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Social Inclusion Ships in for Wood Memorial

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Week 10/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest! Submit your choice of horse through this link by 5:20pm EST (20 minutes before post time). Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

The finale of the Derby Handicap ends with the Wood Memorial, which I have the unique pleasure of attending this year for the very first time after struggling to make the trip for the past couple of years. And, it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good race with a rematch of the mighty New York-breds Samraat and Uncle Sigh, the promising invader Social Inclusion, and a number of other interesting horses looking to pounce into the Kentucky Derby.

$1 million Wood Memorial (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Aqueduct Racetrack. Post Time: Saturday, April 5 at 5:40pm EST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, All carry 123 lbs, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Kid Cruz - Manuel Franco, Linda Rice - An impressive closer in his two career wins, one being at Aqueduct at this distance, this Lemon Drop Kid dark horse romped in the 9-furlong Private Terms by 4 lengths despite breaking a bit slow and hanging wide, going from 16 lengths in last to first by daylight. Dismiss his turf debut, and his record is marred by just a 3/4 length loss. Certainly an interesting horse, Kid Cruz looks to close into the fast pace that will be almost assured. He’ll get his well-deserved class test here.

2) Wicked Strong - Rajiv Maragh, James Jerkens - A horse I liked early on and impressed me in the Remsen (II) whilst rushing in too late in 3rd, the Hard Spun colt’s recent efforts have been messy, with a hapless chase given way in the Holy Bull (III) and a 6 1/2 length loss in another Gulfstream allowance— albeit a very good allowance won by eventual Florida Derby (I) winner Constitution. He deserves more of a look than what his most recent efforts suggest. He ships back to a more reasonable surface which he appeared to excel on as a two-year-old. Jerkens has conditioned this colt to go the distance, and he should be fit to try again.

3) Noble Moon - Irad Ortiz Jr, Leah Gyarmati - The Malibu Moon son and winner of the Jerome Stakes (III) back in January has made enough recovery progress from a hoof issue to give it his best shot off a 3-month layoff.  Gyarmati has drilled Noble Moon through mile breezes in a last-ditch effort to get the colt to the Derby. He won the Jerome off a 2-month layoff— can it be done? I’m not going to favor it personally— the Jerome was run on the inner track which favors speed— and he went wire-to-wire in that effort. Too much too soon.

4) Harpoon - John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher - The same connections as last year’s winner Verrazano team up again with this dappled son of Tapit, who by the way is absolutely dominating this year’s Derby trail hopefuls! Harpoon scarcely lost the Sam Davis won by Vinceremos, then inexplicably lost the Gotham (III) by nearly 6 lengths in a non-effort. Harpoon’s been a notch below the rest just about every step of the way, and seems to be your typical Tapit headcase with green efforts. But who can stop the Toddster from winning this race for the third straight year and on the 10-year anniversary of Tapit’s victory here?

5) Los Borrachos - Cornelio Velasquez, Bill Mott - After failing to break his maiden with Richard Mandella out west, the Pulpit colt traded barns to Bill Mott’s to win his first time out on Aqueduct’s inner course, closing ground well to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Huge step up in class for a big longshot.

6) Kristo - Martin Garcia, John Sadler - Shipping out of California likely to avoid the Chrome menace who whopped him last out, the half-million-dollar Distorted Humor colt had a rough run of the San Felipe (II) last out, and before that couldn’t gain much ground on Midnight Hawk in the Sham (III). It’s possible he could have grown up a bit in the last few months, but at the same time he’s got some speed influence in his pedigree with his dam being a half to Smoke Glacken.

7) Schivarelli - Javier Castellano, Eddie Kenneally - 2-for-2 lifetime, the Montbrook colt ran to the nines with both of his starts coming at Aqueduct on the inner track. He romped in his last allowance one very foggy day, winning by some 12 lengths in the mud and has been burning the topsoil in his workouts. A very cool horse worthy of some discussion. Montbrooks typically excel as sprinters which could be the end of things as Schivarelli stretches out another furlong. But while he switches to the outer track, he picks up Javier Castellano.

8) Samraat - Jose Ortiz, Richard Violette - Undefeated in 5 starts, the Noble’s Causeway colt is considered the horse to beat after putting up some impressive and headstrong performances in the Withers and Gotham Stakes. Violette shipped Samraat down to Florida for his workouts, and then ships him back home to run in the Wood. Very very tough horse and a consistent competitor, he does not have to win and I would not be surprised if he doesn’t to save that gas for the Derby.

9) Effinex - Montanez Rosario, David Smith - Making his graded stakes debut after winning twice in 3 starts, the son of Mineshaft hopes to cash in on the fast pace with a closing style of running, most recently winning him a nice allowance win over 1 1/16 miles on Aqueduct’s inner to win by 6 lengths at 28-1. A class hike for a small-time outfit, Effinex is another with a mile breeze— among the fastest at 1:42 4/5— but will need to breathe life into his numbers to compete.

10) Uncle Sigh - Corey Nakatani, Gary Contessa - I’m not a huge fan of Indian Charlies, but Uncle Sigh is an easy horse to love after his game duels with Samraat and Wounded Warrior connections. He appears to be sharp for another go at Sammy. Uncle Sigh could take advantage of a building speed duel that might engage Samraat and Social Inclusion early while remaining off-the-pace. Indian Charlies can get 9 furlongs.

11) Social Inclusion - Luis Contreras, Manuel Azpurua - The hype horse of the bunch, the Pioneerof the Nile colt gained attention when he romped over Honor Code in a track record-setting allowance race at Gulfstream Park, wiring the field by 10 lengths and setting some blazing digits in the process. Pedigree says yes, but style of running says maybe. Social Inclusion has yet to be headed by another horse in just 2 career starts, both on Gulfstream’s hard and super fast main. While Florida horses fare very well shipping into cooler climate, he has some speed to contend with as he stretches out to 9 furlongs in his graded stakes debut. Food for thought.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Wicked Strong

2) Uncle Sigh

3) Samraat

Tough race! Because of the amount of speed in here and the post of Social Inclusion, I have to believe that multiple horses will be sent straight to the lead to do battle. Others will wait, and they will be rewarded if the brave do not prove their mettle— Wicked Strong has everything going for him if he’s good enough, and I’m saying yes to him here after he showed signs of class in that allowance race down south. He likes Aqueduct’s outer, his running style fits, pedigree fits, and he’s been training to make a big effort. I like Uncle Sigh a lot in this spot as well; he could sit behind a pace duel and make an honest shot at Samraat late in the game. Above all, I want to see what Social Inclusion is made of.

Value Pick: Wicked Strong (7-1 or better) 

Contest Pick: Wicked Strong

Cairo Prince Laces Up for Florida Derby

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Week 9/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest! Submit your choice of horse through this link by 6:28pm EST (20 minutes before post time). Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

A very key prep race in recent years, the Florida Derby is always at the forefront of the Kentucky Derby prep races with past winners like Barbaro, Orb, and Big Brown catapulting off to a blanket of red roses. Cairo Prince returns off the Holy Bull (III) as well as the top two from the Fountain of Youth (II) greet the likes of the Swale (II) winner Spot and two-for-two winner Constitution.

