Weekend Recap Part 3: Airoforce, Mohaymen Enhance Derby Credentials

Weekend Recap Part 3: Airoforce, Mohaymen Enhance Derby Credentials

Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos

Mohaymen winning the 2015 Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct - Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos
Mohaymen winning the 2015 Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct – Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos

This is the third part of my massive Weekend Recap analyzing the results of the U.S. racing action during Thanksgiving weekend. Today’s recap will focus on the results of the “Stars of Tomorrow” card at Churchill Downs, as well as the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. Part 1, which can be viewed here, recapped the racing action on November 25th and 26th, while Part 2, which can be viewed here, recapped the major races on November 27th, 28th, and 29th, including the Clark Handicap and Cigar Mile. Part 4 will details the results of the eleven two-year-old races that were run on Saturday at Gulfstream Park West. Enjoy!

Although the Cigar Mile and Clark Handicap were the two most prestigious races of the weekend, they were overshadowed to some extent by the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs and the $300,000 Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct. Both races serve as early preps for the Kentucky Derby, offering 17 qualification points to the top four finishers, and provide racing fans with a chance to see some of the best two-year-olds in the country face off in stakes company. Of course, it should be noted that only one Derby winner since 2000 has even started in the Kentucky Jockey Club or Remsen Stakes–that being Super Saver, who swept the Kentucky Jockey Club and Derby in 2009/2010–but these races are nevertheless important to analyze, if simply to try and get a feel for which region of the country has the strongest group of Derby contenders.

From a Beyer speed figure perspective, the Remsen won the battle, as the victorious Mohaymen earned a very respectable figure of 94 while winning his second consecutive graded stakes race. In contrast, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner Airoforce posted a figure of just 87–a solid number, but seven points lower than Mohaymen’s 94. However, from a visual perspective, I think Airoforce’s performance was more impressive, and if I had to take a guess at which colt will have a bigger impact on the road to the 2016 Kentucky Derby, I would choose Airoforce.

But that’s not to say that Mohaymen wasn’t impressive–he ran an exceptional race to stamp himself as clearly the best two-year-old on the East Coast. Facing eight talented rivals, Mohaymen showed a new dimension while settling in behind runners in fourth and then third place as the leaders carved out slow fractions of :24.35, :49.16, and 1:13.73. Showing no disdain for having dirt kicked in his face, Mohaymen made a nice run up the inside on the turn and then split horses professionally in the homestretch to take command of the lead. In the end, this might have been a race-winning move, for while Mohaymen finished strongly–running his final furlong in :12.26 seconds–the pace-tracking Flexibility was also finishing strongly, and stayed on stubbornly to finish just 1 1/2 lengths behind Mohaymen at the finish. If Mohaymen hadn’t found an opening in the homestretch and had to instead back up and go around Flexibility and third-place finisher Gift Box, I’m not sure that he would have been able to catch Flexibility.

But again, it must be reiterated that the Remsen in general was a strong race. The final time of 1:50.69 seconds was 0.06 second faster than the talented three-year-old Forever Unbridled ran while winning the Comely Stakes (gr. III) later on the card, and the final three furlongs were timed in a rapid :36.96 seconds. This bodes well for the ability of the Remsen runners to handle the ten-furlong distance of the Kentucky Derby, although it will be interesting to see how they respond to faster pace scenarios down the road.

In contrast to the Remsen, the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes featured a quicker pace but substantially slower finishing fractions, so while the race wasn’t as important on paper, it should be remembered that Churchill Downs is generally a slower track than Aqueduct, and the Kentucky Jockey Club was contested over a sloppy, sealed track that wasn’t yielding particularly fast times. The favorite was Bob Baffert’s Mor Spirit, who entered off an impressive maiden win at Santa Anita, and he ran an excellent race while tracking fractions of :23.50 and :47.61. He took the lead through six furlongs in 1:13 flat, gamely withstood a prolonged challenge in the homestretch from Gun Runner, but tired slightly in the final furlong to finish second behind Airoforce.

As mentioned above, Airforce turned in a very impressive performance from a visual perspective. Coming off a narrow runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), Airoforce was making his debut on dirt, but obviously relished the sloppy conditions and looked perfectly at home over the main track. After settling in eighth early on, he moved up smoothly on the far turn to reach contention, then slowly wore down the leaders before kicking clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths in the time of 1:45.48 seconds. He was definitely finding his best stride at the end of the race, and probably possesses quicker acceleration than Mohaymen, a very useful asset for negotiating traffic in large fields. It’s also significant that he’s shown an affinity for Churchill Downs. Time will tell if he can transfer his dirt form to fast tracks, or to tracks other than Churchill–turf runners tend to perform well at Churchill, and on sloppy tracks in general–but we should get a chance to see how Airforce and Mohaymen stack up against each other this winter, as both are targeting the major Derby preps in Florida.

Two other horses I’d like to mention are Gun Runner and Annual Report. The former received a bit of a tricky trip racing in between horses and may have committed to challenging for the lead too soon, but nevertheless produced a big run on the far turn and early in the homestretch to take the lead before tiring to finish fourth. All told, it wasn’t a bad effort, especially since he didn’t seem particularly comfortable racing between runners early in the race, and I think this is an effort that he can build on down the road.

