Spring seems to be taking hold across the country, and the winter doldrums are fading in the rearview mirror. We are seeing more tracks racing, especially midweek, and this is a sign that the weather is improving across North America. Where on a Wednesday deep in midwinter there might be only three or four tracks running, today there are nearly a dozen, including good cards in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. We will cherry-pick the races we like the most from Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, the Fair Grounds, and Sam Houston Race Park for a six-pack of plays on a fine early spring afternoon. Another sign of the change in seasons is a lack of bad weather. we expect fast and firm turf at all these places. Let's go.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 5, 2:45 pm ET
Allowance/Optional Claiming, 1 mile, Turf, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
Seven older females go in this allowance/optional claimer at a mile on the turf. Speed has been faring quite well on the Tampa Bay sod, and there's a runner in here, 6-Distinctive Flower, who is very, very fast, with the kind of early speed that one might expect to see on the dirt. If she doesn't fall down coming out of the gate, she will get the early lead, and will do so on a turf course that is kind to her front-running style.
So what are we going to do? Throw her out, naturally and play a closer. We will do this because the setup in this race looks too obvious: jockeys can read the Daily Racing Form too, and the riders of the other horses in the field will recognize that giving away an easy early lead to Distinctive Flower will practically give her the race. So we expect some race riding early, and a much more contested pace than would seem to project on paper. That will set the table for 4-Barrel of Destiny, the only real closer in the field, to make a late charge to get up and win.
These kinds of contrarian opinions can blow up in one's face, can make one look like a fool for ignoring the obvious, but one must play against the crowd to have a chance of parimutuel success in this game, and in this instance, we get a juicy price for our against-the-grain view. We will bet Barrel of Destiny to win at 8-1. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 5, $30 to win on 4-Barrel of Destiny.
Tampa Bay Downs, Race 8, 4:17 pm ET
Allowance/Optional Claiming, 6 furlongs, Dirt, 4 & Up
This allowance heat drew a field of eight,and by our count, six of them are need-the-lead types who can only win if they get to the front early. When this situation presents itself, a handicapper can do one of two things: the first is to take the horse with the most early zip -- "take the speed of the speed" is the way it was explained to us many years ago -- and the second is to draw a line through all the speed horses, and pick a stalker or a closer.
We are taking the second approach here, partly due to the number of one-dimensional frontrunners in the field, but mostly because none of the six is significantly faster than the rest. We think they're all going to run about equally fast, and that will cause all of them to run out of gas late.
The horse who should be able to pick up the pieces is 1-Mighty Ghost. Not only does he have the right running style, but he's coming off a good race, a 4th-place finish, in very fast time, in an allowance race on February 20. He showed some speed that day, but we expect him to sit back in this one, and make a big run late. We will bet him to win at 3-1. The bet: Tampa Bay Downs, Race 8, $35 to win on 1-Mighty Ghost.
Fair Grounds, Race 6, 3:55 pm ET
Allowance/Optional Claiming, 1 Mile, Turf, Louisiana-bred Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
This race, which drew a field of thirteen, might be the toughest race of the day to handicap. The favorite is a tepid 7/2, which gives an indication of how well-matched the runners are.
We are going with a speed play here: 12-Spartanburg has quite a bit of early zip, and breaking from the outside, she will have to use it to avoid getting hung wide around the first turn. We expect her to get very little pressure on the front end, as the other runners have little natural early speed. We see a comfortable, front-running trip for her, and will wager that she can conserve enough energy during the race's early part that she can still finish strongly. We will bet her to win at 5-1. The bet: Fair Grounds, Race 6, $25 to win on 12-Spartanburg.
Fair Grounds, Race 7, 4:24 pm ET
Maiden Special Weight, 6 furlongs, Dirt, 3-Year-Old Fillies
This is another race with a good field, with eight sophomore fillies going to the starting gate, and another lukewarm favorite, with the chalk at 3-1. We like 6-Saintsation, who starts for trainer Bernard Flint. She ran a deceptively good race last out, stalking the pacesetters on a race with a pronounced speed bias. As usually happens when the surface is stacked in favor of speed, the early leaders did not back up, and she was unable to catch them. She still finished a good third, and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 60 for the effort, which looks good enough here. On a fairer surface today, we expect her to improve, and what proved to be a liability for her last time -- her stalking running style -- should be an asset, as a stalking outside trip looks to be just the ticket here. We will bet her to win at 5-1. The bet: Fair Grounds, Race 7, $30 to win on 5-Saintsation.
Sam Houston Race Park, Race 8, 4:54 pm ET
Starter Optional Claiming, 1 mile, Dirt, 4 & UpUnlike the rest of the races in today's lineup, which were tough to handicap, this race looks straightforward: the wonderfully named 1-Mr. Tickle has the speed figures, the running style, and the post position that combined make him a solid, if somewhat obvious, pick. He should save ground from his inside post, and wear down the pacesetters with a move around the far turn. We will bet him to win at 5/2. The bet: Sam Houston Race Park, Race 8, $40 to win on 1-Mr. Tickle.
That's all for today. As always, good luck at the windows.