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
A UAE Derby (G2) winner has yet to crack the top four in the Kentucky Derby, but not many UAE Derby winners have made as strong an impression as Derma Sotogake, the Japan-bred colt who impressed in the 2023 renewal at Meydan.
Always part of the pace, Derma Sotogake had his rivals beaten by the top of the homestretch and drew clear down the lane to score by 5 1/2 lengths. More impressively, Derma Sotogake completed 1,900 meters (about 1 3/16 miles) in a strong 1:55.81. That times stacks up favorably against the 2:03.25 required by 6-year-old Ushba Tesoro to win the Dubai World Cup (G1) racing 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) on the same day.
Derma Sotogake set a decent pace in the UAE Derby and heads to Churchill Downs as possibly Japan’s most talented Kentucky Derby hopeful to date. Ever since Japan’s long shot Master Fencer finished 2 1/4 lengths behind Country House in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, I’ve felt it’s only a matter of time before a Japan-based horse wins the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps Derma Sotogake is the one.
In the final few months of 2021, an Argentina-bred 3-year-old filly named Didia embarked on a three-race win streak, culminating with successes in the Gran Premio Enrique Acebal (G1) and Copa de Plata-Roberto Vasquez Mansilla-Internacional (G1) racing 2,000 meters on turf. Since arriving in the U.S., Didia has extended her win streak to six consecutive victories.
Didia went 2-for-2 last year, winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Colonial Downs and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Old Nelson over the same course and distance. But arguably her most impressive performance to date came in the Tom Benson Memorial last Saturday at Fair Grounds.
Running for the first time since August, Didia rated in mid-pack behind slow fractions of 24.07, 49.90 and 1:15.18. But once the Ignacio Correas IV trainee got going, there was no stopping her, as she finished fast to beat four-time stakes winner Adventuring (who tracked the slow pace) by 1 1/4 lengths, completing 1 1/16 miles on turf in 1:46.37.
Only time will tell whether Didia can compete at the Grade 1 level in the U.S. But at the moment she’s a winning machine who warrants respect anywhere she turns up.
#6 Didia guts it out for the win in the Tom Benson Memorial Stakes under @VCheminaud to pay $9.40, and its another winner for the one and only @JoeyDaKRacing!
The #TwinSpiresReplay ?? pic.twitter.com/T6vX7VxzhN— TwinSpires Racing ?? (@TwinSpires) March 25, 2023
Recent Watch List winners
Botanical brought her record at Turfway Park to 4-for-4 with an impressive victory in the Bourbonette Oaks. After dashing to the front through fractions of 24.58, 48.51 and 1:13.49, Botanical turned back a challenge from stablemate Flashy Gem to edge clear and win the 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Oaks qualifier by 2 1/2 lengths.
Botanical stopped the clock in 1:44.47 while Flashy Gem pulled seven lengths clear of the third-place finisher. Clearly Botanical ran a big race. The Turfway meet is winding down, but perhaps Botanical can translate her fine Tapeta form into success on dirt or turf this spring.
The undefeated 3-year-old filly Munnys Gold delivered an absolutely sensational performance in the seven-furlong Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Favored at 2-5 while squaring off against seven Florida-bred rivals, Munnys Gold dueled for command through hot fractions of 21.79 and 44.30 seconds then powered clear with breathtaking authority to win by 17 1/4 lengths.
Munnys Gold finished fast off the hot pace, running the third quarter-mile in 23.86 seconds and the final furlong in 11.93 seconds to record a track-record time of 1:20.09. This was a massive performance in every respect, so at this point there’s no telling how good Munnys Gold might be.
Touchuponastar reiterated his superiority among Louisiana-bred dirt routers when cruising to victory against state-bred rivals in the Star Guitar at Fair Grounds. After dashing to the front through fractions of 24.44, 48.29 and 1:12.06, Touchuponastar repelled his pace-tracking rivals and drew off under an easy ride to score by 3 1/2 lengths.
#2 Touchuponastar (1/2) shines bright in the Star Guitar Stakes from @fairgroundsnola for Jeff Delhomme to pay $3.00.
The #TwinSpiresReplay ?? pic.twitter.com/tc5XFepyI1— TwinSpires Racing ?? (@TwinSpires) March 26, 2023
Touchuponastar finished strongly, running the final three-sixteenths of a mile in 30.70 seconds, and he completed the 1 1/16-mile distance in a respectable 1:42.76. The 4-year-old gelding has won five straight races, including three stakes, and might be good enough to compete outside the Louisiana-bred ranks.
After finishing second in the Clark (G1) and Razorback Handicap (G3), West Will Power returned to winning form with a powerful performance in the New Orleans Classic (G2) at Fair Grounds. Normally a pacesetter, West Will Power appreciated switching to tracking tactics in the New Orleans Classic, settling in second place through splits of 23.55, 47.30 and 1:11.24 before seizing command and pulling clear down the homestretch.
#3 West Will Power much the best in the New Orleans Classic (G2) with Flavien Prat up for @Bradcoxracing to pay $7.20.
The #TwinSpiresReplay ?? pic.twitter.com/6KdEavSqSl— TwinSpires Racing ?? (@TwinSpires) March 25, 2023
West Will Power came home strongly (final three furlongs in 36.71 seconds) to beat Pegasus World Cup (G1) winner Art Collector by 4 3/4 lengths in the snappy time of 1:47.95. His reward was a sharp 109 Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form, the highest number assigned to any route racer thus far in 2023. I believe West Will Power will win a Grade 1 race (maybe several) before the year is over.
Worth another try
Making his second start off a long layoff, Disarm produce a big effort while jumping into the stakes ranks for the Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds. The promising son of Gun Runner settled in mid-pack for much of the race before rallying down the homestretch to finish second by 3 1/2 lengths.
The Louisiana Derby unfolded in a slow early/fast late manner beneficial to pacesetting winner Kingsbarns, so the fact Disarm gained any ground at all through the strong closing fractions is impressive. Disarm finished 2 3/4 lengths clear of the third-place runner and still has upside for improvement.
Although Gunite was beaten to third place in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) at Meydan, he didn’t run a bad race by any means. The son of Gun Runner was thoroughly in contention down the homestretch and weakened only in the final strides to finish a half-length behind the top two. He remains a talented and consistent competitor sprinting on dirt.
Instant Coffee never really got going as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby, dropping back to 10th position early on before rallying only mildly to finish sixth. But the slow pace and fast finishing fractions compromised his chances, so I’ll give Instant Coffee a chance to bounce back next time.
Off the Watch List
I added Country Grammer to my Watch List off his fine runner-up effort in the Saudi Cup (G1), figuring he had a solid shot to post a repeat victory in last Saturday’s Dubai World Cup (G1) at Meydan. But Country Grammer faltered in his title defense, fading to finish seventh, so I’ll drop him from my watch list for now.
Hoosier Philly was unstoppable as a juvenile, but she’s struggled a bit since turning 3. She was favored at 6-5 to win the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), but faded to finish fourth by 15 1/4 lengths. This followed a distant third-place finish in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) to start 2023, so at this point I’ll want to see Hoosier Philly bounce back with a better run before betting her again.
Coffee in Bed impressed in her debut for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, rallying to win a six-furlong maiden special weight at Santa Anita by 1 3/4 lengths. Mandella has won with only 11 percent of his first-time starters since 2000, so Coffee in Bed’s debut triumph was noteworthy. She’s eligible to move forward and win right back while making her second start in Monday’s seventh race at Santa Anita, a $100,000 allowance optional claimer (post time 7:00 p.m. EDT).
Here is my complete, updated list of Horses to Watch.