The $1 million Delta Jackpot headlines the weekend stakes action, as two-year-olds vie for the 17 points (10 to the winner) up for grabs in one of the last Road to the Kentucky Derby races of the year.
Although no Jackpot winner has gone on to wear the roses in the 12-year history of the event (it debuted in 2002, but was not run in 2005 due to Hurricane Rita), Jackpot champions have found success in other big races.
The 2008 winner, Big Drama, went on to capture the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, while the 2012 champ, Goldencents, became a two-time winner of the BC Mile and arguably put that event on the map. (Previous champions had been somewhat ho-hum — remember Albertus Maximus? Yeah, neither do I.)
On my weekly podcast, I talked to Delta Downs track announcer and handicapper Don Stevens about the peculiarities of Delta Downs and “bullring” tracks in general.
“With the Jackpot, it’s a mile and a sixteenth — so we use every bit of the front-side chute and it’s exactly a three-furlong run into the first turn,” Stevens told me. “That gives horses a long time to get into position.”
As a result, although the early fractions are quicker (see chart below), every running style seems to get a fair shake — contrary to what many believe in regard to tracks less than a mile in circumference (the definition of a “bullring”).
Stevens made Sunny Ridge his top choice (at least at press time), but I’m leaning in the direction of Found Money.
In his last start, the Doug O’Neil trainee sat slightly off the pace — something he’d never done before — and dueled throughout the seven-furlong journey, eventually succumbing to Smokey Image, who is a perfect 5-for-5 this year in the Golden State.
Given the kind of horses that typically perform well in the Delta Jackpot — horses with superior tactical speed — I think O’Neill has chosen the perfect spot for the son of Square Eddie. Found Money has great early foot and has shown enough grit and determination late to make me believe he’ll be able to hold off the closers in the Delta Downs stretch.
While the Delta Jackpot looks relatively wide open, the Delta Princess does not. Quite frankly, trainer Steve Asmussen’s La Appasionata looks like a superstar in the making. After earning a 90 Brisnet speed figure — the Princess par is an 88 — in her career debut at Chruchill Downs, the daughter of Bernardini showed she can handle the Delta Downs strip by matching that number while winning the My Trusty Cat Stakes on Oct. 23.
“It looked like she was just toying with them,” Stevens said.
Among La Appassionata’s more interesting rivals on Saturday is Learning Curve. Although she’s still a maiden, the daughter of Super Saver exits a very fast race at Keeneland where she finished fourth, a nose back of the highly-regarded Moonlight Sky.
Derek Simon can be reached at email@example.com.