How to Bet the Quality Derby Week Maiden Races at Churchill Downs

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 1st, 2019

The Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and 11 other graded stakes races are the obvious highlights at Churchill Downs this week, but racing’s future will also be on display in a series of quality maiden special weight races.

Across Friday and Saturday, five special weight events—three on dirt, two on turf—will be conducted over a variety of distances. The participants might be winless, but these competitive races could serve as springboards to bigger and better things down the road. Could we see a future graded stakes winner in action?

With rain in the forecast, there’s an added layer of complexity to handicapping in advance, but if you’re busy plotting out multi-race wagers (or simply looking for a few win bet spot plays across Friday and Saturday), I’ve got some horses for you to consider.

Kentucky Oaks Day (May 3)

Race 4

His outside post draw is a concern, but #12 Life Mission really should win this 1 1/16-mile turf race. His rivals don’t appear to be particularly formidable, and Life Mission has already proven himself against tougher company. He placed in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint Stakes, Awad Stakes and Pulpit Stakes last year.

At first glance Life Mission’s latest effort—a fourth-place finish in a maiden race at Keeneland—seems sub-par. But he was actually vying for the lead in the homestretch before he got squeezed out of contention, and that race was his first start in four months, so he had every reason to come up short. With the benefit of a prep run under his belt, I’m expecting a sharp effort from Life Mission on Friday. With a clean trip, he should win.

$20 to win on #12 Life Mission

Race 13

In a seemingly wide-open race with seven first-time starters among the 13 entrants, #4 Hallawallah offers appeal at 5-1. The unraced 3-year-old daughter of Candy Ride sold for $200,000 as a 2-year-old in training, and while she’s a bit late to make her debut, she’s posted some sharp recent workouts at Churchill Downs, including a bullet five furlongs from the starting gate in 1:00 flat April 16. Trainer Steve Asmussen wins at a 23 percent rate with first-time starters, and his go-to jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. will be in the saddle.

Another interesting player is #11 Aymara, who finished a decent sixth in her debut going 1 1/16 miles on turf at Gulfstream Park in March. Trainer Bill Mott is changing things up significantly this time around, switching Aymara to the main track, cutting her back to six furlongs and adding blinkers. As a daughter of Speightstown, sprinting on the main track might well be Aymara’s strong suit, and she’s certainly trained forwardly on dirt.

But there are so many logical candidates here, you would have to hit the “ALL” button to feel any great confidence in surviving multi-race wagers. #5 New Rules and #8 Vomba have both run races that could make them competitive here, and #13 Barracuda—though marooned on the far outside—could be in with a chance on debut for trainer Peter Miller.

For the purpose of a win bet, I’ll favor Hallawallah, but for multi-race wagers (doubles, Pick 3s, etc.), I’d be inclined to spread deep with the five horses listed above.

$10 to win on #4 Hallawallah

Kentucky Derby Day (May 4)

Race 3

#1 He’s Stylish has struggled to stay sound, but this California shipper has fired off some eye-catching Beyer speed figures over the last couple years and has to be considered the horse to beat. In his debut back in October 2017, he finished second behind future grade 1 winner McKinzie.

Even if you don’t trust He’s Stylish to fire his best shot while returning from an 8 1/2-month layoff, some of the risk will be offset. He’s coupled in the wagering with his Phil D'Amato-trained stablemate #1A Young Phillip, who finished third in his debut over a sloppy, sealed track at Santa Anita Park in February. Between them they loom as a formidable duo.

The real wildcard here is #6 Palmer’s Way, who finished second in his debut behind the future Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Battle of Midway. The problem is, that race was in January 2017, and Palmer’s Way hasn’t run since. He’s switched barns and has been gelded, so it’s hard to know what to expect from this 5-year-old maiden. #4 Surooj might not be as flashy at first glance, but at least he’s run recently, finishing a close second in his debut at Oaklawn Park two weeks ago.

Workout reports could help us zero in on the horses training best for this race, but until the information becomes available (closer to post time), we’ll put our faith in the D’Amato duo and consider keying them in the exacta with Palmer’s Way and Surooj.

$5 exacta: 1 with 4,6 ($10) $5 exacta: 4,6 with 1 ($10)

Race 5

Assuming this 1 1/16-mile event doesn’t get rained off the turf course, I’ll be attracted to the chances of #1 Encore Kitten. A 4-year-old daughter of Kitten’s Joy bred and owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Encore Kitten has probably dealt with soundness issues since she’s only now making her debut, but she’s bred to relish turf (particularly wet turf) and turned in a sharp workout over the grass course at Palm Meadows on March 23, clocking a half-mile in :47 2/5. In a race that otherwise looks wide open, I’ll bet Encore Kitten to win and use her in any multi-race wagers I might choose to play. The Ramseys frequently win the leading owner title at Churchill Downs race meets, and don’t you think Ken Ramsey wants a winner on Derby Day?

$10 to win on #1 Encore Kitten

Race 14

Many of the entrants in the 1 1/8-mile finale on Derby Day have repeatedly struggled to reach the winner’s circle. Several have lost a half-dozen races or more, and the majority have been posting Beyer speed figures in the mid-70s.

One exception is #2 Ranger Up. He has lost four races, but has never finished out of the trifecta while competing against classy horses like Cave Run, Hidden Scroll, Identifier and Bandon Woods. Even better, he’s posted Beyer figures of 83 and 82 while finishing second in his last two starts, and he’s shown improvement since stretching out around two turns.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to single Ranger Up in multi-race wagers, but this Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-old seems like the horse to beat on paper. He’s proven over wet tracks and has the tactical speed to work out a clean trip from post 2. Backup tickets might utilize #1 Rotation, runner-up in two recent maiden races at Oaklawn, and #5 Tony Small, second in his debut at Fair Grounds.

$10 to win on #2 Ranger Up $5 exacta: 2 with 1,5 ($10)

Total cost of all plays: $80

Good luck!