Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
This week we take a closer look at Senior Investment, winner of the Grade 3, $200,000 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes and the third-place finisher in the Preakness Stakes.
Fifteen years ago, trainer Ken McPeek was the architect of the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history when Sarava won the 1 ½-mile at 70.25-1 odds in a race that saw War Emblem stumble badly at the start in his bid for the Triple Crown. It capped a stretch of three wins and three seconds in six starts for Sarava, who did not finish in the top three in eight subsequent races. McPeek will saddle Preakness Stakes third-place finisher Senior Investment for the 2017 Belmont Stakes, a 3-year-old who, like Sarava, appears to be in career-best form. Let’s take a look at his chances in the final jewel of the 2017 Triple Crown.
Ability: Ken McPeek purchased Senior Investment for $95,000 out of the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale and sold him privately to Paul Fireman’s Fern Circle Stables after he ran fourth on the grass in his career debut. He stayed in McPeek’s barn and finished sixth on the main track at Ellis Park before running third at Churchill Downs in November 2016.
Senior Investment closed out his 2-year-old season with a win at Fair Grounds at one mile and 70 yards that earned an 85 Equibase Speed Figure and provided some reason for excitement.
In his 2017 season debut, Senior Investment closed from last to first to prevail by a neck, but he was disqualified for interference and placed last of seven. Jockey Channing Hill partnered with Senior Investment for his next race in February at Oaklawn Park and he posted a three-length win that earned a then-career-best 90 Equibase Speed Figure and led McPeek to take a shot in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. Senior Investment improved to a 93 Equibase Speed Figure in the Louisiana Derby but it was only enough to finish sixth of nine, beaten by 5 ¾ lengths by Girvin.
Senior Investment came out of the Louisiana Derby in good order and trained well for McPeek at Keeneland, which led to his decision to start the Discreetly Mine colt in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes. In the Lexington, Senior Investment showed off his late turn of foot by rallying from more than 11 lengths off the pace to win by a head and earn a new career-top 107 Equibase Speed Figure.
He made a similar bold rally in the Preakness, closing from more than 13 lengths back to finish third. While the 96 speed figure he earned was a significant dip from the Lexington, the race was an eighth of a mile longer at 1 3/16 miles.
Running style: McPeek said before the Lexington Stakes that Senior Investment “needs things to set up” for him, meaning that as a racehorse who prefers to rally from far back, a swift early pace really sets up his finishing kick and gives him a better chance to win. While the opening half-mile in the Lexington was a modest :47.71, it did set up his finishing bid as did the opening half-mile in the Preakness in :46.81.
Because the Belmont Stakes is 1 ½ miles, the pace typically is not especially fast in the final jewel of the Triple Crown. In only four of the last 20 editions of the Belmont Stakes was the opening half-mile less than 48 seconds and only once was it faster than 47 seconds.
McPeek expressed confidence after the Preakness that Senior Investment’s third-place finish would set him up for a peak performance in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, however chances are the pace scenario might prove to be less than ideal.
Connections: Senior Investment is owned by Fern Circle Stables, the racing operation of businessman Paul Fireman, who for more than 25 years served as chief executive officer of Reebok. Fireman is now a semi-retired chairman of Fireman Capital Partners, a Massachusetts-based private equity firm. He began in the Thoroughbred industry in 2016 and earned his first graded stakes win in the Lexington Stakes. Read more about his venture into horse racing here.
Kentucky-based trainer Ken McPeek has won more than 1,500 races through May 29, including 173 stakes and 75 graded races, since he took out his trainer’s license in 1985. McPeek’s runners have amassed more than $72.1 million in purse earnings. His 11 individual Grade 1 winners include the aforementioned 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, Take Charge Lady and Harlan’s Holiday. McPeek finished second in the 1995 Kentucky Derby with Tejano Run, a racehorse he said Senior Investment reminded him of prior to the Lexington Stakes.
Jockey Channing Hill has amassed 1,068 victories through May 29 since taking out his jockey’s license in 2003. The Nebraska native has won 64 stakes races, including 20 graded stakes, and his lone Grade 1 win to date came aboard First Defence in the 2008 Forego Handicap. His father is longtime jockey Allan Hill.
Pedigree: Senior Investment is from the third crop of Discreetly Mine, a very talented sprinter who closed his career with three straight graded stakes victories, capped by a clear win in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes. By 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, Discreetly Mine was able to carry his speed around two turns. He won the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star Stakes and ran fourth, beaten by 1 ¼ lengths, in the 2010 Louisiana Derby. But there is no doubt Discreetly Mine was at his best in sprints.
As a sire, Discreetly Mine has 126 winners from 220 starters through May 29, including five stakes winners. Senior Investment is his top earner to date, followed closely by multiple graded-stakes-placed winner Classy Class and multiple stakes winner Control Stake.
Five-time stakes winner Plaid, by Deputy Commander, is the dam (mother) of Senior Investment and three other winners from four starters. Three of her stakes wins came at one mile and two came in 1 1/16-mile races.
Senior Investment’s grandam (maternal grandmother) was multiple stakes-winning sprinter Sapphire Beads, by Unreal Zeal. His third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Petite Jolie, won three of 23 starts and finished third in a three-quarter-mile stakes race.
Like Sarava, who shocked the world on Belmont Stakes day in 2002, Senior Investment appears to be getting good at the ideal time. Overlooking the disqualification, he’s finished first three times and third once in his last five races.
I am doubtful that the pace scenario will be ideal for a deep closer like Senior Investment in the Belmont Stakes. He’s not a clunk-up closer devoid of speed, so he could potentially stay a little nearer to the pace, but a brisk early tempo would enhance his chances.
Senior Investment’s pedigree also suggests 1 ½ miles might be stretching it a little bit, but that goes for the majority of 3-year-olds bred in the United States.
Can McPeek pull another Sarava out of his hat in the Belmont Stakes? I think another top-three finish is possible, but a win from Senior Investment feels like a tall order.