Picks and Ponderings: 2016 Risen Star and Rachel Alexandra Preview

50-point preps begin this Saturday in the Big Easy, and Picks and Ponderings is there.

Things get serious for the Derby-bound types in the Risen Star (GII), which drew a thirteen-horse field.  LeComte top three Mo Tom, Tom’s Ready, and Uncle Walter take on a full group of others trying to make their names on the New Orleans leg of the Derby trail, be it from local allowances or races elsewhere.  On the fillies’ side, Stageplay and Midnight On Oconee — the top two from the Silverbulletday — face seven other fillies trying to take their places as the queen and the princess of the Fair Grounds.  That will happen in the Rachel Alexandra (GII), the first of the graded Oaks preps at the track.

Paul Mazur and I split the races: he takes on the Risen Star, and I tackle the Rachel Alexandra.  Head over to Picks and Ponderings, see who we like in Fair Grounds’s pair of three-year-old preps, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Picks and Ponderings: Silverbulletday and LeComte Stakes Preview

This coming weekend, the Oaks trail and the Derby Trail visit the Fair Grounds.

Picks and Ponderings will be focusing on the three-year-old prep races through the winter, and we have full previews of both points races Saturday in New Orleans.  Paul Mazur and I took a divide-and-conquer approach: I tackled the Silverbulletday, and Paul analysed the LeComte.

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, read our preview of Saturday’s three-year-old stakes at Fair Grounds, and feel free to leave us a comment with your thoughts!

final preps for a pair of Curlin babies

The weekend was a busy one for racing in general, and it was no exception for the sons and daughters of Curlin.  A pair of Curlin babies tried to take another step toward the Classics on March 28, and their roads took them both through the Big Easy.

Danette (Sugar Britches, by Dixieland Band)  scratched out of a maiden special weight at Santa Anita to instead ship east and try New Orleans on for size.  She remains a maiden, but had proven her class before.  She was third in the Chandelier (GI) at Santa Anita last fall, and finished a late-running fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies on a day with a fairly strong speed bias.  Though the race looked less than auspicious to start, she hardly disgraced herself with her performance in the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII).

Read More »

hooray for Harvey!

Theogony, a 2010 daughter of Curlin out of the Tale of the Cat mare Upcoming Story, has shown some promise on the racetrack.  She graduated in her third start, at the age of three, going a mile and a sixteenth over the Woodbine Polytrack.  She started a few more times at three, went away for nine months, and started three times last year.  Out of those starts, she won two, both going seven furlongs on the Polytrack at Woodbine.  It remains to be seen whether she will come back this year at five…but with three wins and a second in ten starts, Theogony showed that she could run.

Harvey is Theogony’s full brother.  He can run a little, too.

Read More »

Keen Ice, with another step down the trail…

Keen Ice made his three-year-old debut in the Holy Bull Stakes (GII) last month.  It was his first race since finishing third in the Remsen on November 29.  He crossed the wire fifth, ten and a half lengths behind Upstart.  He did show some signs of life in that race: he was the only one who actually kept pace with Upstart in that final sixteenth, suggesting he returned at three with his desire to go a route of ground fully intact.

Instead of staying at notoriously speed-friendly Gulfstream, Keen Ice shipped out to Fair Grounds to give the Risen Star (GII) a try.  The race had been on the radar since before the decision to go to the Fountain of Youth, something that instilled some confidence.  Even with the scratch of J S Bach, there was still some speed on paper: Hero of Humor, St. Joe Bay, Big Big Easy, and Tiznow R J had shown some tendency to send in previous races, suggesting that Keen Ice would have something at which to run late.  Though the concern remained that the race would be too short for Keen Ice, that issue would exist no matter where Keen Ice turned back up on the Derby trail.

In the balance, the Risen Star looked like an eminently logical spot.

Read More »

Picks and Ponderings: 2015 Risen Star and Rachel Alexandra Preview

The Kentucky Derby trail and the Kentucky Oaks trail get one step more serious this weekend, with the beginning of the fifty-point preps.  For Picks and Ponderings, I took a figurative road trip down to the Big Easy to look at the two key three-year-old prep races at the Fair Grounds: the Risen Star Stakes (GII) and the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (GIII).

For those more focused on Florida, Picks and Ponderings also has you covered.  Paul Mazur took a dive into the two three-year-old preps there, the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) for open company and the Davona Dale Stakes (GII) for the fillies.

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Case’s Ticket graduates!

It has been a year of fits and starts for four-year-old colt Case’s Ticket (Feels Like Friday, by Anet).  He debuted last January at the Fair Grounds, finishing eighth in a sprint against Louisiana-bred maiden special weight company.  His second outing, March 4 of last year, showed improvement.  He stretched to two turns for the first time, and splashed home third against similar company.  It looked like he was on the right track.

He disappeared for most of the year, not returning until December 29.  He took a class drop, facing claiming company for the first time: $40,000-$30,000 state-breds.  The race was originally carded for 7 1/2 panels on the Fair Grounds turf, but washed to a mile on dirt.  He finished third again, this time over dirt rated good.  Second off the lay he was sent against state-bred special weight company on the grass, but never really fired.

