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The Lumber Guy Headlines Thick Malibu Field

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Three-year-old returning horses, improvers, and Breeders’ Cup participants all line up for one last restricted G1 in Santa Anita’s fastest Wednesday of the year, featuring a 7-furlong double-header in the Malibu (I) for sophomore colts and the La Brea (I) for fillies. Richard Mandella hopes to land a record third win in this race while Bob Baffert hopes to replicate his win last year with The Factor by entering 4 promising colts of his own.

Rain doesn’t look likely, so expect a fast track.

$300,000 Malibu Stakes (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 7 furlongs on dirt at Santa Anita. Post Time: Wednesday, December 26 at 3:37pm PST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Fed Biz - Mike Smith, 118 lbs, Bob Baffert - The fleet-footed Giant’s Causeway colt hopes to bounce back off a poor 8th place showing in the Dirt Mile (I), with 2 wins in 4 starts this year. He takes a cut-back in distance here, which should be no problem as he likes to remain just off-the-pace. The rail spot will likely aid Fed Biz’s strategy to go to the front, but his Dirt Mile performance was too poor to excuse. His works have been blazing lately, clicking through a 5-panel work in :58 flat. I would not pick him for anything but fast dirt, but do consider him because of the cutback and good work.

2) Jimmy Creed - Garrett Gomez, 118 lbs, Richard Mandella - The Distorted Humor colt looked like he got stuck and was spinning his wheels when 9th in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (I). Leading up to that race, he was one that was on the improving path and kept everyone of all ages on their toes running against him. The presence of Gomez/Mandella is comforting, and the value is there since he is as good as Fed Biz but with no stakes wins yet. He got a race distance blowout last week.

3) Drill - Martin Garcia, 118 lbs, Bob Baffert - The San Vicente (II) winner returns with a vengeance after some time off to his preferred distance. He’s been working well at Santa Anita, and comes off a 7-month layoff since his win in the Lazaro Barrera Memorial (III) at Hollywood Park. Drill likes to throw in clunkers at weird times, but this is his stomping ground. I don’t expect him to improve AND win after a layoff, but it’s interesting that he’s been given to Baffert’s go-to guy Garcia.

4) The Lumber Guy - John Velazquez, 123 lbs, Neil Drysdale - Runner-up to Trinniberg in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (I), the flashy gray son of Grand Slam has been relentless this year at the sprint distance while remaining pretty competitive going further. He likes the front, and has already shown he doesn’t mind slop or Santa Anita’s main. Transferred to Drysdale and toting Johnny V, I can honestly say I don’t like the look of him, especially compared to the 5 extra pounds he’ll be carrying against most entries and how much slower he’s been going lately under encouragement. It’s a bet not worth taking, especially since he’ll be a heavy favorite.

5) Politicallycorrect - Joel Rosario, 118 lbs, Wesley Ward - Sporting back-to-back wins including the 7-furlong Damascus Stakes on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, the Kitten’s Joy gelding has bloomed late under speed specialist Ward. He has a nice closing style that has enabled him to catch top speed horses in the lane like Willy Beamin and Private Zone. Sure to be overlooked, he’s not your typical 7-furlong specialist but he could manage some magic here under a fast and draining pace.

6) Basmati - Mario Guiterrez, 118 lbs, Doug O’Neill - The Borrego colt took a long break and reemerged a big winner on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, wiring a 7-furlong allowance in lively fractions in his one and only start of the year. The class bump-up is huge as good as he looked in his last start. He doesn’t look quick enough at the moment to handle this field.

7) Castaway - Joe Talamo, 118 lbs, Bob Baffert - The Street Sense colt returns after an 8-month layoff with 2 career wins— but in routes. The cutback may or may not help this colt, who has won races on or just off a solid pace. To his credit, he does look fit in his works, firing a bullet in :58 1/5 last time around Santa Anita, but he would need to improve quite a bit to make headway. 104 fresh

8) Private Zone - Martin Pedroza, 120 lbs, Doug O’Neill - The Macho Uno son has won just once this year in 10 starts, but has been second 3 times and third once so he is pretty consistent. He missed by a length last out against Smiling Tiger in the Vernon Underwood (III) while dueling and then was caught by Politicallycorrect before that in the Damascus Stakes. A pretty consistent horse who keeps getting close to that win, I would not be surprised to see him finally break through here.