$1 million Florida Derby (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Gulfstream Park. Post Time: Saturday, March 29 at 6:48pm EST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, All carry 122 lbs, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Wildcat Red - John Velazquez, Jose Garoffalo - D’Wildcat progeny typically do not go the distance, but the Fountain of Youth (II) winner aspires to prove that one wrong. Attracting Johnny V to the irons after that head win over General A Rod, the colt has won 4 of 6 starts (with 2 places), all at Gulfstream Park. A very strong entry made stronger with Johnny V, the real test for him will be duplicating the form he showed in the Fountain of Youth while stretching out.

2) Matador [ON] - Julien Leparoux, Mark Casse - Getting blinkers on, the Malibu Moon colt made up a bit of ground late in the Tampa Bay Derby (II) last out, finishing 5th beaten nearly 6 lengths. Oxley hopes the blinkers will focus Matador’s speed, if there is any.

3) Cairo Prince - Luis Saez, Kieran McLaughlin - Unraced since his Holy Bull (III) romp, the Pioneerof the Nile colt has been prepped carefully for this start over at Palm Meadows. A winner of 3 of 4 starts— one missed in a photo finish with Honor Code— he’s the class of the field. I strongly suspect that this is serving mainly as a prep for the big dance, and Cairo Prince won’t be too urgent to conquer all that speed. However, should the surface favor him, he could stalk and pounce.

4) Constitution - Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher - Lightly raced with 2 wins in 2 starts, the Tapit colt drew well clear of a very nice-looking allowance race back in February to win by 3 1/2 over Tonalist. Tapits have been racking up wins, and while Constitution gets a step up in class, he could also pounce late as a horse who could likely get 9 furlongs. Top jock Castellano gets the mount.

5) East Hall - Juan Levya, Bill Kaplan - “Showed little” in the Tampa Bay Derby (II) while running 8th, the Graeme Hall gelding has 2 wins at Gulfstream. He probably doesn’t belong here, and even if everything cracked down to allow for him to pass rivals late, it would take an awful lot of luck for that to happen.

6) General A Rod - Joel Rosario, Mike Maker - Renewing his rivalry with Wildcat Red, the Roman Ruler colt was battling in tandem until the wire of the Fountain of Youth, which he lost by a stubborn head. He loses Castellano to Constitution, which is interesting but probably political, and picks up Joel Rosario. He totes a ton of speed for the pedigree, and Mike Maker is 30%. Overall, he’s a pretty good bet to go far.

7) Allstar - Orlando Bocachica, Marcus Vitali - Always fun to see a Flower Alley join the fray. Allstar was claimed from Coolmore/Pletcher three races back, and since then has won 2 of 3 races, all at Calder and at a mile or less. His last start saw him whipping a Calder allowance field by 4 1/2 lengths. His best speed figures pale in comparison to the rest of the field, which is discouraging.

8) Spot - Corey Lanerie, Nick Zito - See Spot stretch out? It could happen. A gelded son of Pulpit, Spot is bred similarly to Bernardini and other distance goers following an upset win in the 7-furlong Swale while sweeping in late to overtake the rest of the field. Zito has Spot sharp for this race and he could very well stretch out as a proven closer in a speed-heavy field on a track he already likes.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) General A Rod

2) Spot

3) Cairo Prince

A favored horse, Cairo Prince will draw far more money than he should coming off a layoff in a very fast field. However, should General A Rod and Wildcat Red lock up again, the field could fall to an off-the-pace horse like Cairo Prince or even Spot who could come running late. Overall, I like the upside on General A Rod, who has the pedigree to stretch his speed out further than Wildcat Red. Spot has some potential to stretch out while pouncing on the fast-moving pace, and Cairo Prince should be in the mix.

Value Pick: Spot

Contest Pick: General A Rod

Tamarando Ships East for Spiral Stakes

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Week 8/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest! Submit your choice of horse through this link by 6:08pm EST (20 minutes before post time). Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

The Sunland Derby and the Spiral Stakes complete another weekend of Derby preps, with some interesting up-and-coming talents taking the stage for each of these G3 events and the fields filling well enough as the races begin to lengthen. The jewel of Turfway Park, the Spiral Stakes often yields an upset winner so it’s a great value race to play if you know your polytrack well, with past winners including Lil E. Tee, Animal Kingdom, and Serena’s Song, overall yielding 3 Kentucky Derby winners. Turf types have excelled in this race.

$550,000 Spiral Stakes (III) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/8 miles on all-weather track at Turfway Park. Post Time: Saturday, March 22 at 6:28pm EST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, All carry 123 lbs, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Big Bazinga - Luis Contreras, Katerina Vassilieva - A Woodbine transplant, the Bluegrass Cat gelding excelled on Woodbine’s all-weather as a juvenile and returns to it for the first time as a three-year-old in an attempt to bounce back on what could be his preferred surface. He lost the Holy Bull on dirt by some 33 lengths, but bounced back once placed on turf in his last start, missing by a neck in a Gulfstream allowance. Bluegrass Cat throws plenty of nice turf/poly horses…ahem, Kathmanblu, one of my favorite fillies! Usable in exotics.

2) Asserting Bear [ON] - Joe Rocco Jr, Reade Baker - A winner on Woodbine’s poly, the Bear Kid colt turned in career-best figs on the all-weather at this distance mark. He was a mere 3 3/4 lengths in the scrambled finish of the Sam Davis (III) last out on dirt. Bear Stables has had some luck in the past, and Asserting Bear has some good efforts on all-weather. Not that special an entry, but not a total toss-out.

3) Poker Player - Channing Hill, Wayne Catalano - Hyped and wide into the stretch of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (I), the Harlan’s Holiday colt hopped nicely off an extended layoff to run 2nd in the Battaglia prep for the Spiral, beaten nearly 5 lengths by Solitary Ranger but making up ground at the end. There is some pace here for Poker Player, who has shown he can do Turfway’s poly. He should improve off that layoff, but needs some stronger numbers to win.

4) Tamarando - Russell Baze, Jerry Hollendorfer - A titan on poly, the Bertrando colt boasts 4 wins in 7 tries on the all-weather and trainer Hollendorfer is no stranger to shipping and winning. Victorious in his last start, the 9-furlong El Camino Real (III), Tam looks fit as the likely favorite. In a field this size, it’s easy to see how Tam is among the best, but he won’t be at a worthwhile price.

5) Coastline - Stewart Elliott, Mark Casse - Speightstowns can pretty much do anything, and this one broke his maiden over Keeneland’s all-weather track only to fizzle in subsequent dirt starts, save one at Churchill. He has the best speed figure on the surface and is usually forwardly-placed. He can win at a nice price.

6) Smart Cover - Corey Lanerie, Dale Romans - Stumbling at the start of his three-year-old debut in a nice turf stake at Gulfstream, the Any Given Saturday colt is being given another try in this, his first start on all-weather. He ought to improve 2nd off the layoff, but his class is very questionable.

7) All Tied Up - Luis Saez, Todd Pletcher - Even the Score’s other son Dullahan loved poly, so why not All Tied Up? A victor in 2 of his 7 starts— all on the lawn— Pletcher sends this one to the poly for the first time. Pletcher is gifted at churning out some poly stars as he demonstrated with Silsita and In Lingerie in Turfway’s Bourbonette Oaks. All Tied Up with reap some pace should he liken to poly.

