Racing Roundtable: Oaklawn Park opening weekend, a look ahead to 2024, and more

December 12th, 2023

This week, the Racing Roundtable looks back at Oaklawn Park's opening weekend plus other notable performances across the country and then looks ahead to horses to watch in 2024.

What were your takeaways from Oaklawn's opening weekend?

James Scully: A pair of performances caught my eye.

Since returning from a four-month freshening last month, Tejano Twist has been sensational in a pair of sprint stakes appearances. The four-year-old gelding came back with a convincing win in the Bet on Sunshine S. at Churchill Downs last month and kept moving forward in Saturday’s Ring the Bell S., rallying last-to-first with a blistering turn of foot to score by five lengths. Now 3-for-5 at Oakawn, Tejano Twist appears to be finding his best form for Chris Hartman, and I expect a big season in 2024.

Valentine Candy became the latest stakes winner for second-year sire Justify, crushing foes by a 6 3/4-length margin in the 5 1/2-furlong Advent S. on Friday’s opening-day program, and the Steve Asmussen-trained colt established himself as a promising prospect in the three-year-old sprint ranks next season. Justify’s initial Grade 1 winner, Aspen Grove, did so at 1 1/4 miles on turf, and Valentine Candy was one of many maiden winners for Justify at either Del Mar or Saratoga last summer, including Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Just F Y I and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) scorer Hard to Justify. Justify’s offspring are proving proficient at all dimensions.

Ashley Anderson: Brad Cox and Chris Hartman both got off to hot starts at Oaklawn, with Cox earning three wins and two seconds from five starters, all in maiden special weight races, and Hartman recording a 7-2-2-1 mark. Cox's three winners were Silver Rose, a two-year-old Constitution filly; Searcy, a two-year-old Good Magic gelding; and In Good Taste, a two-year-old Tapiture filly. His runners-up were beaten just a neck and three-quarters of a length.

Hartman's biggest win of the weekend came with Tejano Twist in the Ring the Bell, with stablemate Necker Island second, while Hartman also had a stakes-placed juvenile in Andy's Candy (third to Valentine Candy in the Advent S.), and a debut maiden winner in Texas Town, who beat Cox's Crushed It by a neck.

What else caught your eye over the weekend?

JS: Catiche returned from a seven-month layoff with a sharp win in Saturday’s My Charmer S. at Turfway Park, drawing away from odds-on Mouffy to earn her first stakes victory. By Arrogate, the four-year-old filly was purchased for $445,000 at the recent Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November sale by Scott Mawaka and transferred to Michael Stidham, and Catiche may keep advancing at age five. She needed five starts to graduate, breaking through in March 2022, but made only five starts over the next 21 months, finishing second in a May allowance at Woodbine in her lone prior start this year. 

Out of the Grade 3-winning Pulpit mare Sacristy, and a half-sister to stakes winner and Grade 1 runner-up Flora de la Mar, Catiche had residual value without ever racing again. But there’s reason to believe she has more to accomplish on the racetrack. Sacristy’s half-sister, accomplished Japanese stakes performer Mozu Superflare, recorded her first Grade 1 success as a five-year-old.

AA: Four-time Louisiana-bred Horse of the Year and three-time Champion Older Horse of Louisiana Star Guitar produced three stakes winners on Louisiana Champions Day at Fair Grounds, including Touchuponastar, who won the Classic to bring his 2023 record to 7-6-1-0. Star Guitar's daughter Ova Charged also triumphed in the Ladies Sprint S., and Behemah Star won the Turf Stakes, while Spirited Beauty and Guitar Solo were stakes-placed. Star Guitar also had a maiden winner with Carpis, out of a Lemon Drop Kid mare, who led at every call by at least two lengths in his debut at Fair Grounds as a 34-1 longshot. Last season, Star Guitar ranked third in Louisiana as a sire and is currently fifth, but expect him to move up the rankings, as his progeny are performing well at Fair Grounds this meet.

Which horse or storyline are you most looking forward to following in 2024?

JS: Next spring will be the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1), and I’m excited to have a fast group of two-year-olds heading into the 2024 season. In 2021, Corniche registered a pedestrian 102 Brisnet Speed rating winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), which turned out to be the ultimate negative key race as every member of the field lost their next start. Last year, Forte earned a 95 Speed rating winning the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and a 100 Speed rating for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Those were slow races. By comparison, soon-to-be-named champion male juvenile Fierceness ran faster than Forte breaking his maiden (101) and earned a 112 Speed rating for his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory. Compared to the last couple of years, Speed ratings are way up for juveniles in 2023.

I’ll also mention Integration, who is the most promising U.S. turf horse entering a new year that I can remember. The three-year-old didn’t make his career debut until early August, winning a maiden special weight and the Virginia Derby (G3) convincingly on raw talent alone, and he was flattered when Virginia Derby runner-up Program Trading came back to win the Hollywood Derby (G1). Program Trading, who is 5-for-6 for Chad Brown, remains an outstanding prospect for 2024, but he looks poised to play second fiddle to Integration. Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, Integration improved to 3-for-3 when powering his way to an easy five-length win in the Hill Prince (G2) in mid-November, and the Quality Road colt will take some beating in 2024.

AA: I'm interested to see how Fierceness comes out of his Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) win and whether he'll show more consistency as a sophomore. I was excited about the City of Light colt after he won on debut by more than 11 lengths, but was skeptical of him after his seventh in the Champagne (G1). He bounced back, however, with a 6 1/4-length romp in the Breeders' Cup as a 16-1 longshot and posted a 112 Brisnet Speed figure, making him enticing as a Kentucky Derby prospect.

Another two-year-old I was eager to back in the Juvenile, The Wine Steward, ended up scratching. The Vino Rosso colt went 3-for-3 to start his career, then finished a half-length second to Juvenile favorite Locked in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland. I liked The Wine Steward's draw on the rail in the Juvenile and thought he had a shot as an 8-1 price. We'll see how he progresses in his three-year-old season.

Lastly, Locked, another Pletcher runner, returned to turf last week and won the Pulpit S. with a career-best 88 BRIS figure. The Cairo Prince juvenile was second on debut in a turf sprint and then broke his maiden on the grass when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles. He next won on dirt in the Sapling S. before switching back to turf and finishing a nose second to Can Group in the Bourbon (G2) at Keeneland. He failed to fire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Pletcher put him back on turf last week. I think his best surface will be grass, but Pletcher said if Noted trains well, he'll give him another try on dirt in the future.