With each passing week, we get a bit closer to the Kentucky Derby, and the races leading up to it get more important. That is the case today, as there are three key Derby preps: the Gotham at Aqueduct, the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, and the San Felipe at Santa Anita. Throw in the Kilroe MIle for turf milers and the Santa Anita Handicap for older handicap runners, and it's a terrific day of racing from coast to coast. We can't cover all, or even most, of the races today that deserve attention, but we will play as many of them as we can, focusing, as always, on those with the most sporting appeal and/or wagering potential.
We expect fast dirt and firm turf everywhere. Let's go.
Aqueduct, Race 10, 5:42 pm ET
Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, 1 Mile, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds
As preps go, the Gotham is probably not the best predictor of success in the Kentucky Derby success. It's not so much the mile distance, but the fact that the races at this distance at Aqueduct are run around one turn: this makes the races play more like sprints, and the Kentucky Derby requires a level of endurance, a level of fitness, that horses just don't get in a race like this.
But it's a good race in spite of all this: there's a deep field of eleven, and it's a good one to bet. We think that 6-Mischevious Alex is a strong play: this John Servis trainee has run six times, and has placed in five of them, with his only off-the-board finish on a surface (grass) which he just did not like.
Mischevious Alex has won his last two starts, including a win in the 7-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 1, and while that victory was visually impressive -- he he won by an eye-popping seven lengths after being pinned on the rail around the far turn -- it was even better than it looked, as he is a speed horse, and the racing surface at Gulfstream Park that day was biased against speed and in favor of closers. On an Aqueduct racing strip that should be much fairer today, or even a bit speed-favoring, we are expecting Mischevious Alex to run a monstrous race. He probably is not a horse to back to win the Kentucky Derby, as he seems to lack the pedigree to get a mile and a quarter, but the distance of the Gotham should be right in his wheelhouse. At 3-1, he's a terrific play: we will bet him to win, and we will do so enthusiastically. The bet: Aqueduct, Race 10, $50 to win on 6-Mischevious Alex.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 10, 4:55 pm ET
Grace 3 Florida Oaks, 1 1/16 miles, Turf, 3-year-old filies
It's the biggest day of the year on the west coast of Florida, where there's a huge, 12-race program highlighted by the Tampa Bay Derby, which has gained popularity and importance as a Derby prep in recent years. But the race for 3-year-old colts is not the only race on the card: the Florida Oaks is a good race from both a sporting and wagering perspective, with twelve sophomore fillies going a mile and a sixteenth on the Tampa Bay sod.
6-Walk in Marrakesh is our pick in the Oaks, and one we like quite a bit: bred in Ireland with a good turf pedigree, she ran in a handful of juvenile races in England as a juvenile last year, doing fairly well, but looking like the kind of runner who prefers firmer turf. Since they get truly firm going so seldom in the UK, her connections brought her to North America, hoping for firm footing, but in her debut on this side of the pond, she caught a yielding turf course at Woodbine in a Grade 3 stakes in September. She finished a pretty game second that day, a nose behind the winner, but we think she will do much, much better over firm grass, which she will get in Tampa today. We think she simply outclasses the modest field of the Florida Oaks, and at 3-1, we think she is another very good bet. We will bet her to win. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 10, $40 to win on 6-Walk in Marrakesh.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 11, 5:32 pm ET
Grace 2 Tampa Bay Derby, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds
The field for the Tampa Bay Derby came up pretty strong: there's a full field of twelve, and most have pretty solid credentials. The two morning line favorites, 7-Sole Volante, who's 2-1, and 4-Chance It, who's 5/2, ran against each other in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 4. They finished third and first in that race, respectively, but since then, Sole Volante came back to win the Sam F. Davis Stakes over this Tampa Bay strip on February 8.
