With Horse of the Year and accomplished turf miler Wise Dan on the sidelines following colic surgery, the Firecracker (II) at Churchill Downs has become a heated free-for-all with 3 Grade 1 winners and plenty of improving shooters jumping onto the grass. It looks to be an excellent betting race with a vulnerable likely favorite returning from off a layoff and several horses rounding into peak form.
$200,000 Firecracker Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 mile on turf at Churchill Downs. Post Time: Saturday, June 28 at 4:18pm EST.
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Guys Reward - Jesus Castanon, 121 lbs, Dale Romans - The 7-year-old iron horse backs the successful rail post with a G3 win in the Tampa Bay Stakes followed by 3 puttering starts. He showed improvement in his last start where he ran 4th and Dale Romans has shown he is very good with getting 3rd-off-the-layoff entries in 1st or 2nd place. Exotics horse.
2) Free World - Corey Lanerie, 121 lbs, Tom Amoss - The Stormy Atlantic colt has been on my “must watch” list since last year, and he returned to win his only start this year after a long layoff, winning by more than 5. Likely to be the speed horse of the field, Free World will likely be joined by one or more horses unless he can get away quickly from the #2 spot. He is 2-for-2 at this distance mark and has some hidden back-class. Upset potential.
3) Valentino Beauty - Brian Hernandez Jr, 121 lbs, Thomas Drury - The Vindication gelding has a 50% win percentage on the turf, with much of his career made at Woodbine. However, he is still searching for that breakthrough stakes win in his 3rd start with Drury, who had him win his first time out and lost his 2nd start in the stretch— on all-weather. Not a particularly strong entry, but there’s room for progress as Valentino Beauty has kept things consistent lately.
4) Nikki’s Sandcastle - Leandro Goncalves, 121 lbs, David Kassen - Another tough iron horse type, the 7-year-old gelding has accomplished 10 wins in 40 starts with 16 places and shows to command some attention. A G2 winner already, he is 2-for-4 at the mile mark and appears to have reached top form with a win in the Hashin (III) last out at Arlington over polytrack despite going wide. A serious threat for the win, the pace may set up for Nikki, who is on the muscle for this race.
5) Silver Max - Robby Albarado, 121 lbs, Dale Romans - The only horse who managed to conquer Wise Dan last year in a rained-off edition of the Shadwell, the turf is Silver Max’s playground as long as he is able to snatch that lead, leading him to 4 wins in 8 starts last year. He comes off an extended freshening with no starts since running 4th in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (I) in November. He looks to need some air in his lungs and he likely won’t get that uncontested lead— two big reasons to leave this otherwise classy horse off the table.
6) Villandry - Julien Leparoux, 121 lbs, Charles LoPresti - With no Dan, Charles LoPresti sends out this Gainesway-owned son of Mr. Greeley, looking for his first stakes win after coming up 3/4 of a length short to Regally Ready in the Opening Verse. I actually kind of like this horse; his last race had him way back for most of the race and he closed nicely. Leparoux is trustworthy on the grass and Villandry ought to be hitting his best stride in the stretch.
7) Joha - Joe Rocco Jr, 121 lbs, Joshua Flores - Winless since his nose victory at Belmont in October, the Johar colt tries the grass at Churchill with no wins at this distance in 4 tries and just 2 wins in 12 tries on the turf. He missed by 1 1/2 lengths last out in the all-weather Hashin (III). At his best, Joha could win this, but I doubt he’s at his best right now or lately.
8) Regally Ready - Shaun Bridgmohan, 121 lbs, Steve Asmussen - The 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner hopes to make it 3 in a row this year and has a great Churchill record with 5 wins in 7 starts. However, he loses Rosie Napravnik due to her injury and will not be alone on that lead he typically likes. Losing a top rider who rode him to his recent 2 wins, which represents a resurgence after a trip gone awry to Dubai, is risky as is the outer post and a race that does not appeal to his running style. I’m not overly optimistic.
Top 3 Picks in Order:
1) Free World
2) Nikki’s Sandcastle
Of these three, Nikki’s Sandcastle gets a great setup as a very strong turfer but Villandry could easily get it as well. However, I placed Free World on top as a serious diamond in the rough; he reminds me a lot of Rydilluc, who I admit became vulnerable once challenged for that lead, but I’m taking a gamble that Free World is all class.
Value Pick: Villandry (6-1 or better) gets a great setup and will be at better odds than say, Nikki’s Sandcastle. Charles LoPresti is in the hunt for his 3rd Firecracker win and is a class horseman.
Pick 4 options: Free World, Nikki’s Sandcastle, Villandry. Also consider Regally Ready, who is riding in with 2 straight wins as a reformed sprinter and is 5-for-7 at Churchill.