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The Pizza Man Set to Deliver in the Stars and Stripes Handicap

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Yes, you all knew that kind of headline just had to happen. We on Tumblr love pizza.

In a series of prep races for the big Arlington Million (I) a month away, Arlington Park has enticed a variety of up-and-comers, improvers, and current turf heavyweights to ship on over and get some batting practice in. For the potential improvers, the 1 1/2-mile Stars and Stripes Handicap (III) is a pretty level affair, with just one horse actually making this race a handicap— last year’s Illinois-bred three-year-old of the year, The Pizza Man.

Weather looks dicey on both Friday and Saturday, so I will handicap this race anticipating a “good” turf course.

$150,000 Stars and Stripes Handicap (III) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/2 miles on turf at Arlington Park. Post Time: Saturday, July 12 at 4:25pm CST.

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

1) Moro Tap - Victor Espinoza, 117 lbs, Mike Maker - Big love for any Tapit colt! Skychai’s 4-year-old has been racing on the turf for quite a while with very mild results, being unable to beat some very nice horses (namely War Dancer and Infinite Magic) but able to nab others in select situations. Namely a closing type, Moro Tap’s past performances show he’s a terrible horse at the break. Coming off the rail, that could be doubly problematic, and he doesn’t have Napravnik in this race like he’s been getting lately. However, he does have two good back-to-back workouts, although nothing to suggest he’s seriously worthy at 5-1 odds. 15-1 maybe.

2) Mister Marti Gras - Eduardo Perez, 117 lbs, Chris Block - Ah, an old iron horse! The Belong To Me gelding has been pretty successful at Arlington Park between their all-weather surface and the turf course, and he comes into this race humming off a 1 1/16 mile allowance here over “good” turf. Everything looks pretty good as Mister rounds into top form. Distance should not be an issue, but he has knocked heads with The Pizza Man before and lost out.

3) Suntracer - Julien Leparoux, 117 lbs, Chris Block - In a move that might create a conflict of interest, Chris Block enters one of his own along with Mister Marti Gras in the form of this Kitten’s Joy, who most recently fell short by a head to War Dancer in the Louisville Handicap (III). With many of his starts coming on the turf at elongated distances and getting turf jockey Leparoux, Suntracer is not a bad bet and nearly had War Dancer’s measure last out. Block has a great record bringing in horses back from a bit of a layoff, so definitely use Suntracer in those exotics.

4) Bubba’s Big Show - Stephanie Slinger, 117 lbs, Rhonda Thurman - Another horse with some great turf pedigree, the Mizzen Mast gelding won twice this year for the first time in his life, the first in a Hawthorne $25k maiden claimer and the second in a $50k claimer non-winner of 2 at Arlington. Distance and class stretch-out here, Bubba’s connections are small and humble but both jockey and trainer spit out some good statistics for their risk-taking move in enter the gelding here. Still, a deserving longshot stepping up.

5) Dreams Cut Short - Joe Bravo, 117 lbs, Mike Maker - It’s not exactly rocket science that Mike Maker is good with fresh claimers, as he turned this Belong To Me gelding right around and won with him immediately at Churchill Downs last month, stepping up from $25k to $40k claiming races. Greatly improved since switching barns, the bulk of this horse’s success came on polytrack. He will have to improve even more to rob this field.

6) Seton Hall - Brian Hernandez Jr, 117 lbs, Ian Wilkes - The only horse in this field who has gone 10 furlongs AND won at it, the Lion Heart gelding is 2nd off the layoff here after finishing 2nd in his first start back at Churchill, moving past horses but not gaining ground on the eventual winner in a 9-furlong race. Wilkes does a very good job of turning his horses around off the layoff and Seton Hall is an old pro at this game. Look for him to hit the board.

7) The Pizza Man - Florent Geroux, 121 lbs, Roger Brueggemann - The English Channel gelding comes into this field 2nd off the layoff, finishing 1st in his first start back since the fall in a 1 1/16 mile stake here at Arlington, and he’s been 2-for-2 with Brueggemann thus far. Classy and set to be near the pace, The Pizza Man could very well prevail as the likely favorite and a 6-time winner of 9 races at Arlington.

8) Olympic Thunder - Alan Garcia, 117 lbs, Ken McPeek - Brazilian-bred and winless since shipping to the United States for the past two or so years, the Durban Thunder [BRZ] son hasn’t been further than 2 1/2 lengths from the win in each of his races this year. Not overly bad a horse, but he’s been lacking that something that keeps him from hitting the board, never mind winning. More ground may help, but I’m not counting on him to win.

9) O’Prado Ole - Channing Hill, 117 lbs, Dale Romans - The youngest horse in the field owned by Donegal Racing of Dullahan fame, the English Channel colt could do no better than 5th this year in 3 starts although he won both of his two wins on the grass as a juvenile. What really sells O’Prado Ole are his connections, as Dale Romans has a good 3rd-off-the-layoff return as does Channing Hill with grass types. Exotics must.

10) Dad Are We Here - James Graham, 119 lbs, Doug Matthews - A winner twice this year, the 7-year-old son of Pure Prize was 6th last out to The Pizza Man, but won back-to-back allowances at Fair Grounds earlier this year. Stretching out to 10 furlongs for the first time, Dad won’t get a rapid enough pace to close into. Not a lot to see here.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) The Pizza Man (5-2)

2) Suntracer (4-1)

3) Mister Marti Gras (4-1)

Whether the grass is firm or good, the picks here don’t change a whole lot. The Pizza Man looks to be in good form and has the class to snuff out most of the field with very little effort. There won’t be a whole lot of pace to contend with either, and he could very well skirt off to an uncontested lead and win that way. Suntracer isn’t new to the distance game and fell just a bit short of War Dancer last out. Chris Block has him ready to go. It would be goofy to leave out Mister Marti Gras, who has won or placed in 2/3 of his lifetime starts and is rounding into good form right now. I think he’s better on poly and dirt, but he’s very good right now nonetheless.

