Racing Roundtable: The Whitney and Kentucky Downs Preview preps

August 8th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson recap the events of the weekend at Saratoga and Ellis Park in this edition of the Racing Roundtable.

Are you buying White Abarrio as a Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) threat?

James Scully:  White Abarrio smartly carried his form nine furlongs in a 6 1/4-length Whitney romp, but I question his threshold for 1 1/4 miles at Santa Anita. Three of six career wins have come at one-turn distances, and the Whitney marked his first win outside of Gulfstream Park and first stakes triumph since last year’s Florida Derby (G1). The top two-turn older males were missing from Saturday’s field, and when odds-on favorite Cody’s Wish came up empty on the stretch back out in distance, White Abarrio took advantage of fortuitous circumstances.

The four-year-old has thrived since being transferred to Rick Dutrow, registering Brisnet Speed ratings of 107 and 106 in two starts, but I think the two-turn Dirt Mile (G1) at Santa Anita will be a better fit than the Classic.

Kellie Reilly: Considering that there was nothing in his resume to suggest that White Abarrio is six lengths better than Zandon, I’m treating the Whitney rather cautiously, not to say skeptically, as a Classic pointer. The Brisnet Speed ratings indicate that the other logical players turned in subpar efforts. Cody’s Wish looked totally flat, arguably too bad even for the two-turn angle to be the whole explanation. If a steadily-run 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga brought out the best in White Abarrio, the 1 1/4-mile Classic with a more genuine pace at Santa Anita is a different story.

Remember that he wasn’t aiming for the Whitney initially. White Abarrio was bound for the seven-furlong Forego (G1), until the Whitney field began to cut up. After the defections of West Will Power and Smile Happy, Rick Dutrow saw an opportunity to reroute White Abarrio. Why not try the Whitney, instead of tackling Elite Power and Gunite in the Forego? Indeed.

Vance Hanson: The Whitney unfolded in the way most of them have over the past decade, which is to say the race once again favored a horse who raced in first or second in the early stages. As noted last week, the only Whitney winner since 2013 to deviate from that trend was Honor Code (2015), and he barely got up to defeat pacesetting Liam's Map. Given only two Whitney winners during that span have followed up with a victory in the Classic, I'll take a suspect view of White Abarrio's chances for the time being. And unlike Gun Runner and Knicks Go, White Abarrio is unlikely to race again before the Breeders' Cup. Having blown hot or cold overall throughout his career going 1 1/8 miles and longer, you really don't know what you might get from White Abarrio on any given day.

Who else impressed over Whitney weekend?

JS: Just Steel recording a gutsy maiden win on Saturday. By white-hot sire Justify, the bay colt showed good speed prompting the pace and responded gamely when challenged by prohibitive favorite Be You in midstretch, turning back the well-regarded Todd Pletcher firster to win by a nose.

From a classy Australian female family, Just Steel needed racing experience, graduating the third time out, and the developing type figures to keep improving with maturity and distance. He registered a 97 Brisnet Speed rating, which will be one of the top numbers for a two-year-old maiden winner this summer, and Just Steel is the second promising juvenile to emerge for D. Wayne Lukas on a Saturday afternoon at Saratoga this meet.

Tied for the third most Kentucky Derby wins with four, Lukas has been missing from the scene in recent years. His last Kentucky Derby runner, Bravazo (sixth), came in 2018, making only two appearances in the Run for the Roses since 2013, and his last Kentucky Derby placing came via runner-up Proud Citizen in 2002.

Lukas sent out Seize the Grey, an Arrogate colt who appears built for two-turn distances, to a nice maiden tally the previous weekend, and Just Steel provides the legendary Hall of Famer with another talented early prospect for Kentucky Derby 150.

