The Road to both the 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1) doesn’t officially begin until September 14 at Churchill Downs, but Sunday’s pair of juvenile stakes at Ellis Park do serve as a direct entrance ramp to the journey that is about to unfold.
Run over seven furlongs of dirt, the $100,000 TwinSpires Ellis Park Juvenile and $100,000 TwinSpires Ellis Park Debutante set the table for the Pocahontas (G2) for the girls and Iroquois (G3) for the boys, both of which are contested at 1 1/16 miles.
In addition to serving as the first points races for the Derby and Oaks the Pocahontas and Iroquois are also Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge races, with the winners receiving an entry fees-paid berth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) and Juvenile (G1) on November 1 at Santa Anita Park.
Last year, the Tom Amoss-trained Serengeti Empress took the Ellis Park Debutante by 13 1/2 lengths. A month later, she romped by 19 1/2 lengths in the Pocahontas, and on the first Friday in May, she wired the field in the Kentucky Oaks.
In 2016, Lookin at Lee won the Ellis Park Juvenile for trainer Steve Asmussen in advance of a runner-up finish in the Iroquois and an eventual second-place run behind Always Dreaming in the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
On hiatus since 2009, a recent surge in Kentucky purses inspired the revival of both Ellis Park juvenile stakes, and the overall two-year-old program in recent years has improved immensely, with top Kentucky-based trainers opting to stay local in lieu of shipping their young stock to summer at Saratoga.
Scouting the stars of the future is the most satisfying part of my job, so let’s dive right in!
Race 8 – The Ellis Park Juvenile
Horse to Beat
ROWDY YATES (#4) (9-5)
Trainer Steve Asmussen has won this race two of the last three years, taking down the 2016 edition with Lookin at Lee and last year’s with Tobacco Road. This year he sends out the likely favorite.
Bet down to the 2-1 second choice in his career debut on May 31 at Churchill, he pressed an even pace, too full command while still in hand on the turn, responded when asked and drew off.
The second betting favorite in his follow-up start in the Bashford Manor (G3) under the Twin Spires, he once again enjoyed a perfect pressing trip, but this time through more honest fractions against a much tougher crew. He ran on willingly, but was narrowly outkicked by the California invader Phantom Boss.
Purchased for $42,000 as an October Fasig-Tipton yearling, he is by Morning Line and the first foal out of the unraced Yes It’s True mare Spring Station, who is a half to Grade 3-winning sprinter Rich Mommy.
AXIOMO (#3) (7-2)
By the impressive first-crop sire Tapiture ($20,000 Fasig Tipton October yearling) and conditioned by the under-the-radar trainer Mikhail Yanakov, this upstart two-year-old has been ultra-impressive in winning both of his starts.
Sent off at odds of 45-1 while sprinting on turf in his career debut at Churchill Downs, he left from post position 10 of 11, was stuck in tight between horses behind an even pace, was steadied back in traffic, popped out late, got the jump on his late closing rivals, led, held safe and galloped out best.
In his follow-up start on dirt at Indiana Grand, he was in a bit tight while stalking an even pace early, split horses entering the turn while still in hand, had the leader measured at the top of the stretch, took over on the wrong lead, switched mid-stretch, and drew off solidly best.
Out of the Successful Appeal mare Song to the Moon, he is a half-brother to filly Jeltrin, who upset the Davona Dale (G2) this past spring.
NIGHT TIME (#1) (5-1)
A big supporter of the Ellis Park juvenile program, trainer Dale Romans won the 2017 edition of the Ellis Park Juvenile with the very promising Dak Attack, and earlier this meet in what was certainly a WOW performance, his Dennis’ Moment broke his maiden in Henderson by some 19 1/4 lengths.
Romans is represented here by a son of Majesticperfection ($210,000 Keeneland September yearling) out of the Kitten’s Joy mare Silent Joy. The dam has some quality to her family, but it certainly tilts towards turf.
In his career debut on June 30, this colt broke alertly, was pinned at the rail while battling a pair of rivals through honest fractions, he responded when asked and disposed of his challengers before drawing away under a drive to a 4 1/2-length score.
LETMENO (#2) (6-1)
The past five years, trainer Ian Wilkes has won with just 15 of his 277 first time starters (5%), but when it does happen, the horse is often quite talented. McCraken, Cicatrix and most recently With Dignity come to mind.
In most cases, the barn’s first and only goal with a first timer is to provide a lesson-learning experience, and early in his career debut on July 13, that looked to be the case with this son of Twirling Candy ($70,000 Keeneland September yearling).