9) Guilt Trip - Rafael Bejarano, 118 lbs, Bob Baffert - The Pulpit colt transfers from the Brown barn to Baffert’s with 2 wins this year out of 4 starts (I’m elated to see that I actually saw him debut at Saratoga!). He flattened out in the 9-furlong Discovery (III) last time out to finish 5th, but has been working like a charm since shipping out west. Bred similarly to Bernardini, the cutback will likely help but I’m not totally sold it will be the magic key here.

10) Unbridled’s Note - Corey Nakatani, 118 lbs, Steve Asmussen - Runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (I), the talented Unbridled’s Song colt has been on the board 5 times in 7 races this year with 2 wins. He can do dirt as well, running a close 3rd in the King’s Bishop (I) over 7 furlongs this summer and likes to race off-the-pace. Works look good and he should favor the conditions. Hopefully he can get a better trip than in the King’s Bishop and ace this test.

Top Picks in Order:

1) Unbridled’s Note

2) The Lumber Guy

3) Politicallycorrect

The one to beat here is The Lumber Guy, and I say he’s beatable and not worth taking at what will surely be very short odds— particularly if it’s a dry, fast track and with the transfer to Drysdale. Unbridled’s Note looks like he’s improving and could pounce just off of a hot pace up front. From there I’ve kept class act The Lumber Guy pegged for the place, and Politicallycorrect has had some good tactical speed on this track to be another good candidate. I just don’t like the look of a lot of Breeders’ Cup contenders coming into this race off of peak-time efforts, so I’m shying away from using top-shelf horses; Unbridled’s Note was on the improving path when he was barely beaten out for the Turf Sprint win, and a speed duel might develop between Private Zone and Fed Biz.

Value Pick: Politicallycorrect

Weekend Stake Tip: Bellamy’s Bomb

Making a slow return to being a half-conscious college student by weekday and a pony racin’ degenerate by weekend.

Thank you Delta Downs for your country music playing in the background of the simulcast, it was… different. Top pick Bern Identity got bottled up and was the best horse in a race lost to pace-setting Goldencents, who honestly did deserve a stakes win after that second in the Champagne (I) last out, taking a step down in class. A chalky Saturday, I went with the favored winner of the previous race Roses to Gold, who ran clear in the Delta Princess (III). Mylute impressed me in the Jackpot, but again I have to relate that he should be put in sprints.

Weekly race picks weren’t entirely bad; top pick Bern Identity rallied hard for 2nd, second choice Central Banker was nipped to be 5th at 7-1, and third choice Itsmyluckyday was somehow 6th. Know More revealed his form is probably off and was second-to-last, and as predicted, Show Some Magic quit after discovering “HEY THIS IS A ROUTE! I NO ROUTE!” So the whole race was a very formulaic morning line favorite, post time favorite, longshot for the top three. How uncreative! Bern Identity really should have won though… my reaction when Paco Lopez goofs up that ride:

YOU JUST DENIED BERN A MILLION DOLLAR VICTORY, PACO! YOU SO FIRED!

