Aqueduct, Race 2: Maiden Special Weight at one mile for NY-breds
One of the questions you’re confronted with when handicapping maiden races at this time of year is how to assess inexperienced three year-old stepping up against seasoned older colts and horses. If you’re merely looking for a horse who can run a Beyer in the mid-50s then I suppose No Nukes or Here He Fitz could fit the bill. Personally, I’ve seen enough of those two and will take my chances hoping that one of the three year-olds stakes a step forward to better that figure.
Despite hailing from low-profile connections, Effinex (#3) has to be considered the most likely candidate to do so. His debut was a fine effort in which he broke a couple of lengths slowly from the rail and was given too much ground to make up at the abbreviated five and a half furlong distance. While Effinex didn’t do a ton of late running in the stretch, he showed enough late interest to give you the impression that more distance might be his friend. His pedigree would suggest the same thing since he’s by Mineshaft out of an E Dubai dam who won a couple of two-turn stakes on the inner track. I’d imagine that the connections must have high hopes for this one themselves since they campaigned Effinex’s dam, What a Pear, who unfortunately died in the same year that this colt, her only foal, was born.
If you clicked on the replay link above you may have noticed another horse in that February 9th maiden race who sustained a much worse trip than Effinex. Horse to Watch Kaepernick (#9), with blinkers on for the first time, was very eager down the backstretch and rushed up on the outside to chase the pace four-wide. He continued in that same outside path around the far turn and understandably tired badly in the stretch after those early exertions. I admit that I have no idea if this horse can actually run at all, but Maggie Wolfendale has noted in the paddock before each of his races that he’s a fine looking physical specimen. The pedigree is there as well since he’s a half-brother to multiple stakes winner and $445,000 earner Starship Truffles. Perhaps he can use the early speed he flashed last time to make the lead here and try to wire the field.
$15 Win 3 (WINNER; Payout: $56.25)
$10 Win 9
Aqueduct, Race 4: The Tom Fool Handicap (G3) at six furlongs
I will admit right off the bat that I have a soft spot for Non Stop (#5). It’s hard not to like a horse who had plummeted to bottom-of-the-barrel claiming races before completely turning his career around for connections who took the time to figure out his quirks. David Cannizzo and his team realized that his horse cannot handle the stress of the paddock or the post parade and got permission from the stewards to remove both of those stressors from his pre-race routine. The results have been miraculous as he has steadily stepped up in class over his past few starts culminating with a solid third place finish and graded stakes placing in the Toboggan.
This is another significant step up in class and it’s hard to make any coherent argument that Non Stop is a legitimate threat to beat Strapping Groom (#1) if that foe brings his best performance to the table. However, Strapping Groom does have a few questions to answer today since he hasn’t been seen since late December and David Jacobson’s numbers off brief layoffs like this, especially with horses who had been winning, leave something to be desired.
The main play will be a straight exacta, Strapping Groom over Non Stop, who would make that wager pay nicely if he could rally into second place. Once you get past Strapping Groom, I’m not really afraid of anyone else in this race. Candyman E and Dads Caps are both nice horses, but I wonder how they’ll respond to having to deal with a horse of the quality of Strapping Groom up front. Then you must also throw in Jake N Elwood, who could be part of the pace as well, and I could envision a scenario in which this race collapses late, especially with regard to the lesser prizes. I’ll also make a very small wager on Non Stop to win, just in case Strapping Groom doesn’t bring his “A” race.
$10 Exacta 1-5
$6 Win 5
Aqueduct, Race 7: Optional Claiming 30,000/N2X at one mile for NY-breds
The top contenders for win honors in this one would appear to be Pure Attitude (#5), Fiona’s Hero (#7), and Towering Moon (#8). They all can win, but I have at least one question about each of them. Pure Attitude was in excellent form until his last race, in which he was a dull fourth at 8-5, an effort that looks even worse in retrospect considering that he rode the gold rail. Fiona’s Hero has been in decent form, but I wonder about him coming back in just 5 days. Towering Moon is perhaps the most talented horse in the field, but you just never can be sure what you’re going to get with him. If he repeats his last race they all might be running for second. I’ve ultimately gone in a different direction.
It looks like I’m banking on trainer Richard DeMola having the afternoon of a lifetime as I’ve landed on his Seventy Six (#9) here. This was a horse I had followed very closely through much of last year after he started off his career with a series of unfortunate trips. He put things together during the spring and summer and was able to come away with a couple of wins before they threw him in against tougher in the Albany at Saratoga. His final start of the year came in a race at this level at Belmont and his effort was a lot better than it appears. That race was run during the period when the rail bias of Belmont’s fall meet was at its strongest and Seventy Six was nowhere near the inside at any point in his race. He was three-wide for much of the run around the turn before angling four- to five-wide for the stretch drive. It’s conceivable that he could have run an 80 Beyer that day on a fair racetrack, which would put him right in the mix here.
I know that the layoff is a bit of a concern, but Seventy Six is going to be a gigantic price and I feel that he may just be good enough to compete with this field. I’ll bet him to win and use him “underneath” the aforementioned contenders in the exacta.
$10 Win 9
$4 Exacta 5/7/8 with 9
Aqueduct, Race 8: The Top Flight Handicap (G2) at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares
Teen Pauline presents a conundrum for astute horseplayers. On one hand, you know that she’s not quite as good as she looks on paper. Her romping win in the Ladies Handicap is totally dressed up by the deadly combination of her being the lone speed and a severe inside bias, which carried her to a 10 3/4 length victory. Do I think she’s actually that much better the second through fourth place finishers in the Ladies? Not for a second. However, you still have to consider that she could again find herself as the controlling speed here. Whether that fact alone makes her a good bet is up for debate. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve picked against her in each of her last two races and stubbornly will do so once again today.