Value Pick: O’Prado Ole (10-1) is interesting despite not winning much this year. If he doesn’t get any better from this angle, I don’t know if he ever will.

Belmont Derby Beckons Invaders

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Rooting interest: gosh dang, you’re beautiful, Dance With Fate!

A G1 polytrack winner and a handful of successful turf graded stakes winners answer the call for the inaugural Belmont Derby Invitational (I) (formerly the G1 Jamaica Handicap), which has succeeded in becoming deeper and more contentious than ever by attracting some interesting company from overseas. Can America defend its home turf on Independence Day weekend, or will a favored invader knock them all flat? Regardless, it should be a great race and a tough one to handicap, especially considering the likelihood of a good or soft turf surface with downpours in the July 4th forecast.

I’ve handicapped this race anticipating a “good” footing. Saturday will be bright, sunny, and summery all day leading up to the 4:30 post time which ought to help soak up any rainfall.

$1,250,000 Belmont Derby Invitational (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/4 miles on turf at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, July 5 at 4:34pm EST.

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

1) Toast of New York - Jamie Spencer, Jamie Osbourne - Unraced since his win in the Tapeta-bound UAE Derby (III) in Dubai, the son of Thewayyouare was hardly a factor in his lone turf start, which was a messy beginning as his maiden race. However since that bad first time out, Toast has been a relentless performer in his next 4 starts, winning three of them by daylight. All signs suggest Toast will do well on turf, and he gets a good spot on that sweet rail to position himself well early.

2) Sheldon - Junior Alvarado, James Toner - Listed as a longshot due to just having broken his maiden, the Purim colt has the advantage of having won at this distance on this same course and on “good” turf. I’m a big fan of his trainer, who totes a nice win percentage and is not known to throw his horses to the wolves. Consider for the exotics.

3) Bobby’s Kitten - Javier Castellano, Chad Brown - Bobby’s Kitten was one of the few juveniles last year to really grab my attention early, and he’s shown he’s still a very quality horse at three. A runaway winner in his only try at Belmont, the Kitten’s Joy colt owns some good early speed and has won over good turf. From a near-rail post, Bobby will likely shoot for the lead successfully, but can he hold it? Keep him in mind when making exotics plays.

4) Adelaide [IRE] - Colm O’Donoghue, Aidan O’Brien - There’s few better trainers in the world than Aidan O’Brien, who ships in this Group 2 winning son of top turf sire Galileo [IRE] in for a usurp. Lightly raced with just 4 total career starts, Adelaide has won 2 and placed twice and has shown strength over a soft or good going. Very strong win candidate considering his overall quality and ability.

5) Flamboyant [FR] - Joel Rosario, Patrick Gallagher - Never off the board with 3 wins in 8 starts, the Peer Gynt [JPN] colt makes his third U.S. start and was last seen running second by a head to Gala Award in the 9-furlong Pennine Ridge here at Belmont. Will extra ground make the difference? Flamboyant is not particularly appealing when compared side-by-side with talented invaders and U.S. horses who have already bested him. He is paired with top turf jockey Rosario and has been breezing pretty strongly.

6) Dance With Fate - Corey Nakatani, Peter Eurton - Big fan of this colt since I saw him on TV at the Breeders’ Cup. The Two Step Salsa colt won his lone turf start and is a G1 winner on the polytrack, suggesting grass may be his strongest surface. He has yet to start on a softened turf surface and is coming off a layoff since racing 6th in the Kentucky Derby. Definitely a very nice horse who sings on the grass, Dance is one of the most impressive American runners I’ve seen this year but will be combating some new obstacles. He looks good and could hit a good payday.

7) Gailo Chop - Julien Auge, Antoine De Watrigant - The gelded Deportivo [GB] has racked up quiet the reputation in France, rattling off 5 straight wins with no off-the-board finishes. However, he has yet to race above Group 3. 2-for-2 at the distance, in a “blind” picture slideshow of the Euro invaders I submitted myself to, Gailo Chop impressed me the most and has shown fleetness over good/soft turf and going the distance. He comes off a layoff since late April

8) Pornichet [FR] - Jose Ortiz, Gai Waterhouse - Owned and trained by Waterhouse, the Vespone [IRE] colt missed by less than 2 lengths last out in a Group 1 at Longchamp last out. Coming in off a layoff since mid-May, Waterhouse tacks on blinkers and has put a 6-furlong breeze into him earlier in the week at Belmont.  A horse who has mostly sprinted or miled at this stage, nothing about him really jumps out at me.

9) Mr Speaker - Jose Lezcano, Shug McGaughey - The Pulpit colt looked like the real deal earlier in the year when winning a loaded Dania Beach (III), whose runner-up Cabo Cat just snatched a very nice win last weekend in the Manila Stakes here at Belmont. Lezcano is one of the best turf jockeys, Shug wins at nearly 25% in graded stakes, and Mr Speaker was caught in tight last race. Excellent horse to use for value.

10) Global View - Gary Stevens, Tom Proctor - The Galileo [IRE] colt caught my attention upon besting the impressive Storming Inti a few starts back in the American Turf Stakes (II). Usually favored, he is considered a longer shot here after bouncing a bit in the Penn Mile, losing by nearly 3 lengths to Bobby’s Kitten. Global View should do better upon stretching out, and his connections have good turf stats across the board.

