Weekend Stakes Action: Presidents Day 2014 Edition

Hey, look! I found a picture from Laurel Pakr in the photo tool. Cool. - Rob Carr

A look at some of the top stakes races coming up on this President's Day holiday weekend.

President's Day is Monday, February 17th, and what better way to honor the memory of former leaders of this country than a weekend full of horse racing and betting! The weekend kicks off with some nice stakes action on both coasts and finishes with the last of the preliminary Derby preps.

Let's take a look at some of the top stakes races on the docket this Saturday afternoon.

G3-Very One & G2-Mac Diarmida, Gulfstream Park

If you like long races on the lawn, you're in luck on Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park. The G3-Very One and G2-Mac Diarmida (one for the fillies and one for the colts) are both run at 11 furlongs on the turf course and both have drawn a pretty nice field of contenders.

Looking first at the Mac Diarmida, I'm inclined to give 4-Slumber (GB) (4/1) a pass on that 4th place finish in the G2-Fort Lauderdale last time out over the Gulfstream turf course. This guy likes to come from the middle of the pack or near the rear of the field and that's certainly not the spot to be when the rail is up at 96 feet, which it was on January 11th in race 9. Beyond that last race, he's shown up and run some good races against top class competition and should be a lot better in his second start off the two and a half month layoff. Additionally, he's versatile enough to run over firm or soft ground, although the weather forecast looks perfect for Saturday so wet weather shouldn't be an issue.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Slumber is that the three horses that finished in front of him in the Fort Lauderdale - Summer Front, Tettradrachm, and Nikki's Sandcastle - finished 4th, 5th and 7th in the eight-horse G1-GP Turf Handicap last weekend. A triple flop coming out of the Lauderdale gives me some pause with Slumber in this spot.

Alpha, a horse that seems like he's been racing for twenty years (it's only been three), makes his 2014 and turf debut in the Mac Diarmida, which seems like an odd choice considering he's yet to prove he can run a winning race outside of the state of New York. He sprung the upset in the Woodward at Saratoga last summer and then proceeded to finish 13 lengths back in the JC Gold Cup and the BC Dirt Mile (why in the world was he in that race?) before finishing a poor fourth in the Hawthorne Gold Cup to close out the year.

Twilight Eclipse (5/2) grabbed morning line favorite status off of an oh-so easy win in the G3-McKnight Handicap at Calder in late December when he won by seven lengths in gate-to-wire fashion. I'm not sure he'll be available at 5/2 come post time.

Turning to the Very One... I gotta say, this looks like a fairly tough race on paper. Morning line favorite Preferential (GB) (5/2) has yet to win or even run against graded company in North America and can claim a score in an ungraded event at Keeneland as her only victory since leaving France in late 2012. She's a nice looking mare but I'm not sure I'd put her as the top choice on the board versus this field.

Left a Message (3/1) flopped pretty badly at Tampa last time out and finished second by a half a length in that Keeneland stakes won by Preferential last fall. She snuck in a good third in the Long Island Handicap in between her last three starts but, like the morning line chalk, is pretty light on success against graded stakes company. And really, that's the story of the field in the Very One: little to no success at the graded stakes level (with the exception of Long Island Handicap winner Inimitable Romanee (6/1)) but quality at the allowance or optional claiming level.

A note on Inimitabbe Romanee: that wire-to-wire victory in the Long Island Handicap came after she was allowed to go 1:20+ for the first six furlongs. 1:20+. Yeah, the course was "Good" at the Big A that day, but come on, it's not like the ground was a bog. I'm not looking to jump on board with a mare that was essentially handed the race in the first three-quarters of a mile.

If I'm looking for a bit of a sleeper play, I'm looking directly at the outside mare, Viva Rafaela (BRZ) (8/1). This Pletcher trainee has performed so-so in her four starts since traveling up from her native Brazil but she may just love the added ground she'll receive in this spot. She has enough speed to get her into the race through the early stages and Johnny V. should be able to keep her out of trouble from the outside draw. I like the fact that Pletcher is wheeling her right back against stakes company after that disappointing performance in the Marsuha's River as it suggests that Todd thinks she's better than she displayed that day.

Saturday's card at Gulfstream will feature two temporary rail placements: 12 feet and 84 feet. Both the Very One and the Mac Diarmida will run with the 12 foot rail. The rail settings break down as follows:

12 foot rail
Race 2
Race 8: G3-Very One
Race 10: G2-Mac Diarmida

84 foot rail
Race 6
Race 9
Race 11

As you can see from the breakdown above, the late Pick 4 is an "all turf" affair on Saturday afternoon. If you like Pick 4s and playing races on the lawn, well, there you go.

G3 - El Camino Real Derby, Golden Gate

There are two official "Road to the 2014 Kentucky Derby" prep races this weekend: the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Monday and the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on Saturday. Both races are part of the 10-4-2-1 portion of the Derby preps.

Gary Stevens, not content to rest on his victory on Candy Boy in the Robert Lewis Stakes last weekend, makes the trip up to San Francisco to ride Enterprising against a field of seven rivals in the El Camino Real. Enterprising was second in last month's Cal Derby at Golden Gate but notched a pair of victories over the Santa Anita turf course this winter, including a victory in the Eddie Logan on December 28th.

Dance With Fate, second in the G1-Front Runner in late September before finding all kinds of trouble in the BC Juvenile, moves back to synthetics for the first time since a half-length seventh in the Del Mar Futurity in early September. He appears to be a better colt on synthetics/turf than on dirt, so we shouldn't discount the chance for improvement in this spot on Saturday.

G2-Barbara Fritchie Handicap, Laurel Park

Groupie Doll may have finished off her career with a phenomenal victory in the Hurricane Bertie last weekend, but the rest of the Filly and Mare Spring division is looking to figure out if anyone can fill her shoes, er, hooves. La Verdad (5/2), a New York-bred filly that love to grind her competition into the ground with her brilliant early speed, ship down from Aqueduct to face nine rivals in the Barbara Fritchie at Laurel.

After encountering trouble at the start and finishing fourth in her debut almost a year ago, La Verdad has reeled off five consecutive victories all by a minimum of two lengths over her competition. She's yet to face graded stakes company (or stakes company of any kind) and three of her victories have come against state-bred company, but, at a minimum, she'll make for a very interesting pace in the Fritchie.

La Verdad isn't going to get anything handed to her on a silver platter as the mare to her outside, Winning Image (9/2) has plenty of speed to make things difficult on the chalk from the moment the gates open. Winning Image is a perfect 2-for-2 at Laurel and has thrown down some impressive early splits in pretty much every single race she's entered over the past two years.

With what appears to be a pretty fast pace ready to unfold in the early stages of the Fritchie, I'm looking squarely at My Wandy's Girl (4/1) as a mare with a change to grind out a victory against this field. My Wandy's Girl tends to run her best as the distances stretch out from six panels, which might make this seven furlong race with a ton of early pace the perfect set-up for a mare that likes to grind out consistent splits. She was second in the G2-Ruffian last April and lost by three-quarters of a length in this same race last year at Laurel. She was stuck on the rail in the 2013 version of this race and might just be ready to pop a big effort from her wide draw on Saturday. I'll take 4/1 all day long on this mare if she's available at her morning line price at post time.

I'll take a look at the Southwest Stakes once the entries and post positions are set. Until then, happy handicapping.

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