Today, he dialed back to a sprint on the dirt.

Read More »

Lecomte Stakes Preview

If every Kentucky Derby points race draws like Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds does, we are in for a thrilling few months.

The Grade III Lecomte Stakes, a 1 1/16 mile romp around the main track at Fair Grounds, offers a purse of $200,000 as well as Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1) for the top four finishers.  The race drew a field of eleven.  Out of those, one could make an argument for eight.

Selections:  Tiznow R J (2), Eagle (11), War Story (4)

Longshot:  International Star (1)

Read More »

Picks and Ponderings: Lecomte Stakes Day

This weekend, the three-year-old open stakes races at Fair Grounds get underway with the Grade III Lecomte Stakes and the listed Silverbulletday Stakes.  Joining those on the card are three more stakes races: the Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap (GIII) for turf routers, the Marie G. Krantz Memorial Stakes for turf route fillies, and the listed Louisiana Stakes for the older dirt-running set.  It is a classy day of racing.

Picks and Ponderings has previews for all five stakes.  I dove into the Silverbulletday and the Louisiana Stakes, and Paul took on the Lecomte, the Bradley, and the Krantz.  Paul also wrote a detailed preview of the Bradley for the Blood-Horse, so be sure to read that as well.

Dubai and Fair Grounds and Gulfstream: what happened?

Last weekend was a huge one of Derby preps, stakes races, and handicapping contests.  I played Public Handicapper, as I do every week, and also played the contest that Danonymous Racing hosted.  I’m also playing in @horseracing4beg’s Derby Prep Betting Challenge, which covers all the 100 point Derby preps.  Across these contests, it meant I handicapped a total of nine stakes races: four at Gulfstream, three at Fair Grounds, and two at Meydan.  Some went well, some less so…though, when all is said and done, no day on which Palace Malice wins can be a bad one.

Gulfstream

Appleton Stakes (GIII, 1 mile on the turf)

In this race, Mr. Online was my first choice, and Kharafa was my second.  Since he raced, Mr. Online was my contest horse.  Especially for a win/place contest, it was hard to do better than him — his statistics compared favourably with the field, and he came into this race with nine straight win or place finishes, including two seconds in graded stakes.

A speed horse, Mr. Online did not disappoint, and he bolted near the lead early.  Midnight Cello faded fast, and Mr. Online led the way until the shadow of the wire.  Hey Leroy, a closing type horse on a big class jump into this race, very much fired in this race.  He was squeezed back to last early, but unfazed.  He gradually made up a little ground down the backstretch, but not a ton.  Still about four lengths off coming into the stretch, he came through wide and hit his best stride.  That stride had him barreling past horses — and got his neck in front of Mr. Online’s to snatch the win.  Salto, who had hit the board (but not won) in three straight stakes appearances coming into the Appleton looked primed on paper to do that again.  Sure enough, he stalked along the rail, but didn’t have enough late to catch either Hey Leroy or Mr. Online.  He checked in third.

My second choice, Kharafa, did not get the early speed he probably wanted.  He made a run at the pack, and was less than two lengths off the pace in the far turn, but then lost his drive.  He faded badly down the stretch, and checked in 8th beaten 12 1/2 lengths.

Skip Away Stakes (GIII, 1 3/16 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had War Dancer as my first choice, and Nikki’s Sandcastle as my second.  Since he raced, War Dancer was my contest horse.

I had never, ever seen quite a glaring example of betting  down a supposed price horse as I saw in the Skip Away.  There were a few horses I liked decently enough here: War Dancer, Nikki’s Sandcastle, Nevada Kid, maybe Norumbega.  The 15-1 morning line on War Dancer sounded like an overlay, so I thought I could get a decent horse for a decent price, even if he was bet down.  (To compare, I tossed out Norumbega as a contest horse in significant part because I thought the McGaughey/Velazquez connections would be bet down hard, and I didn’t like him more than other horses.)  It turned out that many people must have had the same idea as I did; War Dancer actually went off as the 3.1-1 betting favourite!  Oops.

One horse in this field proved clearly best, and that horse was Micromanage.  He got a good stalking place early, a couple lengths off, and then kicked down the stretch to run away with it.  He checked in 4 1/4 lengths in front of Norumbega: a horse I expected to go off favoured or close to it, but who ended up going off as the fourth choice, at just shy of 5-1!  Norumbega was off the pace early and made a wide closing move into the stretch, but didn’t have enough to match the last boost of Micromanage.  Sr. Quisqueyano, battling Nevada Kid for the lead early, faded less badly than his early rival and held on for third.

My first choice, War Dancer, started slowly and never recovered.  He got in about seven lengths off, but lost ground late — finishing seventh, only ahead of three significantly tired horses.  My second choice, Nikki’s Sandcastle, fared a little bit better than that, though not extremely well.  He stayed near the back of the chasing pack early, though not relegated to the stragglers despite having checked on the clubhouse turn.  He turned wide and made a slight move, but never really threatened the leaders.  Nikki’s Sandcastle held on for fourth, though, mainly because he faded less profoundly than most of the rest of the pack.

