Keeler Johnson's picks and plays of the day for May 8
Handicapper J. Keeler Johnson shares his picks and plays for Saturday, May 8 at Belmont Park and Churchill Downs, along with horses of note in high-profile carryovers at Belmont, Churchill, and Gulfstream Park.
Picks and Plays
Belmont Park Race 10: Man o’ War (G1, 1 3/8 miles on turf, 5:44 p.m. ET)
#1 Sovereign (8-5) is the morning line favorite while making his U.S. debut for trainer Chad Brown. Formerly based in Europe, Sovereign has lots of tactical speed and dominated the 2019 Irish Derby (G1) by six lengths. But the son of Galileo went 0-for-5 in 2020, and now crosses the pond in hopes of turning things around.
Sovereign is an obvious threat under hot jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., but I prefer the chances of #8 Gufo (2-1), who won the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Derby (G1) over this course last fall.
Never out of the trifecta in eight starts, Gufo boasts a wicked turn-of-foot, as he displayed when rallying furiously to finish third in the 1 1/8-mile Hollywood Derby (G1) on Nov. 28. On that occasion, Gufo sprinted the final furlong in less than :11 to finish just a neck behind Domestic Spending and Smooth Like Strait, the first and third-place runners in the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs last week.
The fact Gufo hasn’t run since November is a question mark, but he’s trained forwardly in preparation for his return, and stretching out over 1 3/8 miles shouldn’t bother the son of Declaration of War. We’ll bet Gufo to win and play him over Sovereign in a cold exacta.
$20 to win on #8 Gufo
$10 Exacta: 8 with 1
Churchill Downs Race 8: Allowance (1 1/16 miles on turf, 4:22 p.m. ET)
Stakes-placed as a juvenile, #12 Flown (4-1) ran deceptively well when returning from a layoff in the one-mile Appalachian (G2) at Keeneland last month. A troubled start left the daughter of Kitten’s Joy racing dead last behind a pedestrian fractions of :24.82, :49.87, and 1:14.29, so when the front-running winner rocketed the final quarter mile in :22.54, Flown never had a realistic chance to catch up.
Nonetheless, Flown did gain a little ground down the homestretch, running her personal final quarter in about :22.33. The challenging nature of the pace was reiterated when Appalachian runner-up Gift List (likewise compromised by the slow fractions) returned to trounce the Edgewood (G3) field in her next start.
Flown is eligible to improve in her second start of the season, and if she encounters a better pace setup, she come flying down the homestretch to nab top honors at a fair price. Taking advantage of the Churchill Downs Bet Back offer, we’ll place a $10 win bet on Flown and receive our money back if she finishes second or third. We'll also single her to kick off a double bet.
$10 to win on #12 Flown
$5 Double: 12 with 1
Churchill Downs Race 9: $62,500 Allowance/Optional Claiming (1 1/16 miles, 4:55 p.m. ET)
#1 Crystal Ball (6-5) showed Grade 1 talent at Saratoga last summer, finishing second by a head in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) while pulling 4 3/4 lengths clear of future Saratoga Oaks winner Antoinette.
Trained by Bob Baffert, Crystal Ball recently returned from a long layoff to win a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at Santa Anita. This effort produced a solid 95 Brisnet Speed rating, and I’m optimistic she’ll fire another big shot in her Kentucky debut. Baffert has been hot at Churchill Downs, going 3-for-7 (43%), and jockey Florent Geroux (a 21% winner at Churchill this meet) is named to ride.
Following up with the Churchill Downs Bet Back offer, we’ll place a $10 win bet on Crystal Ball. But we’ll also play her over the consistent (and improving) #3 Funnybet (10-1) in a cold exacta.
$10 to win on #1 Crystal Ball
$5 Exacta: 1 with 3
Belmont Park, Race 6: $41,572 Pick 6 Carryover
A stakes-packed afternoon of racing just got even better! The Saturday card at Belmont was already enticing with five graded stakes on the agenda. Throw in a $41,572 carryover in the non-jackpot, $1 Pick 6, and the excitement level doubles.
