3 things you won’t read anywhere else
Opinions are like a pass from Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rogers. You expect them to be on the money.
1. When Gulfstream Park reconfigured its track in 2005 to a 1-1/8 miles oval, who could have predicted that the biggest benefactor of that change would be Tampa Bay Downs? But without 1-1/16 miles races around 2 turns in eastern Florida this time of year, the Tampa 3-year-old program has blossomed and immediately became a destination for Nick Zito, Todd Pletcher and an entirely different quality of Triple Crown contender. We’ll see that once again this Saturday in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.
2. Much was made about trainer Steve Asmussen’s new west coast division at the start of the Santa Anita meet. But the numbers show his Fair Grounds influence held a 129-19 edge in number of meet starters as of Thursday. The only real reason Asmussen is in California is for 3-year-olds ASTROLOGY and TAPIZAR, and we’ll get to see if the latter can make the commitment worth it in Saturday’s G2 Bob Lewis Memorial.
3. THE FACTOR (Bob Baffert) was sent to Hollywood Park in the past week to train on the synthetic track after a bruised foot arose on the Santa Anita dirt. Be careful what you ask (beg, kick or scream) for & And for the record, he worked a half-mile Tuesday on the Cushion Track in :48.20, seventh-fastest of 18 movers at the distance. The Feb. 20 G2 San Vicente remains circled on his prep calendar.
This week’s fearless forecast
This section previews the coming attractions in 3-year-old stakes and undercard races. We’ve got three graded stakes races with direct Derby-earnings implications on Saturday. Before we hit the stakes beaches of Florida and California, let’s quickly get through a few undercard races of note.
The biggest undercard race of the weekend comes Sunday at Gulfstream when allowance milers square off in Race 3. ROCKING OUT (Rick Dutrow) was one of my absolute “hot” horses to watch from last fall and I can’t wait to see what he’s got off of a strong workout tab. The solid field includes stakes check-getters CANE GARDEN BAY (Rusty Arnold), SETTLE FOR MEDAL (Mark Hennig) and ROCKIN HEAT (Reade Baker).
Gulfstream has a very promising 1-1/8 miles maiden route later today (Friday, Feb. 11) in Race 8. The Storm Cat-Serena’s Song baby STORMBERG (Seth Benzel) missed by a nose last out at Calder. PLEASANT RUN (Ken McPeek) returns after being shot out of a cannon late in his Jan. 21 attempt. And HAMMERSMITH (Todd Pletcher) was a dynamite second in his debut in what’s already looking like a key race behind HERON LAKE (Nick Zito).
Unbeaten Cal-bred multiple stakes winner BENCH POINTS (Tim Yakteen) makes his first start since Del Mar when he headlines a 6-furlong allowance sprint later today (Friday, Feb. 11) at Santa Anita. The open-company heat includes DA RULER (Bob Baffert), a fast winner in his debut. How DA RULER runs Friday may give you a clue to our next horse to watch &The well-built ALBERGATTI (Steve Asmussen) returns Saturday in Santa Anita Race 3, following a very taxing second to rapid maiden winner DA RULER (Bob Baffert). MY DIVIDEND (David Hofmans) could be this field’s best route prospect, by Bernardini and from the same female family as Student Council.
Gulfstream Park’s Saturday Race 8 maiden sprint is loaded with inexperienced sophomores. Nick Zito debuts ON LOCKDOWN, an Officer colt out of a half-sister to champion mare Spain. This $100,000 purchase is half-brother to Holy Bull Stakes runner-up Great Point. Also on Saturday, Oaklawn offers a 1-mile maiden around 2 turns for 3-year-olds and older, featuring ZOEBEAR (Scott Becker), second last fall to TAPIZAR.
Around the horn in other undercard races this weekend: Steve Asmussen takes 2 maiden route shots Saturday in Race 3 at Fair Grounds, namely MINEPOWER and AWESOME BET, both exiting wide trips; The supremely bred CELESTIAL FIELD (Rodney Jenkins) could be a rising player to watch in Saturday’s Race 7 allowance mile at Laurel. The son of red-hot sire Bluegrass Cat is out of a half-sister to Unbridled’s Song and exits a determined maiden win. The competition at Laurel includes TERRA COTTA MOON (Chris Grove), most recently second to next-out Whirlaway Stakes winner TOBY’S CORNER (Graham Motion); and later today (Friday, Feb. 11), PRIME CUT (Neil Howard) has been entered main-track only in a turf route allowance at Fair Grounds.