11) Gala Award - John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher - A Bernardini that can do turf, Gala Award is a Coolmore-owned colt who has shown preference for stalking the pace and proved that style successful last out, winning the 9-furlong Pennine Ridge over Flamboyant [FR]. A G3 winner on the turf, Gala Award gets a class test and will have to break well to secure his preferred spot behind the pace. Johnny V does however have a very high success rate landing in the top 2 in turf races.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Gailo Chop

2) Adelaide [FR]

3) Dance With Fate

A lot of nice horses, a lot of layoffs, and there’s some built-in pace that ought to assure some of good finishes. Toast of New York is the morning line favorite and has tons of class, but I feel unsure about backing him given the pace, the distance, and the fact he hasn’t raced since March and ships over. Gailo Chop impressed me the most visually and can come off the pace, and class-wise, could have arguably raced well in his native land races had he not been a gelding and thus, ineligible. Dance With Fate is one of the best three-year-olds in the country; he’s risky coming onto good turf, but the race sets up for him and he’s blossomed off of similar layoffs.

Value Picks: Mr Speaker (12-1 or better) comes from a trainer who knows how to win big turf races. Dance With Fate (8-1 or better) may get ignored in the company of European horses. Sheldon (20-1 or better) is practically begging to be used in exotics.

With Wise Dan Away, Eight Will Play for Firecracker

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With Horse of the Year and accomplished turf miler Wise Dan on the sidelines following colic surgery, the Firecracker (II) at Churchill Downs has become a heated free-for-all with 3 Grade 1 winners and plenty of improving shooters jumping onto the grass. It looks to be an excellent betting race with a vulnerable likely favorite returning from off a layoff and several horses rounding into peak form.

$200,000 Firecracker Stakes (II) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 mile on turf at Churchill Downs. Post Time: Saturday, June 28 at 4:18pm EST.

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

1) Guys Reward - Jesus Castanon, 121 lbs, Dale Romans - The 7-year-old iron horse backs the successful rail post with a G3 win in the Tampa Bay Stakes followed by 3 puttering starts. He showed improvement in his last start where he ran 4th and Dale Romans has shown he is very good with getting 3rd-off-the-layoff entries in 1st or 2nd place. Exotics horse.

2) Free World - Corey Lanerie, 121 lbs, Tom Amoss - The Stormy Atlantic colt has been on my “must watch” list since last year, and he returned to win his only start this year after a long layoff, winning by more than 5. Likely to be the speed horse of the field, Free World will likely be joined by one or more horses unless he can get away quickly from the #2 spot. He is 2-for-2 at this distance mark and has some hidden back-class. Upset potential.

3) Valentino Beauty - Brian Hernandez Jr, 121 lbs, Thomas Drury - The Vindication gelding has a 50% win percentage on the turf, with much of his career made at Woodbine. However, he is still searching for that breakthrough stakes win in his 3rd start with Drury, who had him win his first time out and lost his 2nd start in the stretch— on all-weather. Not a particularly strong entry, but there’s room for progress as Valentino Beauty has kept things consistent lately. 

4) Nikki’s Sandcastle - Leandro Goncalves, 121 lbs, David Kassen - Another tough iron horse type, the 7-year-old gelding has accomplished 10 wins in 40 starts with 16 places and shows to command some attention. A G2 winner already, he is 2-for-4 at the mile mark and appears to have reached top form with a win in the Hashin (III) last out at Arlington over polytrack despite going wide. A serious threat for the win, the pace may set up for Nikki, who is on the muscle for this race.

5) Silver Max - Robby Albarado, 121 lbs, Dale Romans - The only horse who managed to conquer Wise Dan last year in a rained-off edition of the Shadwell, the turf is Silver Max’s playground as long as he is able to snatch that lead, leading him to 4 wins in 8 starts last year. He comes off an extended freshening with no starts since running 4th in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (I) in November. He looks to need some air in his lungs and he likely won’t get that uncontested lead— two big reasons to leave this otherwise classy horse off the table.

6) Villandry - Julien Leparoux, 121 lbs, Charles LoPresti - With no Dan, Charles LoPresti sends out this Gainesway-owned son of Mr. Greeley, looking for his first stakes win after coming up 3/4 of a length short to Regally Ready in the Opening Verse. I actually kind of like this horse; his last race had him way back for most of the race and he closed nicely. Leparoux is trustworthy on the grass and Villandry ought to be hitting his best stride in the stretch.

7) Joha - Joe Rocco Jr, 121 lbs, Joshua Flores - Winless since his nose victory at Belmont in October, the Johar colt tries the grass at Churchill with no wins at this distance in 4 tries and just 2 wins in 12 tries on the turf. He missed by 1 1/2 lengths last out in the all-weather Hashin (III). At his best, Joha could win this, but I doubt he’s at his best right now or lately.

8) Regally Ready - Shaun Bridgmohan, 121 lbs, Steve Asmussen - The 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner hopes to make it 3 in a row this year and has a great Churchill record with 5 wins in 7 starts. However, he loses Rosie Napravnik due to her injury and will not be alone on that lead he typically likes. Losing a top rider who rode him to his recent 2 wins, which represents a resurgence after a trip gone awry to Dubai, is risky as is the outer post and a race that does not appeal to his running style. I’m not overly optimistic.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Free World 

2) Nikki’s Sandcastle

3) Villandry

Of these three, Nikki’s Sandcastle gets a great setup as a very strong turfer but Villandry could easily get it as well. However, I placed Free World on top as a serious diamond in the rough; he reminds me a lot of Rydilluc, who I admit became vulnerable once challenged for that lead, but I’m taking a gamble that Free World is all class. 

Value Pick: Villandry (6-1 or better) gets a great setup and will be at better odds than say, Nikki’s Sandcastle. Charles LoPresti is in the hunt for his 3rd Firecracker win and is a class horseman.

Pick 4 options: Free World, Nikki’s Sandcastle, Villandry. Also consider Regally Ready, who is riding in with 2 straight wins as a reformed sprinter and is 5-for-7 at Churchill.

