by Jon White
June 23, 2021
Congratulations to Thistledown for enticing such a strong group of 11 in this Saturday’s Grade III Ohio Derby. Among the 11 entrants is a Grade II winner in Keepmeinmind and a pair of Grade III winners in King Fury and Promise Keeper.
Promise Keeper is the lukewarm 7-2 morning-line favorite, according to horseracingnation.com. Keepmeinmind is 4-1. King Fury is 9-2.
Contention runs deep in that there are a number of others who have a license to win this 1 1/8-mile event. Indeed, my top pick is not one of the aforementioned graded stakes winners, but rather someone who has the look of an up-and-comer.
My selections for this year’s Ohio Derby are below:
2. King Fury
4. Promise Keeper
Top pick Masqueparade is listed at 8-1 on the morning line. I am going with him to win the Ohio Derby largely off his stellar victory last time out.
This will be Masqueparade’s stakes debut. The Kentucky-bred Upstart colt lost his first three career starts, then did not even cross the finish line in front when graduating from the maiden ranks.
In a Fair Grounds maiden race at 1 1/16 miles on March 20, Masqueparade finished second, a half-length behind Alejandro. Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Alejandro for Hall of Fame horseman Steve Asmussen. Miguel Mena piloted Masqueparade for trainer Al Stall Jr.
Following a stewards’ inquiry and an objection by Mena, Alejandro was disqualified and placed second for causing interference to Masqueparade when the two made contact in deep stretch.
Masqueparade then was dazzling in his next start at Churchill Downs on the May 1 Kentucky Derby undercard.
Facing allowance/optional claimers at 1 1/8 miles on May 1, Masqueparade lurked in third early after breaking from the outside post in a field of 10. He poked his head in front midway on the far turn when three wide, then drew off to win by 11 3/4 lengths.
Masqueparade took a giant leap in the Beyer Speed Figure department when credited with a 97 on May 1. His previous top Beyer had been an 81 in his maiden win on March 20 via Alejandro’s DQ.
If Masqueparade runs anything like he did on May 1, he has an excellent chance to win the Ohio Derby. Hence, he is my top pick. But it’s also possible that he will regress, aka bounce, this Saturday when coming off such a career-best performance.
King Fury had created a buzz going into the Kentucky Derby. He went into the Run for the Roses off an 18-1 upset in Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington Stakes on a sloppy track April 10.
Ten lengths off the pace early in the Lexington, King Fury closed furiously to take command turning into the stretch and splashed home a 2 3/4-length winner.
What had many people on the King Fury bandwagon for the Kentucky Derby was the splendid way he had trained up to that race. Unfortunately, after being entered, he was scratched from the Kentucky Derby due to spiking a fever.
Trainer Kenny McPeek has been high on King Fury all along. It looked like big things might be in store for the $950,000 Curlin colt when he won the Street Sense Stakes at the 2020 Churchill Downs last year on Oct. 25.
But King Fury did not show much in his next two races. He ran seventh in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland on Nov. 6, then finished fifth in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill on Nov. 28 in his final start at 2.
King Fury’s stock rose again in April with his victory in the Lexington, which was especially impressive in that it was his first start of the year.
One possible negative for King Fury if he had run in the Kentucky Derby is he would have been racing again just three weeks after his big effort in the Lexington. But there is no such quick turnaround to be concerned about for him in the Ohio Derby.
A FRESH PROXY IS DANGEROUS
Proxy, who has yet to win a graded stakes race, was my choice to win the Grade II Louisiana Derby on April 10. I thought he might step up and take that 1 3/16-mile race after having finished second in both the Grade III Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 16 and Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 13.
However, Proxy never threatened in the Louisiana Derby. He finished fourth for owner-breeder Godolphin and trainer Michael Stidham.
Nevertheless, I will not be surprised if Proxy has a big say in the Ohio Derby. He is 5-1 on the morning line.
I think it’s possible that we have not seen anywhere close to the best from Proxy yet.
Stidham, as usual, is bringing Proxy along with patience in order to give the Kentucky-bred Tapit colt every chance to develop into a graded stakes winner.
I go back a long way with Stidham. I first got to know him at Louisiana Downs in 1980. With just two horses, Me Good Man and Viterbo, Stidham managed to win multiple stakes at that meeting with them. I knew then that the 23-year-old conditioner had a very bright future as a trainer.
Stidham now is widely recognized throughout the country as an outstanding trainer. And one of the ingredients to his success, I believe, is his patience.
This reminds me of the morning years ago when the late, great Charlie Whittingham told me what he felt all trainers should emphasize as much as possible.
“Patience,” Whittingham said emphatically.
