One of the major questions hanging over this class of 3-year-olds heading into 2019 is whether or not last year’s champion, Game Winner, can reclaim his position atop the division. While he won’t be in action for another month, we will get a chance to retroactively assess the company he kept last season as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Knicks Go kicks off his sophomore campaign as the likely favorite in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Gunmetal Gray, whom Game Winner also vanquished, has not exactly flattered the Bob Baffert trainee in his two runs so far this year, and likewise Knicks Go will be looking to rebound from a disappointing effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
Knicks Go (#3) is clearly at his best when he is forwardly placed, but the TimeformUS Pace Projector indicates that he may not have an easy time of it on the front end. A fast pace is predicted to develop, as need-the-lead types Going for Gold (#2) and Five Star General (#7) figure to be gunning for the front. Well Defined (#9) should also be chasing from close range as he adds blinkers in an attempt to regain some of the speed that he showed last season. If the pace comes apart at all, horses such as Kentucky Wildcat (#6) and So Alive (#8) could be well positioned to capitalize.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, COUNTER OFFER (12-1): While he was only 1 1/2 lengths in arrears of So Alive when those two crossed the wire in a January optional-claiming race, the Pletcher runner is the one that most will prefer out of that contest. Counter Offer made what appeared to be a winning move at the quarter pole before flattening out in the stretch, as a resurgent So Alive drew away late. While Counter Offer has handled distances up to a mile on the turf, I’m not convinced that he really wants to go this far on the main track. This colt’s dam was a confirmed sprinter, and the way that he failed to seal the deal last time leads me to believe that a turnback in distance may be what he needs. Pass.
#2, GOING FOR GOLD (20-1): He’s fast enough to secure the early lead if that is the intent, and the addition of blinkers serves to make that objective fairly apparent. It’s hard to envision him hanging around until the finish, but he could have an impact on the outcome of this race, especially given that he is drawn one slot inside of Knicks Go. Pass.
#3, KNICKS GO (5-2): He vaulted himself into the position of a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby with his second-place finish behind Game Winner in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The connections of such horses are often tempted to swath their young thoroughbreds in bubble wrap for two months, unwilling to risk a blemish on their records before the real preps are run in February or March. However, Knicks Go’s team had other ideas, as they wheeled him right back just 22 days after the Breeders’ Cup to contest the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Quick turnarounds work for some horses and not others. The winner of the Jockey Club, Signalman, was coming off a similar break after following Knicks Go across the wire in the Breeders’ Cup, yet he showed no ill effects from the short turnaround.
There are some further excuses for Knicks Go’s poor performance beyond his schedule. It was his first time racing over a wet track, and he never appeared to be fully comfortable chasing the pace. Furthermore, he had to be hard-used out of the gate to attain a forward position after breaking from post 12 in a 14-horse field, since they bend into the clubhouse turn soon after the start going that distance at Churchill Downs.
One thing to be concerned about with this horse is his potential trip in this Sam F. Davis. Going for Gold is going to be sent to the lead inside of him, and horses such as Five Star General and Well Defined should be forwardly placed to his outside. Knicks Go’s major vulnerability thus far in his career has been his inability to win without a clear trip. Both of his victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, and he was able to sit right outside of one horse with no one in front of him when he ran so well in the Breeders’ Cup. The few times that he has been forced to rate behind other horses have resulted in his worst efforts. Perhaps he’s talented enough to overcome all of that, but I still want to see some confirmation of his big efforts as a 2-year-old. Somewhat vulnerable as the horse to beat.
#4, CAVE RUN (6-1): I thought this colt’s debut was quite encouraging, as he gradually advanced into contention on the far turn and pulled away with authority through the lane. Ranger Up, who finished second that day after a slow break, returned to validate his debut speed figure when he finished third behind future star Hidden Scroll in his next start. The only caveat hanging over Cave Run’s maiden victory is the fact that it was accomplished over a wet track. Fears that he might be a sloppy track specialist were heightened when he disappointed as the favorite next time out in the Pasco Stakes. He was never beating the breakout performance from Win Win Win, who ran off the screen and set a track record, but Cave Run was supposed to offer up more of a late kick. He struggled to pass some inferior runners while barely securing third in the late stages. The horse that we saw that day is going to struggle in a spot like this. So which version of Cave Run do we get? Those choosing to take a more optimistic view of his chances should at least be heartened by his pedigree. He is undoubtedly bred to handle added ground, as he is a half-brother to Kentucky Oaks runner-up Shook Up, and his second dam Sugar Shake was a Grade 1-winning router. Questions to answer, but a contender nonetheless.
#5, MOONSTER (30-1): Dale Romans is known to take shots in Derby preps. Sometimes they work out, as was the case with Everfast last week, but more often than not these horses are exposed as inferior. This colt has yet to run fast enough to be considered a serious contender in the race. Pass.
