America’s Best Racing: Big Race Showdown, El Camino Real Derby and Risen Star Stakes

It’s time for the fourth week of Big Race Showdown at America’s Best Racing: where I clash heads with six awesome handicappers (Emily GulliksonCandice HareDan TordjmanBrian ZipseEric Bialek, and Mark DiLorenzo) to see who can stay the hottest through Derby prep season.

So far…I’m holding my own, mostly.  I must be getting a bit cute for cute’s sake on top: three weeks in my top picks are 0/4, but my exacta and trifecta winnings are solid.

This week, we take on a pair of Derby preps: the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds, as well as the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.  Head over to ABR, and see who we like!

Picks and Ponderings: 2018 El Camino Real Derby Preview

With synthetic tracks going out of fashion in the United States over the last few years, options for amassing Kentucky Derby points over anything but dirt have become few and far between.  One of those rare remaining opportunities comes this Saturday over the Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields, in the El Camino Real Derby.

The El Camino Real Derby, named after the so-called “Royal Road” that connects the Spanish missions from the San Francisco Bay south to San Diego, began its life in 1982.  It was run at the late Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo from 1982 through 2000, and again from 2005-2008.  Golden Gate Fields hosted the race from 2001-2004, and again from 2009 through the present day.  The race was run at 1 1/16 miles for most of its history, but stretched out to its current 1 1/8 mile distance in 2009.  The race gained a Grade 3 designation in 1986, but was downgraded to listed status this year.  Its purse was also cut in half, $100,000 this year versus $200,000 last year.  Even so, it still offers its customary 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points to its top four finishers.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read my preview of the El Camino Real Derby, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Picks and Ponderings: 2017 El Camino Real Derby Preview

This weekend, the Kentucky Derby trail winds over to the Bay Area for the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby!

On Saturday, seven horses will line up for their share of $200,000, not to mention Road to the Kentucky Derby points.  Sheer Flattery and Ann Arbor Eddie lead the pack — but can a dark horse make a breakout effort?

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, read my preview of the El Camino Real Derby, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Absolute Honour returns a winner

Lightly raced four-year-old Absolute Honour (In My Glory, by Honour and Glory) debuted in April, trying a maiden special weight at a mile over the grass at Keeneland.  The distance and surface seemed logical: his dam did her best work going two turns on the green stuff.  Unfortunately, the likes of My Afleet, Florida Won, and Archway to Heaven were a bit too tough for him, and he finished tenth.  Next out he tried maiden special company again, but going a mile over the Indiana Grand dirt.  He stalked well early, but lost ground to finish a well-beaten fifth.

That race happened on May 13.  He did not see the starter again until today.

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welcome back, Shared Belief!

I have talked quite a bit about Shared Belief since Blinkers Off began back in January.  I maintained that he should beat New Year’s Day out for Champion Two-Year-Old Male, and I drafted him to my fantasy stable.  It was a winter of foot problems, scheduled workouts, and missed workouts; most of my weekly updates until I finally waived him were nice ways of saying “we don’t know when he is going to race again.”

I was glad his connections skipped out on the early season, since taking a careful approach to returning to training serves the horse far better than trying to rush him.  This holds true for any horse, but rings with particular poignancy for a gelding.  There is no chance that Shared Belief will be yanked off the track as a three-year-old or a four-year-old to preserve his stud value.  Geldings who stay sound and race for years become fan favourites: just think of Wise Dan, Ben’s Cat, Cirrus des Aigles.  They come back year after year, win races, and give fans like us someone to cheer for over a long period of time.  We don’t know yet if Shared Belief will have that sort of longevity, but he would not have a chance for it if his connections rushed him back to the track and compromised his soundness.

Still, it was hard not to anxiously await his return to the track after what he did last year.  After breaking his maiden at Golden Gate, he steamrolled both the Hollywood Prevue Stakes (GIII) and the CashCall Futurity (GI).  The field in the Prevue included eventual graded stakes winner Kobe’s Back.  The field in the CashCall included not only Kobe’s Back, but other graded stakes winners Candy Boy, Tamarando, and Bond Holder.  When the hooves hit the track, however, none of them could mount a challenge to Shared Belief.  After those three wins last year, he looked like he could be something special.

