By Ed McNamara
The slogan is “Racing as It Was Meant to Be,” and on a chilly April morning or a warm October afternoon, there’s no better place in the world for a racing fan. Even though none are there in the July heat, it’s comforting to see them running again at Keeneland.
Unfortunately, life in 2020 is far from “Existence as It Was Meant to Be,” and Keeneland’s spring meeting became a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. A month of the year’s best racing was wiped out, but some payback came this week, when the central Kentucky showplace is holding a five-day boutique meet featuring 10 graded stakes. Six will be run Saturday, including three Grade 1’s – the Ashland, Jenny Wiley and Madison – and the Grade 2 Blue Grass.
What Keeneland lacks in size, it more than makes up for in atmosphere – a limestone clubhouse, beautiful paddock and immaculate turf course. I’ve been there only twice, for the 1988 Blue Grass (when it was still run on Thursday, nine days before the Kentucky Derby) and the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. Of the 116 tracks I’ve visited, Keeneland is in the top five. Like Royal Ascot and Saratoga, it makes me want to watch every race whether I’ve bet on it or not.
As for last week …
Sometimes even when you’re right, you go wrong, which was the fate of my suggested pick 4 play last Saturday at Belmont Park. I spread, hoping to hit a couple of double-digit winners among 96 combinations on a $92 ticket based on a 50-cent base bet. As it turned out, I spread too much on a sequence in which an even-money favorite and two co-favorites won. Although I had all four winners – $11.80, $5.90, $6.30 and $4.20 – the return was only $64.37, for a loss of $27.63.
I still think that spreading, within reason, is the way to go on multiple-race wagers, especially when you can’t find a logical single. And dropping $27.63 is hardly a crushing defeat.
Onward. Even when it feels like there’s no future in the prediction business, you have to look ahead. Let’s see if we can turn a profit in an all-stakes pick 4 Saturday at Keeneland, which would be “Gambling as It Was Meant to Be.”
As usual, the Shakertown has a wide-open full field (14), with only a few automatic throw-outs. I’m spreading all over the place, using nine horses (a first for me) and hoping for a price. (How often you do that and watch the 2-1 favorite win, but let’s hope not.)
Wesley Ward’s Bound for Nowhere (8) is a must-use. He never has run badly in a turf sprint (two wins, two seconds) and shapes up as the most logical winner. He took this race two years ago and missed by a neck last year, but he had trouble at the start in his last three races, which is a big concern.
After much agonizing and eye strain I decided I couldn’t leave out Extravagant Kid (1), Wildman Jack (2), Real News (3), Just Might (5), Fast Boat (7), Texas Wedge (9), Totally Boss (10) or Leinster (13). May the biggest price win.
Venetian Harbor (2) could lead throughout, and many will single her in this Kentucky Oaks prep. Her only loss in three dirt races was last time out in Oaklawn’s Fantasy Stakes against rising star Swiss Skydiver, who an hour later will be heavily bet when she takes on the boys in the Blue Grass. Venetian Harbor led until the final furlong before Swiss Skydiver wore her down to win by 2½ lengths.
Fellow California shipper Speech (6) looks like Venetian Harbor’s most serious challenger. Speech is only 1-for-6 but was second in her last three to standouts Dona Veloce, Gamine and Swiss Skydiver. Speech’s narrow loss (neck) to Gamine jumps off the page, because in her next start Gamine crushed the Grade 1 Acorn by 18¾ lengths in a stakes-record 1:32.55 for a mile.
Just in case the top two get caught in a pace duel, I’ll throw in closer Bonny South (3), who doesn’t class up with them but is working brilliantly at Keeneland for the dangerous Brad Cox.
Rushing Fall (4), one of Chad Brown’s endless string of grass stars, is 9-for-12 on turf, 4-for-5 at Keeneland, and a logical single to repeat in the Jenny Wiley. I’m standing alone with Rushing Fall even though Juliet Foxtrot finished in front of her last year and Toinette upset her in a 2018 stakes. I don’t like either one in this spot.
Keeneland’s marquee race hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Strike the Gold in 1991, and don’t expect that to change this year. Only two in the field – the filly Swiss Skydiver (3) and deep closer Enforceable – have a graded-stakes win going two turns.
Shivaree, possibly the lone speed from the rail, is a tough sprinter but 0-for-3 beyond 7 furlongs. Swiss Skydiver will stalk him. Basin (0-for-3 this year) should be second or third and he’ll get bet more than he should off his distant second chasing Charlatan in the first division of the Arkansas Derby. That looks like a “somebody had to be second” result, and he beat underachiever Gouverneur Morris by only a neck. Basin’s main negative is losing ground in the stretch in all three of his route races. I’m leaving him out.
Besides likely underlay Swiss Skydiver, whom I’ll use defensively, I’m going with Rushie (10), coming off an even third, beaten four lengths, behind two of the top-rated 3-year-olds, Honor A.P. and Authentic. Another on the ticket is late bloomer Art Collector (3), making his dirt-stakes debut after winning three straight high-priced optional claimers by a total of 16¾ lengths.
Here are the numbers: 1,2,3,5,7,8,9,10,13 with 2,3,6 with 4 with 3,7,10, making it a $40.50 investment on a 50-cent base wager. And good luck.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.