Picks and Ponderings: Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Preview

This Saturday is the final Grade I turf race restricted to three-year-old fillies: the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. at Keeneland.

The field of nine includes a trio of runners familiar from this summer’s Arlington meet: Mizz Money and Return to Grace were separated by a nose as the 1-2 finishers in the Pucker Up, and Her Emmynency won an allowance against older company here, and later finished second in the Del Mar Oaks (GI).

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, and get ready for a classy renewal of the Queen Elizabeth II!

Picks and Ponderings: 2015 Fall Stars Sunday Preview

Opening weekend at Keeneland draws to a close tomorrow with another pair of graded stakes, both of which are not only local preps to the Breeders’ Cup, but also Win And You’re In.  The Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (GIII) offers a berth to the BC Juvenile Turf; the winner of the Spinster Stakes (GI) gets a place in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, and get ready for the final day of Fall Stars at Keeneland!

Picks and Ponderings: 2015 Fall Stars Saturday Preview

Picks and Ponderings rolls on with more coverage of opening weekend at Keeneland.

During Saturday’s card, Fall Stars reaches its crescendo.  The card features five graded stakes: the Shadwell Turf Mile (GI), the Breeders’ Futurity (GI), the First Lady (GI), the Thoroughbred Club of America (GII), and the Woodford (GIII).  Three of the races (the Turf Mile, the Breeders’, and the TCA) are Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races for the corresponding divisions (the Mile, the Juvenile, and the Filly and Mare Sprint, respectively).  The others do not have an automatic berth, but will likely have implications for the Filly and Mare Turf and the Turf Sprint, being that they are graded races over the local course.

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, and delve into Saturday’s stakes racing at Keeneland!

Picks and Ponderings: Fall Stars Friday!

Keeneland gets underway on Friday, and with it, the first two Fall Stars stakes races.

The Alcibiades Stakes (GI) serves as the local prep for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) this year; the Phoenix Stakes (GIII) covers the same course and distance as the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI) will four weeks later.  Each race drew a familiar local: Arlington-Washington Lassie winner Marquee Miss will try dirt in the Alcibiades, whereas Illinois-bred sprinting champion Work All Week will try to defend his crown (and punch his ticket to a Breeders’ Cup title defense) in the Phoenix.

Head on over to Picks and Ponderings, and get the meet started right with my preview of the Alcibiades and the Phoenix!

Picks and Ponderings: Derby and Oaks preps continue

My preview of the Fantasy Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn is just the beginning of this weekend’s stakes analysis at Picks and Ponderings.

I also took a detailed look at the pair of prep races at Santa Anita Park, the Santa Anita Derby (GI) and the Santa Anita Oaks (GI).  The Oaks is one of the most competitive races of the prep season so far.  In the Santa Anita Derby, beating Dortmund has been an impossible assignment for every horse who has tried so far, but I think one looks up to the task.

My Picks and Ponderings colleague Paul Mazur has looked at the other three-year-old preps this weekend.  He heads to Keeneland to dive into the Blue Grass (GI) and the Ashland (GI), and also to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial (GI) and the Gazelle (GII).

From coast to coast, Picks and Ponderings has you covered for the big three-year-old races!

Picks and Ponderings: weekend graded stakes at Keeneland and Belmont

This weekend is a bit light on graded stakes, with the Breeders’ Cup prep season having mainly wound down over the last two weeks.  Still, there are two graded contests this weekend, and both are previewed at Picks and Ponderings.  I took a look at the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland, a Grade I affair for three-year-old turf route fillies.  Paul dove into the Knickerbocker Stakes, a Grade III for the older set at Belmont.

Take a look at each of our previews, and let us know what you think.  If you really agree or really disagree with something we have to say, or just have a question, don’t be shy to leave us a comment!

Picks and Ponderings: Fall Stars at Keeneland

This weekend marks the beginning of the Keeneland meet, and Picks and Ponderings has selections and analysis for all nine graded stakes races being run over the weekend:

  • Friday: I preview the Alcibiades (GI) and the Phoenix (GIII).
  • Saturday: Paul Mazur analyzes the Woodford (GIII), Thoroughbred Club of America (GII), First Lady (GI), Breeders’ Futurity (GI), and the Shadwell Turf Mile (GI).
  • Sunday: I return for a look at the Spinster (GI) and the Bourbon (GIII).

Seven of these races are Breeders’ Cup Win And You’re In races.  They cover sprints and routes, juveniles and older horses…there’s something for everyone here, unless you follow nothing but the departed Polytrack.  So, head on over to Picks and Ponderings, see who we like, and leave us a comment if there is anything with which you really agree or disagree!

Picks and Ponderings: Friday stakes at Keeneland

The Keeneland meet starts on Friday, and with that begins the Fall Stars weekend.  Keeneland is running nine graded stakes races over the first three days of the meet.    Picks and Ponderings is covering all nine of those graded stakes this weekend.  Two of them run on Friday: the Alcibiades (GI) for the two-year-old fillies, and the Phoenix (GIII) for the three-and-up sprint set.

My analysis of the Alcibiades and the Phoenix is online at Picks and Ponderings.  Paul Mazur will be delving into the stakes races at Keeneland on Saturday once those have been drawn, and I will return with analysis of the Keeneland stakes on Sunday.  Still, we must all start somewhere, and these stakes on the first day is where we start for this fall’s Keeneland meet.

looking back at Keeneland and Oaklawn

This past weekend’s contest races for both Danonymous Racing and Public Handicapper were concentrated in two places: Blue Grass weekend at Keeneland, and the big closing weekend at Oaklawn.  Seven of the eight of them were graded stakes, and even the eighth contained a handful of horses who were familiar faces from the Derby trail.  Let’s see how the races went, and how my selections did!

Keeneland

Commonwealth Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, seven furlongs on the synthetic)

In this race, my first choice was Undrafted, and my second was Laugh Track.  Since he raced, Undrafted was my contest horse.  I expected Undrafted to stalk close to the early lead, and find his form as he returned to his preferred surface.

Dimension broke to the lead early, along with Spring to the Sky and Gunderson.  Dimension, clearly on form in this first start off the winter lay,  was the only one in that early pack who was able to carry on late, though.  He hearkened back to his form and style in last year’s Play The King (GIIT-Can), and held that lead stubbornly.  Inside the sixteenth pole, however, he was nabbed by the strong late run of Occasional View, who had been racing a few lengths back in the pack, but made up ground in a big, wide move through the far turn.  He pulled even with Dimension, and kicked in to win by a length in that last half-furlong.  While handicapping, Occasional View hadn’t been completely off my radar, especially since he was cutting back from routes in his last three races.  However, he was also in his first race off a three-month lay, and facing tougher company than he had in his last few.  That was enough to knock me off him.

My first choice, Undrafted, didn’t have such a great race.  It wasn’t awful, but he still wasn’t able to quite get it together in stakes company.  He got bumped at the start, and settled midpack.  He ran evenly enough, and passed some tired horses late, but was still only able to get up for fifth, four lengths behind Occasional View.  Laugh Track, my second choice, fared a bit better.  He had a ground-saving trip early, came out, and accelerated some late.  It wasn’t anything like Occasional View did, though, and he never seriously threatened even Dimension.  He checked in third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

Shakertown Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, five and a half furlongs on the turf)

In this race, my first choice was Havelock, my second choice was Gantry, and my third was Hogy.  Since he raced, Havelock was my contest horse; he was tough to find any good reason to pick against, given his past affinity for the Keeneland turf.

I noted while handicapping this race that Marchman would at least have to find what he had in his last start (a close third in the Colonel Power at Fair Grounds) in order to have a chance here.  He wasn’t a huge bounce risk, since he had strung together good runs before, but wasn’t consistent enough to seem like a good bet that he’d again find form that would give him just some chance.  However, that was my loss: Marchman wired this race.  He set the pace with Go Blue Or Go Home close behind: which means I pegged perfectly the two horses in this field with the most affinity for the lead.  Go Blue Or Go Home faded, as I thought might happen first off the lay.  Marchman, however, would not be caught.  I thought he’d be slow enough that he’d be swallowed up late, but instead he repelled the late charge of Positive Side along the rail, and scored by a neck.  Positive Side, coming off his second place finish in the Colonel Power, did not bounce the way I expected.  He started gaining from his midpack position through the far turn, found space to angle over to the rail, and just missed nabbing Marchman.  Something Extra, who stalked the pacesetters a couple lengths back in third for almost the entire race, showed decent form in his first start off a nine month lay.  He was rolling a bit more late, but was only able to get within a length of Marchman.  It was good enough for the show.