Despite gossip that he might come back in some lofty race like the Woody Stephens, Jerry Hollendorfer returned him to the track today in a somewhat more modest place: a six-furlong open allowance over the Golden Gate Tapeta surface.  Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer ran him there because he didn’t want to ship, and made the valid point that a race can always be tough if it is the first one back from a six-month layoff.  Shared Belief wasn’t facing fellow divisional champion horses, but he was facing older company for the first time.  He was the only three-year-old in the starting gate.  He was the only horse who hadn’t started yet this year; all four others in the race were in their sixth start of 2014.  It was a solid allowance field despite its small size, with one stakes winner and two stakes-placed horses in the field.

Any other day, it would have been a solid enough race at Golden Gate, but today it was something more.  It was the return of a champion.  It was our first chance to address the question of whether Shared Belief may be the same special racehorse he was last year.

Today, Shared Belief proved that dream is still alive.

Early on, he got the rail and the lead.  Shared Belief had never been one to set the early fractions, but no one else seems to want to do it today.  The lead just fell to him, though Jockey Russell Baze didn’t ask him for run that early.  He set some slow fractions, at least for the early stages of an allowance level sprint: the quarter in 23.32, the half in 46.46.  No one even tried to challenge him until the far turn, though, so it made no sense to expend unnecessary energy by asking him for more run.

Finally, with about a quarter of a mile remaining, Ourwestcoastghost tried to make a run at him.  Stalking a length or so off through most of it, he got to within a head of Shared Belief.  It was no matter.  Baze hardly had to move.  Shared Belief kicked right into his next gear, and almost immediately opened up a length, then two…  The other jockeys urged their mounts, but by the time the field turned for home, the fight between Ourwestcoastghost and Moonshine Bay was clearly for second.  Any rust that Shared Belief may had gathered over the last six months was off, and he was running long and strong.  He pulled away while still under a hold.  By the time the field hit the wire, Shared Belief was all alone, 4 1/4 lengths in front.  Ourwestcoastghost, after stalking the winner for the first half-mile, just barely had enough to stave off Moonshine Bay for second.  Ridden hard, they couldn’t find enough to counter what Shared Belief had in hand.

Next time out, Shared Belief will almost certainly face tougher company.  Today proved that despite any setbacks through the winter, Shared Belief can still run.  He is still comfortable on the track, and still has the desire to win.

Shared Belief, you are a special horse, and you are ready for your next challenge.  Welcome back.  We missed you.

Derby Trial weekend recap

Last weekend was a wrap for the Public Handicapper prep season, which was the reason why I covered many of the races I did in my weekend stakes previews and recaps.  It was the first time I ever played PH, and as difficult or frustrating as the win-only format felt at times, I feel like I acquitted myself well for my first time in such a contest.  I ended up in 881st place out of 3154 players for the season, and actually managed to finish ever-so-slightly ahead after submitting picks for every single contest race of the season.  I was a few cents in the black leading into the final weekend, and after hitting one out of four winners last weekend (Grand Contender in the Texas Mile), I finished with 11 of 52 winners, and $1.60 in the black.  It wasn’t a smashing result, but as only 962 of the 3154 people who played finished the season at zero or better, it was better than most fared, and better than I was expecting to fare.

What’s my prize for this?  More handicapping, of course!  Between a new season of Public Handicapper starting this coming weekend, the huge Cappers with Causes contest that Danonymous Racing is running through the Triple Crown, and one other exciting yet-to-be-announced handicapping contest I’ll be playing in this weekend, I will have plenty of reason to sharpen my pencils and get ‘capping!

However, before that’s drawn, let’s look back at the stakes races I previewed for this past weekend.

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Derby Trial weekend preview

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!

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last weekend’s handicapping contests!

Last weekend I played two handicapping contests: the one at Danonymous Racing, and the one at Public Handicapper.  There were eight races in the Danonymous contest and four in the PH contest, though with the overlap of the El Camino Real in both contests, it meant a total of eleven races I had to handicap between the two contests.  The formats were a little different in each: Danonymous Racing allows a win/place on one horse per race with two choices in case one scratches, whereas Public Handicapper allows a straight win bet only on each chosen horse, but three choices in case the first two scratch.