G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes (Saturday/Tampa Bay Downs)
Post 10 going 1-1/16 miles around 2 turns can be a dicey proposition for any horse, especially a runner who has never negotiated a pair of turns. Likely favorite BRETHREN (Todd Pletcher) will have to prove he’s worthy of that challenge as he makes both his stakes debut and 2011 unveiling from a daunting starting point. The Pletcher barn deftly has used this mid-range distance prep in recent memory, winning with the likes of Bluegrass Cat, Any Given Saturday and Rule in just the past 5 years. And on pedigree, don’t sleep on the fact that BRETHREN is a half-brother to last year’s Kentucky Derby — and Tampa Bay Derby — winner Super Saver.
BRETHREN rightfully belongs in the favorite’s role and is the leading Triple Crown contender in the Davis field without question. However, you could do worse trying to beat him at an under-laid price Saturday given the post position and layoff. There’s no shame in that.
The best upset candidates are horses coming off of solid tries at Gulfstream, namely Jan. 21 allowance third-place finisher BEAMER (Carl Nafzger) and Jan. 22 maiden mile winner WASHINGTON’S RULES (Ken McPeek). Both have the recent edge and both are working strongly since their last efforts. BEAMER was visually fantastic over this track in late December and gets the nod.
As for the rest, MONZON (Ignacio Correas) invades from his Maryland farm following a solid win in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct. That victory since has produced the Whirlaway runner-up (JJ’S LUCKY DREAM) and G3 Lecomte Stakes runner-up (PANTS ON FIRE). MONZON figures to be running on at the end, but there’s not a strong amount of pace in this race to set it up for a deep closer. Expect recent Tampa sprint allowance dominator WATCH ME GO (Kathleen O’Connell) to provide the early target. If BRETHREN is hustled early from post 10 by Ramon Dominguez, he very well could be sitting second early on.
RIBO BOBO (Manny Azpurua) adds blinkers and stretches back out around 2 turns. He won’t be far off the pace, and he’s a much better horse than his last few races have shown. I fully expect him to be in the hunt as long as he doesn’t melt down in the gate — or coming out of it — once again.
Sam F. Davis Stakes selections: W) BEAMER; P) BRETHREN; S) WASHINGTON’S RULES.
G2 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes (Saturday/Santa Anita)
Assuming COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) scratches as expected and runs instead in the same-day G3 El Camino Real Derby, the G2 $250,000 Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes becomes infinitely easier for favorite TAPIZAR (Steve Asmussen). Not only would the horse with the strongest credentials be MIA, but that also would be the horse with the most ability to push the early pace of the speedy TAPIZAR. When attempting 1-1/8 miles for the first time, it’s never certain that a front-runner will have the stamina. Having an easier pace scenario is the best way to gain that confidence.
TAPIZAR was awfully good in the G3 Sham on Jan. 15, his first start on the west coast. But he did run with his head high throughout the stretch, which can be a sign of a tired horse. But he returned to the workout tab 9 days after that race and has drilled on cue 3 times since then and should benefit from the fitness. If he relaxes to any degree, he should win this race, 9 furlongs or not. ANTHONY’S CROSS (Eoin Harty) adds blinkers after a non-threatening third in the Sham and is working bullets since. He stands a legitimate chance to improve the margin, but I don’t see him upending TAPIZAR unless that rival regresses his performance.
RIVETING REASON (Myung Kwon Cho) is multiple G1-placed and we’ll see if a slight freshening has done him some good after being over-raced twice in both November and December last year. While he set the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill, the removal of blinkers and stretch out to 9 furlongs might take something off of his early fastball.
WEGNER (Bob Baffert) was okay in his maiden win Jan. 8, but doesn’t appear fast enough to make the lead if others want it, and not really one inclined to pass horses if he’s not in front. He won’t embarrass himself and has a great route pedigree, best in the field. I’d expect him to run very evenly, but is unlikely to be brilliant enough to win.