A win by either of these two would not be a surprise, but we are picking a colt who will be a very big price: 9-Unrighteous, who's trained by Todd Pletcher and who will be ridden by Joe Bravo. He is a maiden, winless in two career starts, and while conventional handicapping methods would dismiss him entirely for this reason alone, we think he has a real shot here: he ran second in his last career start, and earned a very good 89 Beyer Speed Figure, and since then, he has two extremely fast workouts. 3-year-olds this time of year can show massive improvement in a very short period of time, and Unrighteous, a gangly, long-striding colt, has the look of this kind of runner to us. We think he has a real shot to win the Tampa Bay Derby, and at a positively juicy 20-1 on the morning line, we have to bet him. Because of his price, we will bet to win and to place. The bets: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 11, $30 to win / $20 to place on 9-Unrighteous.
Santa Anita Park, Race 5, 4:10 pm ET
Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, 1 mile, Turf, 4 & Up
The Big 'Cap is the headliner on today's Santa Anita card, but the Kilroe is a great race in its own right, a stakes with a rich and deep history in the sport. While this year's field is probably not the best in the race's history, it's a pretty deep one, with ten going to the post. The full starting gate is worth celebrating, as Santa Anita has been plagued recently by a lack of horses and short fields.
There's a female running against the boys here, 4-Got Stormy, a 5-year-old mare who was a finalist last year for champion turf female. She didn't win that award, but she did have a terrific season, beating the boys in the Fourstardave at Saratoga and finishing second in both the Woodbine Mile and Breeders Cup Mile. She's a terrific race mare.
Got Stormy is 5/2 on the morning line, and we hope she gets tons of parimutuel support, because we don't like her today. We think the pace today is going to be fast, and that is going to set the table for 8-Frontier Market, who is by far the strongest closer in the field. He will be at the rear of the field for the first half mile (he may even be dead last), but we think he will pass all of them down the stretch: look for him to be flying late. We will bet him to win at 6-1. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 5, $35 to win on 8-Frontier Market.
Santa Anita Park, Race 8, 6:01 pm ET
Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds
Horse racing in Southern California has been besieged by problems recently, and while the problems get people's attention, it's worth remembering that Southern California is still home to some serious Kentucky Derby prospects. A couple of them will go to the starting gate today in the San Felipe, and that makes this a good race. Bob Baffert, as usual, has the strongest hand here, saddling both 6/5 morning line favorite 4-Authentic and 9/5 second choice 5-Thousand Words. Both are undefeated. Thousand Words has been a leading Derby contender since last October, when he broke his maiden at Santa Anita; Authentic jumped into Derby consideration with a big victory in the Sham Stakes in January.
We think one of these two will win this, and we give the nod to Thousand Words. He's more battle-tested, with wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Bob Lewis Stakes in his last two, and we are not quite sold yet on Authentic, as his effort in the Sham, while visually impressive, was earned while setting the lead through soft early fractions, and the resulting final time was not especially fast. We think Thousand Words stamps himself a leading Kentucky Derby contender in the San Felipe this afternoon, and we will bet him to win the race. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 8, $40 to win on 5-Thousand Words.
Santa Anita Park, Race 10, 7:03 pm ET
Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, 1 1/4 miles, Dirt, 4 & Up
The Big 'Cap may have lost some of its luster, and may not be quite as big an affair as it used to be, but it's still a classic with an extraordinarily rich history, and an early-season highlight on the national racing calendar. It's hard not to be taken by a race that has among its past winners Seabiscuit, Affirmed, John Henry, and Tiznow, to name just a few. It's a true Grade 1, a 10 furlong test that will tax the very best horses.
We think 6/5 morning line favorite 4-Gift Box, who won the race last year, is going to make history this afternoon, joining a very select group of horses who have won the Santa Anita Handicap more than once. The John Sadler trainee checks just about all the handicapping boxes: he's in good form, having won the San Antonio Stakes in fast time last out; he's proven at the distance; and he has a adaptable running style, being just as comfortable setting the pace as stalking it. We think he will probably be setting the pace today, as there's little speed among the other runners, and if he gets loose on a very easy lead, we don't think any other horse will be able to catch him. We'll look to end the day with a big run from Gift Box, and we will bet him to win the Santa Anita Handicap. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 10, $50 to win on 4-Gift Box.
That's all for today. Enjoy the races -- it's a terrific day of racing -- and, as always, good luck at the windows.