The sequence kicks off with the Beaugay (G3), in which 2020 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) winner #1 Harvey’s Lil Goil (8-5) will make her four-year-old debut. The daughter of American Pharoah is a logical favorite, but she hasn’t run since finishing third by a neck in the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). If you’re hesitant to single Harvey’s Lil Goil off the layoff, then #2 Lemista (5-2)—a Group 2 winner in Ireland making her U.S. debut for trainer Chad Brown—is a logical alternative.
If you’re looking for a price play, consider #4 Wolfie’s Dynaghost in Race 9, the Peter Pan (G2). The stoutly bred son of Ghostzapper beat a strong field in his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Aqueduct last November, even though he’s bred to improve with maturity and thrive running long. Wolfie’s Dynaghost has tactical speed and figures to catch a perfect trip while stretching out over 1 1/8 miles in the Peter Pan, setting the stage for a big effort in his sophomore debut.
Singles are always tough to find, but in the Man o’ War, I could be talked into taking a stand with #8 Gufo (2-1) for all the reasons I outlined earlier. The Man o’ War seems like a two-horse race between Gufo and Sovereign, so if we drop the latter from our ticket, we can cut the cost in half and spread deeper in more competitive legs of the sequence. It’s a bit risky, but worth chancing.
Gulfstream Park, Race 7: $419,268 Pick 6 Carryover
The Belmont Pick 6 is enticing, though from a monetary perspective, it’s not nearly as large as the Rainbow Pick 6 jackpot scheduled for mandatory dispersal on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The carryover for the 20-cent wager stands at $419,268, and the final pool is projected to reach the vicinity of $2 million.
Suffice to say, it’s a beast of a sequence. No fewer than 65 horses have been entered across the six races, which equates to 1,568,160 possible outcomes before scratches. Each race looks highly competitive, and finding a single will be difficult.
Nevertheless, we’ll give it a gallant try. In Race 9, a $20,000 claiming race for fillies and mares racing one mile on turf, we’re keen to support #2 Setting the Mood (5-2). Fourth in the 2020 Belmont Oaks (G1), Setting the Mood has taken a step backward in 2021, going 0-for-3 so far while gradually dropping down the class ladder. But Setting the Mood wasn’t disgraced in a $20,000 claiming race at Gulfstream two months ago, rallying wide from behind a slow pace to finish third, and it’s important to note she was claimed out of that effort by high-percentage trainer Saffie Joseph.
Joseph has been hot at Gulfstream, winning at a 22% rate. But more importantly, Joseph strikes at a 30% rate with new claiming acquisitions, suggesting Setting the Mood can bounce back to her best form and visit the winner’s circle on Saturday.
Churchill Downs, Race 11: $8,418 Super Hi-5 Carryover
If you’re not in the mood to bet a Pick 6, we recommend turning your attention to the $8,418 Super Hi-5 carryover at Churchill Downs. The pot is up for grabs in the Saturday finale, a six-furlong, $50,000 maiden claiming sprint with nine fillies and mares in the entries. With “only” 15,120 possible outcomes before scratches, it looks a lot easier to hit than the Rainbow 6 at Gulfstream.
#4 Love Enough (3-1) and #7 Muchacha (4-1) are logical favorites after placing multiple times against maiden special weight company, but don’t count out #5 Gem Key (8-1). Trainer Kenny McPeek isn’t a frequent winner with first-time starters, so Gem Key probably wasn’t cranked for a peak effort when finishing fourth in her debut against maiden special weight company at Ellis Park last summer. We’ll also draw a line through Gem Key’s 10th-place effort in a March 27 maiden special weight at Turfway Park, considering she was returning from a long layoff, switching to Tapeta, and stretching out over one mile.
Conditions appear much more favorable for Gem Key on Saturday. Not only is she dropping in class, she’s cutting back in distance and returning to dirt for her third career start. I believe the daughter of Maclean’s Music will outrun expectations and possibly visit the winner’s circle at a nice price, prompting a big payoff in the Super Hi-5.