10/13/2011 11:48AM

Weekend Warrior for Oct. 15


There is only one Grade 1 stakes in the nation Saturday, and it is Keeneland’s $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. There are, however, five other graded stakes on the schedule – the Grade 2, $150,000 Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita, the Grade 3, $200,000 Hawthorne Derby, Belmont Park’s Grade 3, $100,000 pair of the Athenia and Knickerbocker, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Spend a Buck at Calder, which is actually a supporting feature to the two $300,000 2-year-old races there, the In Reality and My Dear Girl.

Keeneland 75th Anniversary Stakes

This is the supporting feature to the Q.E. II, and is a direct prep for the new Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. Voodoo Daddy, who earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in his successful debut at Saratoga, will be well supported to make amends for his loss at even money last time out in the Sapling Stakes. But I will be trying to beat him. Voodoo Daddy did stumble at the start of the Sapling, and while that certainly didn’t help him, I really don’t think it was much of an excuse, either. Voodoo Daddy might have left the gate stumbling, but he also broke running, and he made a comfortable early lead almost immediately. Yet after being pressured into and around the far turn by a 55-1 shot, Voodoo Daddy gave way in the final furlong to finish a soundly beaten eighth. I also wonder how strong a race the Sapling really was. The winner, She Digs Me, came back to be a poor sixth even after bearing out early as the 7-5 favorite in the Nashua.

I like Norm’s Passion. Norm’s Passion comes into this off only a maiden win at Del Mar, but that was a decisive score, for which he earned a 90 Beyer. That victory also showed why Norm’s Passion was sent off the favorite against nine opponents in his debut at Del Mar two starts back. Norm’s Passion finished a creditable third in that race, showing an ability to run well from a little off the pace, which might serve him well Saturday. But that effort looks better when you consider that the winner, Gun Boat, came back to finish a close fourth in the Del Mar Futurity, and the runner up, Basmati, returned to finish a close fifth in the Del Mar Futurity and fourth in the Norfolk while still a maiden.

While we’re at Keeneland, let’s talk about the Q.E. II Cup. Winter Memories will be a strong favorite, and I can’t bring myself to pick against her. She showed a turn of foot winning the Garden City last time out for her sixth win from eight career starts that the other fillies in this race – some of them very good fillies – can only dream of having. And this is the race the connections of Winter Memories have had as her primary goal for quite some time.

However, I do think Together is dangerous, at least from an exotic wagers standpoint. Together came over from Ireland for last week’s First Lady at Keeneland, and it’s very interesting that trainer Aidan O’Brien is wheeling her back in just one week. And not only was Together game finishing second in the First Lady after being in traffic behind horses in upper stretch, she ran well while being in with 10 older opponents. Together moves back in with straight 3-year-olds Saturday, and as I have noted before here, that can often be a huge class drop, even in the fall. It should also be noted that when Together finished less than four lengths behind Winter Memories when fifth in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, it was after Together was shuffled back on the rail on the far turn by a tiring opponent, costing her several lengths.

Oak Tree Derby

Midnight Interlude was as game as can be when beaten a nose most recently in the Del Mar Derby. He is the one I would want most coming out of that race. I did give a long look to Cloud Man, who was beaten only a length finishing fourth in the Del Mar Derby, because he was going well at the finish and he looks like he still has a good bit of room for improvement. The thing is, while Cloud Man should run well again Saturday, he never had a straw in his path at Del Mar, while Midnight Interlude was under pressure every step of the way. But the real question for me here is, do I want anyone out of the Del Mar Derby? I decided I didn’t, because with less than two lengths separating the first through seventh finishers, it’s fair to question how tough a race it was.

I wanted a new face in this spot, and I’m going with the newest of all, French invader Venomous. I do have concerns as to whether Venomous is quite as good now as he was earlier in the season when he just missed finishing second in the French 2000 Guineas, but he was beaten less than two lengths in a good Group 1 at Chantilly as recently as three starts ago. It’s also encouraging that Joel Rosario picks up the mount.

Knickerbocker Stakes

I liked Boisterous last time out in the Sword Dancer, and while he disappointed with a fade to fifth in the late running, this is an easier race than the Sword Dancer. Boisterous remains, for me, anyway, a prime win candidate. The one issue I have with him here, however, as well as another obvious contender in Center Divider, is distance. Both are certainly well capable of winning at this nine-furlong trip. But Boisterous and Center Divider are both cutting back in distance after a series of starts in much longer races, so maybe they won’t have quite the turn of foot on Saturday needed to win this.

Mr. Ryder is my play. Mr. Ryder’s interior fractions in his recent outings at a slightly shorter distance suggest he has a turn of foot that is competitive here. And while it is true that Mr. Ryder is stepping up significantly in class, he is a lightly raced horse who has shown steady improvement while winning four of his last five starts. Mr. Ryder, a pricey yearling purchase, is in patient hands, so it is possible that he might really be on his way now.