This is a big weekend, with two Derby preps: the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star. These two races, in addition to two other stakes for older horses, are the contest races for Public Handicapper this weekend, and the first of the races I’m going to discuss here this weekend.
I say first, because Hawthorne is back in action as of today! I am watching the live stream thanks to Horse Races Now, but couldn’t make it to the track today. This all changes Sunday, when I will enjoy my first day at the track of 2014. I’m getting to the track early, handicapping the races, and planning to post my observations on them here Sunday before post time.
Anyway, on to Saturday’s races!
Gulfstream: Canadian Turf Stakes (GIII, 1mi on the turf)
There are a lot of horses in this race, including many of the classier ones, who like to be on or right near the early lead. It will be interesting to see how Rydilluc does in this one. He hasn’t raced since getting trounced in the Secretariat Stakes last August, but he is working well, and before that lay he has been a career three-for-three in turf miles. This, however, is his first turf mile attempt against older horses. Speaking of consistent turf milers, Mr. Online is coming into this race from two straight wins in turf miles — and he has finished first or second in his last eight races, at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to a mile and seventy yards. All three miles in that stretch have been wins, although the only stakes among them was the El Prado, which he won by a head over Salto.
As for horses who aren’t early speed, Guys Reward is interesting coming off his win in the Tampa Bay stakes three weeks ago. He has strung together consecutive wins before, so a bounce isn’t a huge risk. What he will have to overcome is the outside post he drew — he has never won from any further out than the sixth post, and he is racing from the 11 gate here.
An intriguing live longer shot is Reload, 8/1 on the morning line. He has been a solid enough allowance level horse on dirt, but never could get it done in stakes company. However, last out he wired the field in a $100,000 AOC N1X at Gulfstream at a mile in his first out on turf. That promising race, combined with all his recent bullet works on the turf, suggest the grass may just be Reload’s surface. I think Shug McGaughey knows what he’s doing here, putting Reload in the Canadian Turf, and in fact he’s my choice to take the race.
Gulfstream: Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)
There are so many horses in this field that like to be near, or right on, the early lead. The only true-blue closer in this field is Top Billing. The outside post isn’t great, though he has gotten a bit of relief; with Casiguapo’s scratch he moves in from the 12 gate to the 11. That aside, if he runs the race he’s capable of he’s fast enough to catch the field, especially with the plethora of horses there who like the lead. The only other horse in this field who shows even a decent aptitude from coming in from far off an early pace is Our Caravan, but he’s also coming from an outside post, and hasn’t quite shown the speed necessary to overtake the class of this field.
In the category of early speed, Wildcat Red is the class of that bunch. His head has crossed the wire in every sprint race he has run (though he was disqualified to second in the Gulfstream Juvenile Sprint Stakes in November). He acquitted himself well when he stretched out to a mile, finishing second in the Gulfstream Derby behind General a Rod after they spent the entire stretch bobbing heads next to each other. The ability for Wildcat Red to stretch to Classic distances is questionable at best; however, he will likely perform well at the 1 1/16 miles of the Fountain of Youth given how well he appeared to be sustaining himself to the end of the Gulfstream Derby. Another among the horses near the front who looks good is the aforementioned General a Rod. He stalked Wildcat Red in the Gulfstream Derby, pulled even with him out of the far turn, and won the head bob to the wire. He is fast, he looked good down the stretch in that mile race, and even though he has not raced past a mile, his pedigree (by Roman Ruler out of Dynamite Eyes (Dynaformer)) doesn’t raise any red flags that the distance will be an issue. Another bright point for General a Rod is that he broke his maiden from far off the pace — a style that may come in handy in this large, speed-heavy field.
All these things considered, I just don’t see early speed holding up in this race. I don’t expect General a Rod or Wildcat Red to do badly, and would not be surprised if one or both of them hit the board, but Top Billing is my pick here.