Noticing how G1-winning ex-claimer King David was a “top choice” to finish 2nd to Lea in Saturday’s Commonwealth Turf Stakes (III), I thought I would do another analysis of a major upset stakes race. Honestly, I don’t think there’s too many from this year that can beat All Squared Away's surprise Lexington Stakes (III) win at 70-1. I remember being so mad when this happened; I had noticed something different about him from his Spiral Stakes (III) that I knew gave him a shot— I even mentioned it in my original race analysis— but I wasn’t around to watch the simulcast otherwise I very likely would have taken a shot at that ridic price! Let’s take a look:

  • The course was set for a medley of three-year-old colts going the route distance of 1 1/16 miles on Keeneland’s all-weather surface. All-weather can be tricky to handicap because both dirt and turf horses may or may not like it… you can’t really tell for sure until they race! Horses with poly experience leading up to the race: Hammers Terror (3rd, a past winner who has since proven he loves poly), Gold Megillah (4th, but did not win over poly), Holiday Promise (6th, well-beaten place in Turfway’s Spiral Stakes), Golden Ticket (5th, ran 2 non-winning efforts at Keeneland), and Johannesbourbon (7th, won his last race, his debut, at Keeneland). All Squared Away, however, had by far the most poly experience: 7 out of 8 prior starts were on synthetic.
  • Class was a question all around: None of these horses are likely going to get in the gate for the Derby, so it’s apparent that they’re generally second-string class-wise. Summer Front had 2 ungraded stakes wins on grass, Castaway was the winner of the easiest Southwest Stakes (II) on dirt, and Holiday Promise had a graded place in the Spiral (III).
  • Incorporating the above information, that automatically gave us a vulnerable favorite: grass-loving Summer Front was untested on the fake stuff and hadn’t even started as a three-year-old! I still don’t know why people favored him significantly more than any other horse.
  • False pace handicapping: Looking at the past performances, I think most people dismissed All Squared Away’s chances when they saw a string of maiden claimers out west early in his career plus that ugly 7th finish in the El Camino Real Derby (III), suggesting this horse had zero class to win. Truthfully, the sheet was misleading as All Squared Away got involved in an exhausting duel early on in the El Camino Real, and in his last start, was taken way back early in the Spiral (III) and made a bold, 5-wide move on the turn to finish a pretty good 6th. He had changed his style from a horse who liked being close to or making the pace to one that sat behind it. No the Spiral effort wasn’t necessarily an amazing feat, but it certainly made his odds very false!
  • Anything can happen: The golden rule of horse racing handicapping is there isn’t any guarantee! A very rocky start and some poor trips put some lukewarm runners at an even bigger disadvantage while All Squared Away got a good trip.

This upset was the product of vulnerable favoritism, surface preference, and freakish luck. 6 of 11 horses were either bumped or off slow at the start, and 2 of them received tight, confining trips including Summer Front. 6 of 11 had poly experience including the winner and the 3rd place horse. All Squared Away got a clean trip, had the most experience out of anyone, and had changed his running style to suit him better (he still uses that mild closing move). The fact that he was a ridiculous 70-1, a price you can rarely get anywhere never mind for a graded stakes win, is still unfathomable to me.

Your best/worst plays?

Reinier reminded me of this. While I can’t credit any one particular factor (LUCK has a lot to do with it!), I’ve lost as well as won plenty of really weird plays over the past year or two since I’ve started legitimately handicapping Thoroughbred horse races.

Major/memorable “win” plays, odds are approximated from the win return:

  • 36-1 Pool Play in the 2011 Stephen Foster (I) - This was an oh-my-stars result as the longest shot on the board. I liked Mission Impazible, who was the favorite and ultimate runner-up, but what can you say about a field with no clear front runner and a favorite who loves to place second or third? Pool Play was a force on Woodbine’s synthetic, and to me there was no excuse to ship him all the way down to a G1 at Churchill without a good reason.
  • 27-1 Tackleberry in the 2011 Sunshine Millions Classic - First Dude was favored, but the good Calder-based sprinter Tackleberry pretty much secured a heart bet from me. I remember thinking he could probably pull off a win if placed right, as he didn’t race much as a three-year-old due to issues and was just starting to race regularly as a four-year-old.
  • 26-1 Archarcharch in the 2011 Arkansas Derby (I) - I’d liked him since the Rebel Stakes, but sadly the beautiful Arch colt got no love heading into the big Arkansas Derby due to entries like The Factor aiming for the big win. I was so excited to see him get the win, and made my Derby pick following the race with runner-up Nehro.
  • 20-1 Brilliant Speed in 2011 Blue Grass Stakes (I) - Jetting off to a super upset, I liked Brilliant Speed’s distance pedigree in a field where anything could happen.
  • 13-1 Shotgun Gulch in the 2011 Vinery Madison (I) - Because who favors an Oklahoma-bred who hadn’t won lately in a sprint against horses like Evening Jewel? The win took place right before this gal started making a real name for herself before she was scratched and retired at the Breeders’ Cup. Her morning line was 20-1 when I originally picked her.
  • 15-1 Castaway in the 2012 Southwest Stakes (II) - A love for Street Sense and belief that Baffert had the slow developer ready in time backed this heart bet in a season where I struggled picking Triple Crown prep winners.
  • 15-1 Believe You Can in the 2012 Kentucky Oaks (I) - There were faster horses in the Oaks, but it was hard to turn away the promising Believe You Can after watching her battle at the Fair Grounds all spring. With Rosie and Larry Jones on her side, I had her down to win.
  • 13-1 Done Talking in the 2012 Illinois Derby (III) - Low-rent field headed by a unimpressive, developing favorite, I went with a face I knew I thought had a rough trip running in New York and was apt to do better this time.
  • 10-1 Hymn Book in the 2012 Donn Handicap - I had liked Hymn Book in the prior year’s Suburban, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out why he was 10-1 after a good showing in the Cigar Mile. I was so giddy to have had money on him to win with that wide sweeping stretch move.
  • 10-1 Camp Victory in the 2012 Triple Bend Handicap - He wasn’t weighted super heavy, had Joe Talamo aboard, and most importantly, had the “psychology” factor playing in his favor with his ailing trainer in the hospital. Camp Victory boasted some respectable speed figures, and while I don’t normally play very many sprints, the presence of the need-the-lead The Factor guaranteed some decent odds. It was great to see Camp Victory make a dramatic late move for the win.
  • 9-1 Sabercat in the 2011 Delta Jackpot- The selling point of this pick was actually the layout of the track. Sabercat would break from towards the outside coming down the awkward chute of Delta Downs and be able to conveniently lay off the speed before coming in late. I already loved the horse after seeing pictures of him training at Churchill Downs, and he already sported a nice prior win at Monmouth.

I think that’s the lot of them… I’ll have to brainstorm my worst plays next…

Hmm I don't know which PP's you use, but Castaway's first two starts were on a different version of polytrack at Del Mar. But I think there's just enough speed in the race to kill his chances of winning regardless. Morgan's Guerilla's dam does have a turf win to her credit (although that doesn't necessarily mean MG will win here, just food for thought). I was actually lost when I looked at the race. I was hoping to find enough reasons to bet MG.

Asked by thoughtsonracinglifeandmore

Mmm… yeah a bad on my part. I was watching That Handicapping Show on BloodHorse after I posted it and one of them mentioned Castaway’s synthetic experience way back when… um, what? I forgot all about silly ol’ Del Mar…

It’s kind of a weird race, no doubt, kind of like the Illinois Derby where I ultimately just went with who I thought would be the best horse of the bunch. There’s a lot of speed, a lot with synthetic experience, but who knows if it’ll really matter when you boil it all down to quality. Holiday Promise feels like a shoo-in for the winner, but I really do like Golden Ticket and I guess Johannesbourbon was an easy winner last out. I like Morgan’s Guerrilla too but I don’t know if this is the right race for him.

Dinner Rush for Derby Gate in the Lexington Stakes

I don’t know about you guys, but once the Arkansas (I) is over, I am pretty much done deciding who will be my Derby horse. But, some people persist and in this third week of April, we’ve got two late prep races: the Jerome (II) at Aqueduct and the Lexington Stakes (II) at Keeneland. Last year’s winners were Alternation, who I thought would progress nicely during the summer (he apparently waited to turn 4 for that to happen), and Derby Kitten, who predictably is turning into a nice turf horse. One is at a mile on dirt, the other is 1 1/16 miles on poly… Fusaichi Pegasus won the Jerome in 2000 while Charismatic won the Lexington in 1999 as the last horses to win and go on to win the big one. You decide their importance.