The X-factors are TEN DEVILS (Richard Mandella) and THIRTYFIRSTSTREEET (Doug O’Neill), the former racing only on turf and the latter only in sprints to date. Of the two THIRTYFIRSTSTREET has been more visually impressive and I think more inclined to handle the trip Saturday with a router’s pedigree.
Bob Lewis Memorial Stakes selections: W) TAPIZAR; P) ANTHONY’S CROSS; S) THIRTYFIRSTSTREET.
G3 El Camino Real Derby (Saturday/Golden Gate Fields)
The 1-2-3 finishers in the California Derby will find a different kind of race when they re-match in this G3 $200,000 event. The presence of leading west coast 2010 juvenile COMMA TO THE TOP (Peter Miller) is a game-changer, not to mention the distance extension from 1-1/16 miles to 1-1/8 miles.
All eyes will be on COMMA TO THE TOP, twice offered up for maiden claiming tags last year and by sprint sire Bwana Charlie. But any questions about his class and/or endurance have to be tempered given his dominant wins in the Real Quiet, Generous and CashCall Futurity, all 2-turn races. Having raced 10 times last year between May and December, the fair question about COMMA TO THE TOP will be if he can last until May. But as of today, there’s not much to discredit as he looks for a sixth straight victory.
POSITIVE REWARD (Bill Morey) actually gets a sizable weight shift in the El Camino Real Derby. He carried 4 more pounds than runner-up JAKESAM (Jerry Hollendorfer) last month, and 6 more than third-place runner BLUEGRASS REWARD (Steve Miyadi). Now, under equal weights at 121 pounds, you have to think POSITIVE RESPONSE only increases his edge over those common rivals. Toss in a bullet workout Sunday and he’s on tilt. JAKESAM, a powerfully built, solid front-running type, also had a bullet workout Sunday at 6 furlongs and has come out of the Cal Derby in fine fettle.
SILVER MEDALLION (Steve Asmussen) has 5 route races under his belt in 5 starts and lures Russell Baze to ride. Baze has won this race 3 years running. You would expect that he’d get the trip if the fractions aren’t ridiculous. The quicker they go early on, the less chance I think this guy has to excel at 9 furlongs. With COMMA TO THE TOP and JAKESAM signed on, it’s going to be a tough pace chore for ‘SILVER to complete.
El Camino Real Derby selections: W) COMMA TO THE TOP; P) POSITIVE RESPONSE; S) JAKESAM.
Last week’s selections: 3: 1-0-2. Top pick TRUBS won the Black Gold Stakes and led a cold 1-2-3 trifecta sweep for Countdown, while top picks TAPTOWNE (WEBN Stakes) and PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Whirlaway Stakes) both finished third, the latter completing a three-horse Countdown trifecta box.
Season selections: 12: 4-2-4. (12 races, top pick won 4 times, ran second 2 times and third 4 times).
Everyone’s a critic
This section reviews the week that was in the 3-year-old division. We had five stakes over the past week from all corners of the country and Dubai, but the show-stealer came from a familiar place — Todd Pletcher’s shedrow in Florida.
The performance of the week, regardless of class, came in Saturday’s Race 8 maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park, where CAL NATION (Todd Pletcher) ran to his regal pedigree in a 7-3/4 length victory. Half-brother to 2006 Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Travers Stakes runner-up Bluegrass Cat, CAL NATION was absolutely brilliant. He broke like a shot from the outside post in a field of 9, but then relaxed and let fellow rookie JACK LONDON (Barclay Tagg) speed off to the lead, which is a very professional thing for a first-time starter to do. CAL NATION then came to JACK LONDON without urging in upper stretch and drew off with every stride. The fact that JACK LONDON ran on second-best emphasizes how good CAL NATION was. Third-place finisher KANAGARO (Tom Albertrani) was third twice last fall to LAUBURU and BRETHREN, 2 awfully legitimate Pletcher trainees, so this race did not lack quality.
