First post time is 4:04 pm EST.
Today is the first of February, which is the month that the Kentucky Derby prep season really heats up. It's fitting on the first day of the month, then, that there are a bunch of Derby preps: the Withers at Aqueduct, the Swale and Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, and the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. There are also some stakes for older horses as well; we'll take a look at one of them. It's a good slate of racing. We expect fast dirt and firm turf everywhere, except as noted, so let's get right to it.
Aqueduct, Race 8, 4:25 pm ET
Grade 3 Withers Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds
Some rain moved through New York overnight, but the amount that fell was on the lighter side, so we are expecting a fast trick by post time of the Withers. It's a good field, with eight colts scheduled to go into the starting gate.
The main track at Aqueduct, which was recently favoring speed, flipped this week, to fair, or even slightly favoring closers. We note this because the Withers is a mile and an eighth, which is longer than most Derby preps this time of year, and it's quite a distance for 3-year-olds, who are still young and who are developing rapidly, to have to negotiate. There's some serious speed in here, including 2-1 morning line favorite 5-Shotski, who rode a speed bias to win the the Remsen last out, and 2-Monday Morning Qb, who was last seen taking a minor stakes at Laurel Park. Each of these horses won their last race by virtue of their superior early speed, but we are very skeptical that either is going to be able to carry that speed the full nine furlongs of this race. In fact, the presence of both, plus the way the dirt at Aqueduct has been playing in recent days, makes a suicidal speed duel likely, a too-fast early pace that will set the race up for a closer to win it.
That makes 8-Portos a strong play. While this colt has only won one of his four career starts, he has gotten better in each of them, with his last, a 10 3/4-length maiden win on New Year's Eve at Aqueduct, by far the best. He's bred for the distance, out of top sire Tapit and a Tiznow mare, as is shown by the fact that all four of his starts have been at either a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and an eights. We think he would be ready to take another step forward today under any circumstances, but the fact that the shape of the race, and the way that the track is playing, favor his running style make him a strong pick. Look for him to be galloping toward the back of the pack early, and running late. We will bet him to win at 3-1. The bet: Aqueduct, Race 8, $40 to win on 8-Portos.
Gulfstream Park, Race 9, 4:04 pm ET
Grade 3 Swale Stakes, 7 furlongs, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds
The Swale is the first of two 3-year-old stakes at Gulfstream today, and it's a one-turn race, at 7 furlongs, for horses who are not yet ready to run around two turns. It's a fascinating race to handicap, primarily because it reveals one of the fundamental questions that a handicapper must face when looking at Derby preps this time of year: the development of young horses from 2-year-olds in the fall to 3-year-olds in the spring.
4-Green Light Go looked like a potential star last year: he broke his maiden in his first race, at Saratoga in July, and then won the Saratoga Special in his next start. He was good enough that he was the 6/5 favorite in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October; this is one of the premier juvenile stakes races of the year, and a key prep race for the Breeders Cup Juvenile. Green Light Go disappointed in the Champagne, finishing second to Tiz the Law, who runs in the Holy Bull later on the Gulfstream card, and then was given a break for a few months.
Green Light Go earned similar Beyer Speed Figures in all three of his starts last year: 84 in the maiden race, 84 in the Saratoga Special, and 82 in the Champagne. This, then, is the fundamental handicapping question: are these kind of figs his ceiling? Was he a precocious colt who won those races last year because he developed physically faster than his contemporaries? Or will he, with four months of rest, and four months of additional growth, be better than he was in the fall?
We will find out today, because he's up against two very fast colts, 1-Mischievous Alex and 2-Untitled. Trained respectively by John Servis and Mark Casse, each of whom won their last start, and each of whom has run faster than Green Light Go ever has. Will Green Light Go improve enough to stay with these two?
We think the answer is no: we think that Green Light Go is analogous to the basketball player who was six feet tall in eighth grade, and who dominated his grade school games, but by high school is sitting on the bench, because the other kids caught up to, and even passed, him. Green Light Go could end up being a good horse, and even a Kentucky Derby starter, but at this point we are betting against that.
We like 1-Mischievous Alex. He added blinkers before his last race, the Parx Juvenile in November, a race in which he ran the rest of the field off their feet: he won by 9 3/4 lengths. And the race was even better than it looked: he went wire-to-wire on a track that was biased against speed horses and in favor of closers. This was a monstrous effort, he's been given some time off to recover, and he has been working well in the morning. We think he's sitting on a big race, and we like the fact that he's trained by John Servis, who is based at Parx, and who doesn't come to these races for the social atmosphere or the Florida sunshine: he comes to these big races when he thinks he has a horse who can win them. Add it all up, and we will take 1-Mischievous Alex. We will bet him to win at 7/2. The bet: Gulfstream Park, Race 9, $40 to win on 1-Mischievous Alex.
Gulfstream Park, Race 11, 5:04 pm ET
Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds
The field for the Holy Bull came up a bit short, with only seven entrants, and 3-Tiz the Law, who's trained by Barclay Tagg, towers over the rest of the runners. He's 3/5 on the morning line, will probably be 1/5 at post time, and is the likeliest winner in any race in the country today.
We think Tiz the Law will probably win the Holy Bull, and stamp himself a legitimate early Kentucky Derby contender in the process, but we are still going to bet against him: At something like 2/5, he's an underlay, and we always bet against underlays. The colt with the most upside among the other runners, we think, is 4-Ete Indien, who is trained by Patrick Biancone, and who won his last race, his first on dirt after two starts on turf, in pretty impressive fashion. A move forward here would put in into contention, and at 6-1, he is worth a play. We're not going to go nuts here, because Tiz the Law is very good, but there is nothing wrong with betting against an overbet favorite, so that is what we will do. The bet: Gulfstream Park, Race 11, $10 to win on 4-Ete Indien.
Santa Anita Park, Race 6, 6:00 pm ET
Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds
Bob Lewis was a longtime mainstay on the Southern California racing scene, who, with his wife Beverly, owned noteworthy horses like Serena's Song, Silver Charm, and Charismatic. He was an all-around good guy, and we like the fact that a significant Derby prep is named after him. He also made his fortune in the beer business, which endeared him to us even more.
There are six entrants in the Lewis, and Bob Baffert seems to have the rest of them over a barrel, as he starts two highly talented colts 4/5 morning line favorite 2-Thousand Words, and 3/1 co-second choice 5-High Velocity. A win by Thousand Words, especially in fast time, would stamp him as a legitimate early Kentucky Derby contender.
We tired sixteen different ways to bet the favorite, but we just can't: Thousand Words looks too good, too fast, for the others to keep up with. And Baffert has been hot recently, which makes him look pretty close to a cinch. We will fall back on the old truism that there is value in every winner, and will bet Thousand Words to win. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 6, $50 to win on 2-Thousand Words.
Santa Anita Park, Race 8, 7:02 pm ET
Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, Dirt, 4 & Up
We turn from 3-year-olds to older horses in the San Pasqual, and it's a good race, with a good and deep field of ten. We are going with another runner trained by Bob Baffert here, 1-Roadster, who ran in the Kentucky Derby last year, and was last seen running a very good second in the Grade 1 Malibu on Dec. 26, which was the opening day at the current Santa Anita meeting. Roadster will appreciate the nine furlongs of the San Pasqual after the seven furlongs of the Malibu; he should get a good trip from his rail post, and should have some speed in front of him, to set up the stretch-running style that he favors. We expect a win from Roadster here to stamp himself as a player in the handicap division this year. We will bet him to win at 7/2. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 8, $40 to win on 1-Roadster.
That's all for today. Enjoy the racing, and, as always, good luck at the windows.