As Steve Crist pointed out in a recent Daily Racing Form article, the absence of turf racing on Wood Memorial day necessitates that the undercard be filled out with claiming and state-bred dirt races. While this may be a disappointment to some, for anyone who had the patience and fortitude to focus on New York racing for the long winter season, this card is a welcome intersection of familiar faces from the inner track and the elite racing that is sure to characterize the months to come.
I found this card to be particularly fun to handicap and accordingly, I have more than a few opinions. Get out your reading glasses, good luck, and enjoy Wood day!
Race 1: Starter Allowance $20,000 at seven furlongs
I freely admit that BRASS PEAR (#5) may simply not be good enough to win a race at this level, but I also believe that he’s going to be a much larger price than he really deserves to be. Whether or not he actually has a chance depends on how fast you think the winner of this race is going to have to run. If Denzel repeats the mid-80s Beyer speed figures that he posted in January and February, he’s probably going to win. However, one of those was earned in the mud at Laurel and the prior one looks a bit suspicious upon closer inspection since all three horses who finished ahead of him have yet to get within nine points of the figures they were assigned that day after a combined nine subsequent races. Denzel is one of many who can win this race, but I don’t think he holds the significant edge that those Beyer figures would suggest.
The rest of the field can’t reasonably be expected to run anything better than a Beyer figure in the mid- to high-70s at this level, and I believe Brass Pear is ready to put forth that sort of performance. His maiden win was achieved with the aid of a mild rail bias, but he took a significant step forward last time when stepped up against winners. March 15th was a day that featured one of the stronger rail biases of the inner track meet and Brass Pear was chasing in the two-path for his entire trip. His performance was a lot stronger than the 69 Beyer figure it was assigned.
He has made huge strides over the past few months, but it should come as no surprise that there was latent potential here. After all, he is a full-brother to Busher winner What a Pear, who is the dam of today’s Wood Memorial entrant, Effinex. They have both been best around two turns so I don’t think today’s stretch-out to seven furlongs should pose much of a problem.
$10 Win 5
$2 Exacta 1,3,4 with 5
Race 3: Claiming $35,000 at seven furlongs
I want to bet against Street Thug in this spot. While he may not be as low as his 2-1 morning line odds, I don’t think he has much of a chance to win turning back against competition this tough. I know that it’s tempting to say that he’s the lone speed on paper, but a horse like Sokitumi Samurai has routinely been posting faster fractions pressing the pace in sprint races. I think Street Thug will be in front, but that others will be within striking range at the top of the stretch and offer better finishes.
ZETTERHOLM (#1) appears to be the most likely winner. I know that he’s been ridden as a closer in most of his races, but he’s not exactly slow. For instance, go back and watch his Move It Now Stakes from last November in which he made an early move into a 1:09 4/5 six-furlong fraction. Recently he’s been prone to pulling his riders and making early moves in two-turn races. That’s usually a signal that a turnback might not be the worst idea, and David Jacobson not only enters him in a sprint, but also adds blinkers. A moderate early tempo should allow him to stay close early and intensify his late kick. I’ll bet him to win and will use him over Ravalo (#2) and Sokitumi Samurai (#5) in exactas.
$15 Win 1
$5 Exacta Box 1 with 2,5
Race 4: Claiming $12,500 at 6 1/2 furlongs
Some of you may recall that I loved TINY PREDICAMENT (#4) at 33-1 on March 22nd and you can easily see how that turned out. (For those who care about what horses do without riders on their backs, a riderless Tiny Predicament made a run from about 25 lengths back after getting left at the gate to pass even the winner just after the field had crossed the wire.) While this race doesn’t have quite as much early speed signed on as that event did, I have to go back to him here. Perhaps it’s fair to question his current form, but I would attest that he has not, until last time, been placed in a realistic spot by new trainer David Cannizzo. I’ve been saying for a few months now that David Cannizzo does especially great work with older claiming sprinters and the numbers support that notion. Since he’s taken out his trainer’s license, he’s started 34 older horses (4YO & up) in claiming dirt sprints. Six of them have won for an ROI of $4.47 and 19 have been in the money despite the fact that the median odds for horses in that sample is just over 7-1. What that tells me is that Cannizzo’s runners often outperform their odds in these situations.