Whittingham was a master at managing a racehorse in such a way that the horse was allowed to develop into the best her or she could be. In other words, the horse was given a chance to reach his or her potential. Indeed, a victory by a Whittingham-trained first-time starter was a racing rarity. The great Sunday Silence was considered by most to be the best horse Whittingham ever trained. Not even Sunday Silence won his first race. For the man known as the Bald Eagle, there was always a much bigger picture to be taken into consideration for a horse than a win at first asking.
When Stidham was a trainer on the Southern California circuit in 1981 and 1982, he closely observed Whittingham and numerous other Hall of Fame trainers. By studying Whittingham, Stidham saw first-hand how being patient in the short term could often pay off handsomely in the long term.
I am confident that Whittingham would give a big thumbs up to Stidham for the way in which he has managed Mystic Guide, another colt from the powerful Godolphin operation.
After Mystic Guide finished third last year in the Grade III Peter Pan Stakes on July 16, many a trainer could not have resisted the temptation to run him in the Grade I Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5.
Because 18 were entered in the 2020 Kentucky Derby, a lack of points would not have kept Mystic Guide out of the race if Godolphin and Stidham had wanted to take a shot.
But Stidham exhibited Whittingham-like patience by opting to run Mystic Guide in an easier Sept. 5 race than the Kentucky Derby. Thus, on the same day that Authentic captured the Derby, Mystic Guide won the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.
In Mystic Guide’s final 2020 start, he ran against older foes in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 10. He finished second to fellow sophomore Happy Saver.
Not asking too much too soon of Mystic Guide last year almost certainly is one of the reasons the Kentucky-bred Ghostzapper colt has done so well this year.
Mystic Guide is two for two in 2021. He won the Grade III Razorback Stakes by six lengths at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 27, then registered a 3 3/4-length triumph in the Group I, $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 27. Mystic Guide currently holds the top spot in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll.
The plan is for Mystic Guide to make his next start in the Grade II Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park on July 3. He likely will get a rematch with the undefeated Happy Saver, who won a one-mile allowance race at Belmont on May 28 in his first start of 2021.
I thought it was a good move by Proxy’s connections to pass the Kentucky Derby with him and regroup after the colt’s disappointing effort in the Louisiana Derby. The feeling here is Proxy has talent. One of the days Proxy might put it all together and run a smasher. Who knows? Maybe “one of these days” will turn out to be this Saturday.
By the way, you might want to keep in mind Proxy is scheduled to race with Lasix in the Ohio Derby. The last time he raced with Lasix, he won a Fair Grounds allowance race back on Dec. 19.
Promise Keeper is still another win candidate in the Ohio Derby. After a 5 1/2-length victory in an allowance/optional claiming contest at Keeneland on April 8, he won the Grade III Peter Pan Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park on May 8. Todd Pletcher, voted into the Hall of Fame this year, trains the Kentucky-bred Constitution colt.
Keepmeinmind’s only victory to date came when he won last year’s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a maiden.
Even though Keepmeinmind has not finished better than fourth in four starts this year, do not cavalierly dismiss miss him this Saturday.
Keepmeinmind finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, but his race was better than it appears at first glance. Last early and as far as 19 lengths off the pace, he came on with good energy in the late stages to finish seventh and lose by 8 1/2 lengths.
In his latest start, Keepmeinmind finished fourth in the Preakness. Though Keepmeinmind lost that race by 9 1/2 lengths, trainer Robertino Diodoro was not discouraged.
“I thought it was a very speed-biased track that day,” Diodoro said in a horseracingnation.com story written by Carolyn Greer. “And he was one of the few horses still running at the end. You always want to get better than fourth, but we were pleased with him. And I keep saying, with some time he’s going to get better. He’s still a big baby. As the year goes on, I think he’s going to develop into a better horse.”
I can’t help wondering, though, if the main track at Pimlico actually was so speed-biased on May 15, then how in the world did Rombauer manage to rally all the way from sixth to win the Preakness?
SEVERAL OTHERS SHOULD NOT BE DISMISSED
The Ohio Derby was first run at Chester Park in 1876. The Kentucky Derby is only one year older.
As far as this year’s edition of the Ohio Derby is concerned, it appears to me that there are several others who could make some noise, such as The Reds (6-1 on the morning line), Ethical Judgement (8-1), Hozier (12-1) and Hello Hot Rod (15-1).
The Reds won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on May 24 through the disqualification of Excellerator. The Reds then finished second to Sainthood in the Grade III, off-the-turf Pennine Ridge Stakes on a sloppy Belmont Park main track May 29.
