Keeler Johnson’s Graded Stakes Preview—May 9, 2015

Keeler Johnson’s Graded Stakes Preview—May 9, 2015

This Saturday promises to be an exciting one for racing fans, as there are seven graded stakes races on schedule at tracks across the U.S. and Canada, including two grade Is at Belmont Park and Santa Anita. In some cases, the morning line favorites look difficult to beat, but there are a few races in which intriguing longshots may have a legitimate chance to pull the upset. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on five of this week’s graded stakes races!

Man o’ War Stakes (gr. I)
11 furlongs on turf at Belmont Park

Shug McGaughey’s talented seven-year-old Imagining will likely be favored off a narrow victory in the twelve-furlong Pan American Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream last time out, and having won half of his ten career starts on the Belmont turf—including last year’s renewal of this race—it’s clear that he has an affinity for the course. However, he has shown a tendency to be a bit inconsistent, turning in poor efforts when he drops too far back off the early lead. Furthermore, even at his best, he doesn’t hold much of an edge over his primary rivals, so I’m going try and beat him at a short price.

My choice to pull the upset is Twilight Eclipse, who finished just three-quarters of a length behind Imagining in the Pan American Stakes. In 2014, the two horses faced off on three occasions, with Twilight Eclipse getting the better of Imagining in both the Breeders’ Cup Turf (Twilight Eclipse third, Imagining seventh) and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (Twilight Eclipse second, Imagining third.) On Saturday, I believe Twilight Eclipse can use his tactical speed to work out a great trip from post four and defeat Imagining once again.

Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II)
9 furlongs at Belmont Park

On April 4th, Two Weeks Off returned from a long layoff to win a seven-furlong, 184-foot allowance race at Keeneland by 6 ½ lengths, clocking the distance in track-record time of 1:25.13 while earning an impressive Beyer speed figure of 104. He’s never tried the nine-furlong distance of the Peter Pan, but the one-turn nature of the race should play in his favor, and in the absence of any other true front-runners, I think Two Weeks Off looks like a deserving favorite.

Wolf Man Rocket probably has the best chance to pull an upset, as the Bob Baffert-trained colt looked very impressive rallying to win the one-mile Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn last time out. He’s been keeping good company and should have no trouble with the distance of the Peter Pan, although drawing the rail could potentially lead to a tricky trip.

Beaugay Stakes (gr. III)
8.5 furlongs on turf at Belmont Park

Discreet Marq is the morning line favorite at 2-1, but she will be making her first start since finishing third in the Matriarch Stakes (gr. I) last November, and while she’s clearly a very talented filly, she has also won just two races—both of them listed stakes races—since September 2013. Keeping this in mind, I’m going to try and beat her for the top spot, and I will also try to beat morning line second-choice J Wonder, a European shipper that finished third in a Keeneland allowance race on April 9th to begin her U.S. career.

A bit overlooked at 6-1 on the morning line is Testa Rossi, who was compromised by a slow pace when fourth last time out in the Santa Ana Stakes (gr. II), but who previously showed a good turn-of-foot to run second in the Endeavour Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs (she was placed first via disqualification.) With six solid workouts under her belt since then, she should be ready to a sharp effort, and it’s worth noting that she’s returning to the site of her stellar victory in the 2013 Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. III). I’ll take her as my selection to win.

Vanity Handicap (gr. I)
9 furlongs at Santa Anita Park

With Beholder having scratched due to a fever, just four horses will start in the Vanity, and Warren’s Veneda looks like a standout. The California-bred daughter of Affirmative brings a three-race win streak into the Vanity, highlighted by a stellar 7 ¼-length victory in the Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I) on March 14th. The runner-up that day, Dame Dorothy, returned to win the Humana Distaff (gr. I) on May 2nd at Churchill Downs, making Warren’s Veneda’s victory all the more impressive. Since then, Warren’s Veneda has trained impressively at Santa Anita, and figures to have little trouble adding a Vanity victory to her list of achievements.

American Stakes (gr. III)
8 furlongs on turf at Santa Anita

This race looks pretty wide-open on paper, so I’ll look for a bit of a price with Gabriel Charles. Trained by Jeff Mullins, the son of Street Hero returned from a 17 ½-month layoff to finish second in a one-mile turf allowance race at Santa Anita, dropping to the back of the pack before passing most of his rivals with a final quarter-mile in about :23.50 seconds. Time will tell if he can step up against the likes of Talco and Winning Prize, but he did win the Del Mar Derby (gr. II) in September 2013, and his morning line price of 8-1 seems more than fair. I like his chances to pull off an upset.

Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in this week’s graded stakes races?

Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the blog Unlocking Winners.

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