Pan American Stakes (GII, 1 ½ miles on the turf)

Here my first choice was Amira’s Prince, my second was Suntracer, and my third was Admiral Kitten.  Amira’s Prince scratched out of the Pan American to run the Muniz at Fair Grounds instead, so Suntracer was my contest horse.

What can I say about my two contest horses remaining in the race, other than that they did just about the same thing, only Suntracer at a better price?  They’re both closers.  They both were back early.  Neither of them fired a bit.  At least Suntracer failed to fire at 11.5-1, whereas Admiral Kitten failed to fire at 2.2-1.

It was Newsdad who ended up carrying the day.  I thought he may hit the board, but didn’t think he’d be the same horse who scored in the Pan American in 2012.  His last race was his first after an almost yearlong lay, and he was rusty and fading late.  I underestimated Newsdad: extremely far back early, he proved that closing win in the 2012 Fayette (GII) was no fluke.  He made up ground, swung outside during that second trip through the far turn, and got his neck in front of Vertiformer for the win.  Vertiformer, who stalked near the rail a few lengths back most of the race, made a good closing run but finished with just less than Newsdad.  Slumber, who spent much of the race only a handful of lengths ahead of Newsdad, also closed well; he crossed the wire 3/4 length behind Newsdad in third.  The 4th place finisher, Joes Blazing Aaron, is worth mentioning here only because of how badly I underestimated him.  He was alone on the lead through most of the race, but I thought he was outclasses, and served no useful purpose in this race other than as a rabbit for Admiral Kitten and Charming Kitten.  Turns out, he doggedly held his own, and only grudgingly surrendered his lead in the final sixteenth.  He was tougher than I expected, and finished in front of both horses for whom I suspected him to be rabbiting.

Florida Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had General a Rod as my first selection, Wildcat Red as my second, and Constitution as my third.  Since he raced, General a Rod was my contest horse.  For once, even though I had them in the wrong order, my contest horses all had a pretty decent run at things, and all hit the board.

As expected, Wildcat Red got the lead near the rail, and set the fractions.  General a Rod tracked just off in second, a length or so bad early, but closing up a bit to get right next to him near the far turn.  Constitution stalked along the rail in third.  As the far turn straightened out into the stretch, Wildcat Red got just far enough off the rail  that a charging horse could fit through.  Javier Castellano saw that, and figured that was all he needed to get Constitution through.  He was right.  Constitution slipped through, dueled with Wildcat Red down the stretch, and got forward ever-so-slightly to win by a neck.  I caught myself loving Wildcat Red so much going into this race, but once again I let the fact that he’s by D’Wildcat give me pause.  He is by the Miner’s Mark mare Racene, and that dam-side stamina carried him nine furlongs better than I wanted to let myself expect.  Wildcat Red is one game horse.  General a Rod checked in third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Constitution.  The stretch run wasn’t a train wreck, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping to see.  I hoped he’d at least be able to fight head-bob for head-bob with Constititution and Wildcat Red, but it was clear pretty early in the stretch that the best the General was going to muster was third.

Constitution and Wildcat Red are in the Derby, barring any kind of injury between now and then.  General a Rod is hopefully good with the 40 points he has now, but it’s not a slam dunk yet.  Hopefully there will be just enough repeat winners and placers in the remaining preps to leave room in the gate, and hopefully this performance was either a one-shot regression or a question of learning to rate a little better.  I only hope it’s not a dislike for nine furlongs, since that little race in Kentucky is ten.

Fair Grounds

Crescent City Derby Stakes (three-year-olds, Louisiana-bred, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had Youve Got a Friend as my first choice, and Gold Appointment as my second.  Since he ran, Youve Got a Friend was my contest horse.

One of my choices ran away with this race; to the detriment of my contest performance, it was not my first-choice horse.  Gold Appointment, in his first race back from a maiden win, was just the live longshot I hoped to see.  His maiden win was his first attempt on the dirt, and he continued to show his love of dirt here.  He ran a bit differently than expected, though.  He had won his maiden race from a stalking place.  This time he broke alertly, shot to the lead, and left the field eating his dust.  Hot Zapper, the favourite, made enough of a closing run to finish eight lengths in front of the rest of the field, but that was still four lengths behind Gold Appointment.  Longshot Blue Forty Two, who along with Grand Isle was within a length or two of Gold Appointment early, held on for a well-beaten third, a dozen lengths back.

Youve Got a Friend, my primary choice for the race, did not get anywhere near the early speed.  That boded poorly for him, since he does his best from a stalking place.  He was right in the back of the pack early, and would have needed a big closing run to do anything in this race.  That’s clearly not his style.  He passed enough tiring horses to finish 6th beaten 19 1/4 lengths, but never seriously contended for the win, much less a spot on the board.