#6, KENTUCKY WILDCAT (9-2): As someone who attentively follows the New York circuit, I’ve been keenly watching this colt progress through his first few starts. There are plenty of valid excuses for his debut loss at Saratoga. He was competing over a track that was favoring rail runners and winner Code of Honor was allowed to set a very slow pace for the distance while racing down inside. He clearly benefited from that experience when he resurfaced in the fall at Belmont, running a much more professional race while stretching out to a route distance and getting Lasix for the first time. He dragged jockey Joe Bravo into a forward position soon after the start and raced keenly until the quarter pole, at which point he issued his challenge. Eventual winner King for a Day was able to turn him away, but this colt never gave up, battling on through the late stages to preserve third. That effort hinted at what was to come, and he put it all together in his third appearance on the Cigar Mile undercard. I liked everything that I saw out of him on this occasion. He rated kindly in the early stages, and took the race over coming to the top of the stretch. Country House came to him at the eighth pole, but Kentucky Wildcat gamely held that foe at bay through the final furlong and maintained his margin on the gallop-out.
It has been difficult to calculate accurate speed figures for each of Kentucky Wildcat’s last two starts, since timing issues in both of those races have prevented the publication of truly accurate clockings. (Note the ‘t’ next to the Race Rating in TimeformUS PPs.) That said, both the Beyer and TimeformUS Speed Figures are based on very good approximations of the actual times for those races. His Beyer figures suggest that he is nearly on par with Knicks Go, while his most recent 117 TimeformUS Speed Figure indicates that he is superior to the favorite. While that number may seem unreasonably high, horses have returned to run very well out of that Dec. 1 maiden event. The second- and fourth-place runners have both returned to win impressively, and seventh-place finisher Pulsate returned to finish a strong second with an improved speed figure. Kentucky Wildcat is bred to get this distance as a son of Tapit out of the classy mare Better Lucky, and I believe he will continue to progress with additional racing. The selection.
#7, FIVE STAR GENERAL (4-1): I suppose there is a valid case to be made for this horse, since he has won both of his starts since stretching out, earning a respectable 107 TimeformUS Speed Figure most recently. However, you will not find me arguing in his favor. Five Star General is going to attract support for the reasons just noted, and for the fact that top rider Jose Ortiz has deemed to keep the mount. Yet, I have not seen any indications that he is a legitimate Derby prospect. Both of his victories were earned in off-the-turf races against vastly inferior competition. He did run well within the context of that Central Park Stakes, opening up an advantage at the midway point before tiring. However, I strongly believe this colt’s future resides on the turf. He was entered for turf in each of his last two starts and his pedigree suggests that grass will ultimately be his preferred surface. His dam was versatile enough to do well on both surfaces, but the second generation of his female family is full of turf influences. His stride is long and marked by a high-knee action, which is often indicative of horses that will eventually prefer turf. I expect him to be used as part of the pace in this race, and I don’t think he’s equipped to overcome such a trip against a field of this quality. Pass.
#8, SO ALIVE (5-1): This half-brother to last year’s Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso will be attempting to follow the same path to the Kentucky Derby as his older stablemate. While he is a different physical specimen than Vino Rosso, So Alive appears to share many of the same character flaws that have plagued his brother throughout that one’s career. So Alive “runs in spots,” meaning that he does not always carry his momentum forward when competing. He’ll be eager and racing in the bridle at one moment, and under a full-out drive just a few strides later. This trait was best exemplified last time out when So Alive had looked to be traveling well up until the quarter pole, but seemingly came up empty once challenged. However, after idling for about an eighth of a mile, he found his best stride once again and pulled away for the victory. He was able to overcome those antics against inferior allowance rivals last time, but he will get buried if he continues to perform that way against graded stakes foes. Furthermore, I have not yet seen any indication that this horse is nearly as talented as Vino Rosso was at this time last year. His speed figures are comparatively slow, and he has yet to take a significant step forward in three starts. If he’s nearly as low as his 5-1 morning line, I want no part of him. An exotics possibility at best.
#9, WELL DEFINED (8-1): I wish he had shown some signs of life in the Mucho Macho Man last time. I can excuse his poor effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, since he had to ship out of town for the race and was meeting some of the best 2-year-olds in the country. However, last time he was running out of his own backyard and he still could not measure up to the competition. I’m starting to wonder if he was merely a precocious juvenile who excelled during the summer and has not progressed at the same rate as his peers since. Even if you’re willing to forgive both of those performances, it’s hard to envision him working out the right trip from this outside post position given the expected dynamics. Pass.
#10, STILL DREAMING (15-1): The sky is the limit for this half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, but they may be trying to get there a little too quickly. There was nothing wrong with his maiden win from a visual sense, as he had no problem handling the added ground and was striding out beautifully through the last eighth of a mile. However, the race was woefully slow and that speed figure is right in line with the other numbers earned by the weak competition he was beating. A class test of this magnitude seems like too much too soon. It’s all in his name.
I respect what Knicks Go (#3) accomplished last year, but I’m skeptical about whether he can carry that momentum forward into his 3-year-old season. I strongly prefer the trajectory of his main rival Kentucky Wildcat (#6), who has proven his class against strong maiden competition in New York and figures to work out the right trip. I don’t expect to get a price as generous as the 9-2 morning line on this one, but he would be fair value at odds as low as 5-2, in my opinion. Cave Run (#4) is a distant third choice for me, but I’ll elevate him slightly in exotics given the lack of appealing options among the rest of the field.
Exacta Key Box: 6 with 3,4
Trifecta: 6 with 3,4 with 1,3,4,7,8,9
Trifecta: 6 with 1,8 with 3,4