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Jeremy Plonk has worked in the racing industry professionally for 22 years and has been a statistical consultant to Keeneland, Del Mar and Oaklawn Park, as well as NBC Sports and ESPN. He has been a national racing columnist for ESPN.com and Daily Racing Form and is the owner of Horse Player NOW, creator of the Night School national fan education program. A former chart caller for Equibase, he continues to be a public handicapper in the Horse Player NOW BUZZ report.
Jeremy Plonk’s Keeneland Keys for Saturday, April 23
What to Watch for Today: The final Saturday of the Spring Meet (remember we end on a Friday next week) welcomes turf marathoners to the spotlight in the Grade 2 $250,000 Dixiana Elkhorn. Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens (5 mounts) and John Velazquez (3 mounts) will be prominent on the card as Javier Castellano travels to West Virginia for the Charles Town Classic and Luis Saez rides the weekend in New York.
Follow me on raceday two ways, either in the live podcast/chat at the Keeneland website (http://www.keeneland.com/racing/racing-live-coverage) – also available on your mobile devices – or on Twitter @Keeenelandracing, where I provide up-to-the-minute picks and analysis.
Weather: Mostly sunny skies and temps in the low 70s are in the forecast for what looks to be a dry and beautiful Saturday.
Keeneland Handicapping 101: Here we go race-by-race to help you unearth the trends. Most information is gleaned from the free Keeneland Handicapping database (http://apps.keeneland.com/awstats/Default.asp) that you can manipulate and search for yourself as well!
Starter allowance runners begin the action in Race 1. Nine of 10 STR ALW races on dirt the past 2 Springs have been won by horses 5-1 or less on the tote, so don’t reach too far outside the logical. Steel Cut appears a strong favorite and tough to beat. Also look for horses near the front as 7 of 8 dirt mile races at Keeneland have been won by horses within 3 lengths of the lead after the first half-mile. That, too, appears to be in Steel Cut’s court.
Claimers in the non-winners of 2 lifetime condition (N2L) match up in Race 2. These, too, have been very formful races at the Spring Meet with 4 of 6 won by favorites and little surprises. I expect a chalky start to this card and the early pick four, which opens here. Successful Runner is 4-5 in the morning line and looks the part. Owner Ken Ramsey led 2 into the Friday winner’s circle at Keeneland, which matched his win total for the first 10 days of the meet to that point.
Turf maidens square off in Races 3 and. Gulfstream preppers have won 4 of 6 offered so far this meet, including Sir Dudley Digges on Friday, and 8 of the last 11 dating back to Spring 2015. In the Race 3 event, it’s Boo, Assembly and Dream To Dream who represent the GP set in this spot. First-time starters have won just 3 of 32 such Spring Meet races dating back to 2011. Double Espresso makes her US debut and we’ve seen international shippers win similar races here in the Spring ’14 and ’15 meets first time stateside. Those pair of runners were bet to 8-5 and 5-2 prices, so perhaps keep an eye on the tote with Double Espresso. As for the Race 5 similar event, Tizthesound, Ten Seventy and Try Your Luck exit Gulfstream races.
Bottom-level $10,000 claimers sprint 6 furlongs in Race 4. Five different circuits have produced the 6 winners at the basement this meet, so there’s little regional superiority at this level. All three $10k claiming races at 6 and 6-1/2 furlongs this meet have been won by horses within a length of the lead after the opening half-mile. Favorites are a whopping 7-for-8 in $10k claiming sprints the past 2 Spring Meets on dirt. All this adds up to a tough Bobby V on the front or Hollywood Talent. More creativity, hopefully, will come later in the card. First-timer Private Client goes for a Tom Proctor barn that had much local success with kin to this filly (namely Keertana and Snow Top Mountain).
Races 6 and 8 are maiden special weight sprints for 3-year-olds. The red-hot Vickie Oliver barn – predicted in this space before the hot streak began after horses the first 2 weeks were outrunning their odds – offers Fashion Setter in her career debut in Race 6. Oaklawn shippers have done well in these 3YO MSWs at 7 furlongs, winning such races in the ’15 and ’16 Spring Meets on dirt. Telling Metzie could be worth a look on that account. Note that Curricula’s race here last fall when she set the pace went more than half-second faster than par for 7 furlongs for the opening half-mile, impressive considering she was a 2YO filly at the time. She rang a big race to hold second, and we know she likes the track. As for the Race 8 division, Ma Can Do It and Final Decision come in from the aforementioned OP circuit. Expect Lady Soul to be very tough. She’s by Speightstown, who has had a sharp 6 sprint winners on the new Kee dirt and they include ‘wow’ performances like Rock Fall, Speightster, Barbados and Coastline. When they like it, they romp.
Turf sprinters battle in Race 8 and as outlined here many times, these are my favorite races because of the potential payoffs. Another $320 exacta came home in Friday’s turf sprint, and that’s just about average – yes average – when you have full fields in Kee turf dashes. Favorites have won just 2 of the last 15 turf sprints at Keeneland over the last 3-plus meets. Gulfstream preppers have won 3 of the 5 held this meet, including 16-1 and 8-1 winners. Don’t be surprised if Protection takes to this trip. Sire Exchange Rate doesn’t stand out to me as having many runners here of repute, but note he has had 2 turf sprint winners on the Keeneland lawn in recent years. Julien Leparoux leads all riders in local turf sprint wins since Fall ’06 and that includes a masterful ride on Exaggerated in last weekend’s Giant’s Causeway.
Maiden claimers sprint 7 furlongs in the finale, Race 10. You want to be close to the pace as 7 of 8 MCL sprint races this meet have been won by horses within 2-1/2 lengths of the lead after the opening half-mile (average winner 1 length back at that juncture). The Fair Grounds turf-to-dirt angle produced 6 winners last Spring and already has 5 this Spring. Bettyng On Lucy and Only One Wish look to continue that maneuver’s success.
Feature Race Play, courtesy of the Horseplayernow.com BUZZ Report:
The Grade 2 $250,000 Elkhorn Stakes will be today’s featured Race 9 at 1-1/2 miles on turf. This race has produced just 1 winning favorite in the past 9 years, and 18-1 and 30-1 bombs have rocked the toteboard the past 2 years. The average Elkorn winner has been a shade under 10-1 during that time.
Five of the last 8 Elkorn winners exited preps at Gulfstream Park, a circuit that will be represented Saturday by Da Big Hoss, Twilight Eclipse, Kaigun and St. Albans Boy. It’s also notable that 6 of the last 8 Elkhorn winners were more than 5 lengths off the lead after the opening half-mile.
Tie it all together and those trends lean toward a solid price play from Gulfstream who can rally from off the pace. St. Albans Boy, third by a length here in the Fall’s counterpart – the Sycamore, would seem the most natural fit as the other GP raiders all are among the favorites.
But I’m going a different direction. No one has won more 1-1/2 miles turf races at Keeneland the past 9 years than Graham Motion’s 15, and jockey John Velazquez is tied for the most riding wins over this course/trip during that span with 10 – amazing since he rides here only intermittently. They team with Up With The Birds, a classy veteran who ran a solid third in the G2 Dixie last spring off a similar layoff. Also give a long look to Ignacio “Nacho” Correas’ charge in here, Idolo Porteno. The barn has won 3 races in the past 4 cards, including 15-1 and 30-1 bombs, and everything seemingly is live right now. I'm going to lean to the trainer angles here more so than the history of the Elkhorn.
Feel free to drop me an E-mail anytime at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.