As for Annual Report, he was moving strongly on the far turn and briefly loomed a contender at the top of the stretch before flattening out to finish fifth. It was a solid effort, and he certainly deserves another chance in a major Derby prep–he might run better on a fast track–but the fact that he produced a big run before flattening out and losing ground in the homestretch suggests that he might be better around one turn than two.

But as well as Airoforce ran while winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the filly Carina Mia ran even better while winning the $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes (gr. II) at the same distance. Coming off of an impressive maiden win at Keeneland, Carina Mia went straight to the lead in her debut around two turns, posting fractional times of :24.38, :49.07, and 1:14.13. Now, the fact that Carina Mia set much slower fractions than those in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes should have meant that her final time would be slower, but that was not the case. When challenged by the pace-tracking Stageplay rounding the final turn, Carina Mia responded by running her fourth quarter-mile in an exceptional :24.54 seconds, and she continued to draw off through a final sixteenth in :06.75 to win by 4 1/4 lengths in the time of 1:45.42 seconds, 0.06 seconds faster than Airoforce! Carina Mia’s victory further demonstrates the talent and depth of this year’s crop of two-year-old fillies, and suggests that the best of them might be capable of challenging colts in major races next year.

One race prior to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes was a one-mile allowance race that drew a quality field of seven starters. Mark Casse’s well-regarded Conquest Big E, coming off of a troubled eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), was the odds-on favorite at 7-10 and ran to expectations while winning decisively. Reserved about two lengths back through solid fractions of :23.26, :46.85, and 1:12.13 (substantially faster than the fractions in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, although granted, this allowance race featured a long run down the backstretch), Conquest Big E pounced to the lead entering the homestretch and powered clear to triumph by two lengths over the late-running Unexplained, who entered off a maiden win at Churchill Downs. The final time of 1:37.62 was solid and translated to a Beyer of 84, and both Conquest Big E and Unexplained looked poised to make some noise on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Conquest Big E is expected to join Airoforce in Florida for the winter, and it will be interesting to see which races that Casse chooses for each colt.

Another impressive performance at Churchill came from Black Ops, who won an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight in 1:45.75 seconds, only slightly slower than the time of 1:45.48 posted by Airoforce in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. A well-bred son of Hard Spun out of an A.P. Indy mare, Black Ops was prominent from the start while dueling for the lead through fractions of :23.79, :48.59, and 1:13.83, then left his rivals behind in the stretch while drawing off to win by 2 3/4 lengths over a strung-out field. Partly as a result of the slow pace, Black Ops finished reasonably well with a fourth quarter-mile in :25.06 and a final sixteenth in :06.86, and his final time was good for a Beyer speed figure of 85. It’s also significant that he easily defeated the well-bet WinStar runner Creator, who rallied well to finish clearly second-best while proving no match for Black Ops. Given his pedigree, which features a combination of miler speed over stamina, Black Ops shouldn’t have trouble handling longer distances, and his excellent tactical speed is generally something that I like to see in a Derby contender. Mohaymen, Airoforce, and Conquest Big E may have drawn most of the attention over the weekend, but I suspect that Black Ops might prove to be just as good or better than all of them.

An identical maiden race held earlier on the card was won by Cherry Wine, who triumphed by an impressive 9 1/4 lengths, but did so while stopping the clock in just 1:46.83 seconds, which was 1.35 seconds slower than Black Ops ran one race later. However, this was due in large part to very slow fractions of :24.10, :49.18, and 1:15.03, which made it practically impossible for a fast final time to be posted. But Cherry Wine, despite trailing the field early on, slowly rallied into contention before unleashing a giant burst of speed to rally up the rail and take the lead. By rough estimations, he ran his fourth quarter-mile in about :24.50 seconds, and he continued to finish well through a final sixteenth in :06.58 seconds. You have to give him credit for rallying into such a slow pace, and his closing fractions were the best of the day in the 8.5-furlong races. Don’t let his slow final time put you off–Cherry Wine looks like a very promising colt, and being by Paddy O’Prado out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, he should have no trouble handling the Derby distance.

The fourth race of the day was a seven-furlong maiden special weight, and Steve Asmussen’s Wild Man was the much the best in the end, rallying from sixth to win by four lengths in the time of 1:24.85 seconds. This was a particularly notable victory since Wild Man is a son of Pulpit out of a Touch Gold mare, so Wild Man is eligible to improve a lot while stretching out around two turns.

Lastly, I would like to mention Gray Sky, a D. Wayne Lukas-trained runner that won the last race on the card, another seven-furlong maiden special weight. The son of Tapit had been beaten in his four previous starts, but those included a respectable 1 1/2-length defeat by Gun Runner in a one-mile maiden race at Churchill on September 11th. Facing ten rivals, Gray Sky showed good speed tracking fractions of :23.24 and :46.74, then took the lead and held off a big finish from Lucky Ramsey to win by 1 1/4 lengths. His final time of 1:25.37 wasn’t very fast (it translated to a 73 Beyer), and neither was his final furlong time of :13.30, but my feeling is that we haven’t seen the best that Gray Sky has to offer, and I think he will continue to show improvement during the coming months.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of my weekend recap, which will analyze the results of the top-notch two-year-olds on Saturday at Gulfstream Park West!

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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 Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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