While the logical alternative is Summer Applause, who won this race last year and ended her 2013 campaign with two of her finest performances, I’m going back to Royal Lahaina (#6) for the third time in a row. I just cannot stress strongly enough how compromised she was by the way the track was playing last time. Cornelio Velasquez just got it all wrong that day as he sent her up on a four-wide chase into the clubhouse turn and then continued to stay in the three-path around the far turn. It was a recipe for disaster and Royal Lahaina had nothing left for the stretch drive.
One race prior in the Affectionately, while there was no obvious bias present, Royal Lahaina was instead undone by gate issues as she broke very slowly in a race where she figured to be in a pace-pressing position. Pletcher’s assistant has reportedly worked with her at the gate leading up to this race and I expect her to be more forwardly placed today. I also like the switch to Corey Nakatani, who has been riding very well from what I have seen and can take the mount aboard this seasoned veteran mare with no preconceived expectations. When Royal Lahaina on, she is good enough to win a race like this. Odds of over 5-1 are what I’d be looking for.
I’ll bet her to win and use her in the exacta with the logical Summer Applause (#4) as well as Centring (#3), who was also compromised by a wide trip in the Ladies.
$15 Win 6
$4 Exacta Box 4/6 [update: Summer Applause was a late scratch.]
$2 Exacta Box 3/6
Aqueduct, Race 9: The Gotham (G3) at 1 1/16 miles for three year-olds
I must have spent an hour handicapping this race last night. While it may not contain the top names in the division, this is as good a betting race as you’ll find anywhere at this time of year. I had an idea of who I might pick initially, but digging deeper only confirmed my opinion.
I suppose it makes sense to start with the Withers. That was some show that the top two finishers put on, but I don’t think this race is quite as simple as saying that they are the best two three year-olds that New York has to offer. If I was more impressed with one, I suppose it would have to be Uncle Sigh, considering that he was stepping up from the maiden ranks and had to be used hard during the early portion of the race to take the lead away from Samraat. He’s returned to work swiftly and Contessa, who has been pointing to this race since Uncle Sigh crossed the finish line in the Withers, sounds confident.
Samraat, on the other hand, returned to Palm Meadows following his hard fought Withers win to reportedly train up to the Wood Memorial. Based on quotes I’ve read it sounds like it was more the owner’s choice to run here rather than Rick Violette’s and those types of decisions never sit too well with me. Even if this had been planned, I wouldn’t be thrilled with this colt having to endure a second trip up from Florida in just over a month. Samraat is a very talented colt, but I don’t want to bet him as the likely favorite here.
I’m less thrilled with the horses who raced in Florida earlier this winter. Financial Mogul’s effort in the Holy Bull was decent enough, but I’m starting to wonder if he’s actually a two-turn horse. Rick Violette has said that he has one quick burst of speed and doesn’t do well when asked to make a long, sustained run. I just get the feeling that a one-turn race at seven furlongs or a mile might be more to his liking. I don’t want Harpoon or Noble Cornerstone, either, since I felt the Sam F. Davis was just an ugly race that was lacking in quality.
My pick in the Gotham is In Trouble (#2). I’ve read numerous quotes from trainer Tony Dutrow about how well this horse has been training leading up to this race. He’d have to be pretty high on him to try such an ambitious spot off the layoff.
More importantly, I was very impressed by what I saw from In Trouble as a two year-old. He showed high speed as well as a great deal of poise, running fast while never getting too eager under Joe Rocco, Jr. In the Futurity, he was able to stay within striking distance of the fleet-footed Corfu early before powering away from that foe in deep stretch like a horse who would have no trouble with more distance. His pedigree suggests just that, contrary to what might be apparent on the surface of things. Tiz Wonderful has proven to be a pretty versatile sire through this first two crops, getting a good mix of sprinters and two-turn winners. While one would think that In Trouble’s dam, by the speedy Grand Slam, might be a sprint influence, she actually has some pretty strong stamina influences in her bloodlines. Ballpark Butterfly’s dam, Miss Lady Bug, was best as a turf marathoner. She was a stakes winner going 1 1/2 miles and placed in multiple stakes races at 11 and 12 furlongs. She was sired by Rough Pearl, whose greatest triumph came in the 1 3/4 miles Italian St. Leger.
In Trouble should have no problems with the mile and a sixteenth distance of the Gotham and may very well be the best horse in this race. If he’s not even favored here, then that’s only a bonus.
$20 Win 2
Aqueduct, Race 10: Claiming $12,500 at 5 1/2 furlongs
This is admittedly a bit of a guess, but Straight Fax (#1) is the type of horse that you can make a lot of money with at the racetrack if you’re patient enough. You’ll be wrong about a lot of horses like him, but if you can be right just a few times it pays off.
If this race were run a year ago today, Straight Fax would be among the favorites. Something clearly went wrong as he was campaigned into the spring and summer. Horses who are capable of running Beyers in the 70s and 80s don’t just suddenly start throwing in non-performances like this gelding’s last two races unless something is wrong. He showed no speed and never got involved in those races as if he was trying to tell his connections that he had no interest in competing anymore.
I was about to simply dismiss this horse until I went back through my racing form and took a closer look at Sensational Slam’s past performances in the Tom Fool. He was a horse who had tailed off badly for these same connections, yet they gave him time to get over whatever issues he may have had and he rewarded them with some of the best performances of his life. I’m not saying that Straight Fax is Sensational Slam, but I would say that it’s reasonable to assume that they wouldn’t be running him again unless he had shown some inkling of his prior interest in competing.
He’s certainly not the most likely winner, but he’ll be upwards of 20-1 odds and I’m not so sure he should be based on his overall resume.
$10 Win 1
$2 Exacta 3/4/8 with 1