The Kentucky Derby is drawing ever closer, but it hasn’t quite reached us yet. However, what has reached us is the last week of the Public Handicapper prep contest. I am nowhere near the lead, but I’m also just barely in the black for the season, so let’s see if I can nab at least one winner this week, and finish that way. This week was a bit of a challenge, in that there were quite a few unfamiliar horses. The field of the Derby Trial was generally familiar, but the other three were just a bit newer to me.
However, the only way to learn more horses is to handicap more horses, so let’s get started!
Churchill Downs: Derby Trial Stakes (GIII, three-year-olds, 1 mile on the dirt)
There is a lot of early speed in this race, so the best tactic is to find a horse who can either deal with it if they’re just off, or come in from off the pace. After the scratch of Chitu, Bayern is pretty clearly the class of this race, and is fast enough to get the speed right off the bat. Even if he doesn’t, he showed in his maiden race that he can be just off early, and still get the job done. He’s classy, shouldn’t be pace-compromised, and should be able to take down those stakes earnings he needs to run in the big Derby (should Baffert choose to run him) in this one.
Aside from Bayern, there are a couple of intriguing longer shots in Myositis Dan and Embellishing Bob. Myositis Dan likes to come in from a few lengths off the pace. He’s jumping up in class here, and has never won on dirt. However, he has turned in two strong second-place finishes on the dirt, both of which were on the conveyor belt known as Gulfstream Park. Since he’s a horse who comes in off the pace, he should be able to hang right with this crowd, assuming Churchill plays a little fairer. Embellishing Bob is making the biggest class jump of the bunch, coming in here off his maiden win. However, he has shown some ability to continue with interest even if he doesn’t get the early lead, and has shown some very good speed in both of his career dirt races. This is his first race away from the Fair Grounds, but he has already put up two good works at Churchill this month; this familiarity with the track should serve him well in the Derby Trial. He has never run a route, but he’s by Northern Afleet out of Kirsche. His full sister Pretty Petal won at a mile and Northern Afleet has sired some horses who have gone gangbusters at a mile and beyond, such as Afleet Alex. His morning line is 8-1, but I would not be surprised to see that price improve a bit given all the buzz around both Spot and Myositis Dan — all the better, because he’s an attractive sleeper contender.
Golden Gate Fields: San Francisco Mile (GIII, three-year-olds and up, 1 mile on the turf)
Speaking of races with a lot of early speed, here’s another one. If there were a serious contender from off the pace, I’d be all over them, but the closest thing this race has to that is Fast Track. Fast Track will come in here as a long shot, and in the past he has been able to close for a share in races where he was a long shot. However, he hasn’t been able to get his nose on the line first against harder before. He is coming in off a string of three wins, but this is a far cry from allowance company at Turf Paradise, and he hasn’t been crazy about the Golden Gate turf in the past. I like Fast Track for a share, but not to win.
To win, Horizontalyspeakin looks like the best option. He and Summer Hit are probably the fastest horses in the field, and neither is so great at rating. If this were on the synthetic, I would take Summer Hit in a heartbeat, but Horizontalyspeakin’s turf form is better. He is on a class rise here, but coming off an allowance win at Santa Anita at nine furlongs, where he had to fight to keep his lead, and did so successfully. Another horse near the front end who has a good chance here is Pepnic. He comes in here off an allowance optional claiming win over several other horses in this field, at a mile on the Golden Gate synthetic; this race will be his first for the barn that claimed him out of that race. He probably won’t get the early lead in this race, but the combination of his good form and the fact that he has shown the ability to rate means this may be the time he gets it done in stakes company.
Lone Star Park: Texas Mile (GIII, three-year-olds and up, 1 mile on the dirt)
Even though there’s a decent amount of early speed, Grand Contender looks like the one to beat here. He likes the early speed, but he also really likes the distance of a mile: he is five for six career at a mile. He is stepping up a bit in class from his restricted stakes win in the Borgata at Delta Downs last out, but before that racked up close seconds in both the Mineshaft Handicap (GIII) as well as the Louisiana Handicap, both of which were at half a furlong longer than this race. Finally, he has put up a couple of nice works at Churchill since the Borgata, suggesting he’s ready to run some more.
Forest Mouse is on a class rise here, but this looks like just the time for such a move. This will be his third race off a ten-month lay; he has won both races off his lay. They were both easier fields, allowance optional claimers at Sunland, but he has shown enough speed to stack up with this field. He has never raced at Lone Star, but posted a bullet five-furlong work there on April 20, in addition to a couple of good works at Sunland since his last race. Pacewise, he likes the early speed, but can also rate off of it, which will help here. Finally, there is Taptowne, who will likely be the chalk of this field. He’s another speed horse, like much of this field, but can rate from just off if he must. As long as the rain doesn’t start until after this race, he should be able to run fast enough to hang with anyone in this field. (If the rain starts before this race, he’s quite vulnerable; he runs significantly worse on off tracks.) The biggest drawback, even in dry conditions, is that Taptowne has never won at a mile in any of his four tries. Strange as it may be for a Tapit, he fares better at a bit longer.
Bourbon Courage requires a short comment here. He is a classy horse, but he hasn’t won a race since the 2012 Super Derby. He hasn’t finished worse than fourth since then, either, but seems to lack the desire to get his nose on the wire first. This has been in both stakes and allowance company. He’s a strong enough horse that I’d want him underneath, but in a win-only contest or for a win-only bet, his track record screams toss.
Santa Anita: Snow Chief Stakes (three-year-olds, California-bred, 1 1/8 miles on the turf)
This race features a lot of horses who like to come from off the pace, and very few who want to be near the front early. The only ones who seem to want anything to do with the front early are likely outmatched maiden Frensham, and legitimate contender Alert Bay. Alert Bay comes into here off a win at the six and a half furlong Echo Eddie stakes over the Santa Anita dirt, but broke his maiden at a mile over the Santa Anita turf. That was his only turf race, but he also put up a bullet work over the Santa Anita turf on April 19, suggesting that he’s ready to return to racing on the surface. The pace should set up well for him; if he can get near the front and either control the speed or not press the leader too hard too early, he should get home.
Tamarando is attractive here for several reasons: he has won at 1 1/8 miles (in the El Camino Real Derby), and he is dropping in class after spending the last few months on the Triple Crown trail. The biggest question mark with Tamarando is the surface: he’s a dynamite synthetic horse, but he has never raced on turf. He has turned in a couple of recent works over the turf, but it’s hard to tell how he will handle it in race conditions until he actually races. Furthermore, given the lack of early speed, the pace may not set up the best for Tamarando. It shouldn’t be a huge issue, since he showed in the El Camino Real that he can close into a less-than-fast pace, but it won’t help. Finally, Aotearoa comes in here for his first race since being eased out of the California Cup Derby in January. That was his first attempt on the dirt; every other race of his has been on all-weather or turf. His form on turf has been better, and he won the open Zuma Beach Stakes last fall at a mile at Santa Anita on the turf. More interestingly, he closed into fractions that were not blistering in the Generous (GIII) on the Hollywood Park turf last year; such capability should serve him well again, given this pace scenario.