Racing Roundtable: 2024 Derby, Oaks trails kick off and Master of the Seas

September 19th, 2023

A scaled-down version of the Racing Roundtable looks back at the first preps for the 2024 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1), a top turf miler, and other notes of interest from the weekend.

Thoughts on the Iroquois (G3) versus the Pocahontas (G3)?

Kellie Reilly: The Pocahontas, to paint with a broad historical brush, has tended to showcase better long-term prospects than the Iroquois. That overall pattern endures through the race’s changes, both on the calendar and in distance. The fact that V V’s Dream romped in a substantially faster time than the Iroquois (1:36.45 versus 1:37.28) can be taken as the latest data point. Her margin was inflated by the epic wilting of her rivals, so the visual impression may be a bit exaggerated. Still, her only loss came by a half-length to Brightwork at Ellis Park, a result that’s gained significance since Brightwork went on to take the Adirondack (G3) and Spinaway (G1). Although by champion sprinter Mitole, V V’s Dream is out of a close relative to Cupid, who scored his signature win in the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1). 

Yet I wouldn’t automatically discount everyone coming out of the Iroquois. The whole race was skewed by the incomprehensible run-off of Patriot Spirit early, causing a total pace collapse. A few of these could well have performed better with a more normal race dynamic that they’re eligible to get next time. West Saratoga, who coped best to spring the 12-1 upset, brought an improving profile for Larry Demeritte. The Bahamian expat is an historically fitting winner of the first race on the Road to the 150th Kentucky Derby, as we recall the inestimable contributions of African-American horsemen in the Derby’s formative period, and indeed the development of the sport itself. 

Also, note that the Iroquois in its original one-turn mile incarnation has had several more memorable alumni than in its 1 1/16-mile phase. The distance was lengthened in 2013, simultaneously with its shift to an earlier date. In the pandemic-scrambled calendar of 2020, the Iroquois reverted to a mile, and produced a forgettable winner in Sittin on Go. But the runner-up, Midnight Bourbon, turned out to be a Grade 1-caliber millionaire, and the third-placer, Super Stock, would go on to win the Arkansas Derby (G1). It could be a similar story with the 2023 Iroquois grads. Risk It, second as the favorite, is a Steve Asmussen trainee like the 2020 placers. And the fourth, Seize the Grey, has the vibe of a sneaky slow-burner for D. Wayne Lukas. 

Vance Hanson: V V's Dream already had a terrific form line, via Brightwork, heading into the Pocahontas, and her 8 3/4-length procession into the winner's circle underscored how deep this juvenile filly division appears to be.

In contrast, West Saratoga's upset win in the Iroquois was largely the result of a speed collapse and was run in a slower (0.83 seconds) time. West Saratoga had needed five starts to break his maiden, and two of those losses were in cheaper "auction maidens." On the bare result, the Pocahontas figures to have more implications than the Iroquois.

Will Master of the Seas follow in the footsteps of Modern Games?

KR: At the moment, my instinct is that Woodbine Mile (G1) romper Master of the Seas won’t complete the double in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) as Modern Games did last year. That’s nothing to do with his innate class, since he’s plenty good enough. The collateral form from Woodbine stacks up well too, since runner-up Shirl’s Speight filled the same spot behind Modern Games in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Mile. Rather, it’s my notion that Master of the Seas might not be quite as push-button as Modern Games, whose adroitness in U.S. conditions had already been established in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). Master of the Seas strikes me as one who needs more time and space to deliver a closing kick, luxuries he had at Woodbine but possibly not at Santa Anita. 

VH: I've always held Master of the Seas in high regard. He was my top selection in the 2021 edition of the 2000 Guineas (G1), which he lost by a dirty nose, and he was also my play later that year in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Del Mar, when he was unexpectedly scratched right before the start. He's been gelded since all that, and trainer Charlie Appleby has him in arguably career-best form. One thing he hasn't done consistently over the last couple of years is face the very best milers in Europe. I think he fits with them on his best day, but we simply won't know for sure until we get to Santa Anita in November. Whether he lives up to the standard set by Modern Games will largely depend on who else from Europe shows up in the Mile. Kinross, Tahiyra, and perhaps Paddington might make an appearance, and any or all of those potential foes would be tough nuts to crack.

What else caught your eye over the weekend?

KR: A totally different British trainer by the name of Appleby is planning his first-ever Breeders’ Cup venture – Mick Appleby, with Big Evs earmarked for the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1). Big Evs just ran his rivals ragged in Friday’s Flying Childers (G2) at Doncaster, his third major score following the Windsor Castle S. at Royal Ascot and the Molecomb (G3) at Glorious Goodwood. His only flop came versus older sprinters in the Nunthorpe (G1), where he tired to 14th behind Turf Sprint (G1)-bound Live in the Dream. Among fellow two-year-olds, however, Big Evs has looked like a serious operator. 

Mick Appleby (a Yorkshire native who can’t be confused with southerner Charlie if you heard them both) believes that quick ground around a turn will be ideal for his speed machine. Big Evs does have a pedigree connection, though, to the other Appleby: he’s from the terrific first crop of Godolphin’s sprint star Blue Point. 

Among two-year-old winners of interest on this side of the pond, Lightline warrants a mention, not just because he aired by 13 3/4 lengths last Thursday at Horseshoe Indianapolis. In a similar mile maiden at this venue last year, his connections – Albaugh Family Stables and trainer Brad Cox – unleashed Angel of Empire, the future Arkansas Derby (G1) hero and Kentucky Derby third. Lightline might not have had a lot behind him, but his 98 Brisnet Late Pace rating, for a first-time starter over a mile, is worth highlighting. If his name reminds you of a certain undefeated Horse of the Year, it can be derived straight from his parents, City of Light and multiple Grade 3 victress Upperline. 

VH: She Feels Pretty stood out with her strong victory in the Natalma (G1) at Woodbine. She had just enough ground to work with when taking her debut at Ellis Park by a neck over 5 1/2 furlongs, but really excelled stepping up to a mile at Woodbine when unleashing a powerful stalk-and-pounce rally to win going away. She ran faster than the boys did in the Summer (G1) two races earlier and, depending who invades from Europe, figures to be among the top betting choices in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1). The daughter of Breeders' Cup Mile winner Karakontie has the potential to be something special the way she has already started her career for Roy and Gretchen Jackson.