New Orleans Handicap (GII, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had Palace Malice as my first choice, Mister Marti Gras as my second choice, and Normandy Invasion as my third.  Mister Marti Gras scratched.  However, that didn’t change my contest horse; Palace Malice ran, so I had him.

As should be abundantly clear by now, Blinkers Off will never complain about throwing their lot in with Palace Malice.

I have already discussed this race here, so there’s no use repeating myself too much.  Palace Malice showed yet again that he’s up to run a big race on fairly short rest, and showed that he’s a true route horse.  Normandy Invasion may have been half a dozen lengths clear of the rest of the field, but Palace Malice hit his stride down the stretch and finished a widening 4 3/4 lengths ahead of Normandy Invasion.  He found another way to prove that he is a force to be reckoned with in the older dirt horse division this year.

Louisiana Derby (GII, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had In Trouble as my first choice, Intense Holiday as my second, and Vicar’s In Trouble as my third.  Since he raced, In Trouble was my contest horse.  The good news about this race was that horses in my group of selections filled out the exacta.  The bad news was that In Trouble was the horse left out in the cold.

Vicar’s In Trouble broke sharply, and contended with Louies Flower early for the lead.  Louies Flower faded, but the Vicar stayed on.  He never got too loose on the lead down the backstretch, but he was clearly the one who got to dictate the pace.  Rise Up, far back early, made it up within a length of him coming into the far turn, and In Trouble and Intense Holiday were in the mix there as well.  However, come the stretch, Vicar’s In Trouble pulled a few lengths in front, and no one seriously challenged late.  He crossed the wire 3 1/2 lengths in front of Intense Holiday, who drove well enough not to lose ground down the stretch — but couldn’t gain any, either.  Commanding Curve, last early, made up enough ground to pass the tiring field and come in third.  The early pace wasn’t fast enough to set up for a closer like him, but he at least showed that he could stand a chance in a route where pace does fall apart.

In Trouble, my top choice, had no answer to Vicar’s In Trouble.  He found a stalking place early, whih should have boded well, but ran a flat race with no clearly apparent excuse.  He faded off through the far turn, and crossed the wire fourth: 8 3/4 lengths behind Vicar’s In Trouble.  However, he had gone out into Albano on the backstretch, hard enough to disqualify him from fourth.  Albano, who had finished a length and a half behind In Trouble, was elevated to fourth, and given the ten Derby points.  In Trouble was placed fifth, for none.

Meydan

Dubai World Cup (GI UAE, 2000 metres (about 1 ¼ miles) on the Tapeta)

In this race, Prince Bishop was my first choice, and Red Cadeaux was my second.  Since he raced, Prince Bishop was my contest horse.  This was my first time even attempting to handicap Dubai, I was very unfamiliar with the horses, and I didn’t feel like I had as much to go on as usual.  I liked Prince Bishop because he had experience with the Meydan course, and had run well in his preps.  I picked Red Cadeaux because he had run well in last year’s Dubai World Cup, and had shown from his performance in the Melbourne Cup that he could race well from a brutal post position.

It turns out my instinct to like horses who had raced at Meydan before wasn’t a terrible angle to take.  African Story, the victor, had raced almost exclusively at Meydan over the last few years; he had won the Godolphin Mile in 2012, and was fifth in the World Cup last year.  He got a nice stalking place, and overtook the frontrunning Mukhadram late.  I was also right that there may be some horses who overcame terrible post positions: both the second and the third place horses came from double-digit gates.  However, it was the horses on either side of Red Cadeaux, and not Red Cadeaux himself.  Mukhadram, breaking from the 13 gate, came here first off a layoff since October (and in his first career start on any surface other than turf!) to finish just 2 3/4 lengths behind African Story.  Cat O’Mountain, the third place horse, overcame the 15 gate; after three preps at Meydan (including a win at 1 3/8 miles in January) he closed big enough to finish third, seven lengths behind African Story.

Prince Bishop, who had been racing so well at Meydan, regressed.  He fell to last early despite the inner gate.  He closed well enough to finish 9th, but was no serious threat to the horses on the board.  Red Cadeaux, second-t0-last through most of the race, fared somewhat better.  He managed to make a move, and crossed the wire in 6th — just a length behind the third-place Cat O’Mountain.

What did I learn most from this race?  Pay a bit more attention to Meydan, because it’s going to come up in handicapping contests — and the betting payouts are juicy if you know what you’re doing!

UAE Derby (GII UAE, three-year-olds, 1900 metres (about 1 3/16 miles) on the Tapeta)

In this race, I was torn between Giovanni Boldini and Asmar.  I thought they both had decent chances to do well — Giovanni Boldini I thought was more likely to do better, though Asmar at a better price.  So, where the goal was to amass betting dollars I wanted Asmar, but where the goal was to amass Derby points I wanted Giovanni Boldini.  I ended up messing up royally here: thinking that @horseracing4beg’s contest was a points contest, I sent Giovanni Boldini as my primary pick, and Asmar my alternate.  Of course, that was in error — it’s a price contest, and I should have sent Asmar as my primary.