8) Solitary Ranger - Florent Geroux, Wayne Catalano - I really like the first US Ranger foals, and Solitary Ranger could be among the best of them, as he put on a show romping in the Battaglia stake prep and is 2-for-2 as a three-year-old and an artist on the all-weather. His works look excellent and he’s humming off that Battaglia win. Very nice horse who will look to help set the pace.

9) Almost Famous - Calvin Borel, Pat Byrne - A winner twice as a two-year-old, the Unbridled’s Song colt didn’t make an immediate lead in the Holy Bull (III) and just never got into the race, an action he repeated in the Fountain of Youth (II). He needs that lead, and by the looks of it, an uncontested one which he probably won’t get. I feel good about dismissing this one.

10) Harry’s Holiday - Rosie Napravnik, Mike Maker - Hansen’s owners return to the Derby preps with this Harlan’s Holiday colt, who went wide to finish 3rd in the Battaglia prep, but before that, romped in the 96 Rock prep at Turfway by 8 lengths. Can he route, or was the Battaglia not his day? Either way, he gets an upgrade with Rosie Napravnik.

11) We Miss Artie - John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher - The other G1 winner in the field, the Ramseys are taking another shot at the Derby preps with this son of Artie Schiller, last seen being whipped by 17 lengths in the Fountain of Youth (II). He won his only poly start— the G1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland from the 10-hole— and missed beating Storming Inti by a head before that, so talent is in check. Class alone could hand him the victory, but he doesn’t have the type of speed figures necessary to beat out many of these horses, even on poly. I also don’t like the way he was caught by Storming Inti in a race he should have had in the bag.

12) Arctic Slope - Albin Jimenez, Ken McPeek - Making his first start since November, the Van Nistelrooy colt is shooting for the moon after being beaten 12 lengths last out in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (II). His lone poly start put him nearly 5 lengths behind We Miss Artie, albeit after a wide trip and a bad start. Very steep challenge for a horse to try hot off the bench.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) All Tied Up

2) Coastline

3) Solitary Ranger

Before I start, there are a lot of horses in here that could win this, and for that reason, I’m playing against the scary favorite Tamarando, who may very well win, and I’m not a huge fan of We Miss Artie, despite generally liking Artie Schillers… on turf. All Tied Up hit a wall of horses while closing things up like a zipper last out, and I think he could easily take to poly with 2 wins at 1 1/16 miles so he’s not just a turf sprinter. As a fan of the saying “Don’t overlook the Speightstown,” I include Coastline, who may very well be the horse for the course and a poly specialist. Solitary Ranger I’m just a fan of and he’d be the kneejerk pick here had I not been able to analyze the race. He could stick it out in the front end.

Value Pick: Value can be had in most places. All Tied Up would be a keeper at 6-1 or better, Coastline 8-1 or better.

Contest Wager: All Tied Up

Tapiture vs. Strong Mandate Rematch in the Rebel

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Week 7/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest! Submit your choice of horse through this link by 5:44pm EST (20 minutes before post time). Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

With Honor Code out of the Rebel (and racing in an allowance today on Wednesday instead), picking a strong value winner became a little harder. The field has shrunk down a little bit to 8 horses, and includes a rematch of the Southwest Stakes (III) winner and runner-up along with some fit challengers.

$600,000 Rebel Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Oaklawn Park. Post Time: Saturday, March 15 at 6:04pm EST.

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

1) Jet Cat - John McKee, 115 lbs, Edward Frederick - The sole Texas-bred and the lucky rail horse, the son of Tactical Cat was off the board in both of his three-year-old starts, finishing a wide 9th in an Oaklawn allowance going a mile in January then improved to 4th last month in a similar allowance won by Sheltowee’s Boy, beaten some 5 lengths. With a bullet 5-panel in the books, Jet Cat’s sire Tactical Cat was a winner of the Hollywood Futurity but didn’t show much as a three-year-old. He may not be fit for the surface either, with his maiden broken at Turfway.

2) Ride On Curlin - Kent Desormeaux, 115 lbs, William Gowan - Favored among many leading up to the Southwest Stakes (III), the son of Curlin brushed up to finish 3rd in that race, going 7-wide late and too far back to catch Tapiture or Strong Mandate. He easily won an allowance earlier this year at Oaklawn and has a 7-furlong work for this race in 1:26 and change. Ride On Curlin draws much better than he did in the Southwest (#8), but either way, appears to be training for the long haul. He can win this.

3) Tapiture - Ricardo Santana Jr, 122 lbs, Steve Asmussen - The Tapit colt has obviously been training very well since making Oaklawn his home base, laying it all down on the track to win the Southwest (III) in a romp over Strong Mandate last out. No off-the-board starts here in this rising star. A colt with some tactical speed to burn, Tapiture showed his class last out but also had a very ideal trip running free on the rail. He totes the highest weight but still breaks close to the rail. Should still show up very well, if not win with that great turn of foot of his.

4) Strong Mandate - Joel Rosario, 117 lbs, D. Wayne Lukas - The tough Tiznow returns off a good-looking 2nd place finish in the Southwest (III), where he encountered some traffic and got going too late to touch Tapiture. He twelved 4 panels after that race, then went for a slow breeze to prep, where he sliced the final quarter in :23.4. I sense the Coach has this one sitting on an all-star effort in this, his 2nd off the layoff, and 5 pounds from Tapiture helps his cause.

5) Hoppertunity - Mike Smith, 115 lbs, Bob Baffert - I’m still keen that this Any Given Saturday colt has some clout, despite a 4th place finish in the crowded Risen Star Stakes (II) last out. The winning jockey for that race returns to ride Hop, who has been breezing pretty well at Santa Anita in the meantime. Losing by 7 lengths last out, I’m hoping for a better pilot job for Hop who puts his best effort in late. Mike Smith could be the key factor here.

6) Sheltowee’s Boy - Joshua Navarro, 115 lbs, Brad Cox - A closing winner last out in an Oaklawn allowance, the Nobiz Like Shobiz gelding held off Z Lucky to win by 3/4 length. This will be his stakes bow, Not early-nominated for the Triple Crown, this is the gelding’s audition for the Derby should he run well. He will have to improve.

7) Street Strategy - Calvin Borel, 115 lbs, Randy Morse - Unstarted as a two-year-old, the gray Street Sense colt took off running in his career debut at Oaklawn in January to miss by a nose while moving wide in the stretch. He broke his maiden about 2 weeks after that, this time running on the front end to score by 6 1/2 lengths. He took control of a relatively uncontested pace in his maiden break, and has not run since January, although he’s had some longer works put in, including 6 panels in 1:13 and change. Can he improve off a longer layoff and survive a class test? Kind of an interesting horse.