Stephen Foster All-Stakes Pick 4 Live Ticket

  • Race 7: Matt Winn - Tapiture, Almost Famous, Conquest Titan
  • Race 8: Fleur de Lis - On Fire Baby
  • Race 9: Stephen Foster - Revolutionary, Will Take Charge, Departing, Long River.
  • Race 10: Regret - V V Goodnight, A Little Bit Sassy, Aurelia’s Belle, Istanford, Share the Sugar

Total cost: $30

I have more pony photos coming! I’ve been working on my documentary Roughshod all day at the library since I woke up from my post-work nap at 11. I handicapped the other races during my breaks!

Revolutionary Gets the Rail, Favoritism in Stephen Foster

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With a short loss in last weekend’s Belmont, the Todd Pletcher-WinStar team amps up once again with Revolutionary, who put in a star-studded performance last out winning the Pimlico Special (II). However, with a Win And You’re In opportunity going to the winner of this race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (I), “Rev” will not have it easy and the Stephen Foster (I) becomes a great betting opportunity with several improvers, current hot streaks, and a possibly “off” G1 winner in the field.

$500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (I) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Churchill Downs. Post Time: Saturday, June 14 at 9:39pm EST.

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

1) Revolutionary - Mike Smith, 118 lbs, Todd Pletcher - A winner twice this year in 4 starts including a profound win in the Pimlico Special (II) last out, the War Pass 4-year-old has returned to peak form after a lengthy freshening following his 3rd in the Kentucky Derby last year. His form is very strong, and he has some speed to kick on when he needs it. However, because he is a late runner breaking from the rail, he will have a lot to do in the stretch.

2) Jaguar Paw - Shaun Bridgmohan, 114 lbs, Stephen Lyster - A stakes winner one year ago on this day at Belmont Park, the Giant’s Causeway 7-year-old has been off since racing a well-beaten 6th in a February stake at Oaklawn. His best past race in graded company was a 3rd in the Philip H. Iselin Stakes (III) at Monmouth, beaten 9 lengths by Last Gunfighter. Not a big layoff horse or a very competitive horse in this field.

3) Moonshine Mullin - Calvin Borel, 118 lbs, Randy Morse - Hitting his best stride this year as a 6-year-old, the Albert the Great son outgamed Golden Ticket last out in the Alysheba (II) here at Churchill, topping a 3-race win streak with Calvin Borel with 4 wins in 5 races this year. Likely to provide the race with some pace as an early pace horse, the hot Mullin could grab the rail early and gallop off with the race.

4) Will Take Charge - Gary Stevens, 123 lbs, D. Wayne Lukas - The sparkling son of Unbridled’s Song was lethal on this course last year, besting Game On Dude in the Clark Handicap (I) after a sensational 3-year-old season. He threw in a major clunker last out in the Alysheba (II) trailing after being stuck inside with new and current jockey Gary Stevens taking over for Luis Saez. Getting the high weight, WTC is vulnerable as a favorite who is fresh off a bad race. However, the race may set up for him well and he should be included as a horse who is 4-for-5 at the distance.

5) Mylute - James Graham, 115 lbs, Tom Amoss - The Midnight Lute colt arrives 3rd off the layoff after an allowance win and a 4th in the Alysheba (II), with no wins thus far at Churchill or at the 9-furlong mark. He gets new rider James Graham and will benefit from a light impost, but will have to step it up if he wants to be taken seriously.

6) Departing - Robby Albarado, 118 lbs, Al Stall - I was an early avid fan of this War Front gelding, and while his trainer has admitted sending him to beat up lower class horses, he finally gets his chance to shine in a G1 for the first time since running 6th in the Preakness. Racing 2nd off the layoff, Departing looked good winning a 1-mile allowance at Churchill. Armed with a hot :58 3/5 breeze over the Churchill ground, Departing is red-hot right now. Likely to be aimed for a spot just behind the pace, Departing will have to show his best to win.

7) Golden Ticket - Julien Leparoux, 117 lbs, Ken McPeek - Never dismiss a Speightstown! 4-year-old Golden Ticket is a G1 winner hopping from doing a mile to 9 furlongs, and was 2nd last year behind Fort Larned and was a half-length second-best in the Alysheba (II) to Moonshine Mullin. Golden Ticket has managed to place twice this year in 3 starts, but by the numbers, is at his best going longer distances. He’s a good exotics horse here with Leparoux.

8) Long River - Irad Ortiz Jr, 115 lbs, Kieran McLaughlin - The A.P. Indy colt has bounced back into a good 4-year-old and is possibly the best-bred horse in this field with Round Pond (Awesome Again) as his dam. Given rival stablemate Romansh’s good last race and Long River’s recent form and workouts, he should be regarded as a live longshot with that last race around the Charles Town bullring getting thrown out. The layoff doesn’t bother me too much as he’s given good winning efforts off of them.

9) Prayer for Relief - John Velazquez, 117 lbs, Dale Romans - The son of Jump Start was scarcely beaten last out by Revolutionary in the Pimlico Special (II), and is well-versed at 9 furlongs with 9 on-the-board finishes in 13 starts. I never really liked Prayer for Relief, but he certainly impressed me in his last race enough to pay him a little attention. However, he’s been battered around Churchill Downs and cut up at this level that it becomes a tall order to expect of him. Exotics type.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) Revolutionary

2) Departing

3) Moonshine Mullin

Revolutionary gets the ideal setup and is in fantastic form right now. The tasks ahead of him: class step-up and getting it all done in the stretch. He may have too much to do, even at his best. I like Departing a lot as well; he’s at very good form and has some great tactical speed he could exact on the pacesetters late in the game. Moonshine Mullin ran great as the underdog in the Alysheba (II), and could keep that record rolling, especially if he manages to skirt off with the lead.

Value Pick: Departing (9-2) is in form and could roll right off that pace to a score.

Pick 3/4: Revolutionary, Departing. Spread option horses: Will Take Charge, Long River, Moonshine Mullin.

