By Noel Michaels
It’s a short but sweet 12-day racing meet at Churchill Downs, with Saturday’s 11-race card including the first points-qualifying races for the 2022 Kentucky Derby and Oaks and a few Breeders’ Cup tune-up races for top horses including Shedaresthedevil.
There’s no turf racing since a new $10 million surface is being installed, so it’s all dirt all the time Thursdays through Sundays until Oct. 3.
The short meet bridges the gap until the start of the Keeneland meet, where many top contenders will have their final preps for the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 5-6. At Churchill, though, multiple Grade 1 winner Shedaresthedevil runs Saturday in the Locust Grove (3), and Sconsin and Bell’s the One are in the ungraded Open Mind.
On Oct. 2 at Churchill, Horse of the Year contender Knicks Go is scheduled to run in the Lukas Classic (G2) in a final prep for the BC Classic (G1).
Saturday’s Iroquois (G3) for 2-year-olds and Pocahontas (G3) for 2-year-old fillies opens the road to the Derby and the Oaks, with the top four finishers in each receiving 10-4-2-1 qualifying points for their respective races. Plus, each race is a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” for the BC Juvenile (G1) and BC Juvenile Fillies (G1).
Churchill Downs has five stakes on the card – nearly half of the 11 scheduled for the entire meet. Here’s a closer look at how the races shape up (Remember: post time for the first race is 6 p.m. ET):
Race 8 (post time 9:39 p.m.) kicks off the graded stakes action with 11 fillies entered in the first two-turn race for much of the field. Perhaps the most accomplished horse in the field is #4 Ontheonesandtwos, who ran second in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill at 6 furlongs in June before finishing second in Saratoga’s Adirondack (G2) last month for trainer Norm Casse. The Pocahontas will be her first outing beyond 6 ½ furlongs, and she will need to improve off that last stunning disappointment when she lost the Adirondack as the 2-1 favorite. The horse with the biggest speed figure is #9 Hidden Connection for trainer Bret Calhoun. She won a Colonial Downs maiden race at first asking at 5 ½ furlongs by seven lengths with an 84 Beyer speed figure. She will be tough to beat if able to handle the route distance, as will #2 Goddess of Fire, trained by Todd Pletcher. This filly invades off a career debut Saratoga maiden win at 6 ½ furlongs where she wore down a pair of early leaders. She should love the added distance. The field’s lone two-time winner, #11 Joyrunner for trainer Laura Wohlers, also deserves a look at what will likely be value odds after going 2-for-2 at Indiana Grand to start her career.
The Play: Pletcher is here for a reason, not for the season, so bet #2 Goddess of Fire to win and box her in exactas with #9 Hidden Connection and #11 Joyrunner.
The Road to the Derby officially begins with this race, which is also a Breeders’ Cup win and you’re in for the BC Juvenile, so you know that there will be some promising 2-year-olds in the 11-horse field. The two best prospects are a pair of Saratoga maiden winners, #6 Stellar Tap, trained by Steve Asmussen, and #8 Major General, trained by Todd Pletcher. The latter looked good graduating when out-gaming Bourbon Heist, who is entered back in this field as the No. 11. Stellar Tap, meanwhile, won his first start by 5 ¼ lengths over another Pletcher juvenile, Keepcalmcarryon, who came back to break his maiden at 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga in his next start. The only two-time winner in this field is the speedy #3 Roger McQueen, trained by Larry Rivelli, who is known for sending almost every one of his starters to the front. Roger McQueen won back-to-back Ellis Park races wire-to-wire including the Ellis Park Juvenile at 7 furlongs, and the impressive thing about both races is that he didn’t get it all his own was up front either time. He outdueled his rivals into submission. Can he do it again? Unfortunately, that’s unlikely as the distance today stretches to 1 1/16 miles around two turns.
The Play: Bet #6 Stellar Tap to win and box him in exactas with #8 Major General.
The Locust Grove has drawn a seven-horse field and is notable because of its favorite, #7 Shedaresthedevil, who will get in her final Breeders’ Cup prep for the Distaff for trainer Brad Cox. It’s intriguing for handicappers to try to knock off favorites in races like this, but that might be a fruitless endeavor in the case of Shedaresthedevil, who is a Churchill Downs horse for the course with a 4-for-4 record at the track including Grade 1 wins in last year’s Kentucky Oaks and this year’s La Troienne. Since then, she’s added a win in Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch (G1) after a loss to the division leader, Letruska, two races ago in Belmont’s Ogden Phipps (G1). If there is a potential upsetter, it is probably going to be #5 Envoutante, trained by Ken McPeek. She also is a Churchill horse for the course with a 3-1-1 record in five prior outings there capable of posting 100 Beyer speed figures. Envoutante came up short in prior head-to-head matchups against Shedaresthedevil but didn’t miss by much when beaten a length in the La Troienne in April. A pair of others who could squeak into the trifectas in the Locust Grove are #1 Crystal Ball, who finished a close third at Saratoga last time in the Shuvee (G3) when she finished a head behind Horologist, who came back to win the Beldame (G1) in her next start, and #6 Our Super Freak, who has been knocking on the door in graded stakes this year with a second in Oaklawn’s Bayakoa (G3), a third in Belmont’s Ruffian (G2), and a third last time in Monmouth’s Molly Pitcher (G3).
The Play: Key #7 Shedaresthedevil in trifectas over #1 Crystal Ball, #5 Envoutante, and #6 Our Super Freak.
There are two other ungraded yet rich stakes on the Saturday, most notably race 3, the $300,000 Open Mind which has drawn only a five-horse field but will feature a showdown between tough female sprinters #2 Sconsin and #5 Bell’s the One, with the advantage going to Bell’s the One.
The other stakes race is the first running of the $275,000 Louisville Thoroughbred Society for sprinters at 6 furlongs. #5 Bango, who comes in on a three stakes race winning streak, will face a tough challenge from #3 Just Might, who also comes in off three straight stakes victories.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.