Football fans are forced to endure the spring and summer months away from their favorite past time. Baseball fans slog through a long, cold winter until the dawn of Spring Training. Basketball and hockey fans bide their time through summer and early fall. Soccer fans... well, your off-season depends greatly on which league you follow. However, for the horse racing fan, there is an absence of a traditional "off-season"; as soon as one chapter closes, another is waiting to bust open.
The upcoming Thanksgiving Day weekend is the last major weekend of racing in 2012, and what a weekend it is scheduled to be: the Grade 1 Clark Handicap and Cigar Mile, the Remsen, the Citation, and a rematch of the top two finishers in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in the Japan Cup.
The Breeders' Cup might be over, and the Kentucky Derby still six months away, but horse racing rolls on.
In Part I of the preview, Let's take a look at some of the big races on Thursday and Friday:
Race 4: The Lie Low, 8.0f, Turf, 2yo f
A nice little turf route for juvenile fillies with most of the field exiting a maiden special weight victory in their last effort. 1a-Heading to Toga (5/2) looks to have a tactical advantage in a race without a ton of early speed, but I think 2-Cococut Shrimp (3/1) will likely get the perfect stalking trip along the rail for Pletcher/Repole.
Race 8: G3-Fall Highweight, 6.0f, Dirt, 3up
6-Willy Beamin (6/1) will once again try to run big on a short turnaround (he finished second in the G3-Discovery on Nov. 17th) but it's hard not to be a bit concerned after a lackluster race in his last. Dutrow shortens him up to six panels for the first time and he's fortunate to draw outside of the other speed horse, 1-This Ones for Phil (5/1).
2-Caixa Electronica (9/5) hasn't been at his best over the last five races but he's drawn into a race where he's probably the clear class of the field. The odds aren't going to be great but he should have every chance to run down the leaders in the stretch.
Race 2: $10,000 Starter Allowance, 2 Miles, Dirt, 3yo & up
Now here's something you don't see every day: a two mile race on the main track.
Morning line favorite 2-Ellio (7/5) makes sense when you consider he just won at this level going 12 furlongs in his last start (and won comfortably, at that). But where's the fun in playing a likely even money favorite in this spot?
I like 7-Miami Ice (5/1), a prior winner at the unheard of distance off 2 ¼ miles at Ellis last September and a pure grinder if there ever was one. Given the distance of this race, I'm looking for a horse that can continue to churn out fractions, regardless of how far he's asked to run. Miami Ice fits that bill for me in this spot.
Race 4: Optional Claiming $100k, 8.0f, Dirt, 3yo & up
A very nice high-level optional claimer featuring such names as 2-Rule (5/2) and 4-Hamazing Destiny (4/1), both of which are looking for a win after some tough races this summer and fall.
I'm tossing out the favorites in this race and taking a play on the stretch out horse for Tom Amoss, 3-Tidal Volume (6/1). Over the last five years, Amoss has been excellent with horses stretching out from sprint distance (45/210, 21% Win%, $1.17 $2 ROI, $4.30 Median Payoff), and if you sort for just starters at Churchill those numbers improve slightly (7/30, 23%, $1.38, $6.00). With that kind of success in his corner, I'll take a shot with the Amoss horse provided his odds stay in the 6/1 to 5/1 range. Anything at 9/2 or less and I'll start to have second thoughts.
Race 10: Allowance N1X, 8.0f, Turf, 3yo & up
The temporary rail is at 15 feet for this race (as well as race 6), which isn't far enough out to really give an advantage to the speed horses. I won some good money on 1-Kris Royal (3/1) when he broke his maiden at Saratoga this summer, and he's positioned to save a lot more ground in this spot compared to his first try at the level. I like him for a win bet and thrown into an exacta with 5-Gaelico (7/2), a Dale Romans trainee that should be able to use his experience and success in mile turf events to his advantage.
Race 11: G2-Falls City Handicap, 9.0f, Dirt, 3yo & up
The Thanksgiving card feature race at Churchill pulls together a nice collection of fillies and mares on the main track. Morning line favorite 7-Afleeting Lady (5/2) loves the Churchill main track (7-3-3-0) but has yet to notch a victory at nine panels in her career. She's got some speed to her inside in the form of 6-Brushed by a Star (3/1) which may prove to be her undoing in the final furlongs.