My hopes that Havelock would again show himself as the horse for this course did not come to fruition.  He was far back early, eight or nine lengths, but that was not in itself strange, since he does tend to close from far back.  However, he didn’t fire anywhere near soon enough.  He was still just about bringing up the rear once the field turned for home; normally he starts making up distance through the far turn.  Havelock was only able to close enough to finish seventh, four lengths behind Marchman.  Gantry, my second choice, never really fired either.  He stayed in the middle of the pack throughout, and even gained a little ground in the dash for home, but finished sixth beaten 3 1/2 lengths.  Hogy, my third choice, actually had a decent run given the bad trip he got.  He was over half a dozen lengths back early, much farther back than he normally runs.  He made a move through the far turn, but got bumped by No Silent coming through there, which sent him out a bit.  He kept closing, though, and crossed the wire just 2 3/4 lengths behind Marchman, in fourth.

Madison Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, seven furlongs on the synthetic)

In this race, I had Eden Prairie as my first choice, and Judy the Beauty as my second.  Since she ran, Eden Prairie was my contest horse.  Even though I thought Judy the Beauty probably had the best chance to win, I thought the upside to Eden Prairie here was more than enough to justify trying for a price in the contests, and took her as my first choice in both contests.

Eden Prairie shot to the lead early as expected.  She was joined by Wildcat Lily, with Cozze Up Lady stalking them outside in third.  Through the far turn, though, Judy the Beauty came out around all three of them, and as the field turned for home it was Judy the Beauty and Eden Prairie up front.  However, one of them was hitting their best stride, and the other struggled to keep up.  Judy the Beauty opened up daylight quickly, and crossed the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front of her closest competition.  Eden Prairie tried to keep on along the inside, but several horses had more left late than she did.  She ended up fifth, 5 1/4 lengths behind the victor.

Second went to Better Lucky.  who surprised me here as she hasn’t shown much sharpness off the lay.  She did cut back in distance here from her previous races, though, which probably helped.  She made a wide move through the turn and closed with some strength, though couldn’t get more than 2 1/2 lengths from Judy the Beauty.  Apropos, who stalked a couple lengths off, struggled a bit to find room coming into the stretch, but was able to get in for third, beaten 4 3/4.  Heir Kitty, last early, didn’t quite have enough in her closing run; she was only able to get up for fourth, a nose in front of the fading Eden Prairie.

Jenny Wiley Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the turf)

In this race, I had Discreet Marq as my first choice, Centre Court as my second, and Fitful Skies as my third.  Since she did not scratch, Discreet Marq was my choice.  I wasn’t sure if she was going to get that early lead or stalk close to it, but either way, she had shown the ability to run gamely in Grade I company.

Discreet Marq put up another nice race here.  She didn’t have the best start (she, Cloud Scapes, Hard Not To Like, and Centre Court all bumped early), but she was able to get up near the front, and then settled in to stalk Cloud Scapes’ early fractions.  I had expected Cloud Scapes to try to stalk early, but her connections must have been trying a new style.  Cloud Scapes gave it up through the far turn, giving Discreet Marq the lead, though Centre Court was then right on her to challenge.  Discreet Marq got the best of her, too, just in time to face challenges from Abaco on her outside and Hard Not To Like on her inside.  Hard Not To Like, in mid-pack most race, found enough room to get through and past Discreet Marq, and ended up taking the race by a length.  Abaco had great momentum, and it looked on first watch that she nipped Discreet Marq at the wire.  However, the photo showed Discreet Marq had gotten her nose up on the wire just barely before Abaco; she held the place.

My second and third choices both missed the board, but neither finished far up the track.  Centre Court made a run, and briefly got her nose in front down the stretch, but had a whisker less late run than the top three and Emotional Kitten did.  She finished in fifth, 3/4 length behind Hard Not To Like.  Fitful Skies settled back early, in front of only the deep closer Abaco, but no further back than she has been able to handle before.  She did gain a bit on the lead in terms of distance late, but never fired enough to improve her position.  She finished ninth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths.

As a final aside, I did note in my preview that whether or not I was correct about this race, it would be a joy to watch.  It was.  All ten horses in the field fought, and no one looked completely out of it until very late in the game.  The top five horses all crossed the wire within a length of each other; the last-place horse, Class Included, only finished four and a half lengths behind the winner.  This is exactly the sort of thing that’s beautiful to see in any race, but especially a race intended to be of the highest calibre.  This year’s Jenny Wiley certainly fit that bill.

Blue Grass Stakes (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the synthetic)

In this race, I had Dance With Fate as my first choice, Harry’s Holiday as my second, and Coastline as my third.  Since he raced, Dance With Fate was my contest horse.  For as big a field as the Blue Grass attracted, Dance With Fate was a surprisingly easy top pick for me to make: he is a true synthetic-track horse, the pace looked favourable, and he had shown the ability to stay at the distance.  I knew I wasn’t going to get that too-good-to-be-true 12-1 morning line on him.  I predicted he’d go off at 7-1 or 8-1; his final odds were a bit less, 6.4-1.

Dance With Fate ran exactly the way I expected he would.  He was near the rear early, about a half dozen lengths off the pace.  That pace was set by Pablo Del Monte and stalked early by Bobby’s Kitten, Extrasexyhippzster, Harry’s Holiday, and Coastline.  He started making up ground through the far turn, despite having to go extremely wide; Medal Count was just inside of him, also having made a similarly wide move around the field through the far turn.  Most of the speed contingent faded badly as the stretch approached; the only one still standing as the field came for home was Pablo Del Monte.  Dance With Fate found his next gear passing the eighth pole, though, and pulled past Pablo Del Monte then.  It took a bit longer for Medal Count to do so, but Pablo Del Monte grudgingly gave up second inside the final sixteenth.  Dance With Fate pulled away to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Medal Count, with Pablo Del Monte another 1 3/4 lengths back in third.  Pablo Del Monte still had the rest of the field very well-beaten; he was still over five lengths in front of fourth-place Big Bazinga.

Playing the angle of synthetic horses was a smart way to go in this race.  The top five horses (Dance With Fate, Medal Count, Pablo Del Monte, Big Bazinga, and Coltimus Prime) each had at least one win on synthetic (and, on Polytrack specifically), and at least two starts on synthetic surfaces.  The highest-ranking horse with no synthetic starts was sixth-place Gala Award, whose three previous career starts all came on the Gulfstream turf.  My second- and third-choice horses both had significant synthetic experienced, but managed to underscore the weakness of the Spiral Stakes this year.  Harry’s Holiday and Coastline both got close to the pace early, but faded badly through the far turn.  Harry’s Holiday finished 13th beaten 28 1/4 lengths, ahead of only Vinceremos.  Coastline was 10th, beaten 16 1/2.

Oaklawn

Northern Spur Stakes (three-year-olds, 1 mile on the dirt)

In this race, I had Sheltowee’s Boy as my first choice, and Fabulous Kid as my second.  Since he did not scratch, Sheltowee’s Boy was my contest horse.  I noted that Bourbonize was the class of the field, and may like the cut back in distance, but didn’t think the pace was going to quite set up well for him.  I thought Sheltowee’s Boy would likely stay a little closer to the pace, and have a better chance of picking off Fabulous Kid, Knock Em Flat, or maybe Unstoppable Colby.

It was Sheltowee’s Boy who got too far back early.  It was Bourbonize who didn’t, and Bourbonize who picked the frontrunners off.

The fractions were decent: not blistering, but not crawling either.  Fabulous Kid got up front early, and Knock Em Flat stalked just behind — something the latter had not done with any success in previous races.  (Unstoppable Colby, the other horse I thought had any chance of wanting to be near the early lead, never got near and never contended.)  Fabulous Kid had the lead for most of the way, but just didn’t have enough late to carry the field wire to wire.  He faded a bit down the stretch, and crossed the wire a length behind the winner.  Bourbonize, never further off the pace than about five back, was wide through the turn.  Still, he started making up ground as the field turned down the long Oaklawn stretch, and pulled past Knock Em Flat just as Knock Em Flat was overtaking Fabulous Kid.  He ran a race that was just right for the field, and won by a neck over Knock Em Flat.  Fabulous Kid crossed another 3/4 length back, in third.

Sheltowee’s Boy was too far back late.  He was second to last early, ahead of only the far outclassed Northern Merit, and didn’t start his run until too late.  He gained ground down the stretch, and finished fifth just 2 1/4 lengths behind Bourbonize, but kicked into gear too late to ever threaten the top three finishers.

