Best Bet: Handicapping the Late Pick 5 on Saturday at Churchill Downs

By Sean Morris

Churchill Downs beauty

Initially I thought this week’s column would focus on Woodbine, but even without a race that rivals the Woodbine Mile in terms of prestige, Churchill was able to put forth a more intriguing series of races, with four fun, mostly competitive stakes filling out the Late Pick 5. If you like top-notch dirt racing, this is the sequence for you.

Race 7 – Open Mind (3:48 ET)

Nothing like a nice, wide-open field to kick things off. Honey Bunny and Awestruck are likely to take the bulk of the money, and I’m not really against either one. The former is an ultra-consistent dirt sprinter who just flat out didn’t handle the synthetic surface at Presque Isle. She’s clearly a major player, though I’m not sure she has much margin for error against this field. Awestruck is also plenty capable of beating this group on her best day but I don’t find her to be as reliable as Honey Bunny, however she may have an excuse for her last race as the rail was likely not the place to be. Delving deeper I want to give Headland a shot at a price. I know it was an off-the-turf event but I really liked the last race she ran at Churchill. She got very little pace to run at and still steamrolled what was actually a decent field comprised of some solid dirt sprinters. She’ll need to take a step forward off a disappointing effort at Ellis Park, but overachievers like her always have a tendency to outrun their odds and there are no killers in this bunch. I usually bristle at the whole ‘using horses defensively’ tactic, but it’s hard to get around doing just that with America’s Tale. Her best race will win, however it’s difficult to know what to expect from her off a five-month layoff. Divine Queen was close to being a ‘main’ play for me but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I’m not sure if she moved forward once stretched out in distance or if she’s just an improved animal, but she has been effective at this distance in the past.

MAIN:  4,5,6,7                         BACKUP:  1,8

Race 8- G3 Locust Grove (4:21 ET)

It’s hard not to love Escape Clause as a race mare. She’s been crisscrossing the country this year to run in her division’s premier events and has acquitted herself nicely at nearly every stop. She’s an obvious contender in this spot, but it’s fair to wonder if her ambitious tour might be starting to catch up with her. The horse who beat her last time, Mylady Curlin, is also a major player here. For whatever reason, maybe the $200,000 purse, the Lady Jacqueline at Thistledown drew a quality graded stakes caliber field, which Mylady Curlin bested with a gritty effort. I do feel she’s probably not quite as good as her Beyers suggest (she took advantage of a leisurely pace and gold rail in the DuPont Distaff) but it’s hard to quibble much with a mare who’s won five straight and is coming off her most impressive win yet. Since I do have some concerns with the top two, I’d also like to use the ‘other’ Brad Cox mare, Moonlit Garden, as a  bounced back from poor efforts before and I don’t think her best race is far off the top contenders. Earlier this year she was running competitively against the likes of Grade 1 winners She’s a Julie and Midnight Bisou.

MAIN:  2,3,5                            BACKUP:  7,9

Race 9 – G2 Pocahontas (4:53 ET)

The two main contenders in this race, Portrait and Morning Gold, each have their merits and need to be used prominently. Portrait absolutely blasted a field at Ellis Park last out in her first start with blinkers. Unlike her main rival, she has experience on dirt, but it’s difficult to know what she was beating last time since the field was comprised mostly of first-time starters and none have run back. Morning Gold, on the other hand, has the advantage of having run around two turns, including a win at this distance, but both of her two starts have come over turf. It appears as if she’s been working well on this surface, though I’m not sure she’s as good as her latest Beyer suggests and she won’t have the benefit of setting a leisurely pace in this spot. At first glance I thought British Idiom was in over her head in this race, but upon closer inspection I think she’s a major player. Her debut wasn’t anything earth-shattering, however it has since been flattered by the runner-up, who just demolished a field at Belmont with a 77 Beyer. British Idiom’s pedigree suggests this will be an ideal distance for her and she could be set to take a big step forward while adding Lasix for her second start. Shadilee may be coming out of a maiden claiming event but it would be unwise to discount her chances. It’s possible the rail wasn’t the place to be in her debut and she was on it every step. She was claimed by sharp connections out of that race and also has a pedigree that indicates more distance might be preferable. I couldn’t justify using her as a main given the superior form of others, but she definitely has a chance.

MAIN:  3,6,7                            BACKUP:  1

Race 10 – G2 Iroquois (5:26 ET)

Churchill Downs beauty

I wish I had something clever to say about this race, but it feels like a mostly a one-horse affair. After a disastrous debut, Dennis’ Moment came back to record the fastest Beyer Speed Figure of any 2-year-old this year. There wasn’t much behind him, but he was absolutely sensational in that race and gave the impression that the added ground of the Iroquois won’t be an issue for him (if anything it might actually be to his benefit). To further bolster his case, he’s since recorded a series of super-fast works, notably faster than he’s trained in the past, and looks set to ascend to even greater heights. He’s going to be a massive favorite, but I don’t see any reason to play against him. Rowdy Yates turned in the fastest last race of any horse not named Dennis’ Moment in this field, but his decisive victory in the Ellis Park Juvenile still doesn’t put him within shouting distance of the favorite and visually it looked as if he might be better suited to sprints. Scabbard, the racehorse formerly known as Noose, doesn’t have a stamina-laden pedigree, but I do like the race he ran in the Saratoga Special. He was buried on a dead rail for much of the race before angling out into the stretch and coming with a steady rally. He’s my top pick to fill out the exacta.

MAIN:  8                                  BACKUP:  NONE

Race 11 – Maiden Special Weight (5:57 ET)

It’s never easy to close out a multi-race sequence with a 2-year-old maiden race, but this one is exceptionally tough. I’m not sold on any of the runners with experience in this field, and there does appear to be a couple of live first-time starters. The horse likely to take the most money is Sprawl, a second-time starter for Bill Mott who finished third in his debut behind Saratoga sensation Gozilla. I thought he ran fine in that race, but those who have run back have dramatically underperformed, so I don’t think he has any edge on this field. Excession adds blinkers for Steve Asmussen and last out looked like a horse who would relish the added distance of this race while overcoming a bit of a troubled trip. By Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, Strike Appeal also seems like a good candidate to improve when stretched out and I think his debut corroborates that. He sat just off a tepid pace going five furlongs and looked to be rolling late. Maxfield and Celtic Mischief are both firsters that are unavoidable main plays. The former actually lures Jose Ortiz away from Sprawl, though Brendan Walsh does not excel with debut runners, while the latter has pedigree and one of the game’s premier trainers in his corner. My advice would be to use as many as you can afford if you’re looking to cash out.

MAIN:  2,3,5,10,12                              BACKUP:  1,7,8,9,11