I love the consistency 1-Joyful Victory (3/1) has displayed against graded stakes company this year.
2-Arena Elvira (4/1) is excellent at the distance (6-4-1-1) and she should get the perfect trip behind the early speed of Afleeting Lady and Brushed by a Star.
Race 4: The Super Mario, 8.5f, Turf, 2yo
The companion race to The Lie Low, the Super Mario draws a good field of juvenile turf routers, including 2-Notacatbutallama (4/5), another strong Pletcher/Repole entry at the Big A this holiday weekend. The Harlan's Holiday colt was second in the G3-Pilgrim two races back and is coming in off of a win in an ungraded event at Belmont in late October.
1-Bernie the Jet (5/1) should make the lead from the inside and could be a threat to take the field all the way should he clear his rivals on the backstretch.
Race 6: Maiden Special Weight, 8.0f, Turf, 2yo
The sixth race is one of those maiden specials on the lawn that I love so much, although I really don't have a strong play in this particular race. I will, however, be watching 6-Inception (6/1) very closely. A son of Raven's Pass out of a Alhaarth (IRE) mare (Hallowed Dream (IRE)), Inception was a $225,000 purchase at the 2011 Keeneland September sale and will make his debut Friday afternoon.
Race 9: G2-Go For Wand, 8.0f, Dirt, 3yo & up, f&m
A small field of five for the Go For Wand, with 3-Fantasy of Flight (7/5) looking like a strong contender for win honors after blowing out her rivals in her last races vs. optional claiming company. She's probably a bit better going seven panels than a full mile but it's unlikely she'll be pressured much on the front end of this race.
If 1-Willet (5/2) can get into a good stalking position early, she should have every chance to make a winning move provided she can handle the distance (she's never run further than six furlongs in her career).
Race 2: The Dream Supreme, 6.0f, Dirt, 3yo & up, f&m
I'm keeping it simple for this one: I love that 7-Cheery (3/1) has drawn outside of her rivals where she should be able to use her need-to-lead speed to her advantage. If she can get the jump on 4-Salty Strike (5/2), she might be able to pull off the gate-to-wire victory.
Race 4: Optional Claimer $80k / N3X, 6.0f, 3yo & up
Another nice optional claiming race at Churchill featuring morning line favorite 7-Laurie's Rocket (2/1). It's hard to know what to expect from 6-Flashpoint (3/1) since he hasn't raced in over a year, but if he's fit and ready, he's got the talent to compete against this group.
Race 10: Allowance N2X, 9.0f, Turf, 3yo & up
A big field of allowance turf routers with a nice looking runner from Charles Lopresti, 7-Vallandry (6/1). This gelding won over the Poly at Keeneland last time out but also broke his maiden routing on the lawn at Ellis in the summer.
3-Exothermic (5/2) grabs favorite status on the morning line and you can see why with that big figure and runner-up finish against N2Xers at Keeneland last month.
Race 11: G1-Clark Handicap, 9.0f, Dirt, 3yo & up
3-Shackleford (2/1) will look to go out a winner in the final race of his career on Friday afternoon in the feature race on the Churchill Downs card. He comes into the Clark off a bit of a disaster at the Breeders' Cup after he broke poorly from the gate at the start.
I really like the way that 5-Cease (5/1) has run over his last three races and I think he might get just enough of a pace to make a winning move late in the stretch. Trainer Al Stall cuts him back in trip after missing by a ½ length to Pool Play in the G2-Hawthorne Gold Cup last time out; I like that move and think Cease should have plenty in the tank to tackle this crew. With Pool Play and Shackleford both exiting Breeders' Cup races, Cease may be able to assert a fitness edge.
It's hard to deny the excellent run of form of 10-Lunar Victory (6/1) but he's also facing legitimate questions of class against a Grade 1 field. Trainer Bill Mott knows how to spot his horses, winning with 15% off all graded stakes starters over the last five years (68/451, 15% Win%, 41% In-The-Money, $1.33 $2 ROI, $6.75 Median Payout). If you sort his number just for graded stakes races at Churchill Downs, the stats get even better: 11/56, 20% Win%, 38% ITM, $2.56 $2 ROI, $13.20 Median Payoff.