I paid for this dearly, of course.  Had I sent the right horse in, I’d be sitting on his nice little place payout instead of being squarely on the duck.

Toast of New York, the winner, had a great race.  I underestimate the surface factor with him; his only really bad race was on turf, and his last two times out were wins by double-digit lengths over the synthetic.  However, they were against maiden and allowance company, and at distances shorter than this.  He proved his mettle here.  He stalked the frontrunning Safety Check, got his neck in front about two furlongs from the finish, and powered to a 2 1/2 length victory over Asmar.  Asmar, my second choice in the race, was mid-pack early, but able to get into a stalking place.  He didn’t have as much late as Toast of New York did, but had enough staying power to finish second.  Emirates Flyer, at least, did about what I expected him to do.  He had no stakes victories but a ton of close seconds — and on that, I saw him as a good bet to hit the board but an awful bet to win.  He nosed out Giovanni Boldini for third.

Giovanni Boldini didn’t have the race hoped for, plain and simple.  He was very far back early, and didn’t really catch until the last five or six hundred meters.  He closed up ground decently enough once he got going, but still only managed to get within 3 3/4 lengths of the lead by the time the wire fell.  Whether it was the layoff or the synthetic surface, it wasn’t quite enough.

Palace Malice: much the best!

Saturday Palace Malice returned to the track, three weeks after his tough Gulfstream Park Handicap win.  This time, it was a shot at the Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, at 1 1/8 miles.  It had only been three weeks since his last race, but two other factors seemed to weigh in his favour pre-race: it was his second off the winter lay, and this race was a furlong longer than the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

The start didn’t bode perfectly.  Palace Malice was a bit fractious in the gate, and wide early as a result of breaking from the outside gate in the field of six.  Mike Smith rode him beautifully, though: he got Palace Malice in a nice stalking place a few lengths off Bradester’s pace come the backstretch, and pulled ahead in a wide move through the far turn, about three furlongs from the finish.  It was close as the field turned for home, but not for long.  Palace Malice hit his stride and began to pull away; no one else made any serious run at him down the stretch.  Normandy Invasion got up for second, and was far clear of Sunbean, but could not match Palace Malice’s speed down the stretch.

The stretch run is my favourite part of this race.  It seemed like he really hit his stride there.  It adds more evidence to support my thought that he’s a distance horse — and makes the fact that he could fight milers and win even more impressive.  It sounds like his summer goal is the Whitney, and I’m hoping he points toward longer races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic later in the season.

It seems extremely premature, the people on Twitter who are declaring Palace Malice the Breeders’ Cup Champion, Champion Older Horse, all that jazz.  Still, I can’t help but get excited to see how the rest of the season goes.  So far, Palace Malice has done everything asked of him with aplomb, and his prospects for the rest of his four-year-old year get more and more exciting.

Dubai and Fair Grounds and Gulfstream, oh my!

This weekend is a huge weekend of racing: three 100-point Kentucky Derby preps, some serious route action at Gulfstream, the world’s richest horse race, and the return of Blinkers Off’s favourite horse: the one and only Palace Malice!

This is also the weekend that Blinkers Off is visiting New York City, and taking a visit to Aqueduct.  Look for some Big A fun coming up soon — for right now, though, it’s time for a breakneck tour through this weekend’s big races!

Gulfstream

Appleton Stakes (GIII, 1 mile on the turf)

Selections:  Mr. Online (4), Kharafa (2)

Mr. Online is one consistent turf miler.  His last out he finished second behind Reload in the Canadian Turf, and he has finished either first or second in his last nine races.  There’s nothing in the pace scenario that indicates his early speed style will be thwarted; look for him to pull off yet another strong finish.  Kharafa may possibly be early speed, though he may also rate just off of it.  He is coming off of a lay since his last start in November, but has shown the ability in the past to come off of a layoff strong.  This is his first stab against graded stakes company, but he is fast enough to contend here.  His works are sharp, which should indicate he is ready to race the way he’s shown he is capable of — which is as good as anyone here.

Skip Away Stakes (GIII, 1 3/16 miles on the dirt)

Selections:  War Dancer (2), Nikki’s Sandcastle (7)

War Dancer has done most of his racing on turf, but has shown a versatility in style that will serve him well here — he has won from speed, stalking, or deep closing positions.  There’s enough early speed here that he should stalk or close here.  He has mostly run turf races, but has won at 1 1/4 miles on turf — showing he has the stamina to do this race.  His only longer route on dirt was in the Travers last year, where he was 6th beaten 6 by Will Take Charge, but he faces easier here.  Nikki’s Sandcastle, like most of the quality horses in this field, is another one who has raced more recently in the turf than the dirt.  However, his style of coming from mid-pack or deeper to close suits this race, which is full of early speed.  He’s on a class drop here from the recent fields he has gone against, and has been gaining on the competition at 1 1/8 miles, so the extra half-furlong should serve him well here.