Unlike last weekend, I actually picked a couple of winners this time around.  Not as many as I’d like (then again, isn’t that always the case?), but I’m quite pleased not to be on a streak of two zeroes in a row.  Without further ado, here are a few words about each of the races from last weekend.

Saturday, February 15

Golden Gate Fields: El Camino Real Derby (GIII, 1 1/8mi. on the synthetic)

This race was part of both contests.  In the Danonymous Racing contest, Tamarando was my first choice, and Enterprising was my second.  In the Public Handicapper contest, I had Tamarando first, Enterprising second, and Dance With Fate third.  Since he raced, I had Tamarando in both contests.  I was nervous to be so doubled down on Tamarando for the reasons I discussed in my preview — that the pace wouldn’t likely be so great for Tamarando’s deep closing style.  However, the combination of Tamarando’s love for the synthetic track and Russell Baze’s beautiful ride on him got him up and past Dance With Fate just in time.  Though he came from the back, he didn’t come from so far back as in any of his previous route races; he was never more than five lengths off the lead.  That was key, given the slower early fractions set by I’ll Wrap It Up.  Speaking of that, I was not expecting I’ll Wrap It Up to be the early speed in this race — I was expecting that from Dance With Fate, almost by default.  Dance With Fate stalked, pushed ahead of I’ll Wrap It Up coming into the stretch, and then got nabbed by Tamarando just before the wire.  Enterprising stalked closely throughout, clearly his preferred racing style.  He just didn’t have quite as much in the tank at the end as Tamarando or Dance With Fate did; he finished third by 2 3/4 lengths.

This was the only race in which all my selections managed to hit the board, though that did not come as a large surprise because they were pretty clearly the class of the field.  Craftsman, the most intriguing of the horses I didn’t select, stalked the pace until the far turn, but then faded badly to finish behind everyone but I’ll Wrap It Up.

Gulfstream: The Very One Stakes (GIII, 1 3/8mi on turf, fillies and mares)

In this race, I had Dame Marie as my first choice, Aigue Marine as my second choice, and Inimitable Romanee as my third choice.  Since she raced, I had Dame Marie as my contest horse.  I didn’t get Inimitable Romanee quite right: I thought she’d be a speed horse in this race, though she had won previously from off the pace before, as well.  I noted that I’d want to use her in exotics, that she had a good chance of hitting the board, but probably wasn’t going to win today — given that her last-out win in the Long Island was her first since July of 2012, and she only had three career wins in 20 starts leading into The Very One.  Instead, she didn’t set the early speed, she had a nice stalking trip, and she held up to win gamely.  Dame Marie, who I thought would be a live long shot, just didn’t fire.  (Ironically, Inimitable Romanee went off at a better price than Dame Marie did — which makes no sense at all, as Dame Marie was on a class jump, but Inimitable Romanee won a Grade III last out.)  Dame Marie wasn’t distanced — she was never more than about seven lengths off the lead — but she just couldn’t sustain the run she was trying to mount coming into the stretch.  Aigue Marine, my second choice, had a much better time of things.  She stalked the pace a few lengths back, as expected.  She ran strongly near the end, getting up there for the place, but just couldn’t catch Inimitable Romanee.

Gulfstream: Mac Diarmida Stakes (GII, 1 3/8mi on turf)

In this race, I had Suntracer as my first choice and Twilight Eclipse as my second choice.  Since he did not scratch, Suntracer was my contest horse.  I knew he was a risk of sorts: both because Twilight Eclipse is a fast horse with stamina from here until forever, and because Suntracer seems to like races longer than the 1 3/8 miles of the Mac Diarmida.  However, I figured Twilight Eclipse would be bet down a lot given that he’s the world record holder at a mile and a half; sure enough, he went off at 1.4-1.  I also thought there was some bounce risk, since he was coming off the win in the McKnight.  That wasn’t a huge risk, given that he was the class of the field, but it made him worth trying to beat if I saw a decent priced horse up to that bill — I thought that horse was Suntracer.  Suntracer didn’t win, but he didn’t win a bad race.  He finished fourth by a narrowing 2 1/4 lengths behind Twilight Eclipse, Amen Kitten, and Slumber.  Although that did me no good in the contest today, his race gives me something to look forward to in the Stars and Stripes and the American St. Leger — two even longer turf races that I plan to attend in person at Arlington this summer.  As for the winner, Twilight Eclipse got caught way further back at the beginning than I expected — six lengths back half a mile in.  However, he slowly gained ground through the backstretch, powered past Alpha through the far turn, and stayed in front.  Amen Kitten ran the closing style that his past performances suggest, and closed strongly to place.  Slumber, just behind Twilight Eclipse for almost the entire race, got up for the show though he never quite looked like he was going to get into first.  Unlike Twilight Eclipse, Slumber was exactly the horse I expected to see about five back, and then try to come up later.