California Chrome vs. History in the Belmont Stakes

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To be or not to be: will California Chrome make history in the Belmont Stakes? Can he continue his dizzying winning streak and prove all the doubters wrong yet again? He handled the chore of the Kentucky Derby like a pro and dismissed the field in the Preakness, but therein lies his greatest challenge: the test of the champion.

$1.5 million Belmont Stakes (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/2 miles on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, June 7 at 6:52pm EST.

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

1) Medal Count - Robby Albarado, Dale Romans - Argued by many to be or not to be a poly or a turf horse, the Dynaformer colt emerges from his 8th place Derby finish intact and ready for a better trip in the Belmont, whose distance should appeal to his pedigree. He is currently 1-for-4 on fast dirt and has logged two promising workouts at Churchill Downs. No Belmont prep? Best races came on poly or turf? Romans’ last Belmont hope was Dullahan, who bombed the race. I’m on the side that says “Medal Count is a turf horse. A good one that should stay there.”

2) California Chrome - Victor Espinoza, Art Sherman - No introduction needed! The champ has been on a roll since turning 3, racking up 6 straight wins on his way to immortality. His two prior races have both been very good with strong early action followed by solid stretch runs. His physical condition is bar none the best and he is definitely the one to beat strategically. As long as he nails the break, he has few legitimate excuses.

3) Matterhorn - Joe Bravo, Todd Pletcher - The Tapit colt is lightly raced, with just 4 starts with 1 win before being purchased by the owners of Danza for this race. He was 4th last out in the Peter Pan (II) but that could be tossed due to the long layoff and sloppy conditions, and he is game to improve on his second start back. Joe Bravo also has a positive ROI in routes.

4) Commanding Curve - Shaun Bridgmohan, Dallas Stewart - Really liked this Master Command colt back when he was preparing for the Risen Star (II), so it was a pleasant surprise to see him rallying on late in the Derby. Properly rested and ready for a race he could do well in, Curve hasn’t won since his maiden, but has been on the improving path as the distances have grown. Curve could upset, but I am interested to see if he’s a Churchill only horse as his top 2 performances both came at the Twin Spires. Everything else has just been “ok.”

5) Ride On Curlin John Velazquez, Billy Gowan - Curlin sired the surprise winner of last year’s Belmont Stakes, and there’s reason to believe RoC could get better with more ground as he made up some daylight separating him and California Chrome in the Preakness once he got some running room. Improving steadily and put in a position of reaching power, RoC could upset and he might not. While I would readily agree that he had the momentum going to beat Chrome, he seemed to stop gaining. I could be very wrong, but I get the sense he might be a “permanently second place” horse. 

6) Matsuzak - Mike Smith, Bill Mott - Bernardini almost had a winner a few years ago with Stay Thirsty, further proving Bernies are a force on New York soil. Matsuzak hasn’t won since his maiden last year, but did improve to nearly win the Federico Tesio at Pimlico last month. With that said, he owns some really good late pace figures, but has some major class hurdles to clear. Exotics horse.

7) Samraat - Jose Ortiz, Richard Violette - The mighty New York-bred faces down the rest! The Noble Causeway colt owns a win at Belmont Park already and has the advantage of a good rest and a quiet place to train at Aqueduct, where he has logged several leisurely mile breezes as preps. I love Sammy, but he has yet to make some cracking figures going further than 9 furlongs and he is probably best going 7-9 furlongs. No further.

8) Commissioner - Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher - The victim of not being raced at his most advantageous conditions, the A.P. Indy colt last won a Gulfstream Park allowance in January going 9 furlongs before repeatedly finishing up the track in prep races. He made some headway missing by 4 to Tonalist in the Peter Pan (II). I have every reason to love Commissioner in this spot as an A.P. Indy son with Javier and Toddster on board, but c’mon, if you can’t win in the slop or at least get closer to the winner… I just…

9) Wicked Strong - Rajiv Maragh, Allen Jerkens - By Hard Spun and out of a Charismatic mare, it came as little surprise that Wicked Strong improved as the distances grew, and trainer Jerkens has been instilling long breezes of 7 to 8 furlongs in the colt since he was a 2-year-old. Thus, after sweeping wide to be 4th in the Derby, the colt is being taken seriously after a rest at his home base for the Belmont. Biggest concern for me is actually Rajiv Maragh, who seems too willing to give the colt the most wide trip possible and giving him too much work to do. Other than that, he looks very sharp and has every reason to do very well.

10) General a Rod - Rosie Napravnik, Mike Maker - By my own omission, I disregarded this Roman Ruler colt almost immediately, and he has come to buck my own opinions throughout the Derby trail by placing and or winning the Florida preps. He was 11th in the Derby, beaten some 8 lengths by Chrome, and was beaten around the same amount next out in the Preakness. He switches back to Rosie in his second start under Skychai’s colors, but honestly after all those races I’m not optimistic about his chances, even if he does place himself further up this time.

11) Tonalist - Joel Rosario, Christophe Clement - This Tapit colt was among my top choices early on in the Derby trail, and I still think pretty highly of him. Lightly raced with just 4 starts, he won the 9-furlong Peter Pan (II) last out easily enough, kicking clear of Commissioner and the rest of the field on the turn to win easily by 4 lengths on a sloppy-sealed going. Clement would be breaking the mold if Tonalist can buck the Tapit trend of doing more than 9 furlongs and racking up dirt wins instead of grass wins. Tonalist has some coasting early speed, but will have to break well and quickly from the outer post and be able to hold off the rest when things get tough.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1) California Chrome

2) Wicked Strong

3) Ride On Curlin

Pick 4: California Chrome, Wicked Strong, Ride On Curlin. If you’re feeling smarmy, shoot for Commanding Curve or Tonalist to spread.

