February 22, 2024

Santin among three potential repeaters in Kentucky Derby Day grass stakes

Santin ridden by Tyler Gaffalione wins the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

Churchill Downs’ oldest grass stakes, the $1 million Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1), has had three repeat winners in its history, which dates to 1987. Santin aims to become the fourth when the nine-furlong fixture serves as the customary prelude into the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Saturday.

The refurbished Matt Winn Turf Course went through some growing pains over the course of 2022, but Santin handled it better than most. After posting a neck win in the Turf Classic, Santin returned in August to claim the Arlington Million (G1) by 1 3/4 lengths.

Santin was over the top by the end of the season, finishing unplaced in both the Coolmore Turf Mile (G1) at Keeneland and the Seabiscuit H. (G2) at Del Mar. However, his recent fourth to Wolfie’s Dynaghost in the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway was okay, given it was his first attempt on a synthetic surface and the fact he stumbled badly at the start in what was clearly a get-fit trip for this title defense.

Prior two-time winners of the Turf Classic include Einstein (2008-09), dual Horse of the Year Wise Dan (2013-14), and Divisidero (2016-17).

Todd Pletcher, who holds a strong hand in the Derby, has two serious contenders here in Up to the Mark and Steady On. Up to the Mark rallied for third behind Chez Pierre and champion Modern Games in a speed-favoring edition of the Maker’s Mark Mile (G1), while the similarly progressive Steady On was a last-out winner of the Appleton S. at Gulfstream.

The California contingent is led by the Phil D’Amato pair of Hong Kong Harry, who counted the Seabiscuit among his three stakes wins last season, and Grade 3 scorer Earls Rock. Bye Bye Melvin, runner-up to War Like Goddess in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Aqueduct last fall, shortens up for his season debut, while the ageless Spooky Channel enters in career-best form following a win the Muniz Memorial (G2) at Fair Grounds.

Another title defense is on tap when Speak of the Devil looks to give trainer Chad Brown his third consecutive win in the $500,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G1). Speak of the Devil was most recently fifth in the March 4 Honey Fox (G3) in her first outing since June.

Brown also saddles Haughty and Fluffy Socks, but the filly to beat might be Spendarella, a three-time graded winner at three last season and an impressive runner-up to Inspiral in the Coronation (G1) at Royal Ascot for trainer Graham Motion.

Arrest Me Red will aim to earn back-to-back victories in the $500,000 Twin Spires Turf Sprint (G2), but will have as many as 13 rivals standing in his way.

California invaders Motorious and Noble Reflection merit consideration on the rise in class, while Bad Beat Brian and Oceanic finished in close attendance to Arrest Me Red when taking down minor awards in the Shakertown (G2) at Keeneland behind the mare Caravel.

Big Invasion, who has won seven of nine, including the William Walker S. over this course last season, faces his toughest test to date, while stakes winner Evan Sing enters off some intriguing local works.

Repeat winners aren’t possible in the $500,000 American Turf (G2), a 1 1/16-mile test restricted to three-year-olds, but the race has nonetheless come up very salty. Talk of the Nation was just that when scoring impressively in the March 11 Columbia S. at Tampa Bay Downs in his stakes debut for Shug McGaughey, but will face a gate load of rivals.

Columbia runner-up Mo Stash enters off of a wire job in the Transylvania (G3) at Keeneland, while multiple graded winner Major Dude settles for this spot after not getting the required number of defections to make the Kentucky Derby lineup. Carl Spackler and Far Bridge are intriguing stakes newbies, California invader Johannes enters off back-to-back turf stakes wins at Santa Anita, and Irish import Behind Enemy Lines was a good winner of the Cutler Bay S. at Gulfstream in his U.S. debut.