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Thoroughbred Saturday picks from Garrity as the Derby Prep races march on in February

Bob Vetrone

Bob Vetrone

Chris Garrity

The days are slowly but surely getting longer, which means that the new year is moving right along, as it always does, and moving right along with the seasons is Kentucky Derby prep season. Though the wait for the big race on the first Saturday in May seems interminable, analogous to the horseplayer to the way a kid waits for Christmas morning, it surely does not feel that way to the horses and their human handlers. There are only three months from now until the Run for the Roses, and horses need to get a lot done in a short period of time to make the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

Today the march continues with the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes, which features top Derby contender Independence Hall, and which headlines a very good card at Tampa Bay Downs. There are also good stakes in divisions other than 3-year-old males on the Derby trail, like the Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct (3-year-old sprinters), the Suwanee River at Gulfstream (older female turf runners), the King Cotton at Oaklawn (older male sprinters), and the Thunder Road at Santa Anita (older male turf runners). We expect good weather, and fast and firm conditions, everywhere today, so let's go.

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Aqueduct Race 8 (4:25 pm ET)

$100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes

7 furlongs, dirt, 3-year-olds

The featured race today at the Big A is the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, named after a jockey and trainer from way, way back; to this day, Wink's win in the 1902 Kentucky Derby, aboard Alan-a-Dale, remains the last win by an African-American jockey in the world's biggest horse race. Racing at Aqueduct was cancelled on Friday due to the mammoth storm that brought buckets of rain, high winds, significant damage, and even a few tornadoes, to the East Coast. New York got less rain than some other places, and that, combined with the fact that the main track at the Big A dries out quickly, has us thinking that conditions will be fast today. We hope so, because this the Winkfield is a good betting race, and we want a fast, and fair, racing surface.

It features seven juvenile colts going 7 furlongs; it's a good betting race. The top contenders have earned similar speed figures, and have similar speed-oriented running styles, and that, we think is going to make it tough for any of them to win the race, as 7 furlongs can be a difficult distance for speed horses.

We like an outsider here: 4-Old Chestnut, who is trained by Mark Casse, This colt will be doing a couple of firsts today: he's making his first start as a three-year old, and he's making his first start on dirt, as his six career starts have been on either turf or synthetic. He's also coming off a layoff, having last raced in December, and he's going from a turf route to a dirt sprint. That's a lot of stuff going on with him.

But there are reasons to like him. The first is pedigree: he's by top sire Speightstown, who has produced some turf runners, but who we think of primarily as a dirt stallion (Speightstown raced exclusively on dirt, and was a champion sprinter), and by a mare named Pool Land, who was a Grade 1 winner on dirt herself. We think Old Chestnut should love the dirt, and should love sprinting on it, and in winning a minor stakes race on the synthetic track at Woodbine last year, he proved that he is a horse with quite a bit of ability. He has worked well on dirt recently, including a very good January 11 drill on the Belmont Park training track, and we think he looks poised for an upset in the Winkfield. We also think his running style is a fit for how we expect the race to unfold: he should be able to stalk the leading group, and to make his move at the top of the stretch. He's 8-1 on the morning line, so we will bet him primary to win, with a smaller place bet thrown in due to his big price.

Aqueduct Race 8

$30 to win / $15 to place on 4-Old Chestnut.

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Gulfstream Park Race 11 (5:04 pm ET)

Grade 3 Suwanee River Stakes

1 /8 miles, Turf, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up

The Suwanee River drew a field of seven older females who will traverse nine furlongs on the Gulfstream Park sod. With this kind of compact field, and a reasonably long run from the start to the first turn, post position should not be an issue for any of them.

The race came up light on runners with any early zip, so light, in fact, that we were tempted to predict that this would be a totally paceless affair that would eliminate the chances of all the closers. But after a closer look at the running lines, we think there is enough speed in here to ensure a legitimate pace -- and enough speed to compromise the chances of 7/5 morning line favorite 6-Starship Jubilee, who has done her best running while loose on an uncontested lead. We don't think she is going to get that today -- she is going to have company up front -- which means we are going to try to beat her.