Chrome can win, Chrome can lose. Like in the Preakness, he will have to be better than everyone else despite being in the vulnerable position of favorite with early pressure as well as horses who will be hunting him late. Should he blow the break, it may very well be over. If there’s pace much faster than :24 1/2 and :49, watch out for Wicked Strong, RoC, and Curve. Tonalist could arguably slow things down as an improving colt to win, but I think Chrome can outfoot him and outdistance him.

Imagining Heads Speed-Laden Manhattan Handicap

The Manhattan Handicap (I) on turf has played a big role in determining the best turf horses in the country and often winds up factoring into year-end awards. It has been estimated that about half of all favorites from this race go on to win it, but honestly there’s no clear favorite this year with a few “early speed” types and some dark horses thrown in to make things a challenge.

1 – IMAGINING – I thought he was a great turf horse last year and he has really come into his own so far in the spring with a wire-to-wire win in the Man o’ War (I) last out, further proving that this horse is at his best when forwardly-placed. He ought to have things his way breaking from the 1-hole, which has been a great post on the inner turf course for eventual winners. Johnny V and Shug McGaughey team up again for this likely favorite.

2 – HEY LEROY – Stretching out and shipping up, the Any Given Saturday gelding comes off a 1 length loss in the Dixie (II), but maintains a strong 10:4-5-0 record for the year thus far with a total turf tally of 5 wins and 5 places in 11 starts. He is usually sent at a mile and at lesser races, so this is a big step up for him.

3 – ROOKIE SENSATION – Adena Springs-bred son of Unbridled’s Song gets Mike Smith back after missing by a neck to be 3rd last out in the Last Tycoon (III) at Santa Anita for John Shirreffs. Off the board just once in 6 total turf starts, he has yet to win a race this year but has been knocking on a win his past few tries. Shirreffs wins at a good clip but his last year in New York wasn’t so hot.

4 – GRANDEUR – Getting Lasix for the first time after running without all over the world, the Verglas [IRE] gelding didn’t move up much last out in the Man o’ War (I), finishing 3rd nearly 3 lengths behind Imagining. He does however have more experience than most running the 10 furlongs on grass, with 3 wins in 8 starts. His last win came at Lingfield on all-weather, but he’s really hit or miss.

5 – BOISTERIOUS – Switched over to Todd Pletcher last year, the Distorted Humor gelding and former winner of this race has slowly improved under his new trainer, winning an allowance at Keeneland in April then making a good run in the Turf Classic (I) last month to be 3rd by just 1 ¼ lengths despite a jolted start. He seems to have regained some form and could be a factor turning back to a distance he likes (6:2-1-2) and a track he loves (6 for 11 at Belmont).

6 – SEEK AGAIN – Again, the Mott-Juddmonte angle looms and I’m always keen to go after the Speightstown in the race. His odds will take a hit after finishing 2nd to Wise Dan last out, and he has won at this distance before in the Hollywood Derby (I). He is keen to do well 2nd off the layoff and is just a very classy horse.

7 – FIVE IRON – The Sharp Humor colt was a stakes winner at Saratoga last year and made a good move to upset the Fort Marcy (III) last out to notch his first and only win at Belmont. However, his 2 of his 3 turf wins came on soft ground and he has needed an uncontested lead.

8 – REAL SOLUTION – I didn’t think much of this Kitten’s Joy last year, even after his DQ to win the Arlington Million (I). However, he did narrowly lose to Point of Entry last year in this race and lost by less than a length last out to Imagining, which shows he’s got some good current form. A winner at the distance, he is statistically a good underlay with Brown, Castellano, and Kitten’s Joy as his sire.

9 – KAIGUN – The Northern Afleet gelding missed by a length and a half to Wise Dan last out in the Turf Classic (I), and just ¾ of a length before that in the Makers Mile (I). He stretches out a bit here for the first time, which seems to be a reasonable decision given his stretch advancement and pedigree, plus he gets a nice weight allowance with just 114 lbs.

10 – CHAMOIS – The Smart Strike colt hops in off a return from a long layoff, notching a good 3rd in the Dixie (II), missing by just a length. A good middle-pack horse, Chamois has yet to register a Belmont win in 4 tries and is still seeking that graded win.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1)      Seek Again

2)      Kaigun

3)      Imagining

Pick 4: Seek Again and Imagining are the two key horses to close and lead the field as proven class horses. I’d throw in Kaigun and Real Solution to spread.

Imagining doesn’t like to be challenged for the lead, and despite his huge class edge, he will be by Five Iron and possibly others. If he can get away, he can win. But I think Seek Again has the edge in this field as a horse who is already pretty darn good and can only get better in his 2nd start off the layoff heading back to a distance he likes. Kaigun has the opportunity to improve with the featherweight impost as a late mover. 

Discreet Marq On Target for Just A Game

With no Breeders’ Cup race reserved just for filly turf milers, the Just a Game (I) is the spring championship for that category of racehorses, and there always seems to be a good field for this undercard race, with this year featuring the return of 1-2 finishers Stephanie’s Kitten and Better Lucky along with new and improving players. It’s a jumbled bunch, but there’s some real proven class sprinkled throughout, most notably the gray bullet Discreet Marq.

1 – READY SIGNAL – An improving daughter of proven turf sprint/miling sire More Than Ready, Ready Signal faces a class test after winning two this year and missing by 2 ½ lengths to Coffee Clique in the Distaff Turf Mile (II). She has a win at this distance on the turf course with Edgar Prado already, who is a notably good turf rider. A sharp workout has her ready on the sweet rail spot.

2 – STRATHNAVER -  Cutting back to a mile which she’s won at once, the Oasis Dream [GB] mare missed by 1 ½ lengths last out in the Doubledogdare (III) at Keeneland, hanging in the stretch. Kind of a curious entry, as I wonder if she’s really good at this distance with so many better efforts going longer.

