On Saturday, races in California, New York and Florida will be run for Road-to-the-Kentucky-Derby points. The winners of each race will be awarded ten points in the fifth year of the newest qualification system that awards a gate to three year olds in the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Second-place finishers will garner four points, while third-place finishers secure two points. Horses that finish fourth will each receive one point.
The Grade III Robert B. Lewis will be run at Santa Anita for the eleventh time since the race was renamed for the late horseman best known for being the owner (with his wife Beverly) of Timber Country, Serena’s Song, Silver Charm, and Charismatic. Run at 1-1/16 mile on the Santa Anita dirt, the Grade III route was known as the Santa Catalina Stakes from 1935 until it was renamed for Lewis after his death in 2006.
The Grade III Withers Stakes has been run every year since 1874 — with the exception of 1911, 1912, and 2011 — and is named after owner/breeder David Dunham Withers. Currently run at Aqueduct, the race was contested at one mile until 2012, when the current distance of 1-1/16 mile was adopted.
The Grade II Holy Bull, run at Gulfstream Park at 1-1/16 miles is named after the phenomenal son of Great Above, who, in 1994, won the Florida Derby, the Bluegrass Stakes, the Met Mile, the Haskell Invitational Handicap and the Travers Stakes, among other big races that year. The Holy Bull was first run in 1995 and replaced the old Preview Stakes at Gulfstream.
With the Robert Lewis scheduled for post at 4:00 pm ET, followed by the Withers at approximately 4:20 pm ET and the Holy Bull going off a little over an hour later, there’s an opportunity to watch and wager on three Kentucky Derby Prep races in a short span of time.
Here are my $20 suggested plays on each race:
Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3)
Once again, this race did not attract many West Coast three-year-old colts, with five scheduled to go to the gate. Trainer Doug O’Neill saddles three of the five entries, looking for his third Lewis win (2012 with I’ll Have Another and 2007 with Great Hunter). Bob Baffert is not represented in this year’s race, even though the trainer has won three of the last four editions of this race (with Mor Spirit, Dortmund and Flashback).
While O’Neill’s 3-DANGERFIELD may be the post-time favorite, I prefer Jerry Hollendorfer’s 5-SHEER FLATTERY to win this edition of the Bob Lewis.
The pace projection is easy to see, as the first three horses closest to the rail should get out front, with 1-ROYAL MO leading the way ahead of 2-IRAP and Dangerfield. Sheer Flattery should stalk the pace, ahead of 4-TERM OF ART, who has very little gate speed and saves his best running for later.
Royal Mo should lead the trio along the backstretch, with Dangerfield and Sheer Flattery making their move towards the top of the second turn.
What should be a decent stretch run with Dangerfield and Sheer Flattery will turn into a late romp, as jockey Mike Smith has already guided the chestnut colt by Flatter to victory at this track at this distance, while Kent Desormeaux is riding Dangerfield for the first time.
BET: $20 to win on 5.
Withers Stakes Grade (G3)
The field for the Withers is twice as deep as the Robert. B. Lewis, but unfortunately, there is a standout here, as 4-EL AREEB looks much the best on paper. Coming into this race, the gray Exchange Rate colt is the only stakes winner of the bunch, winning the Grade III Jerome on this track at nearly the same distance.
Only three other horses in the race have won above the maiden special weight level — 7-ALWAYS A SUSPECT, 8-SMALL BEAR and 9-SQUARE SHOOTER. Only Small Bear and Square shooter are coming in off of a two-race win streak, while El Areeb has won three in a row.
El Areeb should get out early, and the horse race will be much like a boat race — the leader getting out front, with no one able to pass and scoring a wire-to-wire victory.
Joining El Areeb near the front should be 5-BONUS POINTS and Always a Suspect and Square Shooter.
Bonus Points finished second behind El Areeb in the Jerome and looks to be able to do the same here. He should start the race about mid-pack, but will have plenty of opportunity to save ground since the horse to his left will be on the engine, and the former looks to have a clear shot to get to the rail early.
Having finished second in a graded stakes, as well as a $100,000 non-graded stakes race two back, Bonus Points is my second-choice.
BETS: $8 exacta 4-5, $4 exacta 5-4 and a $1 trifecta 4-all-5 ($8 bet).
Holy Bull Stakes (G2)
Nine will line up to try the 2017 Holy Bull, but none will be watched as closely as last year’s Champion two-year-old colt (2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ) 3-CLASSIC EMPIRE.
This horse is the “real deal” and I don’t think he loses a race until June at the earliest. Yes, that means I think he wins here, the Fountain of Youth, the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
His speed figures are so much the best in this race, that the only two questions are:
- How will the 91 day layoff affect him?
- Have any of the other entrants gotten close to where he was last November?
The answer to the first question may not even be a negative, as he should have gotten better as he’s matured.
The answer to the second question is a little more debatable and the best part is we’ll find out soon enough.
There will be no upset here and the odds on Classic Empire will be very prohibitive. In order to make some profit on the $20 play, we’ll have to separate the contenders for the second two finishing positions.
On paper, the second-best horse is 1-GUNNEVERA, who has a lot going for him — he has a top-tier jock, a great post and has two graded stakes victories on his resume. The only downside is that when he faced Classic Empire in October at Keeneland, he finished fifth, well back from the favorite.
Gunnevera has no real gate speed, but Javier Castellano should be able to save plenty of ground from the no. 1 post. The Dialed In colt has won at this distance and has finished in the exacta two out of three times on the Gulfstream dirt in six career races. Look for him to be charging hard at the wire.
6-FACT FINDING has gate speed, a top-tier jock, is trained by Todd Pletcher, has never lost in his career and won a stakes race at this track his last time out. Although he won’t be able to overtake Classic Empire, look for this one to cruise right along at the front of the line of horses, staying right behind the race winner throughout.
My longest shot to play in the Holy Bull is 7-SHAMSAAN. Yes, he broke his maiden last out (a $36k MSW race here last December), so he’s not as classy as others. And, yes, he’s alternated between turf routes and dirt routes (races that were taken off the turf). But, he’s never run a race less than 8 ½ furlongs in distance and the change to jockey Luis Saez was the difference between winning by 9 ¾ lengths last out against finishing sixth, beaten 5 ¼ lengths two back.
Saez is back in the saddle and this Bernardini colt out of a Dynaformer mare just may be overlooked at the betting window.
In order to make some money off $20 with a surefire favorite winning, we need a price — and Shamsaan is the horse that I prefer to take a shot with.
BETS: $4 exacta 3 with 1,6 ($8) and $2 trifecta 3-1,6,7-1,6,7 ($12).