CAL NATION’s gallop-out wasn’t much at all, however, so you fairly wonder: How quickly can this guy advance on to a big-time route race since he’s so far behind the calendar in getting ready for the Triple Crown? The final time of 1:22.02 was less than a length slower than very good older allowance runner Yawanna Twist ran a few races earlier. CAL NATION looks to be a serious racehorse, but he’ll have to be thrown to the wolves to make the big dances from this point in time. Curlin pulled it off from blowout maiden win on Super Bowl eve to a Kentucky Derby third and Preakness victory, so it can be done by a super-special racehorse, but that’s asking a lot. This was, without doubt, one of the very best maiden races of the season.
SPLASH POINT (Mahmoud Al Zarooni) won Thursday’s G3 $250,000 UAE 2000 Guineas in last-to-first style over the Tapeta surface at Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse. A little pocket-rocket of a horse, he overcame some bumping in the lane to defeat a group that included well-beaten Remsen alumnus BUFFUM (Saeed bin Suroor), who hit the Guineas lead and then hit the wall before tiring in this 1-turn mile. The 2000 Guineas is a prep for the March 26 UAE Derby and SPLASH POINT is a son of Street Cry worth keeping your eye on, out of $400k-earning US turf mare Dianehill.
As for last weekend’s stakes, none were graded events and only the Whirlaway at Aqueduct was around 2 turns on dirt. TOBY’S CORNER (Graham Motion) earned his way to the G3 Gotham Stakes with a professional score in the Whirlaway, his third straight victory after a pair of Maryland scores. The 1-1/16 miles final time of 1:45.66 was pretty solid, actually clocking faster than a pair of cheap claimers on the card at the shorter 1 mile and 70-yard distance. It’s not easy to rally from last-to-first in a short field of 5, especially on a sloppy track, but that’s what the son of Bellamy Road did. He also rallied despite a series of three straight :25-plus quarters in the internal fractions that should have carried the front-runners home. In other words, he got no help and was much-best to win by 2 lengths. Runner-up JJ’S LUCKY TRAIN (William Anderson) is a decent horse and ‘TOBY put him away while giving up local and 2-turn experience. Third-place finisher PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Gary Contessa) was totally disappointing and never looked comfortable over the slop. TOBY’S CORNER is a pretty nice horse and a Gotham threat if none of the heavyweights show up.
TWINSPIRED (Mike Maker) overcame post 12, being fanned wide on the clubhouse turn and a long road trip north from Florida to pull away in Saturday night’s $50,000 WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park. The Polytrack mile boasted a big field of 12 and certainly was a good spring-board kind of prep with its educational chances and middle distance. But with a :28.15 final quarter-mile, even the runaway winner will have to get infinitely better to win the G3 Spiral come March 26. TAPTOWNE (Wayne Mogge) made a menacing, wide run on the far turn after being much farther behind early than you would have expecting coming out of a fast maiden sprint win. He couldn’t sustain that long blitz in a poorly-time move by rider Rodney Prescott. TAPTOWNE absolutely stopped at the eighth pole. Runner-up R FAST CAT completed a Mike Maker exacta sweep. Maker’s barn also won a Race 9 maiden mile with ST. IVAN on the stretch-out from sprints to top off a heck of a night in Florence.
TRUBS (Al Stall, Jr.) returned to sprinting and returned to his winning ways Saturday in a solid performance in the $60,000 Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds. The son of First Samurai ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.18, about 3 lengths quicker than the 3-year-old fillies went in the same-day Tiffany Lass Stakes, won by the razor-sharp Wicked Deed. Runner-up DIVINE MUSIC (Malcolm Pierce) missed by a neck and was clearly second-best. Having already been-there, lost-that, I don’t think you’ll see TRUBS worked back into the route scene. His Black Gold win reinforced my visual opinions of his sprint win at Louisiana Downs and I’d expect him to keep dashing. The win here boosts the reputation of Jean Lafitte Stakes winner DECISIVE MOMENT.
