The feature race this week is Saturday's $500,000, Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders Futurity at Keeneland Race Course. This a “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series race for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile next month at Santa Anita Park. The biggest thing to keep in mind when handicapping these juvenile stakes races is that the young horses that are competing are constantly maturing as they train, and learning from race to race. The Breeders’ Futurity features a 10-horse field, and many of the starters will be trying something new on Saturday, whether it be adding distance, moving up in class, or facing winners for the first time. Those handicapping factors will be addressed in this “Five Questions” as we look at the contenders and measure how they are coming into the race and maturing as they move forward towards the Breeders’ Cup.
1. “Only 2 of the 10 runners have gone two turns…What are things you look for in horses one-turn races that might indicate success going two turns? – @BeemieAwards (Jason B.)
One of the best indicators is watching the horses race and looking at how they travel, carry themselves and finish races. Most commonly, horseplayers will see a horse closing late or galloping out strongly and key off of that as an indicator that he needs more ground. For example, going back and looking at the closing finish of #6 Maxfield in his debut is something that could be a trap in terms of handicapping for distance. In that one-turn mile maiden at Churchill Downs, Maxfield was moving from off the pace and closing ground to get the win. It was a solid effort, and overall there’s really nothing to knock his performance, as he looks to have ability off that run. However, he showed signs that suggest he could be closer to the pace going two turns, and therefore could find the two-turn, 1 1/16-mile distance of the Breeders’ Futurity a tall task, especially since this is only his second start. Gallop-outs also need to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and in Maxfield’s maiden win, he didn’t gallop out much out after the wire.
The ability to handle two turns often can present itself in a horse that was forwardly placed in a sprint – one who perhaps showed some early speed but got outrun late, or one who was pushed to keep up early when racing at that shorter distance. An example of that is #3 Life On the Road. Granted, he will be tested coming off of a recent maiden win at Ellis Park, but he has characteristics of a horse that will be able to carry his speed and find himself suited to that forwardly placed style going two turns. In his maiden win, he was able to find early position without making the lead and then he relaxed behind horses while waiting for his cue. His finish was not terribly strong, but considering that he had to run fast early – faster than he will likely be running in Saturday’s two-turn race – that style can boost his finishing punch going longer.
2. “Ajaaweed is coming off a solid maiden win, can he step up to stakes company?”
#8 Ajaaweed comes into the Breeders’ Futurity lightly raced as he is just making his third career start, and he’ll be taking on winners for the first time this afternoon. He showed good ability in his debut back in August at Saratoga, but he was a bit green and overall seemed to need the race. In many ways, his debut proved to beneficial as he was able to work out some kinks, like the lack of a lead change, that helped him in his second start on Sept. 11 at Belmont Park. Given some quality training by Kiaran McLaughlin, Ajaaweed looked very professional in this second start, breaking his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths. He smartly rated inside, moved up and then waited behind horses for room before finding a path and running on gamely to the wire. Physically, he is a well-built colt and one with some scope who should have not have any problems handling the two turns Saturday at Keeneland. He also presents himself as an improving type and one that should move forward off that maiden win, gaining both experience and confidence.
3. “(In terms of prepping for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) how about if Gouverneur Morris wins the Futurity?” – @Coinniss
Coming off a romping maiden debut score on Sept. 2, closing day at Saratoga, #10 Gouverneur Morris is one of the more interesting headliners in this field. The word was out, as they say, heading into that race and he left the starting gates at odds of 0.65-1. He did what was asked of him at Saratoga, given the sprint distance and the sloppy track. He seemed to handle the off going, although did not have to take any kickback in as he was able to track wide and clear in a favorable position. Upon receiving his cue, he moved up off the turn and closed fast to the wire, coasting late. He has the right running style and frame for a horse that can handle the stretch-out in the Breeders’ Futurity, coming off a win at 5 ½ furlongs. He earned one of the higher speed figures (I use OptixFig) in this field for that maiden win, and seems capable to pair – or even improve – that number Saturday. An impressive performance in the Breeders’ Futurity will certainly pique some interest and add his name to the favorites’ list for the TVG Juvenile alongside Dennis’ Moment and Eight Rings.
Two other speed figures worth noting come from two horses in the Breeders’ Futurity field that ran in the Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes held later on the closing day card at Saratoga. Those colts are #2 By Your Side and #7 American Butterfly. Both of them earned slightly lower OptixFig numbers than Gouverneur Morris. Comparing the pair to Gouverneur Morris is not exactly an apples-to-apples exercise, as By Your Side and American Butterfly raced at a longer distance (seven furlongs) in the Hopeful and Saratoga’s track had dried out a bit by the time the stakes race was run. Still, both of these runners have to improve off their efforts in the Hopeful (American Butterfly was fourth, By Your Side was fifth) to compete with Saturday’s group at Keeneland, and it does not seem that the added distance will help them on that front.
4. “Do the horses with two-turn experience have an advantage?”
This is a good follow-up to the above question from @BeemieAwards as it relates to #5 Enforceable and #9 January Won, the two runners in the Breeders’ Futurity who have two-turn route experience. For a horse like Enforceable the distance experience is an advantage, and one he really does need considering his running style. He has shown to be a bit of a grinder with good staying ability, and Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile distance will not be any question. As for January Won, he looks to benefit from his first start going two turns, which happened in his last race, the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs won by Dennis’ Moment. Although he finished a well-beaten sixth, the race should help him overall as he’s still lightly seasoned, making only his third career start. He was a little green in the Iroquois, coming off a maiden win at Saratoga, and he may have been affected by nearly a two-month layoff in addition to a tough outside post to navigate from. All things considered, he has the ability to move forward off that race and should gain experience from his first start at two turns.
Stretching out to two turns in the Breeders’ Futurity should be useful for #4 King Theo and #1 Tap It to Win. King Theo physically should be able to handle two turns, though class-wise he’ll be tested Saturday coming out of an August maiden win at Gulfstream Park. Tap It to Win, who like Enforceable is trained by Mark Casse, showed some real speed and class breaking his maiden back on Aug. 24 at Saratoga. A couple of his opponents improved out of that six-furlong event, and in terms of physicality he does not appear to have any strong knocks against him in terms of handling 1 1/16 miles. He also should be the likely pacesetter breaking from the rail on Saturday just as he did at Saratoga, given his natural early speed.
5. “Who will win the Claiborne Breeders Futurity?”
This is a competitive race, and as discussed above many horses in this field have a chance to improve and reach the winner’s circle. While it’s logical for him to be in this race, the presence of Gouverneur Morris should boost the betting value of some other contenders. I like what I have seen from Ajaaweed and expect him to move forward with the added distance. In terms of value, both Tap It to Win and Life On the Road are capable of stepping up in this spot off their recent maiden sprint wins. And, although he may be overlooked off of a sixth-place finish in the Iroquois, January Won could be much more competitive Saturday afternoon, with that recent start under his belt.
As always I welcome comments about this race (or any race, really), and welcome questions for future “Five Questions” articles. There is a lot of good racing this weekend at Keeneland (and all around the world) as the final group of “Win and You’re In” races are held and we look ahead to the Breeders’ Cup next month.
Follow me on Twitter at @EmilyOptixEQ.