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Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds Tuesday: Garrity starts to get a feel for Churchill Downs with today’s race picks

He starts with the 5th, post time 2:45 pm EDT

Chris Garrity

We're back for a new week, and it's not just any old week: it's Kentucky Derby week. It's a week of anticipation, a week of late-night handicapping, and a week when the cost of everything in Louisville doubles, or even triples. It's the one week of the year when horse racing goes from the agate type on page 12 of the sports section to the front page. The Derby is a world-class event, the biggest day of the year in horse racing, and it's a week that to horseplayers feels like the week before Christmas feels to kids.

After an off day yesterday, Churchill Downs runs every day the rest of this week, with stakes races every day, and we are going to focus our play there, partly to slake our parimutuel thirst, but mostly to get a feel for the racing there, to get a grip on how the racing surfaces are playing, on what running styles should be favored at different distances and on different surfaces. The forecast today calls for clouds, but dry skies, so we are handicapping for fast and firm. Let's go.

Race 5 is a first-level allowance for fillies and mares 3 and up. They'll go six furlongs on the main track at Churchill, and post time is 2:45 pm (as always, all times here are Eastern). The hot favorite here is the horse on the rail, a 3-year-old filly named 1-Fighting Mad. This Bob Baffert trainee -- get used to hearing Baffert's name this week -- won a maiden race at Del Mar in August, in very fast time, but has been away since, presumably for physical reasons. A repeat of this race would win this, and if she's improved in the past eight months, then forget about it: the rest of this field is running for second money.

But we are going to take a shot against her, partly because she will be 3/5, partly because she's coming off a layoff, but mostly because she's breaking from the rail: jockey Florent Geroux will have no choice but to go for the lead from the inside post, and this might make the race a high-stress effort for her, and leave her lacking down the stretch. In her maiden race, she broke from the outside (4th of 5), but she won't have that luxury today.

We are going with 6-Lady of Luxury. This Larry Jones trainee, another 3-year-old filly, has run three times, and all three times the track has come up wet. She's shown some ability, and her workout pattern suggests she might actually prefer a fast track, which she should get today. And she gets an outside post, which should allow her the luxury of getting her feet underneath her out of the gate and getting a good stalking trip. We will bet her to win. The bet: Churchill Downs, Race 5, $15 to win on 6-Lady of Luxury.

The 7th at Churchill (post time: 3:50 pm) is the stakes race on the card, and it's an interesting one: it's the Champions Day Marathon stakes, a 1 1/2 mile dirt race. This distance is, Belmont Stakes notwithstanding, almost never run on dirt, and that is proved by the race record of the six runners, who have combined for zero starts at a mile and a half on dirt.

We are taking a shot at a price here: and it's with 5-Royal Artillery. This 6-year-old horse looks to have the pedigree (by War Front, out of a Dynaformer mare) to stay 12 furlongs, and he did run in longer races in Europe, though they were on the grass. He has little early speed, which is concerning, as these long races are often (and counter-intuitively) won by horses on or near the lead, but we think he wlil still be running the last quarter mile, which is not the case for the rest of the field (some of them look like they might need an oxygen mask at the 5/8 pole). We get a square price here, 8-1, so we will bet Royal Artillery to win. The bet: Churchill Downs, Race 7, $25 to win on 5-Royal Artillery.

Race 8 at Churchill (post time: 4:22 pm) is a very, very good race, a second-level allowance for fillies and mares 3 and up at a mile and a sixteenth on the grass. The Chad Brown entry here (1-Mighty Scarlett, 1A Kallio) is 6/5 on the morning line, and looks tough, as both of these 4-year-old fillies are coming out of stakes races. But we are going to take a shot at a huge price here, and it's 6-Saba. This French-bred mare showed some ability in France, but has run dismally in her two North American starts, one at Woodbine last June, and one at Tampa Bay Downs six weeks ago. Her form in France, where she won a couple of listed races, says she's better than this, and we are going to excuse her poor efforts on this side of the pond as getting acclimated to the tighter turns and faster pace of American racing. She gets blinkers today, and after some rain in recent days in Kentucky, there may be just a bit of give in the turf, which she should like. We are thinking the blinkers cause her to wake up today, and that means she will have a big chance at a giant price. We will bet her to win at 20-1. The bet: Churchill Downs, Race 8, $20 to win on 6-Saba.

That's all for today. We'll be back tomorrow. Good luck at the windows.