8) Kobe’s Back - Jose Lezcano, 117 lbs, John Sadler - Fresh off his San Vicente (II) win at Santa Anita, the gray Flatter colt will try to lengthen his stride from 7 furlongs after winning that prep by a pretty easy 5 lengths. The half brother to sprinter Well Spelled loses Rosario for this race, but is riding a nice high with a second start off the layoff here and has been breezing 6 panels in 1:11 and change at Santa Anita. A solid pace easily elevates him.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Strong Mandate

2) Kobe’s Back

3) Tapiture

It’s a tug of war between the top 3 horses, with each one presenting a strong case. Strong Mandate floats to the top of the list, as he did better than I expected in the Southwest Stakes fresh off a long layoff and has been training well at Oaklawn. He’s game to improve further here and hopefully has a better trip. Kobe’s Back could come running late under a solid pace, and has tremendous speed to burn. Tapiture ran superb last out and could win this race just as easily in his 2nd start off the layoff.

Value Pick: Kobe’s Back (4-1) is regarded by many as a sprinter who closes. He’s riding off a real nice win and should be able to get 1 1/16 miles and is a strong candidate to win.

Contest Pick: Strong Mandate

Vinceremos Still the Underdog in Tampa Bay Derby

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Surfing U S A ships in from Gulfstream to tackle stablemate Vinceremos.

While the class of the Derby contenders save their energy for the big payday preps, a motley field assembles for the Tampa Bay Derby, which includes the first and third place finishers of the Sam Davis (III), regarded as the prep race for this event despite the last winner of both being Burning Roma, all the way back in 2001. Todd Pletcher seeks his third Tampa Bay Derby win overall and second consecutively with the top two morning line choice Surfing U S A and Vinceremos.

Week 6/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest! Submit your choice of horse through this link by 5:05pm EST (20 minutes before post time). Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

$350,000 Tampa Bay Derby (II) - 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Tampa Bay Downs. Post Time: Saturday, March 8 at 5:25pm EST.

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

1) Ring Weekend - Daniel Centeno, 116 lbs, Graham Motion - The Tapit gelding has been getting better and better with time according to his connections, and he seems to have the speed figs to back up that belief. He won by enough wiggle room in his last start— his first time on fast dirt at this distance— despite going wide early. Graham Motion wins at a 25% clip here and the rail has been generous here at this track. Value can be had, but do note this horse is fresh off his maiden score.

2) Surfing U S A - Jose Lezcano, 116 lbs, Todd Pletcher - I wasn’t particularly impressed when I saw this Roman Ruler colt break his maiden at Aqueduct in the fall, and he was most recently snuffed out by Top Billing at Gulfstream Park. His breezes look good enough, and Pletcher may be eyeing an easier score here. How he does will at least tell us how good Top Billing really is.

3) Matador [ON] - Julien Leparoux, 116 lbs, Mark Casse - The “other” Casse entry, the Malibu Moon colt broke his maiden back in October at Woodbine on the turf, but seemed good enough to run on dirt judging by his 1-length loss in the Sam Davis, where he finished 4th while putting his best move in a bit too late. He improved well in the Sam Davis, and we haven’t really seen his best move yet due to choppy trips in the past or just surface indifference. Could be a diamond in the rough if he can keep improving.

4) Coltimus Prime - Gary Boulanger, 116 lbs, Justin Nixon - The Milwaukee Brew colt has some distance pedigree pinging around as a bit of a backside secret, as all of his 3 past starts came on Woodbine’s all-weather. He missed by a neck to the good Jose Sea View last out after enduring a very stubborn duel the whole race and smashed his maiden by 8 lengths. He seems to be quality enough to run here and his pedigree says dirt.

5) Conquest Titan - Shaun Bridgmohan, 116 lbs, Mark Casse - This Birdstone colt made quite the impression breaking his maiden at Churchill and then made up serious ground late to be 2nd in the Holy Bull behind Cairo Prince. If he can get some pace and not lag behind this time, he stands a good shot to get some more Derby points here.

6) Vinceremos - Edgar Prado, 120 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The lightly-raced and promising Pioneerof the Nile colt was up in time to win the Sam Davis last out here at Tampa at the same distance despite a bit of a sleeper pace. He came on again to prevail in his last race, displaying some class in a tight finish. An improving, sensible, likely favorite.

7) East Hall - Juan Levya, 116 lbs, Bill Kaplan - Kaplan’s horses usually stick around south Florida, but this time he ships out this Graeme Hall gelding after 2 wins in 11 starts. He was 3rd behind General A Rod and Wildcat Red in the Gulfstream Park Derby and was beaten more than 6 lengths in the Florida Derby, running 4th. He already has 3 starts as a three-year-old, but has some of the sharpest speed figures on dirt when he’s at his best, and he’ll come in closing in on the pace.

8) Cousin Stephen - Javier Castellano, 116 lbs, Chad Brown - Typically a stronger turf trainer than on dirt, Chad Brown ships in a son of one of my favorite sires, Proud Citizen, with Castellano to boot. He was beaten less than a length last out in the Sam Davis here while trying to gamely wire the field. Interestingly enough, his best race and only win to date was his maiden won on turf. He didn’t improve significantly enough between his 2 dirt starts this year to really tempt me here, but the jockey change to Castellano is a nice addition.

9) Hy Kodiak Warrior - Gabriel Saez, 116 lbs, Marcial Navarro - Part of Kodiak Kowboy’s first crop to race, Kodiak Warrior will be given Lasix for the first time this race with a trainer who is 50% at first-time Lasix winners and an already attractive set of speed stats to go with that little boost. He lost to two good horses last out, Commissioner and Top Billing, while making his first start with trainer Navarro. He didn’t make up much ground against Commish and Top Billing last out, and is coming off a 2-month layoff with a new trainer. However, there is plenty to like about him as a fairly consistent runner who likes to come from off the pace, and he has some good 5 and 6-panel works coming into this race.

10) Tuscan Getaway - Joe Rocco Jr, 116 lbs, Ricky Griffith - 2-2-2 in 7 starts, the Stroll colt hasn’t raced since November over at Woodbine, where he wired the field at this distance on the all-weather main. He does have a prior win on dirt at Delaware Park as well as a place in his 2 dirt starts. Class as well as extended layoff is an issue, especially as a horse who likes to hug the pace, but his trainer does win at a 26% clip and this colt put in a barn-burning :57 and change workout a couple weeks ago.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Hy Kodiak Warrior

2) Conquest Titan

3) Cousin Stephen

This is a bit of a hard race to pick apart when it comes to locating a serious contender for the win. Vinceremos had a rail trip of things and was in the clear to just make it there in the Sam Davis. There seems to be an ample amount of forwardly-placed horses here, which causes me to want to look at those who launch their bids later on. Despite a long layoff, Hy Kodiak Warrior looks like a good choice with good odds. He’s run well with classy types and has been logging some good longer works lately leading up to the race. Conquest Titan probably won’t get enough ground here again, not that he needs to win here to get prepared enough for the big race, but it ought to set up for him if he can be moved up a bit closer than he was in the Holy Bull. Cousin Stephen could have won the Sam Davis had he not been squeezed in the stretch on both sides. I want to put up Coltimus Prime pretty badly up here as well, but not off such a long layoff.

