Scott Shapiro offers a free expert pick for Keeneland

The first of several “Win and You’re In” Breeders’ Cup Challenge races on opening weekend at Keeneland is the $250,000 Phoenix (G2) on Friday.

The six-furlong dash over the main track rewards the victor with a spot in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint to be held at Santa Anita on November 2.

A field of 11 is assembled in a very challenging rendition of the Phoenix, including the top two finishers from last year’s event, #7 Promises Fulfilled and #3 Whitmore. Both runners come into the race having finished off the board last time out in New York, but their success over the racetrack and past form make them likely to take significant money at the windows.

The pace in the Phoenix should be honest given the presence of several horses that like to be on or near the early lead. #1 American Pastime, #2 Cove Blue, #4 Recruiting Ready, Promises Fulfilled, and #10 Zipp On By all led at the first call in their last race, so there is a very good chance that this dash sets up for a runner from off the pace.

Whitmore is the most logical on paper to take advantage of a hot first half-mile, but I am concerned that he may be going the wrong way since posting a 105 BRIS speed rating in a 1 1/2 length score in the Hot Springs at Oaklawn Park in early March. The son of Pleasantly Perfect has lost three straight and has failed to put forth a triple-digit BRIS number in each of those tries after doing so in five consecutive starts going back to last spring. If he can get back to his old form he has a big chance, but at his likely price he is not an enticing wagering option.

#5 Diamond Oops is cross-entered for the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) on Saturday afternoon, but if he runs in the Phoenix he has a major chance to be there in the end. The Patrick Biancone trainee has the right running style to take advantage of a brisk early pace. He comes in off a two-month freshening after running second to Imperial Hint in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1) at Saratoga in late July. Jockey Julien Leparoux fits this son of Lookin at Lucky well. He offers fair value at his 8-1-morning line price and is my key horse in this spot.

#6 Hog Creek Hustle makes his first start versus older horses in this one after three straight top-two finishes in graded stakes restricted to fellow three-year-olds. The son of Overanalyze has no early speed and may prefer longer than six panels, but if they go fast up front he is sure to be finishing with energy.

#8 Engage makes his second try under the handling of Hall of Fame conditioner Steve Asmussen. The Woodford Racing colt will need to move forward off of his half-length score in the Bensalem at Parx on September 2 to beat this group, but the outside draw and his tactical speed should allow jockey Jose Ortiz to work out a lovely voyage.

  • Phoenix Stakes Wagers:
    • $20 Win
      • #5 = $20 total bet
    • $5 Exacta
      • #5 with #6+#8 = $10 total Bet