Alpha, the horse whose mere presence in the race fascinated yet confused me, set the early fractions, with Bingo Bango Bongo right on his tail.  I surmised that it would be these two on the early lead, and that was correct.  Still, though, I’m not quite clear what Alpha was doing in a 1 3/8 mile turf race.  We’ll see where he goes next, but the Mac Diarmida did nothing to get us closer to the question of where Alpha races best.

Laurel: Barbara Fritchie Handicap (GII, 7f on the dirt, fillies and mares)

This race was postponed, just like everything at Laurel on Saturday, due to the weather.  Therefore, it was scratched from the competition.  However, it has been redrawn, and will be run this coming Saturday with a slightly different field.  In the original field, my first choice was My Wandy’s Girl, and my second was Centrique.  We shall see how they end up doing this weekend; both of them are in the redrawn Barbara Fritchie field, as well.

Oaklawn: Essex Handicap (1 1/16mi on the dirt)

In this race, I had Right To Vote as my first choice, Stealcase as my second, and Mavericking as my third choice.  Since he ran, Right To Vote was my contest horse.  (My second choice, Stealcase, did scratch.)  I got quite a bit right about this race, including the winner.  I thought it would be Right to Vote and Jaguar Paw wanting the lead, and those were the two who went up to the early lead.  Jaguar Paw faded, Right To Vote held on and won the race by half a length.  I thought Street Spice would be a few lengths off, and that’s exactly what he did.  I considered picking him as one of my horses, but I talked myself off of him because I thought being high on him was a question of my bias toward horses I know from the Chicago circuit.  He had a nice late run, though, and almost picked off Right To Vote.  Voodoo Storm came in third; he ran in from the middle of the pack, made up ground up to the far turn, but didn’t quite have as much as Right To Vote or Street Spice.  That said, he ran the style I expected, but a lot more strongly than I expected him to.  A horse who did not run as well as I thought he would was Mavericking.  He was bumped at the start, but just didn’t have anything.  Seeing him near the back of the pack early was no real surprise as he tends to close, but he just didn’t fire at all.  He only finished ahead of Win Willy, who I correctly expected would not be in such good form.

Oaklawn: King Cotton Stakes (6f in the dirt)

In this race, my first choice was Picko’s Pride, my second was Alsvid, and my third was Bull Dozer.  Picko’s Pride was my contest horse in the race, though Bull Dozer did scratch.  It was almost a coin flip as to whether Picko’s Pride or Alsvid would be my first choice; I though they both had the capacity to run strong stalking races.  I went with Picko’s Pride because he has historically handled outside posts better than Alsvid has.  Picko’s Pride did have the sort of trip I was guessing he would, at least to start; he spent much of the race just off the pace, but just faded badly in the stretch.  Alsvid, on the other hand, was strong coming down the stretch, and finished second to Apprehender by just half a length.  Apprehender, the winner of the race, came as a surprise.  He was running in good form last year, but the King Cotton was his first race back since pulling up injured in last year’s Count Fleet.  He does like this distance, but I wasn’t willing to gamble that he would be the same horse first time back out after his injury.  Turns out, he had enough in him to make a five wide move through the far turn, and hold the lead through to the wire.  He ran a solid one, period, which is particularly impressive given that it’s his first back after the layoff.  Black Bear, who finished third, had a decent run despite not getting the kind of trip  he would have wanted.  He got caught in the crowd, but found his way to the head of the rest of the pack to cross the wire third.