KR: Ill-fated Maple Leaf Mel will live long in the memory as the moral winner of the Test (G1). So will the deeply thoughtful reaction by the connections of official winner Pretty Mischievous, who only backed into the win as best of the rest. With the air of tragedy all around, they declined the usual fanfare of the winner’s circle. The next morning, trainer Brendan Walsh brought the winner’s garland to the barn of Melanie Giddings, a poignant tribute to adorn “Mel’s” empty stall.

As far as decisive winners go, we saw a couple of exceptional juvenile fillies SundayWays and Means, who annihilated a six-furlong maiden, and unbeaten Brightwork, who dominated the Adirondack (G3). Can’t wait for their clash in the Spinaway (G1). And the turf stakes produced impressive performances. Even allowing for the rain-softened ground, French import Elusive Princess exploded onto the scene in the Saratoga Oaks (G3); Program Trading defied inexperience to fight back and edge the seasoned Webslinger in the Saratoga Derby (G1); and Cogburn stamped himself as a serious turf sprinter in the Troy (G3).

VH: "Impressed" is not the verb to use under the circumstances, but it's worth observing that Pretty Mischievous' victory in the Test, although hollow, will still go down as her fourth graded win of the year and her third Grade 1. Already the pro tem leader of the three-year-old filly division going into the Test, she has now built up what might seem an insurmountable lead in the Eclipse Award race. Fellow Godolphin color bearer Wet Paint looks like the only viable alternative at this point, but Pretty Mischievous has the current edge based on their head-to-head result in the Kentucky Oaks (G1).

Takeaways from the Kentucky Downs Preview stakes at Ellis Park?

JS: After cutting back to a mile in her last outing, a fourth in the Just a Game (G1), New Year’s Eve took to the shorter distance in the Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf Mile, closing boldly to win going away by about a length. The four-year-old filly had been faltering at longer trips over the past 12 months, dropping six straight races since the spring of 2022, and the mile distance may prove beneficial for the Brendan Walsh trainee.

And kudos to Wadsworth for gamely repelling multiple late challengers in the Kentucky Downs Preview Dueling Grounds Derby, persevering by a head after a wide journey. Brad Cox switched the Quality Road gelding to turf three starts back, with a nose second in the Caesars H. at Horseshoe Indianapolis, and Wadsworth has now won two straight stakes. Wadsworth appears to be progressing nicely in a solid three-year-old turf division.

KR: While the mostly formful results speak for themselves, I’ll mention a few of the vanquished worth following. Highway Robber and Anglophile, the two who came up just shy of upsetting Wadsworth, could prefer the added ground in a potential rematch in the Dueling Grounds Derby (G3). Wadsworth appeared to be looking for the wire at the end of 1 1/8 miles, and I’m not sure that the son of Quality Road and Dickinson would hold them off over 1 5/16 miles at Kentucky Downs.

In the Preview Ladies Turf Mile, lightly-raced For the Flag nearly pulled a wire job, but was outkicked by New Year’s Eve. Note that defending champion Henrietta Topham was buried in traffic and finished a sneaky sixth, barreling up to the leaders just past the wire. I’d be intrigued if For the Flag stretched out for the Kentucky Downs Ladies Marathon (G3), where she’d have a softer tempo. One sure to appreciate a step up in trip for the 1 1/2-mile Kentucky Downs Turf Cup (G2) is Cellist, who ran a massive race off the layoff in the 1 1/4-mile Preview, just mugged by the in-form Me and Mr. C in course record-equaling time.

VH: I'd focus on the two stakes winners on Preview weekend that have already shown positive form over the tricky, undulating course at Kentucky Downs in advance of next month's lucrative fixtures. One Timer bolted up at big odds to win the Franklin-Simpson (G2) last year and prepped well on Sunday for the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint (G2). On Saturday, Bay Storm snapped a losing streak dating to last August with a rail-skimming win in the prep for the Mint Ladies Sprint (G2), a race she missed winning last season by a nose to the world-class Campanelle. Both would seem to have excellent chances of reproducing their Ellis form of the weekend over the all-turf track in southern Kentucky next month.