If Pender Harbour were sticking around to contest today’s Ontario Derby, it could be deemed a deciding race in the battle for Outstanding Three-Year-Old in Canada.
While cross-entered in the 1 1/8-mile contest for three-year-olds, the chestnut son of Philanthropist is at the track formerly known as Philadelphia Park to take part in the lucrative Pennsylvania Derby.
Nonetheless, the Ontario Derby has lured many of the other usual suspects in the division, including Queen’s Plate runner-up Hippolytus and Prince of Wales Stakes runner-up Bowman’s Causeway.
When bettors are finished deciphering the tricky event, neither may be listed as the favorite on the tote-board.
Reade Baker trainee Moonshine Mullin, on the strength of his runner-up finish in the Jim Dandy and modest result in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, may be the lukewarm choice when all is said and done.
From a handicapping perspective, the Ontario Derby appears to be an exercise in who dislikes the Woodbine Polytrack the least. The fact is, several of the top contenders have moved up considerably when switched to a conventional dirt track.
This is cloudy form of an unobvious nature. Usually, when we talk about cloudy form, it’s because of dull sixth-place finishes or 10-length defeats. Second-place finishes in significant graded events on a surface different than today’s also cloud the handicapping process.
Take the potential favorite Moonshine Mullin, for instance. At the end of June, he had been on Polytrack three times, with one stakes win (in Victoria Park), one stakes second and one third-place finish.
His best Poly performance on the Beyer scale came in Victoria Park, in which he earned an 84 Beyer. Fast forward to his next start in the Jim Dandy. His second-place finish to Stay Thirsty, who went on to win the Travers, resulted in a whopping 99 figure, which is six or seven lengths better than his previous top.
So, the burning question: is Moonshine Mullin a better horse on dirt or is he an improving three-year-old that took a major move forward in performance that would have occurred whether the Jim Dandy was on dirt, slop, Poly or turf?
The Victoria Park is a bit of a puzzle because, in addition to Moonshine Mullin, Pender Harbour moved up in his next start, improving 11 Beyer points in the Queen’s Plate (from an 82 to a 94). Then there is Alpha Bettor who was second by a head in the Victoria Park, but hasn’t replicated that form, having finished sixth in the Toronto Cup and a very disappointing ninth in an optional claimer.
The Poly vs. dirt question makes Moonshine Mullin an interesting horse to play against this afternoon if he’s anything less than 3-1. If for some reason he’s higher than that, the risk should be worth the investment.
The Reade Baker trainee isn’t the only Ontario Derby runner who may be better on dirt than Poly.
Chad Brown trainee Bowman’s Causeway was a decent fourth in the Queen’s Plate on Polytrack, but he was much better second in the Prince of Wales over Fort Erie’s dirt surface, even if the effort only earned a Beyer figure one point higher. He probably should have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown were it not for a wide trip. The son of Giant’s Causeway followed up with a non-threatening seventh in the Grade 1 Travers.
Back on Polytrack, it’s hard to say how Bowman’s Causeway will perform. Once again, prudent horseplayers should let his odds dictate the approach.
The Prince of Wales also flattered the image of Oh Canada, a Bob Tiller trainee by Proud Citizen.
After winning the six-furlong Woodstock and finishing third in the Queenston, both sprints, the bay gelding helped set the pace in the Queen’s Plate and wound up 13th, over 20 lengths behind the Inglorious winner.
He atoned in a huge way in the Prince of Wales, left alone a clear lead and fighting all the way to the wire, defeated just a half-length by Pender Harbour and earning a career-best Beyer of 92.
So, the question with Oh Canada, whose best route Beyer before the Plate was a 78 earned in a third to Queen’splatekitten, is whether the pace scenario or the surface switch resulted in the peak Prince of Wales performance?
The question is relevant because the Ontario Derby doesn’t appear to contain any flashy front-running types. Oh Canada could conceivably step up and enjoy a clear lead like he did in the Prince of Wales. If you believe that the pace scenario helped his cause at Fort Erie more than the surface, then Oh Canada should be a nice play this afternoon at 6-1 or better.
Hippolytus is also part of the dirt or synthetic debate. After an impressive performance in the Queen’s Plate, Hippolytus finished well back (seven lengths) in fourth in the Prince of Wales, his first ever dirt try. The effort was his worst effort Beyer-wise of his four performances since donning blinkers on, which appear to have unlocked the Philanthropist gelding’s potential.
In the Prince of Wales, he was behind three horses that he had defeated soundly in the first jewel, all of which are entered in the Ontario Derby, though only two will compete (Oh Canada, Bowman’s Causeway).
Adding more fuel to the argument, Hippolytus returned to good form in his most recent start back on Polytrack, a close second-place finish to older Medidocihospisurg in the Elgin Stakes.
In addition to Hippolytus, there’s another Ontario Derby entrant that illustrates how specific Polytrack form can weigh more heavily than strong overall form. Derby Kitten appears to be a true Polytrack factor, having won his only synthetic attempt, the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
The Mike Maker trainee might get away at a decent price because of his weak recent form (pair of turf thirds in four starts) or he might be viewed as the second coming of Stately Victor (last year’s winner of the Ontario Derby, also a Maker trainee). It’s hard to stay, but be prepared to pull the trigger if the price is right.
Good dirt form can cloudy the waters in a wide open Polytrack event and this year’s Ontario Derby is certainly no exception. If the public is throwing its support behind these types of runners that have ran well on dirt, then it’s better to smoke out the better-priced contender that shows poor recent form because it came on a surface that wasn’t synthetic.
The Ontario Derby is slated for race eight, the second leg of the late Pick4.