Ethical Judgement comes off a 3 1/2-length win in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on a sloppy Churchill Downs main track May 9. In his only other 2021 start, Ethical Judgement ran second to Fulsome at Keeneland when also competing in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on a sloppy strip. Fulsome went on to win the Oaklawn Stakes in Arkansas and Grade III Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill.
Hozier now is trained by Rudolphe Brisset after being with Hall of Famer Bob Baffert in Southern California. Highly regarded prior to his first career start early this year, Hozier narrowly lost the Sir Barton Stakes when he finished second at Pimlico on May 15.
Hello Hot Rod finished fourth in the Tesio. But he is eligible to run better this time in that the Tesio was his first start following a layoff. The Tesio was his first race since he had won the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes back on Jan. 31 at Aqueduct.
Channel Fury is 20-1 on the Ohio Derby morning line, but he does have a home-track advantage. He’s coming off a 5 1/2-length allowance win in a six-furlong allowance race at Thistledown on May 24. However, Channel Fury is facing much tougher opponents this time while also being asked to race farther than a mile for the first time.
Falcons Fury, whose morning-line odds are 30-1, rounds out the Ohio Derby field. He appears overmatched.
WITHEE ENTERS WASHINGTON RACING HALL OF FAME
Before the first race at Emerald Downs last Sunday, former track president Ron Crockett announced that Joe Withee has been inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame this year for lifetime achievement.
The announcement was made on the day in which Emerald Downs, located in the shadow of majestic Mount Rainier, was celebrating its birthday. The track’s grand opening occurred on June 20, 1996.
As for Withee’s Hall of Fame induction, it is richly deserved.
Crockett noted during his remarks that “Withee has been a tireless and great advocate for Washington racing while serving the industry with integrity, distinction and nobility.”
Truer words were never spoken.
A Seattle native, Withee has been the director of broadcasting at Emerald Downs since the track first opened. He has interviewed thousands of owners, trainers and jockeys from the winner’s circle. In addition of being the 24-year host of the radio program “The Win Place Show” on KJR 950 AM, Withee has done a terrific job emceeing countless press conferences, award ceremonies and draw breakfasts for the richest race in the Pacific Northwest, the Longacres Mile.
Withee also has been involved in the sport by owning several horses in partnership. One of these horses, Sippin Fire, in 2018 was acclaimed the Washington Horse of the Year and Emerald Downs Horse of the Meeting.
Longacres was the picturesque track near Seattle that preceded Emerald Downs in that part of the country. In many ways, Withee is to Emerald Downs what the late Mark Kaufman was to Longacres or what the late John Asher was to Churchill Downs.
The Longacres Mile, which Crockett kept alive at Emerald Downs, is steeped in history. And what Withee did in 2019 has become part of the race’s lore.
In 2014 profile of Withee written by Scott Hanson, the headline was “Joe Withee has become Washington’s voice of horse racing.”
Well, Withee literally was the voice of the 2019 Longacres Mile. Just before the race was to begin, the sound system at Emerald Down ceased working. That meant track announcer Tom Harris was not able to call the race.
Withee had to step in at the very last minute and call the Longacres Mile from ground level while watching the race on a TV monitor.
It turned out that there was a thrilling three-way battle down to the finish line between heavy favorite Anyportinastorm, Law Abidin Citizen and Restrainedvengence.
Law Abidin Citizen won by a head at odds of 6-1. Anyportinastorm had to settle for second in the field of 11. Restrainedvengence finished third at 26-1. Yes, that’s the same Restrainedvengence who won last Sunday’s Grade III American Stakes at Santa Anita.
Under trying circumstances, Withee did nothing less than a superlative job with his call of the 2019 Longacres Mile.
But then that’s really nothing new. Withee has been doing a superlative job ever since he began his racing career at Longacres many years before the start of Emerald Downs. After Longacres closed for good in 1992, Withee worked at Yakima Meadows before moving on to Emerald Downs when racing there began.
Withee joins a distinguished list of Hall of Fame inductees that consists of the man who built Longacres, Joe Gottstein, plus Ron Crockett, Mark Dedomenico, Robert Geller, Jack Hodge, Pete Pedersen, James Seabeck, Karen and Mickey Taylor, George Todaro, Ralph Vacca and Aaron T. Van de Vanter.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
There are no newcomers or changes to the rankings in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 313 Mystic Guide (25)
2. 241 Silver State (1)
3. 231 Letruska (1)
4. 217 Domestic Spending (5)
5. 189 Essential Quality (2)
6. 135 Charlatan
7. 132 Maxfield (1)
8. 109 Gamine
9. 96 Monomoy Girl
10. 34 Knicks Go