By far, it looks like the Lexington will have the best field of the two, with 11 horses ponying up to the gate for one more shot at graded earnings. Out of all the runners, the only horse who could likely make the Derby gate with a win is Castaway. Being that it’s Keeneland, I naturally have to favor turf/poly horses and with a good mix here, this will probably be an excellent betting race.

$200,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes (III) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on all-weather track at Keeneland. Post Time: Saturday, April 21 at 5:13pm EST

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Morgan’s Guerrilla - Julien Leparoux, 118 lbs, Mike Maker - A promising start for this Ghostzapper colt reached its height when he was a close second in the Illinois Derby (III) after enduring a wide trip. He goes blinkers off and picks up Leparoux, but this will be his first trip on Polytrack with some decent dirt works. Loves a good route distance and takes a nice little cutback here, but can he do Poly? He has one of Keeneland’s finest riders and last year’s winner Maker as connections.

2) Summer Front - Ramon Dominguez, 120 lbs, Christopher Clement - I really liked this War Front colt when he just slammed it home in the Dania Beach Stakes on grass. 3-for-3 in career starts with a dynamite turf pedigree, his biggest detractor is his long layoff: he hasn’t started as a three-year-old yet! Works at Payson have varied between unimpressive and sharp with stamina possibly being concentrated. Love this colt to death, but he’ll probably need a little room to grow and catch up.

3) Johannesbourbon - Garrett Gomez, 118 lbs, Kellyn Gorder - I’m calling this one out as the token “hot topic” colt for this race. By Johannesburg, he debuted at Turfway in a crazed romp over 6 1/2 furlongs, flying home first by almost 10 lengths while sitting next to the quick pace. Sprinter? Maybe. Pacesetter? Likely. He’s an exciting gambit nonetheless while picking up Garrett Gomez.

4) Skyring - Jon Court, 118 lbs, D. Wayne Lukas - The English Channel trainee of Lukas broke his maiden last month at Oaklawn by a short and bumpy neck, coming back to Hawthorne to finish 7th in the Illinois Derby. Works on dirt haven’t been that impressive. A grass pedigree, but no poly or turf tests make me cast him long odds to do anything here.

5) Golden Ticket - Manoel Cruz, 118 lbs, Ken McPeek - Can a Speightstown go the distance? Maybe this one can. Golden Ticket was a fierce 2nd in the Tampa Bay (II) to the good Prospective after closing nicely into the stretch. He hasn’t done much on poly, but he’s been working on it leading up to the race which is bonus points in my book. With trust already established in McPeek as a trainer and in WinStar colors, a nice improving closer in this possibly-fast race is worth a long look.

6) Holiday Promise [pictured] - Junior Alvarado, 118 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Harlan’s Holiday second-stringer in Pletcher’s keep proved himself worthy trying to catch Went the Day Well in the Spiral Stakes (III) at Turfway, managing to nail down 2nd. Works have been excellent, with a :47 move over Keeneland’s poly. Not an amazing horse, but he could be a horse for the course. Or, you know, he could disappoint me and keep being one of those horses who likes to be in the trifecta but not so much win anything.

7) Castaway - Shaun Bridgmohan, 120 lbs, Bob Baffert - Pretty much love this horse, a son of Street Sense who has been put in reserve by Baffert over at Santa Anita since his sleepy 7th in the Sunland Derby (III). Works have been good, but no poly experience. I’m not feeling a comeback for Castaway here; pretty sure he’s only here to give him a slim chance of getting those Derby earnings.

