Churchill Downs takes center stage today, with a quintet of stakes, all of them graded and all of them in succession. After the long, entertaining, long, absorbing, and long Triple Crown season − did we mention that it was long? − we are looking forward to races with a variety of ages, distances, and sexes, rather than just obsessing over 3-year-olds routing on dirt. Even better: the good folks at Churchill have a 5-cent Pick 5 on today's sequence of stakes, which comprise races 5-9, and we are going to attack that the way a fat guy from Cleveland attacks a casino buffet.
The weather forecast in Louisville today is iffy; it'll be dry in the morning, but there's a slight chance of an afternoon thunderstorm. Since the chance for rain is less than 50%, we are handicapping for fast and firm.
It's also an evening card at the Downs Saturday. This is great for simulcast players as it gives the working shlubs among us a chance to get outside during the day, to mow the lawn, weed the garden, walk the dogs, dodge the local loan shark -- you know, the kind of every day stuff that the average railbird has to negotiate in living life. With a twilight card, Churchill allows us to do all that stuff during the day, and then repair, in the evening, to the sofa, perhaps in a smoking jacket and perhaps with a cocktail at hand, and enjoy some top-notch racing and try to make a few shekels. Let's go . . .
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Here's the Churchill Downs lineup for Saturday:
Race 5 (8:03 p.m. ET): Grade 3 Matt Winn. 3-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles, dirt.
Race 6 (8:37): Grade 2 Wise Dan. 3 and up, 1 1/16 miles, turf.
Race 7 (9:12): Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap. Fillies and mares 3 and up, 1 1/8 miles, dirt.
Race 8 (9:47): Grade 2 Stephen Foster. 3 and up, 1 1/8 miles, dirt.
Race 9 (10:19): Grade 3 Regret. 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/8 miles, turf.
The Matt Winn drew a field of seven. The horse we like here is 3-Nolo Contesto. This California-based, John Sadler-trained son of Pioneerofthenile has exactly the kind of race pattern that one wants to see in a 3-year-old this time of year. Each race represents a step forward, and − this part is important − he has not faltered as the distances have gotten longer. The fact that he earned the same Beyer Speed Figure in the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby as he earned in a one-mile allowance race two back (88) is a very positive sign that he is able to handle two-turn races and distance over a mile. Moreover, those equal speed figures − the Ragozin sheet players call them "paired tops" − are a very positive sign that this horse is improving. Horses will very frequently make a big move forward after pairing up figs this way. We expect a big effort int his one from this Santa Anita shipper, this 1 1/16 mile distance should suit him to a tee, and he is our top pick. We will single him in the Pick 5.
The Wise Dan drew an enormous field. There are 14 entered, with one also-eligible, so a full starting gate seems a certainty. If there's one race to spread (include multiple horses) in this Pick 5, it's this one, partly because of all the runners, but also because there is no clear-cut favorite here. The morning-line favorite is 5-1, which shows how wide open this one really is. We're going to chicken out, hit the All button, hope for chaos, and move on.
The Fleur de Lis field came up short. There are only six runners, but what the field lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. 2-She's a Julie, 3-Elate and 5-Blue Prize are all top-notch distaffers. We give the nod here to Elate, who has been knocking heads with the best female horses in training. She finished second in her last two to Midnight Bisou, who just won the Grade 1 in Ogden Phipps on the Belmont Stakes undercard in eye-popping fashion. We considered including the other contenders here, but Elate is too good. We are comfortable singling her.
The headliner of the Stephen Foster is 12-Yoshida, who is Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf. We don't like him in this spot, as he's making his first start since a 6th-place finish in the Dubai World Cup, and horses making their first start after running in Dubai frequently run poorly. At 7-2, he looks like an underlay, but we have to admit he's a very, very good horse. We like 6-Gift Box. This 6-year-old gray is another Santa Anita shipper from the John Sadler barn, and he's the kind of horse that we don't see too much anymore. He's been allowed to mature fully, and the result is a series of very good performances, including win in the Santa Anita Handicap in April and a good second in the Gold Cup, also at Santa Anita, last month. He's a good horse, he's in good form, and he's our top pick. We will include him on the Pick 5 ticket, and we'll throw in 10-Quip and 12-Yoshida as backups.
The Regret is a good race, with a good field of 11 3-year-old fillies. Late running 4-Varenka is our top pick. This girl looks like something special, and we expect her to be rolling late. But we will also include a few other late runners in 6-Hungry Kitten and 10-Gamblin Train. We will also throw in 9-Fortunate Girl, who looks to be lone speed at a big price.
Here are our selections in the Pick 5 sequence:
Race 5: 3
Race 6: ALL (14 runners)
Race 7: 3
Race 8: 6, 10, 12
Race 9: 4, 6, 9, 10
Playing these combinations on one ticket, with a 50-cent base wager.
The cost: $84 (1 x 14 x 1 x 3 x 4 x $0.50). That is the play.
That's all for today. Enjoy this spectacular day, and, as always, good luck at the windows.