Oaklawn Handicap (GII, four-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

In this race, I had Golden Lad as my first choice, and Will Take Charge as my second.  These were made before the scratch of Moreno, but Golden Lad looked like an even better possibility to beat the favourite once Moreno scratched since it left him only Right to Vote to dispatch with on the front end.

The pace shook out just as expected early.  Right to Vote set the early fractions, with Golden Lad stalking about a length back.  Carve and Prayer for Relief stalked further back, and Will Take Charge and Revolutionary brought up the rear.  That’s the shape which more or less remained until the far turn.  Will Take Charge made his move around the field coming into the stretch, but went into Golden Lad: he brushed Golden Lad a bit at first, got off him, and then pushed him into Revolutionary as he made his move past.  Despite all the bobbing and weaving, Will Take Charge managed to pull ahead late, and cross the wire 3/4 length ahead of the gaining Revolutionary.  Carve, who had pulled from his stalking place to contend for the lead early in the stretch, didn’t quite have as much left as the top two; he finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Will Take Charge.  There was a stewards’ inquiry into that stretch run, and the riders of both Golden Lad and Revolutionary also lodged claims of foul against Will Take Charge.  After over five minutes of deliberation, however, the stewards allowed the results to stand.

Golden Lad didn’t fade badly, but he was never able to pick up the pace after the bumps from Will Take Charge.  Whether Will Take Charge stopped Golden Lad from being able to improve his placing is a matter that can be debated, but he definitely lost momentum as a result of that bumping down the stretch.  He ended up finishing fifth, 3 1/4 lengths from the winner.

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

In this race, I had Ride On Curlin as my top selection, Conquest Titan as my second, and Commissioner as my third.  Since he raced, Ride On Curlin was my contest horse.  I expected there to be gangbusters early speed, and a winner to come from off the pace.  It turns out, the winner did come from off the pace, though not as far off as I thought.

Unsurprisingly, Bayern and Thundergram shot out to the lead; Bayern was in front, and Thundergram stalked close behind, egging him on.  Danza and Strong Mandate were right behind them early, with the rest farther back.  This is notable, in that after so many of Ride On Curlin’s recent races had been run on or near the pace, Jon Court actually took him back this time to make a late run!  He wasn’t deeply back, only about four lengths, but it was refreshing to see him off the pace.  He got into a decent spot despite having been bumped by Thundergram at the start.  Approaching the turn for home, Bayern and Thundergram veered a little farther from the rail, opening a hole.  Danza and jockey Joe Bravo, who had been hanging out there the entire time, knew a good thing when they saw one; they shot through that hole, and pulled away to a 4 3/4 length victory.  Ride On Curlin, with only space outside, pulled outside of Danza, Bayern, Thundergram, and Tapiture.  He came down the stretch down the centre of the track, and was able to catch everyone but Danza despite covering that added distance.  Bayern held on for third, half a length behind Ride On Curlin.

Conquest Titan tried to make a move coming into the stretch, but it didn’t work out as well as hoped.  Borel got Conquest Titan to the rail and saved ground, and coming into the stretch it looked like he was trying to come through behind Danza.  However, he lacked the late energy to improve his position, and lost ground on the leaders late.  He finished fifth, beaten 10 1/4 lengths.  Commissioner, my third choice, was never much of a factor at all.  He was anxious before the race, never improved from his position near the back of the pack, and only passed the badly tiring Thundergram and Strong Mandate.  He finished sixth, 11 lengths behind Danza.

to Keeneland! to Oaklawn!

This weekend, Danonymous Racing has a contest going on this weekend, covering eight stakes races: five at Keeneland, and three at Oaklawn.  Public Handicapper has four races this week; they all overlap with races in the other contest, however, so my weekend stakes preview this weekend will cover a total of eight races.  This, of course, includes both of the big Derby preps.

Enough with the intro, though.  Let’s talk about the races!

Keeneland

Commonwealth Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, seven furlongs on the synthetic)

There is a lot of early speed in this race, and no one in particular is a lock to get it.  There isn’t a great closer in this field.  However, there are several horses who consistently bring enough speed to the table, can rate from a bit off the pace if necessary, and have shown some ability not only at the seven-furlong distance but also on the synthetic.  Laugh Track (1), the 2-1 morning line favourite, returns to his favoured synthetic surface after three tries on the dirt.  He finished second beaten just a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last fall, though his subsequent two starts on the dirt haven’t matched that success.  All four of his career wins come on the polytrack, and he looms large here.

Among the rest of the field, Undrafted (5) has a good chance to come home at a nice price.  It has been since his three-year-old year since he has raced on the synthetic, but has seen some good success on it in the past.  He broke his maiden at Keeneland in April of his two year old year, in a Wesley Ward special: four and a half furlongs on the poly.  Since then, he also has a third place finish in a stakes at Hollywood Park last year.  This is his second race of his four-year-old season, off the winter layoff, and his sharp works on the Keeneland poly suggest he’s ready to go, and happy to be back on the polytrack.

Shakertown Stakes (GIII, four-year-olds and up, five and a half furlongs on the turf)

The pace scenario is rather interesting here for a short turf dash: normally many of the horses in such a field are take-the-lead-and-run types, but here nobody absolutely needs it.  Marchman likes it, Go Blue Or Go Home likes it, but they can both rate.  I’m curious to see how the pace shakes out here — my guess is that it’ll be those two at the front and others chasing.

As for who’s going to win?  I want to see local favourite Hogy (9) win, but there are a few more likely.  Top on my list is Havelock (6), who probably likes five and a half furlongs over the Keeneland turf more than he likes peppermints.  He’s coming in off his winter layoff, but won this race by a nose off the winter lay last year, as well.  He went across the pond to race at Ascot and Newmarket and didn’t have much success, but shipped back here — and won the Grade III Woodford — at five and a half furlongs on the Keeneland turf — right off the ship.  He’s working well going into this, his speeds hang with this field decently, and he’ll love being back home.  I’m also interested in Gantry (13) here.  A couple factors weigh against him: he is moving up in class from his last few starts, and he drew the 13 post in  at 13-horse field.  However, he is very consistent: he has been first or second in every race since late November of 2012, including a try in graded company.  If he can overcome the post, he’s a great shot to hit the board here.

Madison Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, seven furlongs on the synthetic)

Judy the Beauty is the chalk here, and not a bad choice.  She is second in off the winter lay, and won the Las Flores (GIII) at Santa Anita in her first race back from the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint last year.  She has never missed the board on the synthetic, and is a perfect 3-3-0-0 on the Keeneland main.  She has two nice works at Keeneland since her last race, and is coming into this one ready to go.

That said, I’m looking for some value here, and I’m going to try and beat Judy the Beauty with Eden Prairie (9).  I love Eden Prairie in this spot.  After three really nice runs in stakes-level turf routes at Fair Grounds over the Winter, she returns to seven furlongs on the synthetic – a distance and surface she loved at Arlington and Keeneland last fall.  There is a decent amount of early speed in this race, but she has enough early zip to get close to it early, even from the 9 gate.  Her last workout at Keeneland was a bullet four furlongs in 45.60, over the poly.  Finally, she has had a couple of good runs from double-digit gates recently, including finishing second by just a neck in the Raven Run (GII) at Keeneland last year, at this distance.  If someone’s going to bust the chalk here, it’s going to be Eden Prairie.

Jenny Wiley Stakes (GI, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the turf)

This race was tough to handicap, though it’s going to be a joy to watch.  This is an honest, big, quality Grade I field of turf fillies and mares, and I cannot wait to see them run!  I may be more excited about this race than I am about any of the others today.

Pacewise, much of the field likes to stalk off the lead.  There is really only one horse who has a consistent desire to get right up on that early lead, and that’s Discreet Marq (8).  If she gets on the lead and sets the early fractions, she’s going to be tough to catch.  Even if, somehow, she doesn’t get right on it, she has shown the ability to rate, giving her a backup possibility for doing well here.  This is her four-year-old debut, and her first race back since that short nose defeat by Egg Drop in the Matriarch (GI) past December; that Matriarch was her first attempt against older horses.  She won a Grade II last year off her winter lay, so expect her to come in fresh and ready to go.  She’s my top pick here.