Santa Anita: Santa Maria Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi in the dirt, fillies and mares)

In this race, Ondine was my first choice and Fiftyshadesofhay was my second.  Ondine was my contest horse; Fiftyshadesofhay was a relatively late scratch.  I wasn’t expecting Iotapa to shoot straight to the lead; she did just that, and wired the field.  I expected her to hit the board, but wasn’t expecting her to be fast enough to hang with Ondine (or Fiftyshadesofhay, pre-scratch), especially since it looked like she generally ran better on synthetic than dirt.  I was wrong; Iotapa proved best, simple as that.  Let Faith Arise had a stalking trip; she didn’t make up much ground from where she stalked, but showed enough ability to stay the distance to hold the place.  Even though she had been sprinting before the La Canada, her second-place finishes in both that race and this one show that she has some promise at routes.  Stanwyck did run from the back of the pack and attempt to close; she only had enough time and space to get up for the show.  This I got right; I figured the pace wouldn’t be great for a closer.  It wasn’t, and Stanwyck is a pretty pure closer.  My pick Ondine stalked the pace, and was only a couple of lengths back going into the far turn, but she couldn’t make up any ground and faded to cross the wire fifth, 6 1/4 lengths behind Iotapa.  Running just off the pace was her more common racing style, and probably the smarter one to try given the likely pace scenario.

Monday, February 17

Aqueduct: Hollie Hughes Stakes (6f on the inner dirt, restricted to NY-Breds)

In this race, I had Mine Over Matter as my first choice and Notmyfirstime as my second.  Since she did not scratch, Mine Over Matter was my contest horse.  I was right that Freudian Dilemma and Marriedtothemusic would want to get up front early, and that Notmyfirstime would hang back.  I expected to see Mine Over Matter a few lengths off as well, but instead he got caught way back, and a little wide.  He fired on the stretch to claim third beaten 5 lengths, but couldn’t catch up to Be Bullish or Marriedtothemusic.  Notmyfirstime, my second choice, was a few lengths back to start, but he just didn’t fire, and lost ground to the rest of the field.  I was probably wrong in assessing that he was ready for this jump in class.  The winner of the race, Be Bullish, I just plain discounted.  I did notice that he specialized in this distance, his barn (Drawing Away/David Jacobson) was very hot at the meet, and his jockey (Taylor Rice) has been, too.  However, I thought he was going to need the lead, and just not be fast enough compared to the rest of the field to keep it.  Instead, Be Bullish came from a few lengths off the pace to win.  I underestimated this nine-year-old gelding’s versatility, and his ability to channel some of his old form against this field.  Marriedtothemusic, the second place finisher, I avoided mainly because I thought I’d get a terrible price on him — which, I would have, as he went off at 0.85-1.  I was right to try and beat him; I just picked the wrong horse.

Laurel: General George Handicap (GIII, 7f in the dirt)

In this race, I had Well Spelled as my first choice and Service for Ten as my second choice.  Since he did not scratch, Well Spelled was my contest horse.  I got some things right about the shape of the race; I was certain that Smash and Grab would be the early speed in the race, and he was.  However, he didn’t hold as far as I expected he would, and was passed by most of the field come the finish line.  My second choice, Service for Ten, didn’t run a terrible race.  It wasn’t too surprising to see him that far back early, since he won the six furlong Dave’s Friend last year from ten lengths back early.  However, the fractions were a little slower here, so the horses closer to the lead may have had more left in comparison.  He got as far as third, beaten 4 1/2 lengths by Bandbox and only half a length behind Tenango.  My first choice, Well Spelled, was a complete bust.  I thought he’d run a good one second off the five-month lay, but he just didn’t.  He hung out on the rail throughout, and completely failed to fire.  Bandbox, the winner, was hardly on my radar.  He hasn’t won a race since 2011, and this was his second race back from a seventeen-month layoff.  I usually like the second-off-the-lay angle, but I thought the extreme length of the lay was enough to override that second-off factor.  His first race back from the lay was against weaker company than this, and he finished third beaten 2 1/2 lengths.  However, the way he won the race — coming in from a handful of lengths off — was at least the shape I expected he liked, so I got at least one tiny thing right about Bandbox.  As for the second-place Tenango, I was just…lukewarm on him.  He fit the field just fine, he wasn’t racing poorly, but there wasn’t anything that stood out about him.  He’s one I thought had a great chance to hit the board, but not to win, given his failure to string together two consecutive career wins combined with the fact that he won last out.  I did correctly identify a vulnerable favourite in Palace — he went off at 1.1-1, and I wasn’t in love with the fact that he hadn’t won at a distance longer than six furlongs in over a year.  Sure enough, he faded a bit down the stretch in this longer race, and finished off the board.