A half to the useful sprinter Summerduck, he’s out of the Mizzen Mast dam Wicked Mizz, a minor stakes winner who had a promising career cut short. That mare is also a half to 2010 Alcibiades Stakes (G1) victress Wickedly Perfect, so there is some sneaky quality to the family.
In his debut, a race that certainly was more meant to serve as an educational tool, he broke six lengths slow, sat chilly while in the clear behind an even pace at the back of the pack, built momentum while still in hand on the turn for home while hung four-wide and finished slightly best.
TWO LAST WORDS (#6) (8-1)
A debut winner at Indiana Grand, this homebred son of the $7,500 stallion Commissioner would return to finish a better-than-it-looks fourth in the Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill Downs. Hung three-wide early and five-wide late, he finished willingly to the wire. Last out back at Indiana Grand, he stumbled badly at the start, was shuffled back and then finished with renewed energy off the turn for home.
Top Pick: Rowdy Yates (#4) (9-5)
Best Longshot: Two Last Words (#6) (8-1)
Others to Consider (in order of preference): Axiomo (#3) (7-2), Night Time (#1) (5-1) and Letmeno (#2) (6-1)
Race 9 – The Ellis Park Debutante
Horse to Beat
LADY GLAMOUR (#4) (5-2)
Entered in a $40,000 maiden claimer on debut at Churchill Downs, this daughter of Discreet Cat was dismissed at odds of 26-1. Off slowly losing four lengths at the start, she was stuck between horses while racing four-wide. Seven-wide on the turn, she rallied off heels while on the wrong lead to spring the upset. One had every right to be skeptical of the win which came against a suspect group over a track that favored runners who ran wide and off the pace, but this gal certainly legitimized herself in a pair of follow-up starts.
Once again overlooked at 33-1, she would finish a deceivingly good third behind the highly regarded Magic Dance in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill Downs. Stalking a fast pace while four-wide, she ran on willingly behind a talented pair, and take note that the Debutante was run three-fifths of a second faster than the Bashford Manor (G3) for the boys.
In a recent allowance race at Ellis Park, she settled last in the field of six early on, made a bold move when nudged while five-wide on the turn, took over in a blink under a strong hand ride leaving the highly regarded favorite Josie in her wake, and crossed the line by open lengths with plenty in reserve.
Just a $1,000 yearling purchase, she’s already proven to be quite the bargain.
HIS GLORY (#1) (6-1)
Much like last year’s winner Serengeti Empress, this daughter of Mineshaft ($52,000 Keeneland September yearling) broke her maiden at first asking by open lengths at Indiana Grand before disappointing in the Schuylerville Stakes (G3) at Saratoga.
There are some sprint influences in the pedigree, but nothing to get overly excited about.
The Asmussen Factor
GREEN DESTINY (#7) (5-1) and MILLI STARR (#10) (8-1) are capable of hitting the board, but chances are, based on the connections, both will be over-bet.
The former chased the super talented Frank’s Rockette on debut. After breaking alertly, she was forced to check out of it early, but was under a ride thereafter without making an impact. She did win her follow-up start at Ellis, but was all out to do so against a very average field of foes.
The latter chased home stablemate Magic Dance in her first try. After losing two lengths at the start, she rushed up to show speed and then quickly backed out of it. She won her follow-up assignment in a fine performance at Ellis, but then proved to be no factor behind Lady Glamour in a recent allowance race.
MONEDAS DE ORO (#2) (20-1)
A game winner on debut at Indiana Grand, this daughter of the $20,000 sire Munnings who was purchased for just $3,500 as a Keeneland September yearling would face the boys in her follow-up start at Churchill. Bothered at the start and shuffled back, she failed to make a serious impact.
Once against entered to face males on July 3 at Indiana Grand, she gutted out a solid third-place finish, and last time out back with her own set, she scored a game, gate-to-wire win.
This gal has experience, speed and heart.
Top Pick: Lady Glamour (#4) (5-2)
Best Longshot: Monedas de Oro (#2) (20-1)
Others to Consider (in order of preference): His Glory (#1) (6-1),Milli Starr (#10) (8-1) and Green Destiny (#7) (5-1)
Other “Spot” Plays on the Sunday Ellis Park program
Race 2 –WILDWOOD DEJAVU (#3) (6-1)
Race 4 – WINNIPESAUKEE (#2) (7-5)
Race 5 – UPSET BREWING (#4) (5-1)
PHOTO: Rowdy Yates (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs