There are a lot of races ahead on Blinkers Off this weekend. First off, we have the four stakes races that are part of this weekend’s Public Handicapper contest. Tomorrow morning will come picks for Hawthorne, since I’m heading out there for a day at the races. It feels like forever since I’ve been out at Hawthorne — then again, a week and a half is the longest I’ve been away from my home track since the Spring Meet started! (Of course, I’ve been to the races more recently than that, but it was at Aqueduct — not quite the same thing, and something I still need to write about.) Finally, after tomorrow’s races, there will be picks for a series of races at Keeneland, Oaklawn, Pimlico, and Santa Anita on Sunday — since I’m squaring off against both Dude #1 and Brady Wayne Lukas in this week’s Dudes Challenge!
But, let’s not put the sulky before the horse: tonight is Friday night, and it’s time to discuss the Bay Shore, the Wood, the Ashland, and the Santa Anita Derby!
Bay Shore Stakes (GIII, three-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt)
Selections: Financial Mogul (3), Kobe’s Back (8), Coup de Grace (4)
From a handicapping perspective, this is one of the most interesting races I’ve delved into in a while, mainly because there is no horse in this field who I can conclusively say has no chance of hitting the board. There are a few who look a bit outmatched to win, but have shown enough in previous races that they could at least come in for a share if they dig in. This includes even the long shot Charleymillionaire, 30-1 on the morning line, who showed a tough effort late in the Jimmy Winkfield back in January to get within half a length of Hot Heir Skier and Oliver Zip.
However, when we get down to brass tacks, there’s enough early speed in this race that I’d rather look to someone coming from off the pace to take this race home. Fortunately, two quality horses can play that come-from-behind role: Financial Mogul and Kobe’s Back. Financial Mogul still only has one win to his name, but it’s at this seven-furlong distance. He has been facing extremely classy horses his last few times out, and firing bullet works like it’s his job. Dialing back to seven furlongs in a field with a lot of early speed may be just what he needs to get back on track. Kobe’s Back is the other horse in the field who has shown the ability to race very well off the pace. If this race were in California, he would be my selection pretty clearly, but I question his ability to ship after his flop in the Rebel. The pace will set up well if he ships well, however.
Finally, if one of the up-front horses stands to hang on, look to Coup de Grace. He broke his maiden at six furlongs over this outer Aqueduct course last year, and also has a one-mile allowance win to his name. Coup de Grace also reverts to Javier Castellano as jockey, who rode him in both his career victories. If he comes off fresh from his lay since the Holy Bull, which his works suggest he will, he could take this crowd wire to wire.
Wood Memorial Stakes (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
Selections: Samraat (8), Uncle Sigh (10), Schiverelli (7)
Social Inclusion is the hot horse, the buzz horse, the now horse. He’s not a bad horse, and if he runs the way he did at Gulfstream when he trounced Honor Code, then he’s got a shot here. However, he has a ton of things going against him: his inexperience, his never having shipped before, his outside post, his never being seriously challenged long and hard for the lead in his two starts, and his relatively sluggish early pace figures compared to others in the field. I think he’s overrated, and I’m looking elsewhere for my horse in the Wood.
I would have loved if Kid Cruz were still racing in this. There was only one horse drawn into this race who has even raced at 1 1/8 miles, much less won at the distance: Kid Cruz. His closing style would have given him a fighting chance against the dueling speedsters in this field. However, trainer Linda Rice scratched him out to give him a bit more time to recover form a sore shoulder. He may be pointing toward the Illinois Derby on the way to the Preakness — which will make for an epic trip to Hawthorne on April 19 if that indeed materializes, but deprives me of a strong horse at a good price here in the Wood.
With the horses left, I kept coming back to the matched pair of Samraat and Uncle Sigh. They both go on or near the early lead, but have both shown the ability to fight and keep their heads up there even if another horse gets the lead right out of the gate. They can rate, which will be important in case Noble Moon or Social Inclusion starts out on the front. They are both running very consistent speed figures race after race after race, suggesting that they’re not a bounce risk coming off their one-tw0 duel in the Gotham. I would not be surprised to see a one-two duel again here. Either one has a great shot, but I give the slight advantage to Samraat because of some discussion I heard on the radio today that Contessa may want Uncle Sigh to go a bit more off the pace than usual early in this race, and he’s not proven at doing that. He may well succeed at that, and I’d be about equally unsurprised to see Uncle Sigh win as I would Samraat.
Among the rest of the field, Schiverelli has the best chance to come in and play spoiler. He’s on a class jump here, with only a narrow maiden win and an huge allowance optional claiming romp to his name. However, he is firing bullet after bullet at Belmont leading from the February 21 allowance into this race. Furthermore, Javier Castellano has the mount; Castellano has been racing very well at Aqueduct recently. Finally, he has one win that was a wire job and one win that came from a few lengths off the pace — showing a versatility that should serve him well in this classy field.
