By Ed McNamara
I always look forward to the Keeneland fall meeting, which begins Friday and runs through Oct. 30. Like its April counterpart, it lives up to the track’s slogan, “Racing As It Was Meant To Be.” The spring meet reminds you the Triple Crown and summer are just down the road. What the autumn meet offers is different and, to me, even more enjoyable.
I’ve always thought the best time to handicap was from Labor Day through the Breeders’ Cup. The form of most horses has been revealed, making it easier to judge class, stamina and adaptability to surfaces. Isolating contenders and figuring out how to bet them never is simple, but at least you’ve got plenty of information.
Of course, that can be too much of a good thing, and data overload peaks while trying to handicap 14 Breeders’ Cup races, with 100-plus horses coming from everywhere. The run-up to the world championships on Nov. 5 and 6 at Del Mar can be a valuable study guide for the final exams, and this weekend is the last with multiple preps.
There are two “Win and You’re In” races at Keeneland on Friday (Alcibiades, Phoenix), and four more Saturday (Turf Mile, Breeders’ Futurity, First Lady, Thoroughbred Club of America). Let’s do some homework and try to smoke out a few winners on opening day of Fall Stars Weekend.
Unfortunately, lots of rain was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday in the Lexington area, with the possibility of more Friday, so maybe this wide-open race will be switched to the main track. If so, I won’t be playing it, but if it stays on the grass, I’ll be focusing on horses with form on wet courses.
I’m going with Dynadrive (2), who ran well on a good course last winter at the Fair Grounds. The Mike Maker-trained gelding was third by only a length behind multiple-stakes winner Pixelate, and Dynadrive was checked early and wide most of the way. Ignore his no-show last time in a Grade 2 at Kentucky Downs at 1 1/2 miles, which was too far for him.
Likely favorite Kentucky Ghost (10) has been second twice over wet turf, but post 10 could be a problem. Fighting Seabee (11) has a win and a second over good turf at Keeneland, and he’ll be a solid price.
The classy Special Reserve (6) is 4-for-6 with two seconds this year and can lead or come from just off the pace. The two defeats were by a half-length in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt at Saratoga and by a length and a quarter against the very tough Flagstaff in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Commonwealth. He’s also 2-for-5 on off tracks.
Aloha West (5) is on the upswing and always finishes well. Quick Tempo (1) ran second to Special Reserve in a stakes at Prairie Meadows.
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of early speed in this battle for a free spot in the Juvenile Fillies. Brad Cox’s Juju’s Map (1) looked terrific breaking her maiden by 5 3/4 lengths at Ellis Park, and she’ll probably be gunning from the rail. Maybe she can lead throughout at a short price, or maybe stablemate Matareya (7), Dream Lith (4), Penny Saver (10) or Runup (12) will pressure her and tire her out.
I think this might be a good spot for a closer, and I’m interested in Chad Brown’s second-time starter, Distinctlypossible. She ran well in her 6-furlong debut, rallying for second, a half-length behind Gerrymander. That filly just ran very well behind Juvenile Fillies favorite Echo Zulu, who Gerrymander made run hard to the top of the stretch. Echo Zulu took off to take the Grade 1 Frizette by 7 1/2 lengths, but Gerrymander was three clear of the third horse.
Distinctlypossible hasn’t won yet, but two turns should be more to her liking than sprints. Her pedigree, by Curlin out of a Medaglia d’Oro mare, says distance, and maybe it will overcome her lack of experience.
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.