8) Hammers Terror - Robby Albarado, 118 lbs, Michael Stidham - An up-and-down ornament at Fair Grounds, the Artie Schiller colt ships up to Keeneland hoping to make some progress on those earnings. He was 4th to winner Icon Ike in the Black Gold Stakes and before that 6th in the Lecomte (III). He’s been working pretty well at Keeneland in the meantime, working long as well as short quips like a :47 and change. He has run on synthetic only once, when he broke his maiden at Keeneland over 7 furlongs over some decent horses. May or may not be a pacesetter, may or may not be someone to look at.

9) All Squared Away - Julio Garcia, 118 lbs, Wesley Ward - Frequenting the synthetic scene is this Bellamy Road gelding, last seen making up some ground late to finish 6th in the Spiral Stakes (III). Working steady over Keeneland. Usually one can peg a Wesley Ward trainee to storm right to the front, and while this one has in the past, he was at the back of the field in the Spiral and really didn’t do awful as he stayed focused throughout. We could see a strategy change here, but he’s got some serious horses to beat.

10) News Pending - Kent Desormeaux, 118 lbs, Dale Romans - A really nice Harlan’s Holiday colt, he was an emphatic 2nd to Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth (II) before turning in a clunker in the Florida Derby (I) where he only mustered a 7th after a pokey start. Breezing slow and steady at Gulfstream. I’m willing to throw out the Florida Derby, but the lack of synthetic/turf experience or promise bugs me. Another horse just here to sap some earnings.

11) Gold Megillah - John Velazquez, 118 lbs, Graham Motion - Never really got into this Purim colt, but the connections are good enough. He ran 3rd in the Rushaway, behind 2nd place finisher Gung Ho who went on to be 3rd in the Blue Grass (II) and winner Flashy Dresser won a stakes at Charles Town to stay undefeated. Had a :47 1/5 breeze over Keeneland, but it’s hard to say how he’ll do. He was drawing in down the stretch in the Rushaway so he could be on an improving cycle, but I wouldn’t consider him a giant threat without a more serious effort.

Predicted Trifecta: 1) Holiday Promise 2) Golden Ticket 3) Gold Megillah

Value Pick(s): Golden Ticket, Hammers Terror

Racing Beat: April 8

It would be awesome if someday Union Rags and Rags to Riches would go out on a date. It’s a match right up there with Pants on Fire and Unzip Me.

Todd Pletcher doesn’t have a Twitter, but he’s well aware of @NotTheToddster

Tackleberry's going to the Charles Town Classic again… bring. it. on.

It’s been announced that Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge has been retired. But… but… that horse still owes me some money!!

I was 2-for-3 yesterday in predicting the winners of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps, with Creative Cause falling short by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby (I) to knock me out. This is the umpteenth time I decided to sideline myself from betting later races on Saturday that could have turned out profitable— I could have had Castaway weeks ago at 8-1 while yesterday Done Talking won at 13-1. Ffffffuuuu— Then again, this feels like last year where I started doing better as the races grew to 1 1/8 miles. I picked both longshot winners last year for the Arkansas (I) and Blue Grass (II): Archarcharch at 15-1 and Brilliant Speed at 20-1.

Did a little reading on breeder Annie Cauley the other day, and was pleased to find out that she didn’t learn how to ride until she was 22. Now, she’s breeding stakes winner after winner, most recently On Fire Baby.

Havre de Grace gets 123 pounds in the Apple Blossom (I), giving away some 5 pounds to some other probables like Plum Pretty, causing Larry Jones and Rick Porter to pull their Horse of the Year out of there. I’m going to guess it was the difference between weights they found unfair— I’d have given the mare 124 pounds at least— but it’s not like she’ll have it easy in her other anticipated start, the La Troienne (I) on Derby weekend.

Gulfstream is over? :( But that means Calder is around the corner for South Florida and in New York, Belmont steps in for Aqueduct!

I’ll Have Another won the Santa Anita Derby (I) with a time 3 seconds faster than Gemologist's Wood (I)… I have officially stopped doubting him. (However, Gemologist had a 98 Beyer while I'll Have Another scored a 94)

The magnificence of this year’s three-year-old crop almost makes me sad because I’m convinced this year’s juveniles won’t be as good. It’s also because of said magnificence I’m beginning to step away from the idea that this could be a Triple Crown year. It’s also going to make my Derby Dozen profiles that much harder to narrow down.