You’re going to hear a lot about how CASPER’S TOUCH (Ken McPeek) was best in Saturday’s 1-1/8 miles Gulfstream Park allowance at 1-1/8 miles, and that’s probably so. He was in tight on the first turn from the rail and wrestled with jockey Julien Leparoux. And when he finally looked to have a chance to lengthen his stride around the quarter-pole, he really didn’t. Soon after, he was side-swiped in the upper stretch. But he would never have been in that final troubled position had he had any turn of foot. To his credit, ‘CASPER finished up decently after the bump and got second money. This was an okay effort with some excuses, but not a circle-the-wagons and unload in Vegas kind of thing. Don’t over-estimate it. Winner SHACKLEFORD (Dale Romans) got a perfect, pressing trip and avoided all the shenanigans going on behind him, but he’s not a smooth mover at all and is very hard on himself with his rough stride and big-time “paddle” with his right-front leg. He’s going to have a hard time staying sound through a long campaign from this eye. SHACKLEFORD likely won’t beat top horses running that inefficiently, either, although he did gallop out very well and can get a distance of ground even if sired by miler Forestry. Both SHACKLEFORD and CASPER’S TOUCH appear bound for the G2 Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26.
QUEEN’SPLATEKITTEN (recently transferred to Todd Pletcher) marched perhaps toward the Canadian Triple Crown Saturday when rallying from the back of the pack to win a 1-mile turf allowance at Gulfstream Park in Race 6. The pace totally melted down as closers dominated with a furious finish. The son of Kitten’s Joy has now won 2 straight, having broken his maiden in December over Woodbine’s Polytrack, surface of the Queen’s Plate. Look for this guy to appear on the Poly next, perhaps at Turfway or Keeneland.
Sunday’s Gulfstream Park card also featured a pair of 3-year-old offerings. Race 1 maiden winner ARCH TRAVELER (Jimmy Jerkens) ran only a smidge slower than CAL NATION did the previous day when he clocked 7 furlongs in 1:22.29 in Sunday’s opener. He came home the final furlong in :12.49 while beating a very legitimate rival in NINJA BLADE (Eddie Kenneally). ‘NINJA had been second-best to DIALED IN and TRAVELIN MAN in 2 previous starts, heady company indeed. ARCH TRAVELER got the absolute “PT” (perfect trip) sitting third behind a duel between NINJA BLADE and rookie BF BIRD (Nick Zito). CALIFORNIA (Todd Pletcher) had his momentum stymied while advancing on the rail mid-turn and appears to have a maiden win with his name on it very soon as a regally bred son of AP Indy-Madcap Escapade. He galloped out best of all after being very one-paced in the lane. Two turns might suit CALIFORNIA well. However, I don’t see ARCH TRAVELER extending out to classic distances with a miler’s pedigree on the dam side and lack of any real gallop-out off this win. He certainly flatters the already-respected win by HERON LAKE (Nick Zito) from Jan. 15.
Also on Sunday at Gulfstream, heavily favored HOTHERSAL (Seth Benzel) scored a 1-1/16 miles turf maiden victory in a time about 10 lengths slower than the same-day Hallandale Beach Stakes for sophomores. The son of Smart Strike will run all day based on his damside pedigree and would be a decent Polytrack candidate. It was nice to see the vast improvement by second-timer KENTUCKY REIGN (Bill Mott) as the son of Distorted Humor and Kentucky Oaks heroine Summerly ran a solid second and further flattered the aforementioned Jan. 15 win by HERON LAKE.
Second-time starter STRIDING AHEAD (Bill Mott) put the famed Juddmonte colors in the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle Saturday when crushing a 1-1/16 miles maiden special weight cast by nearly 7 lengths. The son of Empire Maker wired a pretty good field on paper behind slow fractions, backing up the third and fourth quarters to :25.05 and :25.33. Visually he looked good doing it, but it was disappointing to see FIFTH DISCTRICT (Joan Scott) flatten out and offer little in the lane while third. He had chased heavyweights like DIALED IN, TWINSPIRED and BEAMER in previous outings. STRIDING AHEAD could be considered for the G2 Tampa Bay Derby, but he’ll have to work much, much harder.
Finally, I didn’t forget about Sunday’s Hallandale Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream turf; I just don’t know what to make of it. Delayed by the start, enflamed by a hot pace and dismantled by a to-and-fro stretch drive by KING CONGIE (Tom Albertrani), it was too peculiar from which to take anything concrete. Obviously KING CONGIE needs to iron out some physical issues that keep him bearing out in the lane, and as a son of brilliant, but physically problematic sire Badge of Silver, that should come as no surprise. MASTER DUNKER (David Fawkes) got the W on the DQ and has been a much better horse since moving to the grass.