Pan American Stakes (GII, 1 ½ miles on the turf)

Selections:  Amira’s Prince (7), Suntracer (4), Admiral Kitten (5)

Amira’s Prince hasn’t missed the board at this distance: he won an allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream last year by three lengths at 1 1/2 miles, and also came in second beaten just a nose at the distance while carrying 135 pounds — eighteen more than he carries here.  His last out, the Gulfstream Park Handicap in which he finished third behind Lochte, was his first race off a ten-month lay; he stands to improve here.  Illinois-bred Suntracer and Admiral Kitten are both deep closers, who will be helped by the presence of obvious rabbit Joes Blazing Aaron in the field.  Suntracer is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Mac Diarmida, where he rallied late.  The 1 3/8 miles of that race was short for him; look for him to do better here with the extra furlong.  Admiral Kitten is coming off a fast closing neck win in the Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston.  He has never raced 1 1/2 miles before, but finished second by just a head in last year’s American Derby at Arlington, at 1 3/16 miles on the turf.  He’s a consistent closer who fires every single time on the turf, and looks to be more than ready to handle twelve furlongs.

Florida Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

Selections:  General a Rod (6), Wildcat Red (1), Constitution (4)

General a Rod and Wildcat Red have been duking it out down in Florida all fall, and they stand to fight again this time.  With the extra half furlong compared to the Fountain of Youth, Wildcat Red’s pedigree-related distance considerations may come into play, but I said that about the Fountain of Youth as well and he surprised me.  General a Rod and Wildcat Red are both very fast horses who have proven themselves to be ultra-game in long speed duels, and this should serve them well here in a race where they’ll have to fend off each other, the close-stalking Constitution and Cairo Prince, and possibly Spot and East Hall coming in from a bit further back.  I give a slight nod to General a Rod over Wildcat Red on pedigree, but they’re both great choices who love the speedy Gulfstream track.  If one of the other horses might spoil their party, I look to Constitution.  He won the AOC OF DOOM over Tonalist and Mexikoma back in February, showing he can knock off quality horses, and the combination of Pletcher and Castellano is often one you can take straight to the bank.

Fair Grounds

Crescent City Derby Stakes (three-year-olds, Louisiana-bred, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt)

Selections:  Youve Got a Friend (9), Gold Appointment (7)

Youve Got a Friend is likely to get up on or near the early speed in this race.  This is his first attempt at 9 furlongs, but he has been gaining on the ield at a mile and a mile 70 yards, so he should be ready to go here.  His speeds are decent for this field.  His trainer is hot this meet, and he retains the same jockey who has been on him his entire consistent (7-1-3-3) career.  Gold Appointment is likely to get stalking, not too far off the lead.  He is trying a route for the first time after three maiden races in sprints, but has been working very well at the Fair Grounds and does have some stamina in his pedigree, being by a son of Unbridled and out of a Slew O’Gold mare.  His first two efforts were lackluster, but last out he scored a big maiden win in his first race on the dirt.  He retains his jockey from his maiden win last time out, and looks like a live longer shot here.

New Orleans Handicap (GII, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

Selections: Palace Malice (8), Mister Marti Gras (2), Normandy Invasion (5)

Palace Malice returns to a longer race after his victory in the Gulfstream Park Handicap three weeks ago.  He breaks from the same post he did in that last race: the seven gate, as the 8 horse with one scratch inside him.  The only worry with him is whether that fight in his last race took too much out of him to race three weeks later.  However, he consistently has enough speed to take this field, and had a big run in the Blue Grass last year on just two weeks’ rest.  Mike Smith, who piloted him to a win at this distance in last year’s Jim Dandy, has the mount.  Mister Marti Gras is in here second off his winter lay, coming off a ninth-place finish in the Mineshaft.  There is a decent amount of early speed here; if it falls apart, and he has freshened up a bit to race second off the lay, he could be the one who comes in to pick up the pieces.  He has certainly run fast enough to do that before, and may again if he finds what he found in the Hawthorne Gold Cup two outs ago.  Normandy Invasion hasn’t won a stakes race yet, but is coming off a very sharp allowance victory (albeit against much easier company) last time out.  He has seen some success at this distance, finishing second by a nose in the 2012 Remsen and second by 3/4 length in last year’s Wood.  His last race was sharp, his works have been good, and he can rate from off the pace as long as he catches up fairly close early.  He’ll be a threat.

Louisiana Derby (GII, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

Selections:  In Trouble (9), Intense Holiday (1), Vicar’s In Trouble (6)

Look to In Trouble to be on or near the early speed.  There’s no shortage of early speed in this race, but In Trouble proved in the Gotham last time out that he can fight gamely to stay on the front.  The Gotham was his first race off of a five-month lay, and the race he fired last out was not anomalous compared to his last one before that lay.  Look for him to improve here — and be the speed horse most likely to take it all.  Intense Holiday drew the rail in his first race back after his nose win in the Risen Star.  The rail isn’t the best place for him, given his come-from-behind style, but assuming he gets some racing room, he should have the speed necessary to overtake the early speed if it falls apart, or one horse doesn’t get the lone, defining speed.  Vicar’s In Trouble is another one of the speed horses in this race, who will need to get on the speed early if he has any hope of winning this race.  If the Risen Star last time out was a regression, he should be able to get up there, and then some.  He has shown an affinity for the Fair Grounds, having won both his career races over the dirt there, in addition to that third in the Risen Star.