Other horses I’m interested in here are Centre Court (10) and Fitful Skies (6).  Centre Court, last year’s winner by two lengths, is coming off a nose win over Kitten’s Point in the Honey Fox last month.  Julian Leparoux, who rode her in that last win as well as her streak of three graded wins over last winter and spring, rides her here.  If the early fractions are fast, she could very well get her head up there from mid-pack late to take the race.  Fitful Skies races here in only her second North American start, and her first start at all since finishing second by a head in the GI E. P. Taylor Stakes at 1 1/4 miles over the Woodbine turf.  She is working really nicely over the Palm Meadows turf coming into this, and she is a consistent 10-4-5-0 lifetime over the turf — the only off-board finish being a fourth place finish, beaten just 1 3/4 lengths, at 1 15/16 miles against males.  This distance is shorter than she normally runs, but it’s a good spot for her to come in off the lay, and she is game.

Blue Grass Stakes (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the synthetic)

A ragtag bunch of fourteen last-ditch Derby hopefuls will head postward today in the Blue Grass, trying one last time to get into the starting gate at Churchill in May.  The field is a mix of turf horse, synthetic horses, and the occasional dirt horses who just haven’t been able to get it together for points, but for whom this looked a more favourable spot than Arkansas (I’m looking at you guys, Extrasexyhippzster and Casiguapo).  Bobby’s Kitten (5) is the morning line favourite, but the fact remains that he has never run a race on the synthetic, and never raced past a mile.  His speed figures are good, his breeding suggests he can stretch out, and if I were to bet exotics, I’d probably use him.  However, I’m not going to get the price on Bobby’s Kitten that I want for this contest as just a single horse, and there are some quality chances to beat him.

Dance With Fate (8) is my top selection.  He has shown versatility in style, having run very nice races from early speed, stalking, or closing positions.  There will be a lot of early speed in this race, so I’m expecting to see him rate from somewhere off of it here.  His last out, in the El Camino Real Derby (GIII), he stalked the pace, pulled ahead going into the stretch, and just got nipped by Cal-bred synthetic monster Tamarando late.  That El Camino Real was at 1 1/8 miles — the same distance as this race.  That may have been Tapeta, but he also broke his maiden over the Del Mar polytrack, so has had experience with this as well.  The biggest question I have with Dance With Fate is the ship from California, but if he handles that well, he’ll be tough.  Harry’s Holiday (4) also interests me a lot here.  He’s a local horse, who saw success through the winter on the Turfway polytrack.  He won the 96ROCK Stakes by a widening eight lengths in February, regressed a bit in the Battaglia, and then last out finished a hard-fighting second in the Spiral (GIII), where We Miss Artie just nosed him out.  The Spiral, just like the Blue Grass, was at 1 1/8 miles on the poly.  He is going to try to get near the front early, and the Spiral suggests that he has the zip to get near there, and the stamina to stay.

Finally, if my picks fail miserably, I’m hoping it is because Coltimus Prime (6) freaks and wins this race.  He’s a long shot for a reason, but he will relish the return to the synthetic, and nothing would make me happier than to see him channel a repeat of his hard-fighting effort in the Display Stakes.  I doubt this is likely, especially since he was reportedly very nervous while schooling earlier this week, but I am still a fan of this horse.

Oaklawn

Northern Spur Stakes (three-year-olds, 1 mile on the dirt)

Bourbonize (2) is the class of this field, but there’s just not enough early speed to suggest that the pace is going to set up for a horse who has been coming from as far back as Bourbonize has been in his last few starts.  He has won at this distance before, and may not drop quite so far back, but I’m interested in a horse who’s going to be at least somewhat closer to the pace.

I like Sheltowee’s Boy (6) quite a bit here.  He drops back in class after a fifth-place finish in the Rebel, where he was no match for the top four (Hoppertunity, Tapiture, Ride On Curlin, and Strong Mandate), but got in ahead of the rest.  He has run multiple race shapes — he dropped far back early in his allowance win, though made up ground relatively early, whereas in his maiden win he was up near the lead early to pull away.  He is coming off a sharp five-furlong work, and cutting back to the one-mile distance of his allowance win.  This is a suitable race for Sheltowee’s Boy, and he has a good chance here.  This race also has a few wild cards who are coming in off their maiden wins, and among them there is none more interesting than Fabulous Kid (8).  He broke his maiden in a six-furlong MSW March 29 at Oaklawn, at first asking.  He got on the lead fast and held on wire-to-wire, and then has posted a bullet five-furlong work at Oaklawn since that race.  He stretches from six furlongs to a mile here, but being by Congrats out of a Lemon Drop Kid mare suggests that two more furlongs shouldn’t be an issue.

Oaklawn Handicap (GII, four-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

Here Will Take Charge (2) returns for the third race of his four-year-old year, though it feels more like it’s another race in one very long campaign, as his winter lay was only about two months (between the Clark and the Donn).  He faces a softer field here than he did in his last few times out, which suggests he may be able to break through for his first win of the year.  He also cuts back in distance here compared to the Big Cap, back to the 1 1/8 miles of the Clark and the Donn.

The drawback to Will Take Charge here is, of course, the price — he’s 1-1 on the morning line, and likely to be bet down even further than that come post time.  A horse with a great chance to beat him at a good price is Golden Lad (6), who won the Razorback Handicap (GIII) in huge fashion last month.  He should be stalking just off the early lead (likely to be set by Moreno and Right To Vote), and has shown enough improvement coming into his four-year-old season that suggests he can stay up with them.  He has never won at 1 1/8 miles before, though he attempted the distance in an AOC at Saratoga last summer, and only got beaten a neck.  He is one consistent horse: he has never finished worse than second since last July, and the most he was beaten by for second has been a length.  He goes up in class here, but he shows up every time he runs, and is my top choice here.

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

Here we have a relatively small field for a late Derby prep, but it’s a good field.  Eight horses will run, as Knock Em Flat is scratching out to run in the Northern Spur instead.  There should be plenty of early pace, with Thundergram (5) and Bayern (8) shooting out to the early lead, and Tapiture (3), Strong Mandate (9), and potentially Ride On Curlin (4) stalking behind.  Those are a lot of quality horses, and I’m interested to see what Bayern does in his first crack at stakes company, but I’m looking off the pace to some horses who have a bit of stakes experience under their bridles.

I say potentially Ride On Curlin, as I am still hoping to see him make one big run, like he did in the Champagne.  I have said this every time, and am beginning to sound like a broken record.  However, I think that’s his better style.  That said, after his run in the Rebel, I’m a little less nervous about seeing him on or near the early speed.  He pressed hard down the stretch there, and fought gamely to hold third after being right near the lead throughout.  He showed stamina and grit.  He has also come back with some good, long works over the track since the Rebel.  He is my top choice here, given his familiarity with the track, and his consistent ability to contend with the Arkansas Derby Prep crowd all spring.

Conquest Titan (7) is another good choice here, because of all the early pace.  It’s clear what we’re going to get from him: a closing run.  Casse even has a rabbit in the field, Thundergram, to help ensure this is the case.  The outside post will help him a lot here, and assuming he handles the Oaklawn track well and fires sharply, there’s no reason Conquest Titan shouldn’t at least be able to punch his ticket to Kentucky here, if not win the whole thing.

Dudes Challenge: by a nose!

Last Sunday, I was one of the two challengers in the Dudes Challenge, a weekly handicapping contest on racingdudes.com.  Three of us handicapped ten races each, putting hypothetical $2 win-place bets on one pick in nine of the races, and designating one as a “best bet” with a $4 win-place bet.  Whoever ended the day with the biggest total won, and moved on to face two new challengers the following week.

Going into the last race, I trailed Dude #1 (the defending champion) by $7.60.  I felt pretty good about my pick going into that race: it was the Thunder Road, and I had Tom’s Tribute.  I had been following Tom’s Tribute for a while, since he had popped up in a couple of the Public Handicapper contests over the last few months, and figured he was a serious turf miler facing somewhat easier company (read: not Winning Prize).  He was far back early, almost a dozen lengths off the lead halfway through the race.  I usually try to stay calm when I’m watching races on simulcast, but I just couldn’t help it: I was freaking out, and subjecting a roomful of people to my ranting.  I knew the entire contest hinged on Tom’s Tribute winning, and I was familiar enough with his style to know that being a dozen back wasn’t normal.  The woman I was standing next to told me not to worry, he’d be a closer today, right?

I wasn’t convinced, but then he started making up a bit of ground approaching the far turn.  Going through, he positively gobbled up ground.  Was she right?  Was Tom’s Tribute going to be a closer today?

He came out of the turn in third position, far enough outside that there were no horses directly in front of him: just green, green running space.  He kept going, pulled away from the rest in the last sixteenth, and won by a widening 2 1/4 lengths.  Tom’s Tribute won in a time that equaled Wise Dan’s track record from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile.  I screamed with elation — despite my usual taciturn tendencies when I’m watching racing on simulcast, I couldn’t control myself!  Tom’s Tribute had won, and I had locked up the Dudes Challenge in the last race, right?

