Horses to Watch: Follow these 10 at Parx, Belmont and Churchill

Horses to Watch: Follow these 10 at Parx, Belmont and Churchill
Photo: Chelsea Durand/NYRA

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.

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Bella Sofia

Only five fillies and mares have been entered in Sunday’s ninth race at Saratoga, the Gallant Bloom Handicap (G2, post time 5:16 p.m. EDT). The most accomplished of the lot is also the youngest: Bella Sofia.

A three-year-old filly with just four starts under her belt, Bella Sofia enters off a decisive victory in the Test (G1) at Saratoga, where she pressed the pace before kicking away to beat a deep field by 4 1/4 lengths. The 104 Brisnet Speed rating she received stands as the highest figure posted by any entrant in the Gallant Bloom field, stamping Bella Sofia as the runner to beat in her first stakes try against older rivals.


Saturday’s 12th race at Parx, the Pennsylvania Derby (G1, post time 5:49 p.m.), has drawn a strong field of proven graded stakes winners, and I’m intrigued to see how Fulsome stacks up against Grade 1 competition.

The son of Into Mischief boasts a 4-for-5 record on dirt, including stretch-running triumphs in the Matt Winn (G3) and Smarty Jones (G3), with the latter victory coming at Parx. Fulsome hasn’t been running quite as fast recently as he did during the spring, but he does have a powerful turn-of-foot on his best day.

Hot Rod Charlie

The expected favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby is Hot Rod Charlie, who is unlucky not to have won a Grade 1 by now. The Louisiana Derby (G2) winner has secured top-level placings in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and he even crossed the wire first in the Haskell (G1) two months ago, only to be disqualified for interfering with a rival.

If Hot Rod Charlie brings his A-game to Parx, the speedy and versatile son of Oxbow will be tough to deny.

Irish Unity

After finishing second in a couple of route races, including the St. Louis Derby, Irish Unity should appreciate cutting back to seven furlongs for Saturday’s 10th race at Churchill Downs, the Harrods Creek (post time 5:26 p.m.).

Irish Unity is 2-for-2 sprinting and has the tactical speed to factor from the outset, stamping the gelded son of Pioneerof the Nile as a logical contender for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Jackie’s Warrior

Fresh off a victory in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at Saratoga, three-time Grade 1 winner Jackie’s Warrior looms as an overwhelming favorite to win Saturday’s 10th race at Parx, the Gallant Bob (G2, post time 4:22 p.m.).

With three straight triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings under his belt, Jackie’s Warrior is easily the fastest horse in the Jerkens field. None of his rivals have ever cracked the 100 plateau, so if Jackie’s Warrior produces his typical effort, his rivals may be running for second place.

King Fury

An extremely slow early/fast late race shape prevented King’s Fury from challenging in the Travers (G1) at Saratoga last month, where he rallied belatedly to finish fifth against a deep field. The son of Curlin will hopefully receive a fairer setup while facing easier competition in Saturday’s ninth race at Churchill Downs, the Bourbon Trail (post time 4:55 p.m.).

King Fury boasts a 2-for-3 record at Churchill Downs, winning his debut over this track last summer before returning to nab the Street Sense in the fall. The Kenny McPeek trainee has shown flashes of serious talent on his best day, with a runaway win in Keeneland’s Lexington (G3) among his career highlights, and I’m expecting a competitive effort in the Bourbon Trail.

Life Is Good

There are several reasons why Life Is Good is the 1-9 morning line favorite to win Saturday’s fourth race at Belmont Park, the Kelso Handicap (G2, post time 2:34 p.m.). The son of Into Mischief is the fastest horse on paper. He looms as the lone pacesetter in a small field, and the one-mile distance should be right up his alley.

Life Is Good enters off a game runner-up effort in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at Saratoga, where he finished second by a neck against Jackie’s Warrior. Life Is Good was returning from a layoff in the Jerkens and figures to be sharper in his second start back, especially while stretching out in distance. Keep in mind, his victories in the Sham (G3) and San Felipe (G2) during the winter came over one mile and 1 1/16 miles.

Silver State

After rattling off six consecutive victories, including a determined score in the Metropolitan Handicap (G1), Silver State suffered a defeat when finishing third in the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga last month. But the caliber of competition was deep, and the 1 1/8-mile distance may have been a bit too far, so the conditions of Saturday’s seventh race at Parx, the Parx Dirt Mile (post time 2:51 p.m.) should be more suitable for Silver State.

There’s a fair amount of speed entered in the Parx Dirt Mile, so Silver State should receive sufficient pace to enhance his stretch rally. Simply cutting back in distance might make all the difference, considering Silver State is a nose away from being undefeated in six starts running one mile or less.

Speaker’s Corner

Can Speaker’s Corner hold his own against Fulsome and Hot Rod Charlie in the Pennsylvania Derby? I’m optimistic he can. The Godolphin homebred has beaten good company (including future stakes winners Caddo River, Greatest Honour, and Bourbonic) and recently returned from a long layoff to dominate a seven-furlong allowance at Saratoga.

Speaker’s Corner has yet to race around two turns, but the son of Street Sense is bred to stretch out and has the Beyer and Brisnet speed figures to factor in his stakes debut.

Wolfie’s Dynaghost

One of Irish Unity’s stiffest challenges in the Harrods Creek may come from Wolfie’s Dynaghost. Although the son of Ghostzapper has been competing on turf as of late, even finishing third in the one-mile Better Talk Now at Saratoga, dirt racing may be his true forte—both of his victories (and his strongest Brisnet Speed ratings) have come on dirt.

As a half-brother to the late-maturing Grade 1 winner Sadler’s Joy, Wolfie’s Dynaghost still has upside for trainer Tom Albertrani, and I’m excited to see what the speedy 3-year-old can accomplish while returning to dirt and cutting back in distance.

Which horses caught your eyes last week?

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