Meydan

Dubai World Cup (GI UAE, 2000 metres (about 1 ¼ miles) on the Tapeta)

Selections:  Prince Bishop (1), Red Cadeaux (14)

Prince Bishop has raced mostly at Meydan over the last few years.  In 2012 and 2013, he ran in a few preps before his big race (Round 2 and Round 3 of the Al Makhtoum Challenge), but never came in better than third.  This year?  He won both.  Those two prep races were at 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/4 miles — perfect lengths to assure he is in form for this race.  Red Cadeux, last year’s second place finisher in the Dubai World Cup, draws the 14th post out of 16.  However, he has shown some adeptness at overcoming outside posts.  Last year, in the Melbourne Cup, he finished second beaten 3/4 length from the outermost post: post position 23.  He may be most suited to even longer races than this one, but his performance last year combined with his ability to overcome a post position in the next county over make him a viable contender here.

UAE Derby (GII UAE, three-year-olds, 1900 metres (about 1 3/16 miles) on the Tapeta)

Selections:  Asmar (9), Giovanni Boldini (5)

There are two horses in this race who look like they have a really good chance of taking it: Asmar and Giovanni Boldini.  Asmar did not ship to Meydan — he’s local, and hasn’t had to deal with the stress of shipping.  He is proven at this distance; his last out, he won at this distance by six lengths over Emirates Flyer.  Giovanni Boldini is not proven yet at this distance, but has proven he can race well off of a long ship; he shipped from Ireland to the United States for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf last year, and finished second beaten only half a length by Outstrip.  His trainer, Aiden O’Brien, has taken down the last two UAE Derbies; Giovanni Boldini is his first-stringer here, and O’Brien will doubtless have him ready to handle the distance.

weekend racing recap: part 1

This past weekend, I posted pre-race thoughts on thirteen races: the four stakes races that were part of the Public Handicapper contest this weekend, as well as the nine races on Sunday’s Hawthorne card.  In the interest of making this a manageable length, the recaps will be split up.  The stakes from the contest will come first; the Hawthorne recaps will follow in a separate entry.

Fair Grounds: Mineshaft Handicap (GIII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)

In this race, I had Fordubai as my first choice, Prayer for Relief as my second, and Mister Marti Gras as my third.  Since he raced, my contest horse was Fordubai.

It turned out Grand Contender, not Afford or Bradester, ended up being the early speed in this race.  Going back over my notes, I can only account not listing him among the likely early speed horses in my preview to scrivener’s error; I had him marked in my notes as a horse who wanted the early speed, that I liked him to hit the board, but didn’t like him to win since he had never won at over a mile.  That panned out, as he set the pace for much of the race, but was beaten down the stretch.  Afford, who I thought was outclassed, was.  He couldn’t get up for that early lead, and even though he gained some down the stretch, he was never a serious threat to hit the board.

I did get correct that a stalker would win the race.  However, that stalker was not who I expected: it was Bradester.  I thought he’d get straight to the lead, but instead he stalked a few lengths off early.  I expected him no more than a length off the lead.  I noted he was on a class jump, and would likely want to use him in exotics given his good recent allowance runs as well as Rosie Napravnik’s success at Fair Grounds.  However, I didn’t expect him to win, and thought he was going to be bet down hard from his 6-1 morning line thanks to his jockey.  That was wrong; he went off at 6.7-1, slightly better than his morning line odds.

Fordubai, the horse I picked to win, didn’t run the race I expected.  He didn’t stalk the pace.  He started far back, probably at least in part due to his outside post position.  He was entirely too far back for a horse who doesn’t close, and only fired hard enough down the stretch to gain the show.  It would have been enough, possibly, if he got close enough to the pace early; he just didn’t.  Prayer For Relief, my second choice, was just flat, with no clear excuse.  He never got past the middle of the pack, and faded a bit late.  My third, Mister Marti Gras, likewise had no real excuse (other than possibly being rusty after the three-month lay), but didn’t really show up.  He stayed near the back of the pack from wire to wire, with no real moves.

Fair Grounds: Risen Star Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)

In this race, I had Gold Hawk as my first choice, Rise Up as my second, and Vicar’s In Trouble as my third.  I thought Rise Up was the most likely horse to hit the board, but thought he would be caught by one of the horses from the back to win.  Therefore, since this contest is win-only, I selected the horse who I thought had a chance to catch up and take the race, hence my choice of Gold Hawk here.

