Race 8: The Azeri (G2) at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares
Close Hatches is the marquee name in this event and I don’t dispute that she has an good chance to win. However, I do feel that many are regarding her as the class of the field or some sort of easy single in multi-race wagers and I don’t necessarily agree. There’s no doubt that Close Hatches is a nice filly, but I don’t feel that she’s significantly better than my top pick, On Fire Baby (#7).
Close Hatches gained quite a bit in stature after her runner-up finish in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but that was a race in which two of the key contenders (Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar) completely failed to show up. Close Hatches stayed on well through the stretch to beat out Authenticity for second, but I’m left with the feeling that the race in general did not deliver on its promise. Delving further into her three year-old campaign, she looked sensational in the Mother Goose, but was aided by the fact that her only real competition, Dreaming of Julia, threw in a clunker that day. I suppose she beat the rail bias in her Cotillion win, but even that field doesn’t look quite as strong in retrospect. She’s a quality filly, but I don’t want to bet her as the favorite in this spot.
On Fire Baby is my selection simply because she is one of the best horses in the race and figures to control the pace from the outset. Close Hatches does possess a bit of tactical speed, but you have to think that Joe Johnson is going to send On Fire Baby to the front from her advantageous outside post position. I believe that when this mare is on her game there are few in this division who can beat her. She has run well fresh in the past with the best example being her wire-to-wire score in the Apple Blossom over this track last year. Her season ended in disappointment, but she was cooked in a duel with a champion in the Personal Ensign and then wanted no part of racing over a synthetic surface last time. I fully expect her to get back to her better races over a surface that she loves and, if that’s the case, I’m not sure Close Hatches or a pace-compromised Don’t Tell Sophia will be able to run her down.
$20 Win 7
Race 9: The Razorback Handicap (G3) at 1 1/16 miles
There’s little doubt that Called to Serve is the best horse in this race, but I question whether he’s going to be ready for a top effort off such a long layoff. Steve Asmussen isn’t really known for being a trainer who has his horses ready to fire their best shots off long breaks so I’d be wary of this horse, especially if he goes favored.
Taptowne appears to be a solid contender based on his ability to consistently fire triple-digit Beyer speed figures, but it does feel like usually finds at least one horse to beat him in a lot of his races. I have to question the heart of a horse who has had the lead at the furlong-marker in eight of his last nine starts, yet has only come out on top in three of those races. His task is complicated today by the presence of a speedy Right to Vote just to his outside so I can’t go to him as my top pick, either.
I’ve landed on Golden Lad (#4), whose last couple of races may be better than they appear on paper. Pletcher has brought this horse along in an unconventional fashion—for Pletcher, that is—allowing him to run through all of his allowance conditions before stepping up into stakes company. It took him about five starts to start giving off signals that he might actually be good enough to win a race like this, but I feel that his last two efforts say just that.
While Golden Lad only received an 85 Beyer for his win two back on December 27th, the race does feel like it came up too slow given his competition. Five next-out winners finished behind Golden Lad, but more importantly all of them returned to run significantly faster races in victory. Most notably, Valid, who finished second has since returned to register a Beyer speed figure of 97 winning an allowance race at Calder, which followed Beyers of 106 and 98 that he had posted prior to his battle with Golden Lad. Even more impressively, third place finisher Viramundo stepped up off the 75 he earned behind Golden Lad to register figures of 100, 96, and 97 in his subsequent starts with his crowning achievement being a third place finish in the Donn Handicap (G1). Golden Lad’s most recent start also appears to be very strong given that second place finisher Suns Out Guns Out has already returned to win with a Beyer of 101.
Seeing as this horse has been slow to develop and actually started hinting at real ability all the way back at Saratoga, I don’t think it would be fair to categorize him as just another of Pletcher’s Gulfstream success stories. Rather, this is a horse who has been given ample time to develop and now appears poised to reward his connections’ patience. The evidence supplied above suggests that he stacks up well with this field from a class and speed perspective and his versatile running style should allow Jose Lezcano to work out a good trip.
$15 Win 4 (WINNER; Payout: $90.00)
Race 10: The Rebel (G2) at 1 1/16 miles for three year-olds
This matchup between Tapiture and Strong Mandate is essentially Trip Handicapping 101. The biggest mistake that many handicappers seem to make is placing too much importance on winning. Tapiture ran very well in the Southwest Stakes, but to declare him the superior horse based solely on that one win would be foolish. Oaklawn doesn’t have Trakus installed, but I’ve seen enough Trakus information at other venues to know that a four-wide trip around two turns costs a horse at least four lengths at the finish and perhaps more. Maybe this is shocking for some to realize, but troubled trip aside, Strong Mandate likely ran the fastest race in the Southwest.
Good horses can at times appear to be better than good when they get great trips and I’m guessing that’s what happened with Tapiture in the Southwest. His two year-old form is not nearly as solid as Strong Mandate’s so, until proven otherwise, I will continue to believe that the Hopeful victor is the better horse.
Strong Mandate (#4) should be a great bet in this race because there’s a strong possibility that he may not even go favored in spite of his superior overall resume. I’ll bet him to win and will also try to beat Tapiture out of the exacta with Hopperturnity (#5), who has more tactical speed than he showed in the Risen Star and could pick up the pieces late since fellow contenders Ride On Curlin and Kobe’s Back are suspect at this distance.
$25 Win 4
$5 Exacta 4-5