3 – DAME MARIE – One of the less impressive entries, she missed by a half-length last out in the Distaff Turf Mile (II) to Coffee Clique with one win in 7 tries at the distance. Class challenge.

4 – SOMALI LEMONADE – Matz and Saez make this filly an easy point of interest for me and winning back-to-back races doesn’t hurt. A winner at Belmont at this distance, Somali Lemonade could turn in a loose-on-the-lead performance should things not work out for the rest of the field.

5 – COFFEE CLIQUE – The Medaglia d’Oro filly has yet to fall off the board in 5 tries at the turf mile with 3 of those tries resulting in wins, including a G2 last out in the Distaff Turf Mile (II) at Churchill. Along with a sharp workout, this filly has nice upset potential matched with the excellent turf rider Javier Castellano.

6 – STEPHANIE’S KITTEN – Never shirk a Kitten’s Joy! Last year’s winner, Stephanie’s Kitten is lethal with 4 wins in 5 tries at the turf mile and 6 wins overall in 11 starts on the surface. However, she is far the best when the ground is soft, which it won’t be on Saturday, and she comes off a long layoff after trading hands from Wayne Catalano to Chad Brown. Oof!

7 – UNLIMITED BUDGET – Multiple failures on dirt trade this filly to the turf for Todd Pletcher and Rosie Napravnik. The Toddster doesn’t have a good dirt-to-turf tradeoff and neither does Rosie.

8 – WATERWAY RUN – Pummeled as a 3-year-old in Europe, the Arch filly has found a hint of success since moving stateside with a win in the 1 1/16-mile Beaugay (III) last out along with 2 very short losses. With Chad Brown training and top turf rider Jose Lezcano up, there’s plenty to like about this gal who has won at Belmont and 4 of 11 turf mile tries.

9 – DISCREET MARQ – Little to hate about this darling filly, least of all the fact that turf aficionado Christophe Clement is at the helm. Rarely finishing out of the top 2 wherever she goes, she is the one to beat with a 5:3-1-1 record at Belmont, although she is not unbeatable with a 56-day layoff (which has resulted in past losses).

10 – BETTER LUCKY – The Ghostzapper filly was just barely outgamed in last year’s race and has yet to fall off the board in 5 starts at this distance and 3 starts at Belmont. She returns to turf from a prep in the all-weather-bound Madison (I) last out and should be a threat.

Top 3 Picks:

1)      Discreet Marq

2)      Better Lucky

3)      Waterway Run

Pick 4: Discreet Marq is the single if you must do it, but I would advise against singling anyone in a turf race. I would add in at least Better Lucky to any ticket, with spreads including Waterway Run and possibly Somali Lemonade or Coffee Clique.

Discreet Marq is the filly to beat with a huge amount of class and guts as well as home court advantage. Better Lucky is a great filly as well and is tough on any going. Waterway Run is improving and has some potential to upset as a filly who likes Belmont and has some great turf connections. 

'Palace' Pinned Down in Met Mile

Traditionally a Memorial Day race, the Met Mile exploded in size and stature by moving to Belmont Stakes Day as indicated by its rich field of competitors, ultimately sporting 4 Grade 1 winners in its 12-horse field which is probably the deepest of any race on the undercard. With favorites winning about 25% of the time in this race and the heavy favorite Palace Malice buried on the rail, this just became a very good betting race.

1 – PALACE MALICE – By numbers and form alone, last year’s Belmont winner is the deserving favorite of the field. But, with trainer Todd Pletcher and handicappers wincing at his drawing of the rail post in such a large field, there’s some cause for concern as this horse will have to break well and find a good stalking spot without getting crowded in. Tit for tat, he’s the best horse who may lose.

2 – VYJACK – Not a lot to say for this race as Vyjack moves up into pretty steep company as a horse who made his pay days mainly sprinting and as a two-year-old. Too much too soon, and he’s shown little evidence he can clear the hurdle.

3 – SCARLY CHARLY – Not a whole lot to write home about the 110 lb lightweight of the field who gets transferred to top New York trainer Michael Hushion. He was beaten a half-length at this distance back in December but hasn’t beaten anything notable.

4 – GOLDENCENTS – The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (I) champ ships out to Belmont to make his 2014 debut, giving him one of the longest layoffs of the field after finishing 7th in the Cigar Mile in November. He is 2-for-4 at the mile distance, with both of those wins coming at Santa Anita. His layoff schedule is also suspect, as both times he came off a long layoff he did not win, and the best one was a 2nd on his favorite track. Very classy horse who may need to get some wind back in his lungs before he can expect to win such a steep race.

5 – MORENO – Love this horse, and he goes blinkers off after a really great run in the Pimlico Special (III) where he put up some impressive numbers along with his characteristic bulldog tenacity. He loves Belmont as he is 2-for-2 on the track including a win there at this mile distance. Lightly weighted considering his talent going further than a mile, he could be ignored by others and could spring loose.

6 – CENTRAL BANKER – I tend to bank on Speightstown progeny, and this one won last time out at 10-1 odds in a G2 sprint at Churchill Downs. Likely to move late, he is untested at the mile distance but has some grit late in the action and keeps Corey Nakatani who helped him win his last race. Very competitive should there be a hot pace.

7 – CAPO BASTONE -  At his peak, the Street Boss colt was a very overwhelming closer in sprints as indicated by his G1 King’s Bishop win last summer. He came off a layoff to a couple of bad races, then was too late and wide last out in the G2 Churchill Downs to make up much. He should improve 2nd off the layoff but by how much is anyone’s guess.