There wasn’t much I got right in this race.  Neither Rise Up nor Vicar’s In Trouble set the early fractions: Albano did.  Rise Up stalked behind early in the race, which wasn’t a huge shock since he did break his maiden from a stalking position.  However, instead of catching up, Rise Up faded badly — something I was not expecting since he had been tested at this distance before, and the early fractions in the Risen Star were slower than those of the Delta Jackpot.  Vicar’s In Trouble spent the first few furlongs in the middle of the pack, got close coming into the stretch, weakened, but still held on for the show.  However, the performance of neither Rise Up nor Vicar’s In Trouble screamed “I’m going to love the Classic distances!”.

Gold Hawk, my first choice pick, looked even worse than either Vicar’s In Trouble or Rise Up.  He was closer to the pace early than the Vicar was, was making a move through the stretch, and then just faded with no clear reason.  That’s two straight races (the LeComte, and then this one) when he has just not fired; it looks like he is outclassed on the Derby trail.

I had my eye on one other horse in this race, Hoppertunity, because he is in my stable for the Brooklyn Backstretch contest.  The shape of this race for him reminds me a lot of the shape of his maiden race — he got caught way back early, improved position somewhat, but wasn’t able to threaten the leaders.  I’m not ready to write him off quite yet since the Risen Star was only his third race (and his first against winners), but this may suggest a certain lack of versatility if it keeps happening as the sample size grows.

About the only thing I did get right was that there would be a horse who wanted that early speed, and that there would be a horse who would nab him late.  However, the horse who got that early speed was Albano — who I knew liked the early speed, but thought had no chance to maintain it with Rise Up and Vicar’s In Trouble in the field.  The horse who nosed Albano out for the victory was Intense Holiday.  I thought Intense Holiday may have had a shot to hit the board, since he had previously run at more than a mile and not completely embarrassed himself (unlike much of the field), but he had never quite gotten there to hit the wire first when trying to run from off the pace — a style he had clearly been trying in the Nashua, the Remsen, and the Holy Bull.  He put it together in the Risen Star, and he is almost certainly Derby-bound as a result.

Gulfstream: Canadian Turf Stakes (GIII, 1mi on the turf)

In this race, Reload was my first choice, Rydilluc was my second, and Mr. Online was my third.

Reload didn’t scratch, so he was my contest horse — and fortunately, he injected a bit of much-needed fake money into my contest ledger after winning the race.  His odds plummeted from 8-1 morning line down to 4.8-1 at post time, so I was clearly not the only person who noticed he was a live one.  As for Reload’s race shape, it wasn’t quite as I expected.  I expected from his past races that he would be on or very near the early lead, not a few lengths back as he was.  However, seeing a bit of change in tactic wasn’t a huge surprise, since this was only Reload’s second race ever on the turf.  He stalked, got the rail and edged closer coming into the stretch, and overtook Mr. Online as the wire approached.

It was Mr. Online and Rydilluc, two of the horses I very much expected to be on the early lead, who were 1-2 for most of the race.  However, as Mr. Online gamely dug in to try and keep that lead (and ultimately finish second by a neck), Rydilluc faded to fifth down the stretch.  I’m not counting Rydilluc out for good on turf miles; this may have just been a function of him coming off the long lay.  The proof will be in the next start or two for him.  Mr. Online, on the other hand, proved himself once again to be as game as they come, and extended his streak of no-worse-than-second place finishes to nine races.

Gaining the show in this race was Salto.  He ran just about as I expected, though maybe a bit further off the pace.  However, he was gaining on Mr. Online late; just as I expected, he raced like he needed a bit more distance to do his best work.  Salto is a very good horse, but he needs another furlong or so.

Gulfstream: Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII, 1 1/16mi on the dirt)

In this race, I had Top Billing as my first choice, General a Rod as my second, and Wildcat Red as my third.  That was the trifecta — just not in quite the right order.

The race unfolded very much like I expected, with Wildcat Red and General a Rod getting on that early speed.  The past performances suggested that they were the fastest horses there, and that bore out.  Basically a matched pair, they ran head-and-head from the time the early pace settled until the wire.

The error I made in picking the race was thinking the early speed would be too much to hold up.  Gulfstream was a conveyor belt on Saturday, and being the best of the speed was your ticket to victory.  On top of that, both General a Rod and Wildcat Red proved that they are capable of holding plenty of speed through a mile and a sixteenth.  Their fractions did slow a little, and Top Billing ate into their advantage, but those two leaders didn’t fade away.  Given his pedigree, this wasn’t much of a surprise for General a Rod.  For Wildcat Red this was a bit more unexpected, and it will be interesting to see him in the 1 1/8 mile Florida Derby.  It will also be interesting to see him finally run on a track other than the Gulfstream dirt (the site of all six of his starts), though that almost certainly won’t happen until Derby day.  Wildcat Red does have a stronger pedigree for sprinting than routing, but at least at a mile and a sixteenth, he has proven himself more than legitimate.

Top Billing was able to catch everyone else, but could only get within two lengths of the twin speed demons.  Combine the track’s love for speed with Top Billing having to start that race from the 12-hole, and it adds up to no lost faith whatsoever in Top Billing.  He ran a strong race, and proved in his first stakes appearance that he deserves to be there.

a handful of Saturday races

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!