The pick is the late-running 3-Magic Star, a lightly-raced 4-year-old from the Chad Brown barn. This daughter of Scat Daddy returned from a layoff to win the Grade 3 Marshua River at Gulfstream on January 11, by rallying from just off the pace, and while we think a repeat of that effort might be good enough to win this, we think she is going to run better. She's running second off a layoff, and she has presumably matured physically since last year -- horses typically reach their physical peak in the first part of their 4-year-old season -- and that gives her the edge in a competitive field. An added bonus is that runners from Brown's barn have been hot lately: after a slow start, Brown runners are winning at a 27% clip for the year. Add it all up, and we will bet Magic Star to win at 5/2. Look for her to be flying late.

Gulfstream Park Race 11

$40 to win on 3-Magic Star.

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Tampa Bay Downs Race 11 (5:29 pm ET)

Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes

1 1/16 miles, dirt, 3-Year-Olds

The road to the Kentucky Derby gets more serious with each passing week, with more of the top contenders making their 3-year-old debuts, and the races increasing in importance. The field in the Sam F. Davis is a good example of this: 4-Independence Hall, who's is undefeated in three career starts, and who is on everybody's Derby Top 10 list at this point, will make his first start around two turns today. Though it's not technically his 2020 debut, it feels like it: he won the Jerone at at Aqueduct on January 1, which seems more like last year than this year.

We think Independence Hall is pretty close to a cinch in this race. Though his win in the Jerome came up light in the speed figure department -- he earned an 82 Beyer Speed Figure -- he had an eventful trip, blowing the break and rushing up to the lead. This kind of exertion early in a race's early stages will frequently leave a horse out of gas in the stretch, but rather than gasping for air, Independence Hall finished the Jerome strongly, leveling out in mid-stretch and running through the wire impressively. We think he'll handle the mile and a sixteenth easily, and we think that Independence Hall will move toward the top of his class today by winning the Davis. It will be tough to outdo Tiz the Law's win in last week's Holy Bull at Gulfstream -- that was sensational -- but we think Independence Hall will win impressively today, and stamp himself an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. We will bet him to win at 6/5.

Tampa Bay Downs Race 1

$50 to win on 4-Independence Hall.

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Oaklawn Park Race 8 (5:38 pm ET)

$125,000 King Cotton Stakes

6 furlongs, Dirt, 4 & Up

The King Cotton, a dirt sprint for older horses, drew a good field of eight. We like 1-Share the Upside, a 5-year-old Steve Asmussen trainee who has been away since last August. He has abundant early speed, which he will need breaking from the rail, but he has been absolutely breathing fire in his morning exercises, with several recent sensational works: these suggest to us that he is ready to run a big one. Another plus is that he loves Oaklawn Park: he's run there four times, won three of them, and finished second in the other. We think he goes right to the front today, and doesn't look back. We will bet him to win at 3-1.

Oaklawn Park Race 8

$35 to win on 1-Share the Upside.

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Santa Anita Park Race 7 (6:31 pm ET)

Grade 3 Thunder Road Stakes

1 mile, Turf, 4 & Up

The Thunder Road, a Grade 3 race at a mile on Santa Anita's turf course, drew a deep and competitive field of ten. There really aren't any throwouts in the race, which is evidenced by the fact that nine of the ten runners are between 7/2 and 12-1 on the morning line. It's really a race that any of them could win.

But there's one we think will win: 7-Frontier Market, who is trained by John Sadler. He's a grizzled veteran, a 7-year-old gelding who seems to have found his niche running a mile on the turf. He's as honest and consistent a horse as you'll see, giving a good effort every time he runs, and running very similar speed figures in the process (in his last five races, he's earned a Beyer Speed Figure between 93 and 97). We think this is good enough to win today, partly due to the composition of the field, and partly due to his running style: he's a stretch runner in a race that looks to us to have a good bit of early speed, which should set the table for a closer. Sadler has been on a roll of late, and another plus is that he will get the services of top turf rider Flavien Prat. We will bet him to win at 4-1.

Santa Anita Park Race 7

$35 to win on 7-Frontier Market.

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That's all for today. Enjoy the racing, and, as always, good luck at the windows.

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