Tiny Predicament never had a chance when he ran first off the claim three back in a tough $25,000 claimer against classier, in-form horses Bellamy and Hackleton. The early pace was extremely slow and he was forced to race four-wide for the entire run around the far turn, which took away all of his late punch. (Watch the replay.) Then two races ago they tried to stretch him out, which he clearly does not want to do. Tiny Predicament needs to get back to his very best efforts to have a shot, but I don’t think that’s an unlikely scenario given how dirtied up he is and Cannizzo’s general propensity for overachievement with these types of runners.
I’ll bet him to win and will use him underneath Starship Captain (#2), who was against the rail bias on March 15th, and Pleaseandthankyou (#6), who drops in class after being eliminated at the start last time.
$15 Win 4
$5 Exacta 2,6 with 4
Race 5: Allowance N1X at 6 1/2 furlongs for NY-breds
Speaking of horses who were against the rail bias on March 15th, perhaps none were as negatively affected as WILD FINISH (#4), who, from his outside post position, was forced to race three-wide for the entire run around the turn. All things considered, he actually didn’t run that badly in a race that he probably needed anyway given Wesley Ward’s lackluster long layoff statistics. He certainly has good efforts from his three year-old season to build on, a few of which are even better than they look on paper. The running line comment for his January 16, 2013 race makes no mention of the fact that he was checked badly at the start, necessitating that he be ridden as a deep closer in a race that otherwise held together on the front end. (Watch the replay.) He certainly doesn’t need to be that far back as long as he breaks cleanly and I expect a much-improved performance today.
Summer Place to Be and Ogermeister appear to his primary competition, but they are both coming off long layoffs and will need to be at the top of their game to win this race. Wild Finish is likely to be the largest price of the three and that’s good news for me since he’s the one I feel that I can rely on to deliver.
$15 Win 4
Race 7: Allowance N1X at one mile for NY-breds
There are plenty of horses in this race that I don’t want. Goodtolook posted an incredible 99 Beyer speed figure at Gulfstream two races back, but I’ll need to see that sort of performance out of him again before believing it. He’s posted a blowout win over a wet track in the past so I’d be skeptical of him repeating that effort in this tougher spot, especially if the surface is dry by this point in the afternoon.
Irish Moon has put in some good efforts during his career, but something forced him to be away from the races for nine months after a poor performance at Charles Town and I thought his return was duller than the running line might suggest—he really did no running at all. I need to see an improved performance out of him before I trust him.
Beyond Empire started his career in promising fashion, but a turf experiment failed and then he was awful on June 2nd at Belmont. He’s been working well for his return and Kiaran McLaughlin does very well with layoffs of this type, but I feel like he might be the favorite even though he doesn’t actually have a big speed figure edge on this field.
I’ve landed on ARCHER HILL (#2) for my top selection for a couple of reasons. First of all, his dirt races are better than they appear. He battled through fast fractions on April 13th of last year–notably, with Beyond Empire–going this same one-mile distance and actually hung on well to be fourth. Then in his lone subsequent dirt race, he ran over a sloppy track on May 11th at Belmont that was strongly favoring speed and the rail. He chased in the two- to three-path for most of the way before finishing a decent fourth. Things went awry through the summer as he ran off with his rider at Saratoga and was put away for many months. He returns here back on the dirt and, more importantly, as a new gelding. These two changes could prove key to his success here for Lisa Lewis, who has decent numbers with horses coming off long layoffs.
I’ll also place a secondary win wager on long shot TESTOSTERSTONE (#8), who I’ve wanted to bet back since he chased an extremely fast pace here two weeks ago. I’m fairly sure that the opening quarter mile of that race was the fastest of the entire inner track season and Testosterstone was right up on the pace. He took over briefly at the top of the stretch and finished well ahead of the other speeds in an effort that was much better than the 61 Beyer figure he was assigned. This is a tougher spot, but he’s bred to excel at this distance and I think we’ve yet to see the best of him.
$15 Win 2
$10 Win 8
Race 8: THE BAY SHORE (G3) at seven furlongs for three year-olds
I’ve heard quite a few handicappers referencing a projected contested pace in this race, but it seems entirely plausible to me that FAVORITE TALE (#6) might just be a lot quicker than any of the other “speeds.” I actually think he could find himself with a clear lead on the backstretch racing at a relatively comfortable clip—at least for him, that is. It’s tempting to say that he’s been beating nothing at Parx, but he did face a serious challenge two back when he fended off Alex Inc, who returned to win an allowance race by over 11 lengths with a 101 Beyer figure. Favorite Tale ran the fastest race of his short career just 12 days ago, but he accomplished it so easily that it’s hard to imagine the race took much out of him.
