The Spiral Stakes didn't really matter on the road to the Triple Crown for a long time, but that changed somewhat in 2011 when Animal Kingdom used this race as a stepping stone to his Kentucky Derby win. Earlier, though, when the race was known as the Jim Beam - it has had many name changes over the years - the race produced four straight Triple Crown race winners. Summer Squall won the Preakness in 1990. Hansel won the Preakness and Belmont in 1991. Lil E. Tee won the Derby in 1992. Prairie Bayou took the Preakness in 1993. All four won the Jim Beam first.
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Despite Animal Kingdom's success, and the geographic convenience - Turfway Park is not far from Churchill Downs, so the winner can head right to the barn to get ready for the Derby - this is not a major prep race. There are a couple of reasons. First, winners only get 50 Derby points - half of the other major prep races going on right now. That's enough for the winner to get into the Derby field but isn't as useful for the horse that finishes second. More significantly, this is one of just three prep races currently run on synthetic tracks. We have seen over the years how rare it is for a horse prepping on synthetics to transition smoothly to the Churchill dirt - it's Animal Kingdom and not much else.
Despite that, though, the race sets up as interesting to watch. Two horses in this field - Airoforce and Ralis - looked to be heading to Churchill until a truly horrible race last time out. This is a last-ditch attempt for those two to save their Derby chances - or for another horse to play spoiler. Seven of the last winners of this race have appeared in the Derby, so there is a good chance that this isn't the last time we'll see at least one of these horses.
There is an added level of spectacle surrounding this race - meaningless in terms of outcome, but fun. Funny Cide, the 2003 Derby and Preakness winner, will be leading the parade to the post. Here's hoping that some of his greatness rubs off on others in the field.
Here are the highlights of this massive field - 12 horses entered and two more also-eligible:
Airoforce, Albin Jiminez, 3/1: This was one of the top two years olds last fall. He was a strong second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. More impressively, though, he closed from a million miles off the lead to win the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs over a strong field. It seemed like he was set for a big spring and another trip to Churchill. And then the disaster of the Risen Star at Fair Grounds happened. In that, the key prep for the Louisiana Derby, he never fired and wound up about a million lengths behind winner - and Louisiana Derby winner - Gun Runner. It was actually 40 lengths, but that's almost an impossibly large distance at this level of racing. The closing kick he had displayed so impressively early on was non-existent. It couldn't have gone worse. He has trained well on the synthetic surface since that race, though, and this certainly wouldn't be the first time we could argue that a prior race is worth totally ignoring. Jiminez, by the way, isn't exactly a household name, but he is the leading rider at Turfway, so he knows the surface well.
Ralis, Corey Nakatani, 6/1: This horse isn't quite as impressive as Airoforce, and his fall from grace has been longer. He rose to national prominence by winning the Gr. 1 Hopeful at Saratoga in July. Unfortunately, at this point it looks like he may have peaked then. He came back to finish sixth in the Champagne Stakes, was dead last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and then came off a long layoff to finish an irrelevant 10th in the Rebel Stakes. That last disastrous race was only two weeks ago, so there is a real hint of desperation to this horse in this spot. It's tough to be optimistic.
Kasseopia, Alan Garcia, 6/1: Animal Kingdom put this race back on the map, so we might as well consider a horse from the same stable as that horse. After starting his career in England, the horse has been a factor in two stakes races on synthetic tracks here in North America. He's raw, but there is upside and he has a chance to be a factor here.
Jensen, Florent Geroux, 6/1: This horse is making his stakes debut, but he is coming off a very impressive win in an allowance race at Fair Grounds last time out. There is some good karma in the pedigree here. In 2007 Hard Spun won this race for trainer Larry Jones before finishing second in the Derby. Hard Spun is the damsire of Jensen. His trainer? Larry Jones. This horse isn't currently nominated for the Triple Crown, so it would cost $200,000 to get him to the starting gate. He would not only need to win, then, but win impressively to get his chance at Churchill.
Azar, Manuel Franco, 5/1: This is the Todd Pletcher entry in the field - it wouldn't be a Derby prep without one. The horse was impressive in an allowance win at Gulfstream last time out, and he won a graded stakes at Saratoga over the summer. There is talent here, but this is his first time on the synthetics, and I see no value at this price.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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