and Harlan’s Holiday. He’s naturally a closer, but he has shown the ability to stay within striking distance of the pace, as he did in the slop two back. We’re not sure that he’s a legitimate Grade 1 performer just yet, but, on the other hand, this isn’t the strongest Grade 1 event.
#2, Closing Bell (15/1): Here’s an intriguing entrant. After hinting at good things in his debut, Closing Bell stepped forwardly nicely in his second start when switched to dirt, overcoming a wide trip to register a determined neck victory against what, at the time, felt like a strong field. However, following that race his connections sent him immediately back to turf and that’s where he spent the rest of his 2015 campaign. He made use of his ample stamina to excel at distances of a mile and a quarter and farther, earning a Grade 1-placing in the 10-furlong Secretariat. Now they’re taking another shot on dirt in a very ambitious spot to kick off his four-year-old season. We actually do see some indicators supporting the notion that this runner may indeed be better suited to dirt. Obviously the 103 speed figure he earned in that maiden win can’t get the job done here, but he’s clearly improved since then. The pace may work against his plodding running style, but we wouldn’t completely count this horse out at a big price.
#3, Mshawish (7/2): The other Grade 1 winner in the field earned his win at racing’s highest level on turf in last year’s Gulfstream Park Handicap. This year, he’s testing his mettle on dirt after solid showings in both the Cigar Mile and Hal’s Hope. He’s certainly a contender in this spot, but we do have some reservations. He’s never gone two turns on the main track and has never had to deal with a significant amount of kickback in his dirt races. His natural speed should place him relatively close to the early pace, but he’s going to have to improve slightly on his recent speed figures to take down the top prize.
#4, Valid (6/1): This horse is in a great position to use his tactical speed as a weapon in this race. Financial Modeling was ridden aggressively last time to take advantage of an apparent rail bias, but Valid is the only natural speedy type in this race. He has shown the ability to run hard for the entire duration of his races, no matter the distance. Nine furlongs proved to be no issue last summer when he powered away from a decent field in the Grade 3 Iselin at Monmouth. He’s coming into this race in excellent form, having earned speed figures of 123 and 125 while trading decisions with Todd Pletcher-trained runners in the Harlan’s Holiday and Hal’s Hope. Valid has always thrived on racing and has done some of his best work at Gulfstream Park. This is a great opportunity for him to finally earn a Grade 1 victory.
#5, Mexikoma (8/1): While he was visually impressive in the Sunshine Millions Classic, registering a 125 speed figure for his length and a half score over Mr. Jordan, this is a much tougher spot. (Note the race rating of 117 for that race compared to the preliminary rating of 127 for today’s event.) Mr. Jordan doesn’t really want to go nine furlongs, and no one else so much as lifted a hoof that day as the runner-up finished 12 lengths clear of the also-rans. Mexikoma has shown improved tactical speed in recent starts, which should help him here, but we get the feeling that he’s going to be overbet off his last effort.
#6, Keen Ice (5/2): His connections have made it clear that a win is not necessary for them to advance on to the Dubai World Cup next month. Keen Ice merely needs to put in his typical strong finish. That said, he remains the horse to beat in here. Whereas many of the others are making rare forays into Grade 1 company, Keen Ice has seen nothing but Grade 1 foes since last spring. During that time, he won the Travers with a field-high 130 speed figure, becoming the only horse to finish ahead of Horse of the Year American Pharoah during that one’s historic campaign. Neither the Breeders’ Cup Classic nor the Clark Handicap set up all that well for him, as both featured moderate paces. We do feel that he perhaps could have won the Clark had his new partner, Corey Lanerie, kept him a bit closer to the pace. That’s why we love this rider switch back to Javier Castellano, who is the one that orchestrated that upset in the Travers. He did so by getting Keen Ice into the race earlier so that he could use his stamina to wear down his rivals. We imagine he’ll try to pull off a similar feat as Keen Ice enters this race off a series of strong drills. All indications are that this horse is sitting on a big four-year-old season, but, knowing that there are more important targets down the road, we wouldn’t want to take too short of a price on him here.
#7, Itsaknockout (4/1): A disappointment on the Derby Trail last year, he returned with a strong effort on New Year’s Eve, easily besting a field of allowance runners over a mile while earning a competitive speed figure of 123. As was the case with Mexikoma, this is by far the toughest spot he’s ever tried, and we wonder if he’s going to attract more support than he really deserves, especially considering who trains him. There’s also the question of two turns, since he appeared to be tiring towards the end of his efforts at route distances last year.
#8, Financial Modeling (10/1): The December 19 card at Aqueduct featured a strong inside speed bias, and Financial Modeling was ridden to take advantage of it. His prior dirt efforts are not nearly good enough to compete with today’s foes. We respect Chad Brown, but it seems as if this one is biting off more than he can chew.
Keen Ice (#6) and Valid (#4) appear to be the two most likely winners, with the latter likely to offer better value of the two. Of the Pletcher trio, we slightly favor Madefromlucky (#1), who figures to go off at the best price, but we aren’t exactly enamored of any of them. We also cannot count out long shot Closing Bell (#2), who could sneak into the exacta at a big price. We’re going to go a little wider than we usually would on our exacta play, as we believe Closing Bell and Valid’s prices could merit this type of play.
WIN: #4 VALID at 5/1 or higher
WIN: #2 CLOSING BELL at 12/1 or higher
EXACTA: 2,4,6 with 1,2,4,6