It should come as no surprise that this horse is fast and precocious since his dam is a half-sister to Favorite Trick—hence the name. If this horse transfers his Parx form to this bigger stage today, the rest of these might be in for a frustrating seven furlong chase.
I’ll also place a secondary win wager on a longer price that might be overlooked in the wagering. CHARLEYMILLIONAIRE (#1) is no slower than horses like Financial Mogul and Coup de Grace, who are going to take a lot more money than him and I think he still has some upside. He was probably best in the Jimmy Winkfield after getting squeezed back early and making a wide rally. (Watch the replay.) Then last time he was stretched out to a mile, which is beyond his optimum distance and he held on well after being engaged in a duel early on the far turn. Irad Ortiz, Jr. should be able to work out a stalking rail trip if he’s good enough. The 30-1 morning line price seems outrageous to me, but maybe it’s not that unrealistic given that Kobe’s Back is likely to be an overbet favorite.
Kobe’s Back can certainly win, but he has quite a reputation for a horse who has only run faster than a 68 Beyer speed figure twice in his five race career. I know that such a statement oversimplifies things since he did have significant trouble in his two route tries, but even his very best effort in the San Vicente doesn’t make him any kind of cinch here. I think he has a shot to win, so I’ll include him in an exacta box with my two top selections, but I’ll be interested to see what price he goes off at.
$15 Win 6
$10 Win 1
$2 Exacta Box 1,6,8
Race 9: THE GAZELLE (G2) at 1 1/8 miles for three year-old fillies
My Miss Sophia is taking a gigantic leap up in class and it’s not like she has any significant Beyer speed figure edge on her rivals. She may ultimately turn out to be a nice filly, but I just don’t understand why anyone would want to bet this horse at a relatively short price. It was not the strongest maiden field that she was beating up on as the second and third place finishers in that race, 58-1 and 26-1 shots, came back to lose their subsequent starts by 8 and 34 lengths, respectively. Perhaps she will play out to be the lone speed, but it’s not like the horse to her outside, Vero Amore, is any slower if they decide to use her speed. Based on some things I’ve been hearing, it’s not out of the realm of possibility than she’ll be a shorter price than Sweet Reason, which is ludicrous to me.
I would give some credence to concerns about SWEET REASON (#3) being better around one turn, but I think we need to keep in mind that this is not the Kentucky Oaks. This race is a prep that—outside of Sweet Reason—drew a field barely worthy of its Grade 2 ranking. This filly who ran some spectacular races as a two year-old and it feels to me like a lot of people are forgetting just how awesome she was last year.
Her return only received a 58 Beyer, but that race was basically a three-furlong breeze with a five-eighths of a mile run-up. She got what she needed to get out of it and should be fit enough for this test. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a slow pace could actually work to her advantage. She has perhaps the best turn of foot on dirt of any filly in her generation and if this race goes slowly early on and turns into a dash to the wire, stamina may not even be that great of a factor. (Remember last year’s Remsen?)
If Sweet Reason is defeated, I believe it will be at the hands of Todd Pletcher’s other filly, Got Lucky (#2), who is proven at the distance and has been steadily improving with each start. I’ll bet Sweet Reason to win since the price might actually be fair and will box her in the exacta with Got Lucky.
$20 Win 3
$5 Exacta Box 2,3
Race 10: THE WOOD MEMORIAL (G1) at 1 1/8 miles for three year-olds
I suppose that Social Inclusion needs to be discussed first. On paper, he looks like this year’s Curlin or Big Brown, but I’m more than a little skeptical. Mile and a sixteenth races at Gulfstream are notoriously speed-dominated affairs and once he was allowed to get his opening quarter mile in 24 1/5 seconds the result was a foregone conclusion. I know that not every horse who comes through with a breakout performance at Gulfstream is assigned a Beyer speed figure of 111 and defeats the early Kentucky Derby favorite by 10 lengths, but I just can’t get past the fact that strange things do happen at Gulfstream that don’t translate to other venues. Social Inclusion is obviously very talented, but he’s going to beat me in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
I have no knocks against Samraat and Uncle Sigh. They hooked up to run fast races in both the Withers and Gotham and are learning to rate off other horses, which should be an asset in a race that is loaded with speed. Kristo, Schivarelli, and Social Inclusion all figure to be vying for the lead entering the clubhouse turn and it’s likely that Samraat in particular might have to take some dirt in his face for the first time. I think that both of these horses are legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders and this race should be a good final test.