In my nerves, in my excitement, I had been focusing like a laser on Tom’s Tribute.  I had hardly given a thought to Joelito: the choice of both of my adversaries.  They showed the photo for place, and my excitement faded back into pure nerves.  There was the #8, with his nose in front.  The #8 was Joelito.  Tom’s Tribute had gone off at exactly 3-1, the second choice behind Peace and Justice, and I was now at the mercy of whether the win and place payouts would overcome my deficit plus the place payout on Joelito.

Payouts came up, and I missed the win by a nose.  Literally.

Joelito nosed out Bright Thought for second in the Thunder Road, and Dude #1 nosed me out by a whopping eighty cents in the contest.

Despite coming up short, I had a great time playing the contest, and I want to thank the Dudes again for giving me a shot.  It was a blast to handicap a couple of tracks that I don’t normally follow closely, match my wits against a couple of people who have been around horse racing far longer than I have, and not end the day on the duck.

As for my picks?  A lot of them did pretty well.  The most frustrating thing was the rampant success that my second choices had.  It, of course, spoke well of my handicapping skills that I identified these highly performing horses as ones I’d be good about throwing in my lot with, but frustrating from a contest perspective that just running with all of my second choices instead of my firsts would have netted me more wins, and would have led me to an easy win instead of a close loss.  That said, let’s take a breakneck tour through the contest races.

Keeneland

Race 5: Maiden special weight ($56,000), three-year-olds, 1 mile on the turf

In this race, Wing Foot (2) was my primary selection, and Turf Kitten (11) was my alternate.  Since he raced, Wing Foot was my contest horse.  I noted while handicapping that Majestic Sunset (13), the Mark Casse trainee on the also-eligible list, was a good candidate if he got off the list.  Sunday morning he did draw into the race, and I briefly considered asking if I could swap, but figured that wouldn’t exactly be fair: if I wanted him that badly, I should have overlooked the fact that he was on the AE, put Wing Foot as my secondary, and ridden that wave.  It turned out that was exactly what I should have done.

Longshot My Afleet (1), a horse who was nowhere near my radar due to his slow figures, lack of turf experience, and move up in class, managed to leverage his lone speed to wire the field.  He set honest but not blistering fractions, and even though a few horses cut into that closer to the wire, he had enough to come home first half a length in front of his closest challenger.  Who got in for the place?  Majestic Sunset, Casse’s also-eligible.  He made a strong move out of the far turn and into the stretch, and just ran out of room to catch My Afleet.

Wing Foot, my top selection, had a decent stalking spot early, a length or two off the pace.  However, he stopped up sharply approaching the far turn, and dropped out quickly.  It wasn’t clear from watching what happened, and he finished the race 9th beaten 9 1/2 lengths, which implies that it was nothing injurious.  Still, it was disappointing, given that he looked like a contender — and then abruptly not.  My second selection, Turf Kitten, was never a factor.  He was several lengths back early, couldn’t keep up approaching the far turn, and steadily lost ground.  He finished eleventh in the twelve-horse field, 11 3/4 lengths behind My Afleet.

Race 8: Allowance ($60,000), three-year-olds, fillies, non-winners of one race other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf

In this race, I had Minorette (2) as my first choice, and Party Now (12) as my second.  Since she raced, Minorette was my contest horse.  Furthermore, I had identified her as my best bet, hoping to get at least something close to her 6-1 morning line.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen; Minorette was bet down to 2.1-1 by post time, the shortest odds among the eleven who headed postward.  Also unfortunately, this was another race that could be tossed into the Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda pile: Minorette was third, as good as off the board for contest purposes, whereas Party Now fared a bit better at better odds.

A Little Bit Sassy set the early fractions, with Party Now stalking close behind throughout.  This was exactly where I expected Party Now to be.  Minorette was further off the lead that I anticipated; she was a handful back early, and close to ten back into the far turn.  Minorette finally did fire into the stretch, but it was too little too late.  She made a wide move and started gaining ground on the leaders, but it was too little too late.  My best bet came up just short.  Minorette crossed the wire in third, three lengths from the winner — and just a length behind A Little Bit Sassy, who had been overtaken down the stretch by Party Now.  I figured Party Now could possibly get up near the lead and stay for a mile; she did, and she inched away late to beat A Little Bit Sassy by two lengths.

Race 9: $10,000 claiming, four-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the synthetic

In this race, I had Bergman (8) as my first choice, and Eye of the Eagle (9) as my second choice.  Since he raced, Bergman was my contest horse.  I was torn for a while on how I would order these horses, and had originally written down Eye of the Eagle as my top selection due to his strength on the synthetic.  I finally decided to default to the class angle: Bergman was on the drop, and Eye of the Eagle was on a jump.  Turns out, I should have stuck with the surface angle.

I had expected Eye of the Eagle to get the early lead, especially since Tahoe Warrior scratched.  Instead, it was Case Clocker who set the early fractions, with Kitty’s Turn not too far behind.  Eye of the Eagle was a handful of lengths back, and Bergman about half a dozen back early.  That positioning wasn’t surprising for Bergman; he generally tends to hang midpack early.  Both Eye of the Eagle and Bergman did fire and gain ground late; Eye of the Eagle just fired better.  Eye of the Eagle made up ground through the far turn, squeezed clear, and soldiered on to beat Fish (7) by 3/4 length.  Bergman got within about three lengths, but couldn’t sustain his drive; he finished fourth beaten 2 3/4.  It seemed that this is a bit better class level for him than before, and may improve next time out (since this race was his first since December), but he just didn’t have enough.  Score another for my second choice.

Pimlico:

Race 7: Allowance ($42,000), three-year-olds and up, non-winners of a race other than maiden, claiming, starter, or waiver claiming OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf

In this race, I had Best Bard (11) as my first choice, and Clean House (10) as my second choice.  Since he raced, Best Bard was my contest horse.  Arrive (2), the morning line favourite as well as the post-time favourite, was the chalk I was trying to beat here.  Even though Arrive was working well, he was coming off a layoff of almost a year, which made me want to look elsewhere if I found someone with a good chance, since I couldn’t tell if he was clearly going to come back the same horse or not. Hence, I went for Best Bard, who showed enough speed and aptitude at the distance that he could run well.

It turned out, Arrive did come back the same horse, and he won easily.  Arrive and Best Bard actually ran pretty similar race shapes early: they hung about half a dozen back while The Snickers Kid and Asalor bolted out head-and-head early.  As the early pacesetters faded, they both made their moves; Best Bard even managed to get the lead in the far turn.  However, Arrive fired harder, passed by Best Bard coming into the stretch, and pulled away to win by 6 1/2 lengths.  Despite being so beaten by Arrive, however, Best Bard still managed to contribute to my contest total: he finished a perfectly strong second-best, almost eight lengths clear of third-place Sparkling Jewel.  Clean House, my alternate selection, did not have a good day.  He was a distant last early, came wide through the turn, and finished a well-beaten fifth only on account of passing several tired horses late.

Oaklawn:

Race 5: $25,000 maiden claiming, three-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the dirt

In this race, I had Bristol Rover (8) as my primary selection, and Hey Bud (10) as my secondary.  Since he raced, Bristol Rover was my contest horse.  Bristol Rover was staying at a constant level from his previous start.  Hey Bud was dropping in from running a maiden special last time out, but it wasn’t his first time dropping into claiming company.  He had raced at this price level at Tampa, finished second, and then gone up to maiden special (also at Tampa) for three races before dropping back for the tag here.  Given the previous start in maiden claiming company, I discounted the re-drop; maybe I shouldn’t have, especially given that he was only beaten two in one of this maiden special attempts.

Saturday Sensation (6) set the early fractions.  Hey Bud stalked a length or two off most of the way; Bristol Rover spent much of the time five or six back.  They both made wide moves through the far turn, with Bristol Rover coming in a path wider than Hey Bud.  Saturday Sensation tried to hold on, but coming down the stretch Hey Bud got up to him, and got away to win by 1 1/4 lengths.  Bristol Rover couldn’t get all the way up to Hey Bud, but came in heads apart with Silver Sensation; it was a photo for second.  Fortunately, that photo shook out my way, and Bristol Rover scored the place: and a few more dollars for my score.  Of course, it was not quite as much as it would have been if I had chosen Hey Bud as my primary, but it was still not too shabby to see my top selections go 1-2, at least in some order.