JP’S GUSTO has been sent to Arkansas and relocated from David Hofmans’ California barn to that of Joe Petalino, the longtime trainer and former assistant to Jack Van Berg during the Alysheba years. He will start in the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby as planned … COOL BLUE RED HOT is off the Derby trail, according to trainer Angel Penna’s interview with blogger John Pricci, and will be aimed at a Travers campaign … Todd Pletcher had a trio of key 3-year-olds working Sunday at Palm Meadows, UNCLE MO (4F in 49.60), BRETHREN (5F in 1:01) and TRAVELIN MAN (4F in :49 flat) … Sunday’s biggest work came when Remsen champ TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bill Mott) worked a very un-Mott-like 5 furlongs in a bullet 1:00.80 over the deep Payson Park surface … HERON LAKE (Nick Zito) had a big week without racing, given that two horses he vanquished Jan. 15 came back to run big races and the fact that he posted his first drill since then, a bullet 3 furlongs in :36.60 breezing Saturday at Palm Meadows … JAYCITO looks more and more like the Bob Baffert barn’s most serious Derby threat, drilling 5 furlongs Monday at Santa Anita in :59.20 and now having posted 5 straight weeks of consistent and solid workouts … Meanwhile, Baffert continues to put 6-furlong works into SINAI since the even sprint try in the San Pedro, building some route foundation … Smarty Jones Stakes winner CALEB’S POSSE (Donnie K. Von Hemel) worked a slow 6 furlongs Monday in 1:16 flat at weather-ridden Oaklawn Park as he prepares for the Feb. 21 G3 Southwest. Stablemate ALTERNATION breezed the same morning and distance in a quicker 1:15.20 … Also last Friday, PREMIER PEGASUS (Myung Kwon Cho) kept on his new weekly schedule with his second drill of the season, increasing to 5 furlongs and logging it in 1:01.60 at Santa Anita … SOLDAT (Kiaran McLaughlin) had his first workout since his dominant Jan. 21 allowance win when he breezed a half-mile Saturday in :50.40 at Palm Meadows training center.
Jeremy Plonk’s Top-5 rated performances by class so far this year (Dec. 26-present).
Maiden Race 1. THE FACTOR (Santa Anita, 12/26)
2. CAL NATION (Gulfstream, 2/5) * new *
3. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/2)
4. HERON LAKE (Gulfstream, 1/15) * upgraded *
5. RUNFLATOUT (Santa Anita, 1/29)
1. SOLDAT (Gulfstream, 1/21)
2. MACHEN (Fair Grounds, 1/30)
3. ALTERNATION (Oaklawn, 1/15)
4. JAKESAM (Golden Gate, 12/30 * starter allowance *)
5. AWESOME PATRIOT (Santa Anita, 12/29)
1. DIALED IN (Holy Bull, Gulfstream, 1/30)
2. TAPIZAR (Sham, Santa Anita, 1/15)
3. INDIAN WINTER (San Pedro, Santa Anita, 1/17)
4. CALEB’S POSSE (Smarty Jones, Oaklawn, 1/17)
5. DECISIVE MOMENT (Jean Lafitte, Delta Downs, 1/15)
Put ‘em in the gate!
Can’t wait for the first Saturday in May? Me either. Each week I’ll give my top 20 contenders based on potential for the 1-1/4 miles distance for the Kentucky Derby. This will be a fluid list throughout the season. Note: fillies are only included when their connections make a clear indication they are pointing for Triple Crown races.
Jeremy Plonk’s top 20, sixth week of the 2011 season
|1. UNCLE MO
||11. STAY THIRSTY
|2. TO HONOR AND SERVE
|4. PREMIER PEGASUS
|7. DIALED IN (new)
||17. CLUBHOUSE RIDE
|8. ROGUE ROMANCE
||18. ELITE ALEX
||19. COMMA TO THE TOP (returns)
|10. ROCKING OUT
||20. HERON LAKE (new)
Originally Posted on ESPN