Value Pick: Hy Kodiak Warrior (8-1)

Contest Wager: Hy Kodiak Warrior

Overflow Field Packs in for the Risen Star Stakes

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Week 5/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest: Submit your choice of horse up to 20 minutes through this link before the scheduled post time of 5:25pm CST for this race. Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

Two graded stakes winners and a handful of challengers line up to take some Derby points in a loaded rendition of the Risen Star Stakes. As though named for the race, Rise Up will return from a 3-month layoff since winning the Delta Downs Jackpot in a romp to challenge Lecomte (III) winner Vicar’s In Trouble, who had no trouble winning that race by almost 7 lengths. #4 Bond Holder scratched, allowing also-eligible entry Emmett Park into the gate. The other also-eligible, Teniente Coronel, will not run according to his trainer.

$400,000 Risen Star Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Fair Grounds. Post Time: Saturday, February 22 at 5:25pm CST.

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

1) Albano - Kerwin Clark, 116 lbs, Larry Jones - The son of Istan and half to Mark Valeski breaks from the rail after a somewhat unfavorable trip last out in the Lecomte (III), where he finished a respectable 2nd way behind Vicar’s In Trouble. He has won 2 and has never been off the board in 4 starts. While I expect him to run a better trip here, I think he may be out of luck here. Perhaps needs more ground like Atigun, another Istan colt.

2) Rise Up - Gerard Melancon, 120 lbs, Tom Amoss - The Rockport Harbor colt has won 4 of 6 races, including the Delta Jackpot (III) by a breezy 6 lengths over Casiguapo. He owns some of the best figures here and has a win at the distance. His workouts look good and he has enough early speed to do well at this post. Extended layoffs didn’t hurt him in the past, and he looks fresh.

3) Flat Gone - Chris Landeros, 116 lbs, Keith Desormeaux - Trainer Desormeaux took this race in a shocker last year with Ive Struck a Nerve, so can he go back-to-back with this Flatter colt? Flat Gone has been a bit of a lost cause up until his last race here at the Fair Grounds, where he rallied on the turn to break his maiden by 2 1/2 lengths to improve very significantly. Flat Gone retains 10% rider Landeros for this race and Desormeaux is nearly 20% here. While I credit that maiden win to a rapid pace, if he improves his numbers again he could be a factor.

4) Vigorish - Marcelino Pedroza, 116 lbs, D. Wayne Lukas - Lukas with another seemingly hopeless son of English Channel in the Derby preps (Optimizer!)? Vigorish has yet to snap his maiden in 6 starts, the best of which were 2 places. To his credit, he was barely beaten last out going this distance at Oaklawn, and his resume is a mix between turf, slop, and inexperience that has handicapped him. He’s a bit of a lost cause, but do you dare to doubt the Coach with a horse who is knocking at the door?

6) Gold Hawk - Corey Nakatani, 116 lbs, Steve Asmussen - Smushed as the favorite last out in the Lecomte (III), the Empire Maker colt switches to Corey Nakatani after he got going too late to catch Vicar’s In Trouble in his only career loss in 3 starts. His numbers and race trips are not that impressive. Asmussen and Nakatani are a good combo though.

7) Interchange - E.T. Baird, 116 lbs, Thomas Clark - 2-for-2 as a juvenile, the Fairbanks colt goofed in his 3-year-old debut here at Fair Grounds, being 5th by nearly 10 lengths to Quick Indian and Xtra Luck in 3rd. Interchange’s two wins aren’t very special looking at the setup he received: one a likely pace meltdown, the other an uncontested easy lead. Nope.

8) Hoppertunity - Martin Garcia, 116 lbs, Bob Baffert - The Any Given Saturday colt was a bit slow and wide while 5th in his debut race won by Bayern, then reeled them in on the rail last out to win by 3. Bob Baffert is a pro shipping to the midwest and Hops should improve. Yet to accomplish much of anything, Hops will be stretching and shipping, but ought to be a fairly decent play as his last race was really nice.

9) Intense Holiday - Mike Smith, 116 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Harlan’s Holiday colt had a rough trip of things in the Remsen (II) last year, and got along to be 3rd last out in the Holy Bull (II) despite breaking from an outer post. He gets another outer post here and has only won once in 6 starts. He improved his figures last out and should improve again in his 2nd start off the layoff. How highly you think of Cairo Prince should factor into how you place him. Likely to get good odds again.

10) Son of a Preacher - Miguel Mena, 116 lbs, Bret Calhoun - The Pulpit colt hasn’t won since his debut going 6 furlongs at Churchill Downs last year, and hasn’t faced much class in recent starts, the best of which was a 3 1/2 length loss to Gold Hawk. He’s failed to make much ground (if any) up in the stretch, but did get a rocky race against Gold Hawk here at the Fair Grounds. He could do better with an improved trip, but how much so is the question.

11) Quick Indian - Brian Hernandez Jr, 116 lbs, Merrill Scherer - The Indian Charlie colt won his allowance race here at the Fair Grounds in January, spinning off the turn to log 2-of-3 wins at the distance. A great pedigree, with an Apple Blossom (I) winner for his dam’s mother, Quick Indian could keep improving.

12) Xtra Luck - Richard Eramia, 116 lbs, Danny Pish - The Exchange Rate colt was a well-beaten 3rd last out, more than 9 lengths behind Quick Indian. Outer post, poor figs, bred like a grass horse.

13) Commanding Curve - Robby Albarado, 116 lbs, Dallas Stewart - The Master Command colt had some cruddy races before finally snapping his maiden at Churchill Downs, running his best late and eating into a slow pace from the back of the field going this distance. An interesting new player, he won well enough last out to be a contender here if he can keep improving. The long layoff may hurt him.

14) Vicar’s In Trouble - Rosie Napravnik, 120 lbs, Mike Maker - The Into Mischief colt is 2-for-2 at Fair Grounds and is fresh off a commanding score in the Lecomte (III) last out, where he won by nearly 7 lengths despite veering out a little. The distance and contenders should be no problem for him, but the outer post is daunting as he will have to break quickly and give up some ground in the process. It’s not impossible, though, and he has plenty of talent.

AE) Emmett Park - James Graham, 116 lbs, Robert Pincins - 2-for-2 at Turfway Park on poly, the Bob and John gelding has had 3 Fair Grounds works on dirt and looks to be an improver and a closer should he keep the same strategies on dirt. His works have been good on the dirt and he can be had from an improving angle. I do not think a wide post (should he get post 14… I’m assuming he does) will hinder him.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Hoppertunity

2) Rise Up

3) Commanding Curve

The horse to beat here isn’t Vicar’s In Trouble, but Rise Up, who owns top figures all around but is still in need of a test— and should he win on Saturday, he’ll probably need to be tested again as this is a pretty weak field altogether. Hoppertunity made some leaps and bounds in his last race and I’m keen on him to do well here. I liked Commanding Curve’s Churchill win a lot and he should improve. All I worry about for him is fitness level. I could go back and forth between these three all day, this is a tough race.

Value Pick: Commanding Curve (6-1 or better) can explode in that last quarter from behind if he’s still got it.

Contest Wager: Hoppertunity

Enterprising Looms in El Camino Real Derby

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Week 4/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest: Submit your choice of horse up to 20 minutes through this link before the scheduled post time of 4:15pm PST for this race. Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

As expected with any polytrack Derby prep, the El Camino Real Derby invites a mixed bunch of hopefuls into the gate including the morning line favorite and recent stakes winner, Enterprising, who gets hot jockey Gary Stevens to ride for the first time. Jerry Hollendorfer also sends his regards in the form of two entries, and G1 winner Tamarando seeks to be a part of the action.

