It's a big weekend for racing at Gulfstream Park and the Fair Grounds, with a pair of Kentucky Derby preps headlining the action at both locations. The Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star mark the beginning of the second phase of the official Road to the 2014 Kentucky Derby as each race will offer 50, 20, 10 and 5 points for the top four finishers, respectively, towards a spot in the Derby starting gate.
While the Derby preps take center stage, there are plenty of great races highlighting other divisions. Let's take a look at some of Saturday's stakes action:
G2-Davona Dale - Gulfstream Park (4:13 pm Eastern)
I don't see the 9/5 morning line odds on Stopchargingmaria when a) she's drawn wide in a distance that is awful for horses breaking from gate eight or higher, and b) I frankly don't think she's fast enough to get the lead from Only For You, if Castellano wants to take his mount to the lead.
Despite the fact that this is the first time stretching out for Only For You, I'd be more inclined to take her at 2/1 than Stopcharginmaria at 9/5.
G3- Canadian Turf, Gulfstream Park (4:33 pm Eastern)
Tough, tough race in the Canadian Turf. Mr. Online grabs morning line favorite status at 3/1 and I can see that with his solid record at the distance 10-6-0-1 and a nice run of form at Gulfstream this winter. On the other hand, he's facing an awfully tough field in this spot and a race that has a lot of speed to his outside. I'm not sure he's going to the the best trip from his rail post position.
A horse that really caught my eye was Hampstead Heath, a 20/1 shot on the morning line that makes his way down from Woodbine after some good runs up in Canada last year. He ran in the G2-Nijinsky, G2-Sky Classic and G1-Northern Dancer and gave a good account of himself each and every time (5th, 2nd and 2nd, respectively). Shortening up to a mile shouldn't be too big of an issue, as he's won at this trip before, and his off-the-pace style might play perfectly in a race that looks to possess quite a bit of speed.
In addition to Hampstead Heath, Shadwell's Abtaal (12/1) is intriguing in his second start off of an almost two year layoff. He closed well into a very slow pace back on January 25th at Gulfstream and his European form has a bit of class in it, although it took place a long, long time ago. The problem I have with Abtaal is that I'm just not sure any of that old European form matters after obviously struggling with some kind of serious injuries. I'd like to see his odds drift up a bit before I'm enticed to take a nibble.
Guys Reward would intrigue me at the price of 12/1 if he didn't sport that gawd awful 10-0-1-4 career record over the Gulfstream Park turf course.
G2-Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream Park (5:33 pm Eastern)
I don't particularly see this as a match-up of Commissioner (3/1) vs. Top Billing (7/2), but if I did, I'd certainly lean towards Top Billing (if all things were equal) due to him having to close in to a slow pace in that last race, and that fact that he certainly had the rougher trip than Commissioner when losing by a neck that day. Unfortunately for Top Billing, he's stuck all the way out to post position #12 in a race that practically begins on the turf. It's not that he can't win from that post, it's just that it makes it a lot harder in a race with plenty of challengers.
Let me just cut to the chase with my thoughts on the Fountain of Youth: I found this race to be a mess to handicap. Sometimes you handicap a race and the patterns and tendencies are clear, the pace is easy to dissect, and the data on the form leads you into logical conclusions. Then, on other days, you keep looking at the form while saying to yourself, "I don't know."
I like General a Rod and the improvement he's displayed in his most recent start in the Gulfstream Park Derby. I like the fact that he possesses some stamina on the dam side of the pedigree and could get better as he stretches out. On the other hand, I honestly don't have strong feelings about any horse in this field.
Bayou Handicap, Fair Grounds (4:55 pm Eastern)
Class Included, before she shipped down to California for the Ladies' Classic a year and a half ago, was one of the best horses on the grounds at Emerald Downs here in Seattle. As such, I'll be pulling for her in the Bayou Handicap. The six-year-old mare is very consistent from race to race and probably fits at this ungraded stakes level more so than her tries versus Grade 2 and Grade 1 company.
G3-Rachel Alexandra, Fair Grounds (5:25 pm Eastern)
It's not just the Derby contenders that are trying to find their way to Churchill Downs, the fillies looking for a chance at the Oaks are also beginning serious preparations towards the first Friday in May.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, Ria Antonia (9/2), returns for her first start in 2014 at the Fair Grounds in the Rachel Alexandra, but she likely won't be the favorite when loading into the gate. While Ria Antonia ran a big race at Santa Anita (and placed first after She's A Tiger was DQ'd), she still only has a maiden race where she finished first at the wire and she's facing a pretty solid group of challengers for her three-year-old debut.
Bob Baffert's Streaming (5/2) could be the controlling speed in this race as there is a definite lack of early pace from the field of seven fillies. I'm not sure Streaming really wants to lead as she's deployed a stalking style in her three prior races.
I like the improvement Shanon Nicole (5/1) made after making the change to dirt for the first time in her last race. Now, to be fair, running on the dirt wasn't the plan as the optional claimer she entered was washed off the lawn, but she did run perhaps the best race of her career over a fast dirt track, so that's a positive.
G3-Fair Grounds Handicap, Fair Grounds (5:55 pm Eastern)
Daddy Nose Best (5/2) finds himself in an excellent spot to pick up another graded stakes score on the lawn as he draws into a field that appears to set up nicely for his late running style. He won the G3-Bradley Hcp. at the Fair Grounds in late January.
I also like Unitarian a bit in this race but not at his morning line odd of 5/1; those look like odds influenced by the "Pletcher Factor". Given his lack of success at the graded stakes level, I'd need something closer to 10/1 to be a buyer on this colt. On the other hand, I like the fact that he's drawn wide and possesses a late, grinding run that should do well if the pace is quick early.
G2-Risen Star, Fair Grounds (6:25 pm Eastern)
Unless Tom Amoss and Gerard Melancon decide to deploy new tactics on Saturday, I would expect Rise Up (4/1) to go right to the lead in the Risen Star in an attempt to run all of his rivals into the ground before they even get to the top of the Fair Grounds stretch. And while there are other horses in the field that like to run up near the lead, I'm not sure they'll be able to contest the early pace unless their jocks are willing to ask them for a lot more run than normal through the first quarter mile.
Intense Holiday (8/1) hasn't done a lot of winning at the graded stakes level (actually, he's 0-for-4) but he's run consistent races every time and he looks like a colt with a grinding style that could come up with a big run in a massive field of this size. He's got enough early speed to keep him in the middle of the pack through the early stages and, at a minimum, I would hope his prior experience against 11 and 12-horse fields would help him deal with any traffic issues that might crop up in the final half mile. He might have a tough time catching a loose on the lead Rise Up (if, in fact, that's how the race plays out), but I could easily see him in the mix for the exacta and trifecta.
G3-Mineshaft Handicap, Fair Grounds (6:55 pm Eastern)
The Mineshaft is the kind of field that Prayer for Relief (5/2) feasts on: Grade 3 race with a field of contenders with most of their success coming at the ungraded stakes level. Additionally, there appears to be a good, strong early pace in the making which should allow Prayer for Relief to simply sit two or three lengths off the pace and wear down the tired frontrunners.
While the favorite makes a lot of sense in this race, I'm inclined to take a shot with a closer like Micromanage (10/1). He should be able to save all the ground he needs with his rail post and, if the pace falls apart in the late stages, he's got a good enough late kick to pick up the pieces.