Oaklawn: Southwest Stakes (GIII, 1 1/16mi in the dirt)

In this race, I had Ride On Curlin as my first choice and Paganol as my second.  Since he raced, Ride On Curlin was my contest horse.  My first choice, Ride On Curlin, finished third: good enough for fantasy league points, but not quite enough for points in the contest.  I already wrote quite a bit about Ride On Curlin’s trip on Monday night; the long and short of it is that I wasn’t surprised that he stayed near the front, but I would have liked to see a closing trip more like the Champagne.  Ride On Curlin was able to stave off the rest of the field — save Tapiture and Strong Mandate.  Tapiture, the winner, was clearly a strong contender.  In the Southwest, he got a very similar trip to his Kentucky Jockey Club win: hanging just off the lead, pulling ahead through the far turn, and being clear down the stretch.  (As an aside, it will be interesting to see how Tapiture handles getting a different trip.)  Despite drifting down the stretch, he still won by daylight over second-place Strong Mandate, who was switching leads down the stretch but still running fast enough to stay ahead of everyone but Tapiture.  I expected Strong Mandate to be either on or just off the early lead; he was a few lengths off, which given this field and the length of the race was a wiser move than if he had bolted right in front.My second choice, Paganol, I had expected to see hang off the early lead and overtake them (or, at least, come near overtaking them) late.  Instead, he stayed a few lengths off the lead as long as he could, but faded badly coming into the stretch — finishing a disappointing tenth, beaten 17 1/2 lengths.

Santa Anita: Buena Vista Stakes (GII, 1mi on the turf, fillies and mares)

In this race, I had Egg Drop as my first choice and Moone’s My Name as my second.  Since she ran, Egg Drop was my contest horse — and one of two horses to put me on the board in the Danonymous contest.  I expected Tapicat and Egg Drop on the lead early; instead, it was Miss Serendipity right on the early lead, with Egg Drop, Pontchatrain, and then Tapicat behind.  I had been expecting to see Miss Serendipity just off, maybe near where Tapicat was early; having her on the early lead like that was a surprise.  Egg Drop, as usual, ran a solid race; on the distaff side, there’s not a more consistent turf miler than Egg Drop.  She was just off the early lead, stayed up around the front, and held the place gamely.  My second choice, Moone’s My Name, couldn’t really rally her way out of the middle of the pack.  She bobbled a bit going into the far turn, and just couldn’t muster what she needed to in order to make ground.  She finished sixth, beaten five lengths.  The horse I could not have gotten more wrong was the winner, Pontchatrain.  I did not think she was going to like the mile as much as some of these horses in the race who were more accustomed to it.  She had won an allowance at 1 1/16mi at Del Mar last year, but had not faced a field of this kind of class at a route distance — only at sprints, which she had been owning as of late.  All of this, combined with all those sprinters in her pedigree (War Front, Dominica, Housebuster…) led me to think that she’d be outclassed at a mile, and better off going back to six and a half furlongs.  I was not right about that, at all — Pontchatrain had plenty in the tank, pulled ahead coming into the stretch after being caught three wide out of the far turn, and showed some serious class in the Buena Vista.

And, that’s what happened with the races I picked for last weekend.  Next stop: this weekend!  There will probably be another slate of Public Handicapper contest races; these are usually announced Thursday, and I will likely handicap them Thursday evening.

Furthermore, live racing at Hawthorne resumes this Friday, which is the best news I’ve heard since Illinois renewed ADW.  I can’t make it there on opening day, but I will be at the track on Sunday, and will discuss my picks and bets for that card.  I cannot wait to get back to Hawthorne; it has been dark since the end of December, and I miss going to the races on the weekends.  I miss hanging out in the paddock.  I miss seeing the horses run right in front of me.  I miss chatting face to face with people as excited about racing as I am.  I miss everything about it, and I am looking forward to returning to what is fast becoming my home away from home.

handicap ALL THE THINGS!