Fair Grounds: Mineshaft Handicap (GIII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)
There are a few horses who really want to be on early speed, Afford and Bradester. Afford is probably outclassed here, a decent allowance-level horse who really can’t get it together against the kinds of horses he faces here. Bradester is probably the better of those two, but he’s taking a class jump here, having competed mainly in allowance races. If he doesn’t bounce off of his last win, he will be the pace here.
However, I really like a stalker in this one. Fordubai looks really nice here. He is coming off a length win in the Louisiana Handicap last month, and defeated Grand Contender and Prayer for Relief in that race. He really likes 1 1/16 mile races; he is 5-3-1-0 at the distance, including that win in the Louisiana last out. Prayer for Relief is another horse who tends to stalk, who also looks good in this race. He tends to put up the fastest speed figures of the bunch, and before his third place in the Louisiana Handicap he won the Tenacious by 6 1/4 lengths over Ground Transport. The Tenacious? 1 1/16 miles at the Fair Grounds. He is unsurprisingly the morning line favourite, though may still go off at a half-decent price because Rosie Napravnik is on a different horse (Bradester).
If somehow a speed duel does kick up in this race, either because Afford engages Bradester early or the expected stalkers want the lead more than I thought, look for Mister Marti Gras to pick up the pieces. Last out, he was 2nd beaten just a length by Last Gunfighter in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. Like Fordubai, he really likes this distance; he is 8-4-3-0 in main-track 1 1/16 mile races. Though he has been running more turf races than dirt lately, he runs about equally well on both, and fits in well with the field here. He is good at hanging back, engaging from midpack in the far turn, and getting there in the stretch. The stretch at Fair Grounds is a long one — and his frequent runs down the also-massive stretch at Hawthorne will serve him well.
All things considered, if I just have to go with one horse here, I’d take Fordubai. He is coming off a nice win at this track, he loves this distance, and the pace in this race is likely to favour a stalker like him.
Fair Grounds: Risen Star Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)
I will admit, this race is a tough one. With the scratch of Bond Holder, no one in the field really stands out to me as one I want to proclaim The One To Win. Had Bond Holder remained in the field, his ability to come in off the pace, combined with the fact that he has been doing his best racing on the dirt and not the synthetic, would have made him my pick here.
The problem is that the two best looking horses on paper coming into this race, Vicar’s In Trouble and Rise Up, are both speed horses. I would give the nod to Rise Up over Vicar’s In Trouble as the better speed horse, mainly because he just seems a little better tested. They are both fast horses, though, and ones I will be shocked not to see on the lead tomorrow. Another one of the horses who looks good coming into here, Hopportunity, is also likely to start on or near the early lead. This race is a jump in class for him, as he has only raced twice in maidens at Santa Anita, but if he can make his way through the pack and contend for the lead, he may have a shot here.
However, going back to Rise Up and Vicar’s In Trouble — they both want the early lead so badly Among the horses who can come off, the ones who interest me most are Gold Hawk and Emmett Park. Gold Hawk flopped his last out, finishing 3rd beaten 7 1/4 lengths in the LeComte, behind Vicar’s In Trouble and Albano. He was acting up at the gate, however, so he has a good chance to perform better if he has learned from the LeComte and comes into this race a bit more calm. Emmett Park won his last one from way back, and has been working very well in the dirt at Fair Grounds over the last few weeks. However, I’m still just a bit skittish on Emmett Park, since both of his races have been against far weaker company on the Turfway synthetic. He deserves a shot at this field — and deserves it far more than several in this field, most notably the maiden Vigorish — but may find it to be a bit too steep.
If the goal is to just hit the board (which it is, in a certain Twitter contest in which i’m still alive), Rise Up is the pick. He shows good speed, he’s breaking from an inside post, and he looked great in the Delta Downs Jackpot at the exact same distance as the Risen Star. However, if the goal is to win, I would rather try to pick a horse who can stay off the pace, and pick them off from behind. That’s why I would have picked Bond Holder if he were still running. That’s why in this case, I’m going to go with Gold Hawk. I don’t love him, but assuming he fires, he’s the best option among the horses who don’t need early speed to win.
And there are my thoughts on those four races this weekend. Good luck!