8 – DECLAN’S WARRIOR – Actually kind of an interesting horse. He has 2 wins and 2 places in 4 Belmont starts, has won at this distance, and is 9: 4-3-0 on a fast track. The reason is muddled for his 30-1 morning line odds, as he was eased in the King’s Bishop last summer then returned to yield late in a March Gulfstream allowance, then improved but was no match for Palace Malice last out in the Westchester (III) on a “good” surface—not fast how he likes it. With a hot pace, he could be a threat if he’s still in good form.

9 – NORMANDY INVASION – Another one I’ve doted on for quite some time, the Tapit colt comes off a 2-month layoff following a 4 ¾-length loss to Palace Malice in the New Orleans Handicap (II) while going wide. Cutting back, he is perhaps a larger threat at just 8 furlongs with some top numbers and is 2-for-2 at this distance. Getting 7 pounds from Malice doesn’t hurt either.

10 – CLEARLY NOW – Rarely out of the top 3, the Arch colt has had 2 muddled tries at 8 furlongs, one of which involved disqualification and the other clipping heels with another horse. He lost a sprint by less than 2 lengths last out and looks to close on in again.

11 – BROADWAY EMPIRE – A winner at the distance and a shipper, the Empire Maker colt boasts a 50% win percentage but totes some class questions as he mainly has been romping over lower-class foes and yielded late while others were galloping out on the lead in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (I).

12 – ROMANSH – A New York staple with many past stakes wins coming at NYRA, the Bernardini colt moves up from his regular ungraded and G3 races while trying 8 furlongs for the first time after racing mainly at 9 furlongs. He also comes off a steep 2-month layoff, but at this rate who hasn’t…

13 – SHAKIN IT UP – Closing up the shipper category is the Midnight Lute son and G1 winner of last year’s Malibu Stakes (I) trying the mile distance for the first time. Shakin showed off his shipping abilities last out in the Churchill Downs (II), missing by a mere head to Central Banker and should be okay if not better coming off a short(ish) layoff and Rosie in the irons (she won with another ‘Lute, Midnight Lucky, by daylight at Churchill).

Top 3 Picks:

1)      Normandy Invasion

2)      Shakin It Up

3)      Moreno

Pick 4: Normandy Invasion, Shakin It Up, Moreno, Palace Malice. Spread with Central Banker, Declan’s Warrior.

Early pace/off-the-pace types tend to rule this race, although I am not anticipating an overly hot pace and I aim to try to beat Palace Malice stuck down on the inside. Moreno could come off straight to the lead easily and could put up an interesting fight when the going gets tough, as he is known to keep a marginally solid pace out on the lead. He will face pressure, and despite the layoff, Normandy Invasion has a lot of potential to turn in another G1 win for Tapit as a horse who likes this distance and could roll over the rest in his comfort zone. Shakin It Up could be the key late mover as he ships in 2nd-off-the-layoff after missing by just a head. 

(Re)Match of the Filly Titans in Ogden Phipps Stakes

If we didn’t have a Triple Crown on deck, I would probably be most excited for the Ogden Phipps Stakes (I), which has been building up to be a phenomenal race over the past few months as the top two fillies from last year’s three-year-old crop face off once again—this time at Belmont Park. It’s a short field, and I feel good about this being an even match between Princess of Sylmar and Beholder:

1 – CLOSE HATCHES – Down right scares me. Why? I’ve long been a believer in the Bill Mott-Juddmonte angle, and Joel Rosario will be piloting this talented daughter of First Defence (a stallion I’ve liked a while) straight to her comfort zone from the rail spot, making her competitive immediately. She definitely has an extra edge being 2-for-2 this year and 5-for-5 at this 1 1/16 mile distance, including one win at Belmont with the Mother Goose (I) last year. Many of her wins have come with Rosario, and she’s coming off a layoff like the big two but with a really nice breeze in :47 1/5.

2 – ANTIPATHY – Not super in love with this one unless it rains. It should be sunny out. She prefers the front end of the action but will certainly not be alone in that liking and is outclassed.

3 – BELLE GALLANTEY – 3-for-3 this year and weighted at just 115 lbs, the After Market mare has been on a roll since transferring to the barn of Rudy Rodriguez after racing against $35k non-winners of 3.  She’s an iron horse with 39 starts, but is ultimately going to have to fight against the grain.

4 – CLASSIC POINT – The Flatter mare stretches from sprints to a route, placing once in 2 tries at the distance and winning 3 times in 10 starts at Belmont. She won her last race, a $62.5k non-winner of 2, by 5 lengths at Gulfstream last out rolling out on the lead. Peculiar spot, hasn’t beaten much class.

5 – BEHOLDER – The returning champ and shipper, Beholder is bred for speed but has been able to stretch that speed with sheer class all the way out to 9 furlongs. She is 4-for-4 at the distance but has failed outside of California with her short loss to Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks. I wouldn’t worry about the slight layoff, she’s a titan returning off of longer ones, and ought to be able to give us a good show despite being out of her comfort zone.

6 – PRINCESS OF SYLMAR – I’m a huge sucker for this dazzling filly, who has little to lose defending her home turf against Beholder now that the two will be closer to even terms now they’re off that disastrously stupid fast Santa Anita main. She’s coming off of a slightly longer layoff than Beholder and is 3-for-3 at this distance and a winner of her only start at Belmont. New York heavyweight connections (Todd Pletcher and Javier Castellano) and some huge late pace potential elevate this filly’s chances.

Top 3 Picks in Order:

1)      Princess of Sylmar

2)      Beholder

3)      Close Hatches

Pick 4: Definitely use Princess and Beholder, spread with Close Hatches

Princess of Sylmar is the defender of the home turf and can take advantage of an early pace meltdown if she’s good enough. Beholder will likely try to stay ahead of her the whole time, and is classy enough to win if she’s got it in her. The scariest one of the bunch if the big two decide to concentrate on each other the whole time, could be Close Hatches, who is also undefeated at this distance and could get the jump on the competition from her rail spot to another uncontested lead. 

Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.


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