This is the first race of the Derby Handicap to be run at 9 furlongs and the first on synthetic. Choose wisely— some super longshots have hit the board, if not won, this race in the recent past!

$200,000 El Camino Real Derby (III) - 1 1/8 miles on Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields. Post Time: Saturday, February 15 at 4:15pm PST.

[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, All carry 121 lbs, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]

1) Craftsman - Dennis Carr, Simon Callaghan - The son of turf horse Mastercraftsman [IRE], Craftsman finished a length ahead of Michaelmas in a stake at Leopardstown before making his first start in the U.S., a mild 4th as the favorite in the 1-mile Eddie Logan on turf at Santa Anita— a race won by Enterprising. Jockey Dennis Carr has a nearly 30% win percentage and blinkers are added to this horse, who ought to improve a bit in his 2nd U.S. start at the very minimum. Will turf ability translate well enough over to poly? Lest we forget, a longshot rail horse has won this race before!

2) Puppy Manners - Frank Alvarado, Jerry Hollendorfer - Kitten’s Joy progeny can do turf, now how about poly? Trainer Hollendorfer is a force around these parts, longshot or not, and both of Puppy Manners’ 2 wins came on all-weather. A Golden Gate regular, Puppy Manners’ class is a huge question as he competes against better horses and often launches his bid too late. Will more ground help him out? Can a Kitten’s Joy win a [semi] big poly stake?

3) Infosec - Isaias Enriquez, Frank Lucarelli - Kaleem Shah bred this son of Heatseeker [IRE], who has gone 2-for-3 on the all-weather, including a score at Golden Gate. He was beaten 2 lengths last out to Exit Stage Left and Enterprising, finishing a mild 3rd. While he improved last out, class appears to be a question with this one as well, as he couldn’t make up much ground on Enterprising late last time.

4) Tamarando - Russell Baze, Jerry Hollendorfer - The stats tag team: a G1 winner paired with a 30% trainer and a 30% jockey, the son of Bertrando hopes to redeem himself after back-to-back disappointments losing to Shared Belief, Candy Boy, and California Chrome. However, those three may compliment him and he’s looking very good off his works and is 50% on poly. Can a deep closer work here?

5) Enterprising - Gary Stevens, Tom Proctor - Winner of the Eddie Logan Stakes on turf, the Elusive Quality colt looks to keep adding to his resume despite being snuffed last time out by Exit Stage Left in his lone polytrack start. Apt to be the favorite, can Enterprising still be top class on poly as he was on turf, where he is 2-for-2?

6) Icy Ride - Jose Valdivia, Bob Baffert - Those Candy Rides are red-hot lately, and Icy Ride ships in with the Baffert contingent. His lone poly start was his debut race at Hollywood Park, where he didn’t find his best stride until late and finished 5th. A maiden who has yet to finish on the board, call me crazy, but I don’t think he’s a terrible bet. Candy Rides do well on poly/turf and he hasn’t been given a good enough shot at it yet.

7) I’ll Wrap It Up - Juan Hernandez, Doug O’Neill - The Tapit colt’s lone win came to him on polytrack, and his trainer and jockey are both at 20% when it comes to shipping elsewhere and riding at this track. His speed figures leave something to be desired, but he seems to take to poly well enough. However, I feel obliged to draw a line through him since his one win came on poly yes, but against a field that was meant to go on grass that day at Hollywood Park.

8) Dance With Fate - Aaron Gryder, Peter Eurton - A horse who caught my eye early on, the Two Step Salsa colt owns a win on poly as a do-it-aller. He won for fun last out on the grass despite a layoff since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and looks fit. Keen to keep it up 2nd off the layoff, he’s much better than the charts say.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Dance With Fate

2) Icy Ride

3) Tamarando

I’m 4-for-4 with top picks in my past 4 handicapped races… 5 if you include Lea in the Donn Handicap… and I’m going with Dance With Fate here. He’s just pure class in my book and is set to improve here, and I don’t think Tapeta is going to stand in his way. I like Icy Ride a whole lot to improve here on a surface that may favor Candy Rides, and Tamarando got the nod over Enterprising, simply because of surface preferences and his recent works look good enough. I’m not totally confident about poly nor Golden Gate, but let’s just roll with this.

Value Pick: Icy Ride (10-1) looked great in his last race, finishing 4th but well ahead of the others in a closing trip, probably getting off too slow to catch the promising winner Hoppertunity and still too green then to have a real shot.

Contest Wager: Dance With Fate

Midnight Hawk Heads Robert B. Lewis Field

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Week 3/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest: Submit your choice of horse up to 20 minutes through this link before the scheduled post time of 4:00pm PST for this race. Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

In what looks to be a great race this year— I like for there to be 7-8 horses in a field balanced by a tepid favorite and several promising new guns— the Robert B. Lewis Stakes serves as a key prep race for the Santa Anita Derby on the path to the Kentucky Derby. Past winners include major upsetter I’ll Have Another, who taught me it’s best to really look at everyone!

$200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Santa Anita Park. Post Time: Saturday, February 8 at 4:00pm PST (7pm EST). 

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

1) Candy Boy - Gary Stevens, 118 lbs, John Sadler - Improving with each race, the Candy Ride [ARG] colt held firmly to the place in the CashCall (I) won by Shared Belief and has already won at this distance. He has just one win in 5 starts, and has been well-beaten by other top western horses in other races (Shared Belief, Tap It Rich). His maiden break at Hollywood was very impressive and he should not be dismissed having been beaten by Shared Belief

2) Diamond Bachelor - Julien Leparoux, 118 lbs, Patrick Biancone - I’m always pretty gung-ho about War Fronts, and apart from being part of the “not a factor” crowd at the Breeders’ Cup, he’s done pretty well with 2 wins and a place. However, all 3 of those were on the grass. Many people have been touting Diamond’s great recent works on Santa Anita’s track, but I’m taking this entry with a serious grain of salt. I’m just not a fan of Leparoux on dirt not to mention this whole trying a great War Front turf horse on dirt thing has not gone well in the past.

3) Midnight Hawk - Mike Smith, 120 lbs, Bob Baffert - The first serious Midnight Lute colt to knock on Derby’s door this season, Midnight Hawk was a formidable winner of the 1-mile Sham Stakes (III) last out on this track after taking his debut handily, romping by 6 lengths. Likely to be the speed of the race and the likely favorite, Baffert-Pegram horses are always class, but I would have more confidence in him if he finished the Sham stronger than he did. He reminds me of Fed Biz at this stage, fast horse that becomes very vulnerable past 7-8 furlongs.

4) Home Run Kitten - Joe Talamo, 118 lbs, David Hofmans - Another year, another batch of Kittens trying to make dirt work out for them! Boasting 2 starts on turf with a game win last out going 6 1/2 over Santa Anita’s green. Home Run Kitten faces an uphill battle jumping into graded stakes company on dirt while stretching out.