Race 6: Optional claiming ($20,000)/Starter allowance ($10,000), four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, started for a claiming price of $10,000 or less in 2013-14 OR claiming price $20,000, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt

In this race, I had Majestic Shoes (1) as my first selection, and Perfect Tap (7) as my second.  Majestic Shoes may as well have been the standard bearer for the chalk brigade, both on the morning line and in the final odds, but she had consistently good speed for the field and could rate from off the pace.

Little did I know just how far off the pace that Majestic Shoes could succeed from!  I didn’t think this race would have a lot of early speed, and thought she would probably get near the pace early and wire the field, or at least come close to that.  Instead, Stand Up Rita set relatively slow early fractions, with Perfect Tap just off her.  Majestic Shoes was back early — a dozen lengths back.  That did not faze her one bit, though:  she steadily gained on the front.  By the time the field turned for home, Stand Up Rita had faded out of the picture, and all Majestic Shoes had to do was pick off Perfect Tap, and have more in the tank than Moneyatlast, Cebu, and Fog Happens, who were all coming from off the pace and all trying to gain on Perfect Tap as well.  Majestic Shoes had more left than anyone despite running a race that didn’t resemble what she was accustomed to; she pushed along and crossed the wire 3/4 length ahead of Moneyatlast.  Perfect Tap, leading farther up the stretch, didn’t have quite enough to repel the onslaught.  She drifted off and faded, finishing two lengths back in fifth.

Race 8: Carousel Stakes, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, six furlongs on the dirt

In this race, I had Itsallinthefamily (7) as my first choice, and Aireofdistinction (6) as my second choice.  Since she raced, Itsallinthefamily was my contest pick.  There was a third horse in the field who I considered pretty heavily as one of my picks: Speedinthruthecity (3), who was on a class rise from her last race, but had plenty of back class, had never missed the board, and was second off the lay.  However, since she had run so well first off the lay (as in, well enough to be possibly better than any of the starts she made before that eight-month lay), I chalked her up to a bounce risk and stuck with my two picks.

It turns out, Speedinthruthecity didn’t bounce; she just returned off the lay a better racehorse, and showed in her first attempt on the slop that she was made for it.  She hung four or five back early, but started making up ground very well coming into the far turn.  She made a wide move around the field, assumed the lead coming into the stretch, and pulled away to win by 3.  Itsallinthefamily, my top selection, was close to the lead early, and even got her head in front as initial pacesetter Livi Mackenzie faded, but only had enough down the stretch to hold the show.  She finished 4 3/4 lengths behind Speedinthruthecity, and 1 3/4 behind second-place Ms Anna Destiny, a horse on a bit of a class rise here who did come into the Carousel off a bullet four furlong work.  Aireofdistinction, my second choice, didn’t handle the slop as well as some.  She was just off the lead early, and tried to make her move at about the same time as Itsallinthefamily made hers.  However, she didn’t have nearly enough coming down the stretch, and faded to fifth beaten 6 1/4 lengths.

Santa Anita:

Race 6: Allowance optional claiming ($80,000), four-year-olds and up, non-winners of $10,000 other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L OR claiming price $80,000, 1 1/8 miles on the turf

In this race, I had Deep Play as my first choice, and Big Cazanova as my second.  Deep Play didn’t scratch, and was my contest horse here.  I really liked him in this spot, given the nice work he was coming off of, as well as the cutback in distance.  Since his odds at post time had improved — from 6-1 morning line up to 10-1 about a minute before post (though the late money pulled him down to 7.6-1 by the time the gates sprung open), I even put two bucks on his nose: the only one of my contest picks onto which I staked real money.

At first, things looked good for Deep Play.  Maxx the Giant (2) set the early fractions, but Deep Play got a nice stalking spot, about two lengths back right along the rail.  This looked like a pretty good spot, especially since Maxx The Giant was a speed-favouring horse who tended to fade out late.  Deep Play held it into and about the entire length of the backstretch, but abruptly dropped out of the race as the field entered the far turn.  I couldn’t discern what happened watching the race, nor can I isolate the reason after watching the replay.  All I know is, one moment Deep Play was about a length off the pace in fourth, and the next moment he had dropped back to last.  It was that fast.  He did finish, but lugged home 9th and last, beaten 17 lengths.  I just hope he is okay.

My other choice, Big Cazanova, fared better.  He stalked a length or two back for much of the race, and was the only one anywhere near the pace who hit the board.  He lost some ground late, but held on for third: 2 3/4 lengths behind the strong-closing Jules Journey, and a length and a half behind the second-place Presenceofagenius.  I was correct to think that he was a good bet to hit the board if he was anywhere near the lead early, though the first-time Lasix didn’t have quite the effect I thought it might.  He may be a classy maiden, but he is still a maiden, and I’m wondering if this five-year-old will ever find the will to win.

Race 7: $25,000 claiming, three-year-olds and up, N2L, 7 furlongs on the dirt

In this race, I had Red Tesla (2) as my top selection, and Tenkiller Kid (10) as my alternate.  Since he raced, Red Tesla was my contest horse.  Even though he was coming in off a long lay (about eleven months), but won his maiden race off a year’s lay, so had shown he could come in fresh from time off.

Red Tesla stalked a couple of lengths off early, which fit right in with what I expected to see.  However, down the backstretch, I went from hoping he would gain on the leader to hoping he would end the day alive.  He took a bad step, pulled up, and had to be vanned off the course.  There was no reliable information available online until Tuesday, when the Santa Anita Publicity Twitter feed posted that he was back at the barn, and either had undergone or was about to undergo surgery for the injury.  There’s nothing further from them at the moment, and nothing further from any other sources I can find.  At this point, I just hope he comes out of the surgery okay — and honestly, after this result off an eleven-month lay, I hope he never sets hoof on a racetrack again.

As for the race, Congregationalist (9) got in front early, set some honest fractions, and stayed a length or two in front of his pursuers at all times.  He crossed the wire a length and a half of Pass the Pico (11), who stalked him the entire race but was never to sustain any real dent in that distance.  Pass the Pico was a very clear second best, though; he crossed the wire 8 1/4 lengths ahead of Northern Force, who broke a bit slowly, saved some ground, and managed to get up to the front of the pack chasing the two leaders.  Tenkiller Kid, my second selection, never made a huge run, but didn’t particularly fade, either.  He was near the back of the pack early, but passed a lot of tiring horses late, and came within less than a length of catching the third-place Northern Force.  He checked in fourth, 10 1/2 lengths behind Congregationalist.

Race 8: Thunder Road Stakes, four-year-olds and up, 1 mile on the turf

In this race, Tom’s Tribute (6) was my first selection, and Peace and Justice (1) was my second.  I did a pretty thorough discussion of Tom’s Tribute’s strong trip already, earlier in this post.  His closing run was a surprise, but it’s clear from his success (not to mention his track-record time!) that he has talent as a closer.  Peace and Justice, my second choice, went off as the 1.3-1 post-time favourite, but didn’t quite live up to that expectation.  He did set the early fractions, dueled with Bright Thought coming out of the far turn and into the stretch,  but faded back to 5th late, 3 3/4 lengths behind Tom’s Tribute.  It wasn’t a debacle by any stretch of the imagination, but he just didn’t hold up quite as well as hoped-for on this ascension in class.

Wood Day stakes recap: or, how i was wicked wrong about Wicked Strong

There was quite a bit I got right about the stakes races I picked for Public Handicapper yesterday…and I wasn’t left completely on the duck for the week despite the win-only format, since my pick California Chrome performed exactly like one would hope a 3-5 shot in a Grade I would.  Let’s hop in and look back at those stakes races from yesterday:

Aqueduct

Bay Shore Stakes (GIII, three-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt)

In this race, I had Financial Mogul (3) as my first choice, Kobe’s Back (8) as my second, and and Coup de Grace (4) as my third choice.  As he raced, Financial Mogul was my contest horse.

Financial Mogul was also the only horse among my picks not to hit the board.  He didn’t have the greatest of starts — though that in itself appears a flimsy excuse, given that it was Coup de Grace (the winner) with whom he bumped.  Speaking of starts, Kobe’s Back was out of the gate very slowly, and came out even behind Financial Mogul and Kobe’s Back.  Favorite Tale and Loki’s Vengeance, two of the horses who appears as likely early speed coming in, took that role when the pace settled in; Oliver Zip and The Admiral stalked close behind.  Coming into the stretch, though, about four lengths covered the entire field.  About two lengths back was as close as Financial Mogul got, though; unlike much of the field, he didn’t have much more through the stretch, and finished only ahead of the head-and-head early leaders.