Maybe I’m crazy.  Maybe I’m getting too antsy because live racing at Hawthorne starts back up this coming Friday (HOORAY!).  Whatever it is, I’m doing two handicapping contests this weekend: both the one at Danonymous Racing and the one at Public Handicapper.  The Danonymous Racing contest covers four races on Saturday and four races on Monday; the Public Handicapper one covers four races on Saturday.  However, only one of the races (the El Camino Real Derby) overlaps between the two, so that meant that I picked a total of seven races for Saturday.

Golden Gate Fields: El Camino Real Derby (GIII, 1 1/8mi. on the synthetic)

This is the big Derby prep of the day.  There aren’t many in this race who like being the early speed, which makes Tamarando’s deep closing style a threat most to Tamarando himself.  However, Tamarando has performed better on the synthetic than he has on the dirt, and Russell Baze (a jockey who probably knows Golden Gate Fields better than anyone else on the planet) has the mount.  Enterprising and Dance With Fate may go up near the lead for this one; I’d say Dance With Fate would be more likely to be right on the early lead than Enterprising, but they both fall into the “likely to be the early speed by default”.  If one or the other gets there and is able to keep the pace at a manageable level, they may manage to thwart Tamarando’s deep closing style.  Craftsman is a bit of a question mark; it remains to be seen whether he has come into his own, since this is only his second race stateside, after shipping here from Ireland.

Gulfstream: The Very One Stakes (GIII, 1 3/8mi on turf, fillies and mares)

There are enough horses who want to be on the lead early in this one (Seanchai, Viva Rafaela, and likely Inimitable Romanee) that there’s a good chance the pace will favour a horse who prefers to come up from the back, especially in a race as long as this.  If one of the frontrunners in this race us going to take it, it will probably be Inimitable Romanee; she did manage to wire the field at a mile and a half last time out, in the Long Island Stakes (GIII).  I am more interested in someone stalking or closing, though.  Algue Marine looks nice coming into this race, especially given her particular success at the 1 3/8 mile distance.  She has also been in the States long enough to have come into whatever form she’s going to come into after shipping here from Europe.  Dame Marie is an interesting long shot, as well.  It’s the toughest field she has faced in her career, but she has shown enough speed in previous races to be likely to hang with this crowd, and she’s working well at Palm Meadows.  She isn’t a lock by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s a legitimate enough contender in this race that she is bound to be an overlay.

Gulfstream: Mac Diarmida Stakes (GII, 1 3/8mi on turf)

Bingo Bango Bongo and Alpha are going to want the early lead; neither of them have much success in races without it.  Twilight Eclipse is also likely to be either on or just stalking this early pace; among the speed horses, Twilight Eclipse has proven himself to be the classiest, and the most likely to stay on for this distance.  However, there’s enough speed and enough distance in the race that a horse from farther back who can handle the distance is a real threat.  Suntracer is a closer with plenty of experience in longer turf races.  This is the shortest race he has run since last June; though he has not won since the 2012 Carey Memorial, last summer he finished a strong second in both the 1 1/2 mile Stars and Stripes (GIIIT) as well as the 1 11/16 mile American St. Leger last year.  The distance is no worry, and he is reunited with Julian Leparoux, who rode him in the Stars and Stripes.  Another closer who may have a chance is Amen Kitten; he has acted in shorter races like he may want the extra distance of this one.  If he wants that distance, he could be a threat as well.

As an aside, I’m fascinated by Alpha’s presence here.  Alpha has been trying a variety of different mile and route races on the dirt, and took a less than impressive stab at the synthetic at Meydan last year, but hasn’t tried turf yet.  This will be Alpha’s first race on the turf.  He has had some brilliant races over his career, and he has had some flop races, but he hasn’t quite found a specialty.  I don’t know if he’ll fly or flop on the turf, but either way, it will be interesting to see.

Laurel: Barbara Fritchie Handicap (GII, 7f on the dirt, fillies and mares)

There are so many horses in this race who like early speed that I’m hesitant to think that early speed will win this race.  Baragah, La Verdad, Sunlit City, Winning Image…they all want to be up there, and up there early, making it likely that there’s going to be enough of a fight for the lead that it will benefit a horse farther back.  My Wandy’s Girl is interesting here.  She loves the 7 furlong distance, she likes being a handful of lengths off the pace, and if she proves on this second start back after a long lay that she’s the same horse she was before her lay, she’ll be hard to beat here.  Centrique has an inside post position, something she really likes, and her recent speed compares favourably with this field.  She tends to stalk the pace, and she’s fast enough to stalk any of those speed horses and have a good chance to get there.