5) Cool Samurai - Corey Nakatani, 118 lbs, John Shirreffs - The Zenyatta connections make a go for the Derby with this son of First Samurai, who broke his maiden back in December going a mile here at Santa Anita over The Admiral, attacking late into a fast pace. Likely to be a key factor in the event of a burning early pace, he’s been working well going long and has yet to have a truly dynamite trip that defines his ability. I reckon he’s better off going longer than this and will be better next out, but it’s promising to see John Shirreffs send out a young one here, especially while boasting a 50% in-the-money finish ratio at Santa Anita.

6) El Nino Terrible - Edwin Maldonado, 118 lbs, Peter Miller - A one-time winner at this distance with 3 total career starts, the Malibu Moon colt exits a wire-to-wire effort last out at this track, and has one breeze since that January 17 race, making him the quickest turn-around of the field. He’ll likely try to break from the outside straight to the front again, but will face Midnight Hawk for that lead.

7) Chitu - Martin Garcia, 118 lbs, Bob Baffert - The “other” Baffert horse, the Henny Huges colt Chitu is 2-for-2 going 6 furlongs and looks to be ready for the class challenge as a horse who leads or marches behind the leaders. A speedball worthy of the challenge, Chitu’s pedigree couples speed with distance-going with A.P. Indy as his damsire. Nearly all of his recent works have been bullet moves, but he will have to break fast from the outside in his first time at a route and in graded company.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Candy Boy

2) Chitu

3) Cool Samurai

While Midnight Hawk has a very fair shot at prevailing as the morning line favorite, I don’t think he was dominant enough or will have that much of an edge in Saturday’s race to distract me from my real top 3. Candy Boy looks like he has learned quite a bit with each race, and I’m totally okay with that green 2nd in his only dirt start at Santa Anita, as he finished well ahead of the rest of the field and got going well late and looks like he could be a very classy horse… be it on Saturday or at a later date. He ran beautifully from behind despite getting tepid fractions, and I think he could be special. Chitu impressed me physically and I liked his last race where he looked like he still had something left in reserve and made a strong stretch drive… I like him better than his stablemate. Cool Samurai I like only slightly less than Chitu, and chiefly from a pace perspective as this race may very well be full of early speed— that is, if people are interested in chasing Midnight Hawk. If they aren’t, he might be in trouble.

Value Pick: Cool Samurai (6-1 or better) could be overlooked as a closer in a souped-up field with big names.

Contest Wager: Candy Boy

Withers Welcomes 6-Horse Field Headed by Samraat

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Revolutionary, 3rd place in last year’s Kentucky Derby, made himself known in the Withers Stakes.

Week 2/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest: Submit your choice of horse up to 20 minutes through this link before the scheduled post time of 4:20pm EST for this race. Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

A small field is up to challenge one another for 17 total Derby points on Aqueduct’s road to the Kentucky Derby in the well-respected Withers Stakes (III). While two top New York-breds will likely command the majority of the betting pools, this is a fairly even race where anything could happen as all of these colts are looking to improve in this race.

$250,000 Withers Stakes (III) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/16 miles on inner track dirt at Aqueduct. Post Time: Saturday, February 1 at 4:20pm EST.

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

1) Uncle Sigh - Pablo Morales, 116 lbs, Gary Contessa - Coming from a very respectable New York trainer in Contessa, the Indian Charlie New York-bred colt was a game 2nd in his debut before simply romping in his second start back in late December despite floating a bit wide. Uncle Sigh has proved he loves the Big A’s inner track with a win on it at this distance and has the pedigree to be potent. He should be more than ready for a new challenge and has shown he can run loose as well as head-to-head with others.

2) Street Gent - Irad Ortiz Jr, 116 lbs, Leah Gyarmati - Fresh off his maiden win back on December 1 over the highly-regarded Tourist, the Street Sense colt will vouch how good the red-hot Gyarmati barn is going to be this year. He won after switching to a pacesetting position and to the inner track, where that setup is typically favored. However, he will not have it easy in this class test with multiple horses likely apt to try that setup. Ortiz is a 20% rider so far, and Street Gent flaunts my ideal workout pattern of smart short bullets paired with mile breezes. Watch those Street Senses!

3) Scotland - Kendrick Caramouche, 116 lbs, Tony Dutrow - Still a maiden heading into a deeper class, the Horse Greeley colt has made an impression on a few already. He raced a good 3rd last out in the Jerome (II) in January behind Noble Moon and Classic Giacnroll in a race that might have worked against him. He has shown improvement and has run well enough against classy company like Surfing USA and Juba. He improved very mildly switching to the inner track and has not yet shown the kind of kick that convinces me he can win on Saturday for this particular race.

4) Classic Giacnroll - Cornelio Velasquez, 116 lbs, Lisa Guerrero - Both of the Giacomo colt’s 2 wins in 6 starts came in 6-furlong dashes at Parx, which he stole coming from off quick paces. He made up substantial ground late in his last two starts, but couldn’t close the gap on Noble Moon last out in the Jerome (II). An excellent bet if you think there’s going to be a wild speed duel going on up front.

5) Samraat - Jose Ortiz, 118 lbs, Rick Violette - The undefeated entry of the field, the Noble Causeway colt has won each of his three starts by open daylight, the smallest margin being 3 lengths away from the second place horse, with a clear intention of grabbing that lead and holding on. Violette ships Samraat back to his stomping grounds to follow-up on that romping Damon Runyon win over the inner back in December. The horse of the field to beat, he packs some of the best numbers and will likely play “catch me if you can” with this field.

6) Honorable Judge - John Bisono, 118 lbs, Robert Reid - 2-for-3 thus far in his lifetime, the full brother to BC Marathon winner Afleet Again (woop!) comes to the Big A after clinching an allowance win at Parx coming from off the pace, an easy win over Afleet Accompli, who was outclassed here in the Remsen (II) back in November. Honorable Judge was fleeced well enough in his only other stakes start in the Iroquois (III) at Churchill Downs. I don’t feel like this is his race, and certainly not off a 3-month layoff and a move up in class.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Samraat

2) Classic Giacnroll

3) Uncle Sigh

For handicapping Aqueduct’s inner, I’m moving with horses with some speed and some potential to move up. Samraat looks extremely tough; even for those who have found gaps of vulnerability in this field for the likely favorite, he’s still going to have to trip or something to expose the chinks in his armor. I like Classic Giacnroll from a potential setup angle as he can whittle down any weakening foes late and possibly improve a bit. Uncle Sigh may or may not gas out trying to chase Samraat… and I’m going to gamble the latter is the better of the two heavyweights.

Value Pick: Not much… roll with Classic Giacnroll (5-1)

Contest Wager: Samraat

Eleven Colts Make Holy Bull Stakes a Tough Race

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Week 1/10 of the Derby Handicap Contest: Submit your choice of horse up to 20 minutes through this link before the scheduled post time of 5:03pm EST for this race. Read the Contest tab for rules and more information.

The road to the Kentucky Derby simmers to a boil with the newly-upgraded to G2 status Holy Bull Stakes… or should I say Miller Lite Holy Bull… no, let’s not call it that. The second, third, and fourth place horses from the Remsen line up as well as a few shippers from Churchill Downs and a few impressive locals. A great betting race for the wiseguys, it’s going to be a tough, tough race that will largely be determined by who takes to two turns best and who can navigate Gulfstream’s oft-biased main while contending with a quick pace.