Coup de Grace was near the back early, a deviation from his previous style of running near the early speed.  This ended up working out nicely; he proved his ability to rate and fight.  Despite the bump at the start, despite being five wide through the far turn, he got up to challenge the leaders, and by the sixteenth pole he was bobbing head with Oliver Zip and The Admiral.  He just didn’t quit, and got his nose in front at the wire after a fantastic stretch run.  Oliver Zip held up best among the frontrunning brigade – I liked him to hit the board here, and he showed even more than I expected to see while finishing just that nose behind Coup de Grace.  Kobe’s Back, who was a good ten lengths back early, came on like a freight train on the outside, and checked in only half a length behind the winner.  After the start he had, that was a huge rebound.

Wood Memorial Stakes (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)

In this race, Samraat (8) was my first choice, Uncle Sigh (10) was my second, and Schivarelli (7) was my third choice.  Since he raced, Samraat (8) was my contest horse.

Schivarelli and Social Inclusion got up for the lead.  I was a bit nervous to see Social Inclusion get up there — I thought there was no chance he’s get the lead in that race, both between the gate and the relatively slow pace figures he had in the past.  As much as I wanted to stand against him, he did show more in this race than I expected to see.  Noble Moon, Kristo, and Samraat got in behind them; among those three, Samraat was the only one who really stayed in the hunt.  He made up some ground on the leaders; as Schivarelli faded a little down the stretch, Samraat pulled even with Social Inclusion, and nosed him out for the place.

However, that was the fight for the place.  I completely underestimated Wicked Strong; there’s no two ways about it.  He looked a cut below on paper.  He didn’t look absolutely rotten, as he had a pretty sharp recent work at Belmont, and his only previous attempt at the distance was his 1/2 length third behind Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the Remsen.  However, he had flopped in his Derby preps since, and his speed figures had been terrible compared to the field.  None of that mattered: he fired big time.  After having settled a handful of lengths back early, Wicked Strong just gobbled up ground despite being wide on the far turn, and won this race going away.  We finally have at least one closer in the Derby gate.  That’s not to say he’s my Derby horse, or that I even believe he’s going to fire in the Derby, but it’s nice to know that it won’t be twenty speedballs.

Keeneland

Ashland Stakes (GI, three-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles on the synthetic)

In this race, I had Testa Rossi (6) as my first selection, Rosalind (8) as my second, and Room Service (2) as my third.  Since she raced, Testa Rossi was my contest horse.

Testa Rossi was a risk because she had never run on synthetic before; I was willing to take the chalk on her, though, given how well she had run on turf and the class of her opponents, especially her juvenile year.  Testa Rossi was also the only one of my chosen horses who scored me absolutely nothing on a win bet.

Istanford and Resistivity got up to the lead early, with Macaroon just behind.  Resistivity surprised me a bit with her ability to get up there as fast as she did, given her outside post.  Istanford, however, was no surprise up there at all.  All three of my selections dropped back: Testa Rossi about ten back, and both Rosalind and Room Service more like a dozen.  Testa Rossi may not have wanted to be quite as far back, as On The Backstreets bore out into her going into the clubhouse turn, but even with that she wasn’t settled back farther than she has been before.  All three have shown closing prowess in the past; seeing them back early with the speedballs up there was exactly what I expected, and was hoping to see.

Testa Rossi and Rosalind both made their moves going into the far turn.  Testa Rossi was along the rail, and improved a few lengths, but stalled out.  She made it as far up as fourth, and that’s where she held down the relatively short Keeneland stretch.  Rosalind hauled up from far back, swung wide through the far turn, and took command coming into the stretch.  By then, Room Service was making her move as well — charging from dead last on the backstretch to get within a length of the lead once the field was heading for home.  Rosalind and Room Service started to pull away from the field.  Ever so briefly, it became unclear whether Room Service was going to sustain her run or end up having to settle for second, but she found more just in time.  She caught up on even terms with Rosalind — watching the horses cross the wire I could have sworn Room Service had nabbed Rosalind, but the photo told the tale: dead heat.  These two were much the best:  Thank You Marylou got up from mid-pack for third (seven lengths behind the winners), and Testa Rossi hung on for fourth.

Santa Anita

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

In this race, California Chrome was my first choice, Candy Boy my second, and Hoppertunity third.  Since he raced, California Chrome was my contest pick.  I am looking forward to seeing how he fares elsewhere, but we do know one thing about California Chrome: he owns the top three-year-old route races at Santa Anita, simple as that.

Dublin Up set the early fractions, with California Chrome just behind and then Candy Boy stalking three wide and just behind.  California Chrome had repeatedly shown the ability to rate from just off, so this spot behind Dublin Up was perfect.  Candy Boy, on the other hand, was a bit closer in than expected, to start.  Hoppertunity, who I expected to be the one close up near where Candy Boy raced, was instead a couple lengths back early, in the tight little pack that contained the rest of the field.

Coming into the far turn, Dublin Up lost ground as the horses made their moves, or at least attempted to.  California Chrome kicked into gear best of all, and opened up daylight between him and the rest of the field like it was nothing.  I’m almost surprised Trevor Denman didn’t trot out his old “they would need to sprout wings” line, as he did in the California Cup Derby, it was so decisive.  He checked in 5 1/4 lengths in front of the second place Hoppertunity, who gained enough ground late to claim a clear second ahead of both Candy Boy and the tiring Dublin Up.  Candy Boy never really improved his position; he didn’t fade massively, but was never able to mount a serious challenge to California Chrome or even Hoppertunity.  He stayed in for third.

The big question with Candy Boy was whether he would be able to come into this race fresh and ready to run; judging from his performance, there is a decent chance he could have used another race.  The Kentucky Derby is now a questionable proposition for Candy Boy.  He now sits at 30 points: sixteenth on the leaderboard with the Arkansas Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Lexington Stakes to go.  He has to hope for some repeat winners in these races.

Racing Dudes Challenge!

This week, I’m one of the challengers on the weekly Racing Dudes Challenge!  The mission, if I chose to accept it, was to handicap ten races against the defending champion (Aaron Halterman, otherwise known as Dude #1) and a challenger (Brady Wayne Lukas).  Of course, I accept that mission!

The Dudes selected ten races, and each contestant gets one horse on which a hypothetical $2 win-place wager is placed.  We each had to select one race as our best best of the day, for which we put a $4 win-place wager instead.  The ten races go, and when all the dust settles, the one with the most (funny) money left in our bankroll is declared the winner, and rolls on to face two new challengers next week!

Here are my picks for each of the races, as well as the alternates I selected in case any of my top selections scratches out:

Keeneland

Race 5: Maiden special weight ($56,000), three-year-olds, 1 mile on the turf

Primary Selection – Wing Foot (2):  Wing Foot is a first-time starter, but all signs point to him being ready to go.  He comes from the barn of Graham Motion, who has a strong track record with first-time starters.  He has been working out consistently all year on the synthetic, so he should be fit to run, Between that and the turf success in his pedigree, transition to turf shouldn’t be particularly hard.

Alternate Selection – Turf Kitten (11):  Turf Kitten makes his third career start here.  He has started twice in turf miles down at the Fair Grounds, finishing second both times.  This is a bit tougher field than he has been facing at the Fair Grounds, but his two starts have been strong, and he races with the strong team of jockey Rosie Napravnik and trainer Mike Maker behind him.  He’ll be chalk, but he’s a strong candidate.

Race 8: Allowance ($60,000), three-year-olds, fillies, non-winners of one race other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf

Primary Selection – best bet of the day – Minorette (10): Minorette makes her three-year-old debut in this allowance in her first race, after a trio of stakes runs at the Curragh in Ireland.  She was in a bit over her head in her Group efforts, but finished a gritty third from an outside post in a stakes race at this distance.  Her works over the Palm Meadows turf have been consistent and fast, so she looks ready to race off the ship and the lay.  Her trainer, Chad Brown, sends out horses who shipped across the pond ready to go.  Finally, she adds Lasix for the first time.  All this adds up to someone who stands out in the field enough to be my best bet of the day.

Alternate Selection – Party Now (12):  Party Now comes in for her first race since getting nipped half a length by Ready To Act in the Sweetest Chant, at this distance on the Gulfstream turf.  She has been working well lately; the works are on the dirt, but she has published dirt works before her races before, so that doesn’t appear to be an issue.  Her speed figures are decent for this field, and with her maiden win being at half a furlong longer than this one, there’s a good shot she can get on or near the lead and stay for a mile.

