The final weekend of Churchill Downs’ fall meet traditionally draws fans’ attention for the Clark Handicap on Black Friday, where some of the best older males usually clash, but also for the meet’s final Saturday card, which offers a look ahead to the following year’s first Saturday in May.
Churchill’s Stars of Tomorrow II card features fields of 2-year-olds in every race, and the marquee event of the day is the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race for juveniles that annually brings together horses whose connections feel they have the potential to perhaps return to Louisville next year and compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
In 2009, Super Saver won the Kentucky Jockey Club and went on to capture the roses on Derby day the next spring.
The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes offers 10 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby for the winner, four to the runner-up, two to the third-place finisher, and one point to the fourth-place finisher. This year’s renewal drew a dozen well-matched 2-year-olds, with an undeniable buzz horse in McCraken (#11) very likely to take the most wagering support by post time.
McCraken is 2-for-2 under the Twin Spires and pulled away impressively to win both contests. The Janis Whitham homebred scored first out in a 6 ½-furlong maiden race on Oct. 2 and then stretched out to a mile with ease in the Street Sense Stakes on Oct. 30 to kick off the current fall meet, winning by 3 ¾ lengths. A son of 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper out of a stakes-placed Seeking the Gold mare, McCraken should have little trouble navigating two turns for the first time and is a deserving favorite.
However, I think that two horses who competed in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Keeneland on Oct. 20 have strong potential to score an upset in the Kentucky Jockey Club. Total Tap (#2) finished fourth in the Keeneland race as the 1.90-to-1 favorite, but only lost by three-quarters of a length to the Mark Casse-trained Thirstforlife after stalking that horse's pace throughout. Prior to that race, he won a one-mile turf race in his career debut at Churchill by 7 ¼ lengths.
Total Tap is owned and bred by Winchell Thoroughbreds and trained by Steve Asmussen, who have teamed up with several quality racehorses in recent years, led by champion Untapable. He has been working steadily but not aggressively up to the Kentucky Jockey Club, an Asmussen trademark, and he is by one of my favorite route sires, the great Candy Ride. Total Tap is eligible to improve in his third start and rates a shot at the upset.
Another intriguing horse from the same Keeneland allowance race is Just Move On (#6). He finished second by a neck at 12-1 odds in that race, his fourth career start, after making a nice closing rush. Next, Just Move On returned to face 10 horses in a 1 1/16-mile allowance at Churchill on Nov. 10 – the same track and distance as the Kentucky Jockey Club. Paired up with up-and-coming young jockey Declan Cannon for the first time, he drew clear in the stretch after a stalking trip to win by 2 ½ lengths.
Just Move On is by promising young sire Street Boss, who was a sprinter but has sired Grade 1-winning middle-distance horses such as Cathryn Sophia and Danza. His connections, owners Chuck and Maribeth Sandford and trainer Patrick Byrne, interestingly have entered another horse in the Kentucky Jockey Club in Silent Decree (#4), but I think that Just Move On may have found his stride in his last two races.
Total Tap and Just Move On have shown the ability in the first races of their young careers to rate close to the pace and then make a powerful move to take command in early stretch. McCraken likewise has exhibited a very professional running style at a young age. Slotted outside in post 11, he should face heated pressure to get involved early from Uncontested (#12), drawn on the far outside. Uncontested, a Tiz Wonderful colt trained by Wayne Catalano, won his only career start to date by six lengths in a 6 ½-furlong maiden race at Keeneland and was geared down late. He owns the highest Equibase Speed Figure in the Kentucky Jockey Club, scoring a 102 (McCraken posted a 100 in the Street Sense).
If Total Tap and Just Move On are able to settle into good stalking trips behind speed horses Uncontested, Warrior’s Club (#9), and Shareholder Value (#7), they should be right there along with McCraken to fight it out in the stretch.
Strategy on a $20 budget
$8 win on Just Move On ($8)
$2 exacta box: Total Tap, Just Move On, McCraken ($12)