We're coming to that point in the year when the first thing we do, before we even look at the entries, is to check the weather. There's plenty of it across the country, from showers across the Eastern seaboard, to a mammoth storm affecting the West Coast. That West coast deal, in fact, is expected to be so bad that Del Mar cancelled their Thursday card several days ago, way out in front of the storm's arrival, which has caused the folks at Del Mar to reshuffle the race schedule for their excellent fall turf festival.
So we'll do today what we've done more than a few times before, and what snowbirds, both human and avian, have been doing for a long time too: we will head to Florida, where it's opening day at Tampa Bay Downs, and the weather should be excellent. There's a good nine-race card there, and we've found plays in a couple of them. We'll also, despite the weather, take a stab at a couple of races at Penn National, where it's a big night, the Holiday Racing Festival, with a trio of stakes races, all early in the evening card, and we like two of them. Let's go.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 3, 1:22 pm ET
$16,000 Maiden Claiming, 1 mile, Turf, 2-Year-Olds
On opening day at any track, one is flying blind a bit, as there are no recent results to determine what kind of horses to favor. We don't know if the track is favoring speed, if there's a bad rail, or if the turf course is biased toward closers on the outside. This is not the end of the world, because every other bettor is in the same boat as us, but we'll have to rely on our understanding of how Tampa Bay usually plays, which is generally fair on the dirt, and slightly speed favoring on the turf.
One thing that is good to see is that the entry box at Tampa is stocked: all of today's races have big fields. The 3rd is a good example: there's a full field of ten. We like the favorite, 8-Maspero, not because we think he's the second coming of Count Fleet, but because the rest of the field is so bad. This level of maiden claimer is pretty much the bottom of the barrel at Tampa Bay, and some of the other horses in here may have trouble staying in front of the ambulance. They're that slow. Maspero's last race at Gulfstream Park West was a dud, but we're willing to draw a line through it, as it was rained off the turf and onto the dirt, and Maspero clearly prefers the sod. A repeat of any of his three races prior to that should get the job done here. At 5/2, he's not going to make anyone rich, but we will try to start the Tampa Bay meeting off on a good note, with a winner, and that winner will be Maspero. We will bet him to win. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 3, $25 to win on 8-Maspero.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 4, 1:52 pm ET
Allowance/Optional Claiming, 7 furlongs, dirt, 3 & Up
This race has a smaller field, with only six runners, but we like it as a betting race, and it's because of the presence of 3-Tony. We think he's eligible for what we call the Parx Bounceback: he ran a couple of very good races at Monmouth Park, in August and October, and then in his last, a starter allowance at Parx on October 28, he ran noticeably less well, finishing 5th. He's been given a freshening since then.
Here's why we like him: the dirt at Monmouth is firm and very fast. The dirt at Parx is much deeper, and much more tiring, and some horses struggle getting over it. We think Tony is one of them, and the reason we like him today is that the dirt at Tampa is much more like the dirt at Monmouth than it is the dirt at Parx. This is roughly analogous to a tennis player winning a tournament on red clay, losing on grass, and then coming back to red clay. With 2-1 favorite 6-Halfback likely to take a lot of betting action, we may actually get Tony's 4-1 morning line price, and at those odds, he's worth a good bet. We will bet him to win. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 4, $30 to win on 3-Tony.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 8, 3:55 pm ET
$8,000 Claiming, 6 1/2 furlongs, dirt, 3 & Up
A full field of twelve drew into this claiming dirt sprint, and it's a good race to handicap, as the horses appear pretty evenly matched. We like 9-Lem Me Tel Ya, who was claimed by trainer Michael Stidham for $6,250 last out, from a race at Monmouth Park. The 4-year-old colt is back after a brief freshening, and we his placement here: we like the fact that Stidham bumps him in class, as we view that as a sign of positive intent. He has in the past run races good enough to win this one, and we think he's going to run that well again today. We'll take him at 7/2, and bet him to win. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 8, $35 to win on 9-Lem Me Tel Ya.
Penn National, Race 2, 6:27 pm ET
$100,000 Swatara Stakes, 1 1/6 miles, dirt, 3 & Up
A field of nine goes here, and we like the horse on the outside, 9-Monongahela. This 5-year-old Jason Servis trainee has been running against way, way tougher -- his last two races were the Grade 2 Kelso and the Grade 1 Whitney -- and he should find the softer company here much to his liking. He's coming off a brief layoff, which we like, and he's got the most speed, which we love. An added bonus :he's got more experience at Penn National (12 starts, 11 in the money) than the rest of the field combined. We will bet him to win at 6-1, and we will do so enthusiastically. The bet: Penn National, Race 2, $40 to win on 9-Monongahela.
Penn National, Race 4, 7:25 pm ET
$200,000 Fabulous Strike Stakes, 6 furlongs, dirt, 3 & Up
Ten drew into the Fabulous Strike, with two of them coupled in the wagering due to common ownership interests. It's an almost shockingly good stakes race for a Wednesday night at Penn National. The 8/5 favorite is the horse on the outside, 9-Firenze Fire, who was last seen running a very respectable 5th in the Breeders Cup Sprint. On form he is tough to deny, because he's fast, he's versatile, and the runners he will face today are not even remotely close to the quality of the horses in the BC Sprint.
We are still going to take a shot at beating him, however. The history of horses making their first start after running in the Breeders Cup is generally poor; they frequently lose at miserly odds. We think Firenze Fire is going to be odds-on, even money or less, and while the other horses are nowhere near as good as Breeders Cup Sprint winner Mitole, they are not pushovers, either.
We like 1-Midnightcharly. We see a pace meltdown in this race, and this 4-year-old gelding has the best late kick in the race. He will have to negotiate traffic breaking from the rail, but we think he can do that, and unleash a powerful stretch run to take the Fabulous Strike. We will bet him to win at 5-1. The bet: Penn National, Race 4, $25 to win on 1-Midnightcharly.
That's all for today. As always, good luck at the windows.