So… NOBLE MOON (#3).
I know that any reasonable line of thinking would seemingly lead to the conclusion that you’re supposed to be against this horse. He is slower than his rivals and anything that could have gone wrong has reportedly gone wrong for him in the three months leading up to this race. I honestly didn’t expect him to be in the field, but here he is.
Many of you may know that I’ve been a fan of this horse since last fall, but I do also have some tangible reasons for picking him today. I wouldn’t be that concerned about his fitness level since, while he has had well-documented foot troubles since the Jerome, he has been in steady training since mid-February with an eye toward this race. Leah Gyarmati refused to commit to entering until she put him through her signature one-mile workouts over the past couple weeks and I’ll take it as a vote of confidence in the horse that he’s actually running. This is the same trainer who was fairly grounded in her statements even after the Jerome, saying that he’d have to improve a great deal over the next few months to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat. I just don’t think these connections are the type to potentially ruin a young horse just to make one big race.
As far as his form is concerned, while I did think his effort in the Jerome was solid considering that he set a deceptively fast pace that day, I am still citing his Nashua as the primary reason that I think he can be a factor against this level of competition. If you haven’t seen the head-on replay of the start of that race, I suggest you check it out. Noble Moon was absolutely clobbered at the break, which is the reason why he was so uncharacteristically far back early. He then launched an eye-catching wide move on the far turn to vault past the main body of the field. He flattened out a bit in the stretch, but was also ridden conservatively late in a race that was intended to be a means to an end. Bad luck kept him out of the Remsen and so his Jerome is the only other race off which we can assess his form.
Noble Moon is bred to run all day since his dam was a plodder that ran her best races at nine furlongs and his sire has proven many times over that he can get runners that compete over a mile and a quarter at the highest level. I am taking a leap of faith that routine improvement and maturing since January will place him on the same plane as the horses who actually did take those steps forward in the Withers and Gotham. However, I expect him to be double-digit odds today and, at that price, I have to take a shot with a horse who has as much raw ability as I believe Noble Moon possesses.
$15 Win 3
$2 Exacta 2,8,10,11 with 3
Race 11: THE CARTER (G1) at seven furlongs
I saw this as one of the more straightforward races on the card. CLEARLY NOW (#2) almost fell at the top of the stretch of the Cigar Mile (G1) when he clipped heels with Private Zone and remarkably recovered to still finish a good fifth. (Watch the replay.) He was electrifying in his prior start in the Bold Ruler, his first with blinkers, and if he returns here at that same level of performance it will be tough for any of today’s rivals to beat him.
The only horse who I think can match that kind of effort is SAHARA SKY (#6), who after a lackluster comeback in the Palos Verdes appears to be be back on track. I don’t think Jerry Hollendorfer would have made the trip East for his Met Mile prep unless the horse was doing as well as last year. Furthermore, I’ve read statements that Sahara Sky is reportedly sounder than last year since he reacts better to training over dirt than he did over Hollywood’s synthetic track. He does need a little bit of pace up front, but the fleet-footed Dads Caps should provide that with Clearly Now and Strapping Groom in close attendance. I just think that Clearly Now and Sahara Sky are significantly better than those horses and should assert their superiority in the stretch.
$10 Exacta Box 2,6
Race 12: Maiden Special Weight at six furlongs for NY-breds
There are really only two horses that I want to use in the finale and one may be a decent price. Salisbury Knight (#3) ran a respectable race in his debut against open company at Gulfstream and probably doesn’t need to improve much off that effort to win this. However, he may be a strong favorite and I think there’s a horse in this race who is a lot better than he looks on paper and could have a say in the outcome.
STENSON (#5) made it onto my Horses to Watch list after his debut, in which was three- to four-wide for nearly his entire trip on March 16th, a day when you needed to be on the rail to have any success. It’s a very encouraging sign that Javier Castellano is taking the mount for these low-profile connections and I expect this horse to take a massive step forward this afternoon. I’ll bet him to win and use him with the favorite in the exacta.