Horses to Watch: 4 recent winners to smile about

Horses to Watch: 4 recent winners to smile about
Photo: Coady Photography

In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Johnson shares promising horses from his handicapping watch list, reviewing runners who have recently caught his eye and previewing horses scheduled to run back in the near future.

New to the Watch List

Smile Happy

On Thursday at Oaklawn, Smile Happy became the 12th veteran of the 2023 Kentucky Derby to come back and visit the winner’s circle, doing so impressively in a $50,000 allowance optional claimer racing 1 1/8 miles.

Smile Happy wasn’t in any hurry to get going, settling about five lengths behind early fractions of 23.44 and 47.67 seconds. But Smile Happy gained four lengths through a third quarter-mile in 24.44 seconds and dashed his final three furlongs in about 36.76 seconds to forge clear and prevail by 1 1/4 lengths.

Smile Happy’s fast finish carried him across the wire in 1:48.95, sufficient to earn a 101 Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form. Taking 10 1/2 months off appears to have worked wonders for Smile Happy, who won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and finished second in the Risen Star (G2) and Blue Grass (G2) before running eighth in the Kentucky Derby. A productive 4-year-old season potentially awaits.

Recent Watch List winners

Big Invasion

An accomplished turf sprinter who won five stakes as a 3-year-old in 2022, Big Invasion shrugged off a six-month layoff to return victorious in the Silks Run at Gulfstream Park. Favored at 7-5 in his first start as a 4-year-old, Big Invasion settled in sixth place behind a blazing opening quarter-mile in 20.76 seconds, then unleashed a strong turn of foot down the homestretch to win the five-furlong grass dash by three-quarters of a length.

Big Invasion reached the finish line in 55.02 seconds and appears poised for another big year. The Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint is surely a viable long-term goal for Big Invasion, who boasts seven wins from nine career starts.

Bishops Bay

This Triple Crown nominee displayed impressive determination to win an $80,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds on Sunday. Favored at 2-5 for red-hot trainer Brad Cox, Bishops Bay clipped heels entering the first turn and stumbled significantly. His race could have ended right there, but Bishops Bay recovered to track slow fractions of 24.69, 50.52 and 1:15.13 set by First Defender, after which he wore down the pacesetter and held off the rallying Demolition Duke to win by a neck in 1:43.77.

Bishops Bay looks like a stakes horse in the making, and it might not be too late for the son of Uncle Mo to join the Road to the Kentucky Derby. There are nearly three weeks until the Wood Memorial (G2), Blue Grass (G1) and Santa Anita Derby (G1) and about four weeks until the Lexington (G3), so don’t count Bishops Bay out of the mix.

First Mission

After finishing three-quarters of a length behind Bishops Bay in their mutual debut sprinting at Fair Grounds, First Mission stretched out over 1 1/16 miles for a Saturday maiden special weight over the same track and left no doubt about his superiority.

First Mission showed speed from the start, tracking the pace from second place as long shot Right Karma opened up a three-length lead through fractions of 23.81 and 47.72 seconds. Then First Mission advanced to lead through six furlongs in 1:13.79 and powered away from there to dominate by 6 3/4 lengths in 1:44.55.

As a son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense out of a mare by Medaglia d’Oro, First Mission is bred to improve with maturity and thrive running long. As with Bishops Bay, it might not be too late for First Mission to enter the Kentucky Derby picture, though the Preakness or Belmont would give him a little more time to develop.

Off the Watch List

First Defender

Carved out slow fractions of 24.69, 50.52 and 1:15.13 while squaring off against Bishops Bay, then weakened down the homestretch to finish third by four lengths. First Defender tried hard to keep up, but I’ll want to see him step forward with a stronger finish before backing him again.

Here is my complete, updated list of Horses to Watch.

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