Ashland Stakes (GI, three-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles on the synthetic)
Selections: Testa Rossi (6), Rosalind (8), Room Service (2)
This is a relatively difficult race to handicap due to the surface. It’s the last big synthetic Oaks prep, so most of the horses coming in here have been proven mostly on the turf so far, with a smattering of dirt horses to keep it interesting. In fact, only five of the thirteen horses in the field have even raced on synthetic once, and only one (On The Backstreets) has raced even half her outings on synthetic. Even in On The Backstreets’ case, though, those three outings didn’t come on the polytrack, but rather the Cushion Track out at Hollywood Park.
I can’t pick against Testa Rossi here. She won the Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay last time out, by 3 1/2 lengths over frontrunning Istanford. She faces tougher company here — though even then, the same argument that made her look good her last time out bolsters her here. She has never run a bad race. She has won five of her eight times out, and the only loss by more than a length was her 2 1/2 length defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, behind Chriselliam. There’s no Chriselliam here. Testa Rossi consistently fires speeds that hang well with this field, she’s carrying the same weight as everyone else on the track, and there’s enough early speed that no one is going to get too loose for her to catch. The one question here is the surface, of course, since she has only run on turf and is taking her first try at the poly. However, it is hard to count out a closer who just plain always fires, for any reason, especially in a race with this much early speed.
The horses with the best chance to spoil Testa Rossi’s day are Rosalind and Room Service. Rosalind still has only a maiden win to her name, but she has two strong finishes in graded stakes races on the synthetic. Last fall, she finished second in the Alcibiades — a GII at this distance on the Keeneland poly — 1 3/4 lengths behind My Conquestadory. Her only off the board finish to date was in the Hollywood Starlet (GI) in December, but she still finished fourth beaten only 2 3/4 by three quality horses (Streaming, Taste Like Candy, and Untapable). She also has already worked once at Keeneland before this race, firing a bullet four furlong work April 1. Rosalind is second off the lay, accustomed to poly, and could spring an upset.
Room Service is coming off a win in the Herecomesthebride (GIII) at 1 1/8 miles on the Gulfstream turf. There are no worries that she will be able to handle the 1 1/16 miles of the Ashland. Even though she has only raced on turf, several factors that weigh in her favour. She is coming off a good pattern of works, including two strong ones over the Keeneland polytrack. She has rated from off the pace, important in a race with as many early speed horses as this has, and has never missed the board. Finally, she is trained by Wayne Catalano, a trainer who regularly and successfully fields horses on the synthetic.
Santa Anita Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
Selections: California Chrome (5), Candy Boy (6), Hoppertunity (3)
My three selections here are the chalk brigade, but this time around, there just aren’t any real long shots who look like they have a chance to take this race.
I would love to bet against California Chrome, but given the likely pace scenario of this race, I can’t. He’s just too likely to be the blazing lone speed. Dublin Up may try to challenge him early, but the long shot maiden just hasn’t shown enough speed or stamina to seriously contend. No one else in the field has shown any love of getting on the lead, and if California Chrome gets that lead alone, he’s liable to yet again leave a field of good horses eating his dust.
If California Chrome regresses a bit, the ones in the field with the best chance to catch him are Candy Boy and Hoppertunity. Candy Boy should be fighting this race hard, as he alone among the top three choices desperately needs the points to get into the Kentucky Derby. He has been on the lay since the Lewis two months ago, though working sharply and consistently through that time at Santa Anita. He has raced well from either a stalking spot or a deep closing place; given the lack of early speed here, I am looking to him to be placed in a similar spot as the Lewis, where he wasn’t too far back. Hoppertunity races here to stay tuned up on the way to the Derby, without having to ship again. His Rebel win locked him up a spot in the starting gate. If he can get into a stalking place early, he could be a real threat. He has a pattern of alternating bad and good races that doesn’t bode well here, but that’s a rather weak reason to throw him out entirely. The fact remains that Hoppertunity has speed that compares favourably with this field, has been gaining on fields late at a mile and a sixteenth, and retains Mike Smith as jockey from the Rebel. He can contend here.
There are a couple of other horses I would be interested in if I do an exotic wager on this race: Schoolofhardrocks (7) and Rprettyboyfloyd (1). Schoolofhardrocks is a talented colt who stands to improve second off the lay. He probably does his best work from a closing spot, but there’s just not going to be enough early speed to support that sort of style. His raw talent and speed could get him as far as the board, though. Rprettyboyfloyd, one of two maidens in this race, has a huge case of second-itis. He hasn’t won yet, but was third behind Kobe’s Back in the San Vicente, and has four seconds in four attempts in maiden special company. His last three MSW attempts, he was beaten by less than a length combined. He’s consistently good at getting close, and may try to do that here, but I doubt his desire to win.