Oaklawn: Essex Handicap (1 1/16mi on the dirt)

This race does not have much in the way of early speed at all, so anyone who can get there, control the fractions, and have enough in reserve to get down the stretch is going to have a good chance of winning this one.  Right to Vote and Jaguar Paw like the front more than the other horses in the field, though Right to Vote seems to be more consistent than Jaguar Paw is, and Jaguar Paw may be bet heavy because Calvin Borel is riding.  Stealcase probably won’t be right on the early lead, but if he can stay up there and stalk a few lengths off, he’ll be dangerous.  As for horses who are likely to be off the lead…if any of the closers are going to do it, I’d probably go with Mavericking.  He looks to be pretty happy with the turf-to-dirt transition he has made after winning the Buck’s Boy Handicap (a race washed off the turf), but he has been relatively consistent about mustering enough speed to hang with the field, and is likely best among the closers in this field.  Win Willy as a six-year-old would have blown him out of the water, but his form through his seven-year-old year and into this year hasn’t quite been the same.  He isn’t awful, but there has been enough decline in his statistics over the last year or so that makes me think he won’t be who he used to be.

Oaklawn: King Cotton Stakes (6f in the dirt)

Unsurprising for a six furlong sprint, most of this field either wants to be right on the early lead, or right near it.  Two of the horses in this field look primed to run a really nice one: Alsvid and Picko’s Pride.  Alsvid, who finished second in last year’s King Cotton, really likes six furlongs — he is 10-6-3-0 at the distance.  He has been working very well at Oaklawn recently, and even though his last race out wasn’t so great, it was also not at his preferred sprint distance, but rather a mile.  The last time Alsvid cam back from a similarly disappointing effort (a sixth place finish, beaten 6 1/2 lengths, in the May 2013 Honor the Hero Stakes), he smoked the field in an AOC35 at Prairie Meadows by sixteen lengths.  Picko’s Pride has been on a lay since July, but the last time he was on a lay of approximately equal length (about a year ago), he won a 6 furlong AOC65 by two lengths.  He ran some of the best races of his career last year, and if he comes back from that in anywhere near the form he had as he went on lay, he’ll be a threat in this race.

Although the handicapper in me says he’s not going to win, there is no horse in this race that the pure fan side of me wants to see win more than I want to see Wildcat Country win.  Last March he was claimed for $7,500, and claimed again out of his next race for $6,250.  Since then, he has started to race better, and he has won his last two outings: a 6 furlong Starter Allowance for horses who had started for a $7,500 claiming tag or less, and before that a $40,000 claimer at Oaklawn.  Few things make me happier than seeing horses rise through the ranks…and even though I know he is a long shot given this field, I really hope he does well.

Santa Anita: Santa Maria Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi in the dirt, fillies and mares)

There’s likely to be very little early speed in this race.  The only one who seems to really need the front early is Golden Production.  If she were one of the faster horses in the field, I’d be likely to want to select her.  Unfortunately, she isn’t.  It doesn’t seem to stack up well for a deep closer, but one of the faster horses who generally runs just off the pace is more likely to take it.  Fiftyshadesofhay is consistently fast, but is likely to be bet down a lot despite the fact that she hasn’t gotten her nose across the wire first since last summer.  Iotapa is a solid horse who may like the distance (she has finished second at both attempts at 1 1/16 miles), though she’s probably a little better on the synthetic than she is on the dirt.  Ondine is 4-2-0-2 at a mile and a sixteenth, and is coming off a close call in the La Canada.  Any of these three horses have a decent chance to do well, though Ondine and Iotapa are likely to do it at a better price than Fiftyshadesofhay.

There are four more races on Monday for the Danonymous Racing contest: the Hollie Hughes at Aqueduct, the General George Handicap (GIII) at Laurel, the Southwest Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn, and the Buena Vista Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita.  Later this weekend, I will discuss those four races.