I wish all my readers a very happy Easter. The bunny did not fail me this year.

Spiral ‘N Sunland

If statistics matter to you, you might not want to miss this weekend’s Derby prep races.

While the $800,000 Sunland Derby (III) in New Mexico and the $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes (III) in Kentucky are not part of the “big races” everyone wants to win being mere G3s, recent history shows they have been pretty important preps despite their placement and their surfaces. Can you say Animal Kingdom? How about Mine That Bird? Belmont winner Ruler On Ice and Preakness placer Astrology? And let’s not forget the Sunland Oaks, which produced Plum Pretty's confidence booster last year.

The horses have been announced for the Sunland Derby, and I think those entries are giddy about earning a big hefty slice of earnings against such a small field. Bob Baffert is worth a look as always with Southwest Stakes (II) division winner Castaway, but serious consideration is also due to El Camino Real (II) winner Daddy Nose Best. That Scat Daddy colt was a relative underdog, but man did he run like a champ against Lucky Chappy [IRE], who I consider to be a real top shelf kind of horse. Those two will be tough to beat, but I’m going to roll consideration toward a Pletcher horse (I know!) I’ve had my eye on for a while: Ender Knievel. Really nice pedigree, and his maiden win last out was just a sign of things to come. You might say he’s going to be a short horse in comparison, but this is not a loaded stakes race so he might be up to the class test. And we totally cannot forget the Spartan of the lot defending his home track from the invading army of contenders: the feisty gelding Isn’t He Clever, who will pick up top local rider Luis Contreras in hopes of making enough earnings to justify a late Triple Crown nomination.

1) Daddy Nose Best 2) Castaway 3) Isn’t He Clever

The preceding race is the $200,000 Sunland Oaks, which is now officially a big deal for Oaks contenders after Plum Pretty hammered out an incredible, awe-inspiring 25-length romp last year. While only 7 answered the call, Bob Baffert is rolling up his sleeves for an inevitable blow-out with Miss Arabella, the undefeated daughter of Any Given Saturday who has been impressive at every career checkpoint thus far. I honestly don’t see much of a chance for upset here, though the winner of the local Island Fashion Stakes, Glinda the Good, will aim to brush shoulders with the favorite. Trained by Steve Asmussen with Conteras aboard, this Hard Spun gal is just clawing her way up the ladder to Oaks Day.

1) Miss Arabella 2) Glinda the Good 3) Sophisticated

Derby Watch: Seriously Street Sense

First off, I could have sworn I published this weeks ago… this is what happens when you have 30+ posts in draft at any given time.

I wasn’t into legitimate handicapping— scouring over past performances, speed figures, track preferences, rider switches, imposts, etc.— until somewhat recently, so it still astonishes me today how I was able to pick some Derby winners based off looks alone. Street Sense was one of those horses I picked to win the Run for the Roses based solely off confirmation, he was just that good-looking to me. A deeper testament to the brilliance of Street Sense was the quality level of his three-year-old class, which featured the likes of Curlin and Hard Spun to name only two. With his first crop turning three next year, it’s time to take a serious look at the baby Street Senses, predominantly one I’ve liked since his maiden: Motor City.

Out of a Danzig Connection daughter, the bay gelding has racked up two nice wins in five starts including the Iroquois Stakes (III) over Seven Lively Sins in great closing fashion. Better yet, it was a rail-skimming ride courtesy of Calvin Borel, which brought back a special memories of the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Surprisingly, Motor City isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongues (yet) in regards to serious Derby hopefuls, but I’m thinking that’s going to change as the preps continue. His Iroquois win looked very mature for his age, and I anticipate this one getting even better down the line.

