The $400,000, Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Saturday at Churchill Downs is a very important race for 2-year-old males on the early Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and could give us a number of top horses to watch next spring as they begin their 3-year-old campaigns as it awards qualifying points for the 149th Derby next spring to the top five finishers on a 10-4-3-2-1 basis. Last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club winner, Smile Happy, went on to finish second in the 2022 Risen Star Stakes and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes before an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. 2021 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes runner-up Classic Causeway won both the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and ended up 11th in the Kentucky Derby, while last year’s third-place Jockey Club Stakes finisher White Abarrio won both the Holy Bull Stakes as well as the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa before finishing 16th in this year’s run for the roses.
This year’s group of nine aspiring stars doesn’t have a standout, per se, but does have a strong field starting with Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes runner-up Hayes Strike. Street Sense fifth-place finisher Red Route One was third in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity prior to that and may have a big say in the outcome, as might Breeders’ Futurity fourth-place finisher Instant Coffee. Then there’s Freedom Trail, who moves to dirt for the first time after winning the Awad Stakes on turf in only the second start of his career, after also winning in his debut. Similarly, Gigante won the Kitten’s Joy Stakes on grass in September before a 10th-place finish in the much tougher Grade 2 Castle & Key Bourbon Stakes last month. Curly Jack is another likely contender, having won the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Kentucky Jockey Club in September before finishing fifth of 10 in the Grade 1 FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance three weeks ago. Cyclone Mischief and Denington enter the race off maiden wins and hope to step up their game to this graded stakes level. Western Ghent rounds out the field after finishing last of 10 in the Street Sense.
Red Route One made his career debut running two turns on grass this past summer at Saratoga, which is no easy feat for a young colt. After a fifth-place finish in that race, Red Route One improved markedly to win by almost four lengths in September at Kentucky Downs, also on turf. Moving to dirt for the first time in the Breeders’ Futurity one month later, the colt broke 11th in a field of 14 horses and although wide on the far turn, he rallied for third while the top two had drawn off by seven lengths. That was a strong field, as winner Forte returned to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race Red Route One passed to run in the Street Sense Stakes one week earlier. However, that choice did not help as the track at Churchill came up sloppy, and the colt finished fifth of 10. Still, his effort in the Breeders’ Futurity resulted in a strong 94 Equibase Speed Figure which is tied for the best dirt figure in the field with Instant Coffee. Red Route One might be the horse to beat if he runs back to that effort. This is particularly true as jockey Tyler Gaffalione gets on for the first time and has won at a 25% clip when he rides for trainer Steve Asmussen over the past couple of years.
Freedom Trail sports the best last-race effort in this field, moving his record to a perfect two-for-two when winning the Awad Stakes four weeks ago with a 96 Equibase Speed Figure. That win, as well as his debut win one month earlier, came on turf, but the colt does have good breeding to suggest he can transfer his top form to dirt. Additionally, trainer John Terranova has won six times in 27 starts the past two years back-to-back, a pretty strong 22% win rate which suggests Freedom Trail can run well again. Given that this is only the third start of his career and that he improved off an 82 figure in his debut to 96 last out, if he continues to improve Freedom Trail has a big shot to win for the third time in three starts.
Instant Coffee finished on even terms, or very close to it, when fourth in the Breeders’ Futurity just inches behind third-place finisher Red Route One. That was his first attempt in a two-turn race following his debut win at seven furlongs at Saratoga one month earlier. Like others in this field, Instant Coffee is on a recognizable pattern of improvement, jumping from an 89 debut figure to 94 last month. As such, and since the Futurity produced next out Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Forte as well as the runner-up finisher in the Bob Hope Stakes last weekend, this colt should be considered strongly as a contender in this year’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
The rest of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes field, with their best Equibase Speed Figure, is Curly Jack (92), Cyclone Mischief (78), Denington (78), Gigante (81), Hayes Strike (77) and Western Ghent (70).
Red Route One