Race 9: $10,000 claiming, four-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the synthetic

Primary Selection – Bergman (8):  Bergman comes in off a drop from $17,500 claimer and starter allowance company over the winter, and $20,000 and $25,000 claimers out west in the fall.  His last two races were not particularly good, but he should relish a return to the poly — a surface on which he has not ran since a couple of decent efforts against tougher at Del Mar in the summer.  He has been working very well in the Fair Grounds dirt, and has consistently hit the board (15-1-6-4) on synthetic surfaces.

Alternate Selection – Eye of the Eagle (9):  Eye of the Eagle is on a bit of a class rise from has last two starts, but should be glad to return to Keeneland.  This horse shows a definite preference for the synthetic, having gone 33-10-3-3 on it over his career — and he is 4-1-1-1 on the Keeneland poly.  He has been jumping from barn to barn a bit, having been claimed out of his last two races at the $5,000 level.  However, given that his only credible threat for the early speed would be Tahoe Warrior, a horse who races terribly off of layoffs, he has a great chance to get the early lead and come out well here.

Pimlico:

Race 7: Allowance ($42,000), three-year-olds and up, non-winners of a race other than maiden, claiming, starter, or waiver claiming OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf

Primary Selection: Best Bard (11):  Best Bard comes in here second off the winter layoff.  He was flat in his first start off the winter lay, but he was running on the Laurel dirt at this level — not his preferred surface.  He has never done a turf mile before, but has run well on turf at a mile and a sixteenth, including a wire-to-wire victory on the Woodbine turf last fall.   He drew an outside post, but has shown the ability to win from outside posts before, and his speed figures stack decently enough with this bunch that he should be able to place himself forwardly.

Alternate Selection: Clean House (10):  Clean House is on a class jump from the claiming ranks, but it seems like a good time to try that move.  He has won his last two times out, at the Fair Grounds, both times in turf miles.  He was claimed out of that last race, and his new connections shipped him up to Maryland and paired him with the red-hot Trevor McCarthy.  There isn’t a ton of fiery early speed here, but if he stays in more of a midpack position early than deep close (something he’s shown he can do), he should have plenty of speed late to contend.

Oaklawn:

Race 5: $25,000 maiden claiming, three-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the dirt

Primary Selection – Bristol Rover (8):  Bristol Rover comes in second off a layoff, and first time in for the barn that claimed him for $20,000 last month.  Last time out, he broke poorly; he should be more of a factor in this race if he breaks well.  He is running for a good-percentage barn, and a barn that does well with horses second off the lay.

Alternate Selection – Hey Bud (10):

Race 6: Optional claiming ($20,000)/Starter allowance ($10,000), four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, started for a claiming price of $10,000 or less in 2013-14 OR claiming price $20,000, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt

Primary Selection – Majestic Shoes (1):  This filly moves slightly up in class from her last two starts, which were both at the OC16K/SAL7K level.  However, she ran well in both of those starts, and has consistently put up speed figures that compare well with the crowd in this race.  She can go right near the lead or rate from a bit farther back; look to her to take the lead early this race given her inside post and the lack of early speed in this race.  She could very well wire this bunch.

Alternate Selection – Perfect Tap (7):  Perfect Tap moves up from $5,000 claiming company, in the first start for the Asmussen barn, who clamed her last out.  Even though his barn hasn’t been doing well lately, this horse’s skill and class should be enough for a good run here.  She is another who will benefit from the lack of early speed in this race, and consistently runs fast enough to do well in this company.  She is stretching out from her last few starts, but that’s probably a good thing: Perfect Tap is 6-2-2-1 at this distance.

Race 8: Carousel Stakes, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, six furlongs on the dirt

Primary Selection – Itsallinthefamily (7): Aireofdistinction is coming into this race on four straight wins, but she’s going to be utter chalk as a result, and also a bit of a bounce risk.  Itsallinthefamily looks like a good bet to eabeat her at a good price.  She’s on a class rise here, but so is most of the field.  She’s coming off a sharp win in allowance company, where she made a wide move through the far turn and gained big down the stretch.  She has run well from both on and off the pace, and this versatility should help her here given the small field and mix of preferred styles in the race.

Alternate Selection – Aireofdistinction (6):  Aireofdistinction is coming off four straight wins at 5.5 or 6 furlongs: a maiden win last November at Churchill, two allowance scores, and a win in the Spring Fever stakes. In the stakes win, she put up the second best speed figure of anyone in the field, but it was ten points higher than her previous career high, and a hard nose victory where she had to make two runs to take it.  This may have taken something out of her.  If it didn’t, it’s her race to lose, but that was so tough compared to the rest of her races that there is at least some air of vulnerability here.

Santa Anita:

Race 6: Allowance optional claiming ($80,000), four-year-olds and up, non-winners of $10,000 other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L OR claiming price $80,000, 1 1/8 miles on the turf

Primary Selection – Deep Play (4): Deep Play was the other horse I considered as a possibility for my Best Bet.  He comes in here off a sixth place finish in a race at this level, but at a longer distance (1 1/4 miles on the Santa Anita turf), and coming off a career-best speed his race before.  He will relish cutting back that extra furlong, and looks ready to star improving again after that previous setback.  He turned in a bullet four-furlong work on March 29, further suggesting he is ready to run.  He has done most of his work recently near the lead, but showed the ability to rate from farther off in his maiden win at 1 1/16 miles.  There are enough horses in this field who like being on or near the early speed that this should serve him well.

Alternate Selection – Big Cazanova (9):  Big Cazanova is technically a maiden, which would normally raise eyebrows coming into a decently stiff N1X as this one, but he has the look of a contender here.  He crossed the wire first in a Peruvian GI last year, but was disqualified to second.  Back in 2012, he put up two close second-place efforts behind Indy Point, showing that he can contend with some top-level turf horses.  He was lightly-raced last year, and shipped to the States earlier this year.  He is working out well, and he adds Lasix for the first time in his career.  If he gets anywhere near the lead early, I will be surprised if he doesn’t at least hit the board.

Race 7: $25,000 claiming, three-year-olds and up, N2L, 7 furlongs on the dirt

Primary Selection – Red Tesla (2):  Red Tesla comes in here off a long lay; he hasn’t raced since May of last year.  This race is significantly softer than the company he faced before the lay, and his speeds compare very favourably to the field.  He runs a stalking style typically; there’s a bit of early speed here, but not enough to want to be too far back.  Red Tesla should be fine in light of that.  He’s working extremely well at Santa Anita and Los Alamos, including bullets in his last two, suggesting that he will be fit off the lay.  He won his maiden victory off of a year lay, and trainer Bob Baffert tends to send layoff horses ready to race first out.

Alternate Selection – Tenkiller Kid (10):  Another pace stalker, Tenkiller Kid drops into $25,000 claiming company after a few attempts at tougher since breaking his maiden.  He’s working very sharply at Santa Anita, including a four furlong work that was 2/54 at the distance on March 29.  He cuts back to seven furlongs here, which he should relish after not liking the attempt at 1 1/16 miles last time out.  He broke his maiden from the 8 gate in a 10 horse field, so this outside gate shouldn’t hurt him too much.

Race 8: Thunder Road Stakes, four-year-olds and up, 1 mile on the turf

Primary Selection – Tom’s Tribute (6):  After three straight attempts in graded stakes company, he cuts back a bit in class here.  He held his own well in those three starts, including a second place finish behind Winning Prize in the Arcadia (GII) two starts back.  His speeds compare favourably to the field, and he has stayed fresh on the worktab since his last out in the Kilroe Mile (GI).  There is plenty of early speed in this race, between Peace and Justice, Teaks North, and Bright Thought, so the pace should set up well for Tom’s Tribute, who tends to come from off.  He has shown versatility in that aspect, though; he has won from very close or even on the pace, as well as from farther back.  All three of Tom’s Tribute’s wins have come with Mike Smith in the irons; he clearly knows how to ride this horse, and returns with the mount here.

Alternate Selection – Peace and Justice (1):  If one of the early speed horses hangs on to take this race, it will likely be Peace and Justice.  He is moving up in class here, coming off of two straight wins in allowance company at Santa Anita, but his speeds in those wire-to-wire victories compare well with this group.  He draws the 1 gate here; both times he has drawn it, he has won.  His last race was back in February, but he has shown up on the Santa Anita worktab four times since then, with his last two being a bullet five furlongs and a bullet four furlongs.  He is ready to race, and if other speed horses like Bright Thought or Teaks North don’t push him too hard, he will be difficult to catch.

a taste of the weekend ahead…

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!

Aqueduct

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.

Keeneland

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

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.