Also worthy of mention is a recent maiden (turned stakes champ since Monday!) winner by the name of Castaway. With Joe Talamo riding as his regular, he poked along in shorter distances but really lit a match when breaking his maiden around two turns at Santa Anita. He managed a 89 Beyer figure before turning 3, so while it’s still early, there’s enough hope abound that this Bob Baffert trainee could make a good score in time for May 5.

Afford, who just so happens to be competing in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes (II), is yet another who shouldn’t be discounted (pun not intentional). He blew apart the field breaking his maiden by 7 lengths, tracking the leaders on the rail before making a gallant scraper-of-a-trip. While I don’t expect him to win in such a loaded field from the rail position, I think he’s going to keep on improving.

To add an Oaks candidate I’ve been super serious about since her two-year-old campaign, Miss Netta was plagued by a host of gate problems, but was an all-star as the distance stretched out. I missed her 2012 debut in an op-claimer at Gulfstream, but she apparently did not disappoint as the favorite. A great filly, I expect equally great things from her this year.

Bottom line, I just love the blossoming maturity I’ve seen from these colts so far. To win a big race like the Kentucky Derby, you need a lot of luck, talent, and above all, maturity. Classic victories don’t happen by accident, and they often require brash tactics like rail-running, rating well behind early, and closing willingly and quickly. I’ve seen all three so far, and with impressive consistency, from the first crop of Street Sense runners.

Southwest Stakes A Tilted Affair

If I have my info right, there hasn’t been a division of a stakes race since 1993. That said, the 21 entries being split up into two separate $250,000 stakes races for the Southwest Stakes (III) is kind of a big deal. At the same time, I wish they had used their heads in how they decided to separate entries.

One race features nearly all past stakes competitors, including top finishers from the recent Smarty Jones Stakes. The other features only one big name: Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Secret Circle, while the rest are mainly just recent maiden winners with no concrete credentials just yet.

While random draws are usually the best thing in terms of fairness for all, was there no other way to split up this race? Oaklawn Park is almost giving away free graded earnings to Secret Circle while making the others in the alternate race work for it. As much as I personally doubt Secret Circle’s chances in the Kentucky Derby (I) and its preceding prep the $1 million Arkansas Derby (I), there’s a chance he could be taking away money from a deserving improver going this route.

Anyway, I was asked by a commenter to analyze the fields for the Southwest Stakes. While I won’t break each and every one down to the bare bones (hey, it’s 21 ENTRIES!), I’ll give them both a quick comb-over so you’ll know who to watch.

Division 1 (Race 8) $250,000 Southwest Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Oaklawn Park. Post Time: Monday, February 20 at 4:41pm CST.

Believe it or not, I think Laurie’s Rocket might have a good chance here. While he set the pace in the Smarty Jones, he was on the rail in that race that forced him into early speed. He looks to change tactics here a bit. The Smarty Jones was such a close race, I think it can be largely thrown out among the top finishers, who all seem to be here in this race: winner Junebugred, Reckless Jerry, Jake Mo, Laurie’s Rocket, and No Spin who spun out to finish well behind the rest. Like I said, the Smarty Jones was a hot mess, so I really don’t know what to make of Junebugred’s ability.

However, with that said, I’m going with Castaway— who broke his maiden on his second try at this distance— and will probably nudge Longview Drive to finish on the board. The latter is too good and experienced a horse for me to leave out.

Division 2 (Race 9) $250,000 Southwest Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1/16 miles on dirt at Oaklawn Park. Post Time: Monday, February 20 at 5:15pm CST.

A lot of speed in this race. Secret Circle will probably be a lukewarm favorite, seeing as he just missed the 1-mile Sham Stakes (III) last out and is a newbie at the rating game. Anyone who chooses to push him will probably have a better chance at winning here.

So who will push Secret Circle’s buttons? Looks like Cyber Secret has plenty of speed, but unlike Circle he can hold himself back until the end, where last out he really took off to win by 6 lengths in an Oaklawn op-claimer. Also flying under the radar is Big Wednesday, winner of a stakes over at Presque Isle Downs besting the very talented Mr. Prankster easily.

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