Equibase Analysis: Will McKinzie Overcome Layoff In Pennsylvania Derby?

The field for the 42nd running of the Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby is led by the streaking McKinzie, who was the early favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby before being injured in March and before eventual Triple Crown winner Justify burst on the scene in April. McKinzie has been training exceptionally well for his comeback and could pick up where he left off, with a stakes win.

However, nine other horses line up to keep that from occurring and a number of them have credentials to succeed at this level. That group is led by Hofburg, who finished second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby in March before a troubled Kentucky Derby effort, followed by a third place finish behind Justify in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. In his most recent race, Hofburg won the Curlin Stakes at the distance of the Pennsylvania Derby and appears to still be improving.

Bravazo competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, his best effort coming when second (beaten a half-length) in the Preakness. Since then, Bravazo has remained competitive with a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes followed by a third place finish in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, a race in which King Zachary finished fourth and Trigger Warning finished sixth.

Mr Freeze is a horse that is on an improving pattern, having won the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby easily by eight lengths. Similarly, Axelrod has won two stakes races in a row, the Grade 3 Indiana Derby and the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes, the latter over the course, with First Mondays finishing third in that race. Core Beliefs won the Grade 3 Ohio Derby in July before a non-threatening fourth place effort in the Haskell and could have a say with a return to his previous form. Instilled Regard, who won the Grade 3 LeComte Stakes in January, returns from nearly five months off and was last seen finishing well from 17th to fourth in a troubled Kentucky Derby effort.

Win Contenders (in preference order):
Axelrod gets slight preference among four horses I feel have more of a probability to win than the rest, particularly as he is likely to go to post at the highest odds in the quartet of contenders. Since stretching out to two turns on dirt in his third start as a 3-year-old in June, Axelrod has really come to hand. In his first dirt route after two turf sprints this year, Axelrod finished second at 23-1 odds in the Affirmed Stakes while earning a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure .

One month later, he rallied gamely from last of nine to win the Indiana Derby with a 102 figure before tying his career-best effort with an easy four length victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes last month. The Smarty Jones was run over the same track as the Pennsylvania Derby and that familiarity may give Axelrod an edge over the rest, with only First Mondays (third in the Smarty Jones) having run over the track. Additionally, jockey Joe Bravo rode Axelrod for the first time in the Smarty Jones and got along with the colt marvelously. In the Smarty Jones both horse and jockey had to wait for a clear path on the turn and when that path never materialized, Bravo swung Axelrod out eight paths wide into the stretch from where the horse accelerated in the blink of an eye to draw off. That’s the same kind of effort I’m expecting of Axelrod in the Pennsylvania Derby, one that can help him post the upset for his third stakes win in a row.

Although away from the races for more than six months, McKinzie cannot be discounted as a contender to win the Pennsylvania Derby. In his four race career, McKinzie has crossed the wire in front on three occasions, missing by less than a length in the other. In two of those races, stewards made changes to the order of finish, moving McKinzie up from second to first in the Los Alamitos Futurity last December and disqualifying him from first to second in the San Felipe Stakes.  Shortly, after that, McKinzie was sidelined with a leg injury which apparently has healed nicely as his recent workouts in California have been top notch.

There’s little concern about racing around two turns off a long layoff insofar as trainer Bob Baffert is concerned as Stats Race Lens statistics reveal Baffert has a three-for-five record with horses returning off similar layoffs in two-turn stakes races over the past five years. With regular jockey Mike Smith aboard and with 106, 111 and 118 figures earned in his three dirt route races, McKinzie must be given a lot of respect when considering who can win this year’s Pennsylvania Derby.

Hofburg is a supremely talented colt who just ran the best race of his career, earning a 113 figure while geared down to a five-length margin of victory in the Curlin Stakes at the distance of the Pennsylvania Derby. Although winning the Curlin easily, trainer Bill Mott is putting blinkers on for this race. Considering the stature of this Hall-of-Fame trainer I will not argue with the equipment change off a win, particularly considering the colt shows a portentous blinkers on/fast workout pattern as his recent half-mile workout was the best of 60 on the day. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. rides once again and if there is any improvement from that last effort, Hofburg might put on quite a show.

Mr Freeze rounds out the quartet that I feel can win the race and like Axelrod, may be considered an upsetter if he does. Mr. Freeze has won three of his four races to date and missed by just a half-length in the other. He enters the Pennsylvania Derby off a career-best effort with a 102 figure in the West Virginia Derby, in which he drew off to win by eight lengths with plenty of gas left in the tank. This will be his toughest test to date, but it must be noted his sire To Honor and Serve won the 2011 running of this race. As the late bloomer in the field, having just begun his career in April, Mr Freeze may be capable of getting the job done.

The rest of the Pennsylvania Derby field, with their best representative figures are Bravazo (108), Core Beliefs (110), First Mondays (103), Instilled Regard (106), King Zachary (110) and Trigger Warning (109).

Win Contenders:
Mr Freeze

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