$400,000 Holy Bull Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/6 miles on dirt at Gulfstream Park. Post Time: Saturday, January 25 at 5:03pm EST.

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

1) Coup de Grace - John Velazquez, 116 lbs, Chad Brown - One of my top Tapits to watch flying under the same colors and the same trainer as Normandy Invasion (4th in the Kentucky Derby), the sleek chestnut colt is 2-for-2 in his career thus far and will be tested going two turns here with no concrete confidence either way as to how he’ll take to it. This colt is brimming with pedigree and early talent, but as to how far he’ll carry it while being class-tested is left to be seen. He has an edge with Johnny V and I expect him to go back to his front-running tactics breaking from that golden Gulfstream rail. Works look sharp and I think he’ll improve.

2) Financial Mogul - Jose Ortiz, 116 lbs, Richard Violette Jr - I’m not really a fan of Street Boss progeny on the dirt, and Financial Mogul’s only win in 4 starts came on an off track. He breezed an easy mile in 1:43 in hopes of hopping straight off that long layoff he’s sat on since being second to Cairo Prince in the Nashua Stakes (II). He made up some ground on Cairo Prince in that race— at a price too— and had been breezing on the turf beforehand, suggesting that his connections think he might do better on dirt. I say he needs a race.

3) Best Plan Yet - Edgard Zayas, 120 lbs, Stanley Gold - Jacks or Better has a local entry in this race with Best Plan Yet, a son of Hear No Evil with 3 wins and 2 places in 7 starts including a win at this distance. However, most of those good races came at Calder and he absolutely flopped last out racing at Gulfstream, tiring to finish up the track in the Gulfstream Park Derby. He has won closing or leading, so adaptability will get him some cred here as well as a field best 94 BRIS figure at the distance. Class appears to be the question with him.

4) Almost Famous - Calvin Borel, 116 lbs, Pat Byrne - Breaking from the 4-hole is the hyped Unbridled’s Song colt Almost Famous, who brings Calvin Borel with him from Churchill Downs. He’s won 2 of 3 starts, with his last race being won at this distance in by 6 lengths despite a wonky start. He looks to be keen to go after an early lead and has the class to stay competitive with multiple 5-panel breezes with 3-furlong tune-ups suggesting a very fit horse rolling down to Florida. His one loss was a bit of a fluke according to connections, but his wins took place while he coasted on an uncontested lead which won’t happen here. He’ll need to improve his figures, too.

5) Our Caravan - Corey Lanerie, 116 lbs, Michael Dilger - Caravan hails from the Awesome Again clan by way of his sire Daaher and out of an Elusive Quality mare. He won his one and only race in fine fettle, closing in from off the pace to win at this distance by 3 lengths at Gulfstream Park. He will be tested here, but he doesn’t appear to be an awful choice to include in your exotics or as a value pick, since he will likely improve and relish the inevitably fast pace as a legitimate two-turn horse. Experience will be his biggest handicap and class will be tested.

6) Mr Speaker - Jose Lezcano, 120 lbs, Shug McGaughey -The product of one of the finest breeding programs in the country, with Pulpit as his sire and the great Personal Ensign as his grandmother. Trainer Shug McGaughey will be trying this colt out on dirt for the first time after 2 wins on the grass, including a good effort in winning the tough Dania Beach Stakes. Out of all the promising winners that have come out of the Dania Beach to try dirt, Mr Speaker looks the most likely to excel on the surface. His running style wasn’t the explosive type I like to see on turf, so I have mild hopes he can translate better onto dirt. However, I’m not keen on using him right away as the hype train will likely ruin his odds.

7) Cairo Prince - Luis Saez, 122 lbs, Kieran McLaughlin - The Pioneerof the Nile colt came out almost a winner in the Remsen last out, and is one of the most promising colts on the trail with the G2 Nashua under his belt. If I had to pick out a horse to win based off his workouts, I would pick Cairo Prince, who has been breezing like icing on a cake and zipping along very strongly at the end of his workouts. Given the speed of the race and his running style, he looks like the one to beat and will be tough.

8) Wicked Strong - Javier Castellano, 116 lbs, James Jerkens - A horse who is all business according to his Belmont winning trainer, the Hard Spun colt was the unsung hero of the Remsen, closing fast and furious in a very fast final quarter of the 9-furlong race— and was close enough to victory to ruin some of my photos. Switching to top jockey Javier Castellano as well as working out long and very impressively, he poses an excellent chance masked by “low” speed figures.

9) Conquest Titan - Shaun Bridgmohan, 116 lbs, Mark Casse - 2-for-5 lifetime, the Birdstone colt was impressive in his last start at Churchill Downs, slipping at the start to make up ground on a flying field to win by nearly 2 lengths, thereby dismissing any doubts that he might not be good while beating recent stakes winner General A Rod. I actually think the outer post may be a blessing in disguise as his past poor starts had him pinched back in tight quarters. I think closing may be his better style and he’ll likely opt for it again here. He has a shot if the pace breaks down, but he’ll likely need a race and more ground before seriously progressing.

10) Big Bazinga - Joe Bravo, 116 lbs, Katerina Vassilieva - An upset winner in his first start at Woodbine, the Bluegrass Cat gelding had some rough starts since his first trip to the winner’s circle but was runner-up in the Grey (III) at Woodbine. Last out in the Delta Jackpot (III) he went a bit wide and got shuffled back, but has since been breezing quickly. Class is going to be a question after two failed attempts at the G3 level.

11) Intense Holiday - Joel Rosario, 116 lbs, Todd Pletcher - A rare opportunity to get a Pletcher horse at a price, the Harlan’s Holiday colt was eked wide to finish 4th by 4 lengths in the Remsen and owns just 1 win— and his only finish on the board— in 5 races. His late pace in the Remsen was tremendous, but again class is going to be a question as he is loaded with missed opportunities and an early bird pedigree. It’s a nail in the coffin when Johnny V returns to the saddle with Chad Brown’s horse instead of a Pletcher.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Cairo Prince

2) Wicked Strong

3) Our Caravan

This is a ferocious field that almost guarantees a very nice winner and a great race no matter what. There’s ample speed to ensure pace, but because Gulfstream is Gulfstream, I would shy away from deep closers— as much as I like the emerging closing types that showed up for this race. Thus, I have to side strongly with Cairo Prince, who looks keen to go this distance and looks tremendously fit— not to mention he was a nose shy of being a two-time G2 winner. Wicked Strong competes with Cairo for the win, and I have absolute confidence this will be a serious two-turn horse with speed to boot. Our Caravan is my third pick, with a win at this distance first time out at Gulfstream and done so impressively,  and should get the setup to do well again. Coup de Grace is my 4th unlisted choice as he tackles two turns from the rail and with Johnny V… I’m crazy mad that I don’t think Gulfstream will favor Conquest Titan, but he’ll have his day…

Value Pick: Our Caravan (9-1 or better) or Conquest Titan (12-1 or better) could take advantage of a speedy field as legit two-turn horses who may like the track enough to run big

Contest Pick: Wicked Strong

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