There are plenty of talented horses entered in Sunday’s $400,000 Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs, but to be perfectly honest, I never seriously considered picking anyone but #6 Bandua to win.
My reasoning is simple. Kentucky Downs, thanks to its undulating European-style turf course, is quite unlike any other racetrack in North America. Some horses relish the challenge, while others struggle over the unusual conditions. Then there’s the fact that the Dueling Grounds Derby is held over 1 5/16 miles, a lengthy distance that most horses in North America never tackle.
However, neither the conditions of the course nor the extended distance should be an issue for Bandua, Trained in Ireland by Dermot Weld, Bandua opened his career earlier this spring with back-to-back wins going 1 ¼ miles over rain-soaked going at Cork racecourse, then didn’t run badly when beaten just six lengths in the Irish Derby (Ire-I) going 1 ½ miles against top-class competition at the Curragh.
Subsequently, Bandua demonstrated his stamina when beaten less than two lengths in the Kingdom of Bahrain Vinnie Roe Stakes over 1 ¾ miles at Leopardstown, after which he showed he can bring his A-game to North America by shipping to Arlington Park and finishing a good third in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. I) behind the talented pair of Carrick and Analyze It.
I really liked Bandua’s effort in the Secretariat because he showed plenty of tactical speed to track the pace in a large field, but still had enough left in the tank to produce a good finish and secure the last major share of the purse. He’ll be facing significantly easier competition in the Dueling Grounds Derby, and given the success he’s enjoyed in Ireland, I don’t think he’ll have any difficulty handling the course at Kentucky Downs. Throw in the services of the talented jockey Adam Beschizza, and I believe Bandua could prove to be unstoppable in the Dueling Grounds Derby.
For the exotics, #9 Channel Cat (fourth in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby) and #7 Captivating Moon (fifth in the Secretariat Stakes) are among the other logical contenders. But I’m just as interested in #2 Jailhouse Kitten, who is stepping up sharply in class for trainer Mike Maker. The son of Kitten’s Joy was campaigned by Maker through his first nine starts, which included back-to-back claiming wins at Churchill Downs. He was claimed from the second of those wins by trainer Mike Johnson, but interestingly, Maker claimed him right back less than a month later and is now giving Jailhouse Kitten a stiff test while stretching him out in distance. Maker has had a ton of success with this move in the past, and considering that Jailhouse Kitten is bred to relish longer distances, I think he could be live at a nice price.
#1 Fred’stwirlincandy, winner of a maiden race at Kentucky Downs last year, is another I’ll include on my tickets. Here’s how I would play the race: