Man, was it weird watching yesterday's races, all of which, at least in this country, were run in front of empty seats. It looked downright post-apocalyptic, with facilities that are normally bustling and quite quite pleasant -- most racetracks, especially the nicer ones, are aesthetically lovely places to spend an afternoon -- completely empty, with the hoofbeats of the galloping horses echoing off the desolate grandstands.
We watched a few of the races from Oaklawn Park yesterday, and we half expected to see Mad Max emerge from the rain. For the foreseeable future, this is the new normal. And we should be thankful for it, for races run at tracks closed to the public are better than no races. In a sporting landscape where everything else has been postponed or cancelled, we will appreciate the Sport of Kings even more.
Sport, when one gets right down to it, is a diversion, and at this moment, we are very grateful for the diversion these magnificent Thoroughbreds provide. And a bright spot in the rapidly evolving nightmare wrought by Covad-19 is that this a terrific time of year in the horse racing world. In fact, early March might be the best time of year for a lot of people who know nothing about the sport to begin paying attention: Spring racing is ramping up, more and more grass racing is held as the weather across the country improves, and most important, the road to the Kentucky Derby is in full swing.
If we're all going to be stuck at home for the next two months, then following the lead-up to the Run for the Roses is going to be a terrific way to pass a bit of time. This is true even though we are very uncertain that the Kentucky Derby will actually be held on May 2. Perhaps the world will have returned to normal by then, or perhaps track management at Churchill Downs will decide to run the Derby card while closed to the public, as tracks are doing now. We are skeptical that either will happen, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves: like everyone else affected by the pandemic, we are going to take it one day at a time, and it is not time today to worry about an event in nearly two months. We will stay focused on what is immediately in front of us. And which in today's case, what is in front of us is a terrific day of racing, with good stakes racing across the country.
The headliner is Oaklawn Park, which will run the Rebel Stakes, a key Kentucky Derby prep, but there are a host of other big-time races, including a terrific one at Santa Anita Park, the Grade 1 Beholder Mile, named after one of our favorite horses of all time. Since the Rebel is the featured race of the day, we'll look at that one first, and then run through the rest of the races in chronological order. We have six races on tap, five on traditional dirt and one on a synthetic track; we expect fast going for the dirt races, and a normal/dry surface for the race on what the late, great Jay Cronley called "the lint." With that out of the way, let's go.
Oaklawn Park, Race 10, 6:23 pm ET
Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds
The road to the Kentucky Derby will take a big step forward late this afternoon with the running of the Rebel, a race that has grown in importance as a prep in recent years. The headliner this year is 1-Nadal, who is undefeated in two career starts for trainer Bob Baffert. He is a highly talented and speedy colt who will get a lot of attention because of his human connections, and because of his win in the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita on February 9. But he will line up against seven other talented colts today, and at a short price, we think Nadal is a play-against. There are a couple of other runners who look good, but the one we like most is 3-Basin, the winner of last year's Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, who starts for Steve Asmussen. He's won two of his three career starts, and his win in the Hopeful was impressive both visually and against the clock. He's coming off a pretty long layoff, having last run in September, but his recent morning works are strong, and if he has matured physically, as horses his age typically do, then we think he is sitting on a monstrous race today. He's a lanky, long-striding colt who should thrive at longer distances, and we think that Basin is going to stamp himself a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby today. He should get a good stalking trip, and from there, the only question is whether he's good enough. We think he is, so we will bet him to win at 3-1. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 10, $50 to win on 3-Basin.
Aqueduct, Race 8, 5:01 pm ET
$100,000 Correction Stakes, 6 furlongs, Dirt, Flilies & Mares 4 & Up
A field of seven older females goes in the Correction, and it's an interesting group, a good race to handicap. We like the favorite, 2-Bridlewood Cat, a lightly-raced 4-year-old filly who has won half of her four career starts. She seems to have found her niche as a sprinter, and has a pretty clear edge in early speed, which is important on Aqueduct's speed-favoring dirt racing surface. Her last race was not quite as good as the races before it, but we think she is going to rebound today, and do so in a very big way. Look for her to take the early lead, and stay in front all the way around the track. We will bet her to win at 8/5. The bet: Aqueduct, Race 8, $40 to win on 2-Bridlewood Cat.
Oaklawn Park, Race 9, 5:50 pm ET
Grade 2 Azeri Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
Azeri was a sensational race mare, and the best races of her career were probably run at Oaklawn Park, where she won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap three times. So it's nice to see that there's a stakes race named in her honor, and it's even better to see that the field this year is a terrific one. Seven older females will go to the starting gate this afternoon, and they're all good. We think this is the best race of the day to bet, and it's because of the presence of 9/5 morning line favorite 5-Serengeti Empress. She is a speed horse who has had the misfortune of running her last three races on racing surfaces that were biased against speed, and in favor of closers; she unsurprisingly lost all three. But the Oaklawn dirt course has been pretty speed-favoring of late, and we think that is going to give her a significant edge this afternoon. We'd probably like her if we thought the track would be fair; if it favors her front-running style, and we think it will, she becomes a very, very strong pick. We will bet her to win, and we will do so aggressively. Look for her to go to the front early, and to stay in front all the way around the track. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 9, $75 to win on 5-Serengeti Empress.
Gulfstream Park, Race 11, 5:52 pm ET
Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie Stakes, 7 furlongs, Dirt, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
The Hurricane Bertie, another dirt sprint for older females, drew a field of nine. A couple of them have a lot of early speed, and as a result, we think this race is going to have a very fast early pace, so fast that the pacesetters run out of gas late in the race. The fact this race is at 7 furlongs is another reason to look for an off-the-pace runner, as this is probably the distance at which it is most difficult for a horse to win in wire-to-wire fashion. We expect 1-Blamed and 8-Pauseforthecause to be flying out of the gate, but we're looking elsewhere for the winner. We like 9-Lady Kate to win the Hurricane Bertie. Her last two races were at a mile, but were both at Gulfstream Park, where the mile races are run around one turn, just like this one, and we think that the stamina she will have from running in those longer races will help her today. She should get an ideal trip from her outside post, sitting outside the speed, and in position to make a move around the far turn. She seems to be an improving 4-year-old with her best races in front of her, and we think she is in with a big shot here. At 8-1, she is a very good price, so we will bet her to win and to place. The bets: Gulfstream Park, Race 11, $25 to win / $15 to place on 9-Lady Kate.
Turfway Park, Race 11, 6:42 pm ET
Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks, 1 1/8 miles, Synthetic, 3-year-olds
Turfway Park in Kentucky has a bunch of stakes on the card today, with this one, the Jeff Ruby Steaks (it's a steakhouse; get it?) the headliner. Twelve sophomore colts will line up, and while we doubt that any of them will emerge as a Kentucky Derby contender, that is a possibility, and it's a good betting race irrespective of its relevance as a Derby prep. Very few of the entrants have run on a synthetic racing surface before, so there's a lot of guesswork involved in trying to figure out the likeliest winner. Synthetics typically play much different than dirt, and are generally much less favorable to speed, and when betting, we like to see that a horse has run well in the past over a synthetic surface. We mention that because our pick in this race, 6-Halo Again, is the lone runner here who has won on a synthetic surface: he won a juvenile stakes at Woodbine in November. He made his 2020 debut on dirt in the Lecomte at the Fair Grounds, and while that was a dull effort, we think he will improve today, partly due to today being his second run off a layoff, and partly because he's switching back to synthetic. In a pretty wide open race, we will make Halo Again the pick. At 8-1, we will bet him to win and to place. The bets: Turfway Park, Race 11, $10 to win/place on 6-Halo Again.
Santa Anita Park, Race 7, 7:07 pm ET
Grade 1 Beholder Mile, 1 mile, Dirt, Fillies & Mares 3 & Up
The field in the Beholder came up strong: there are seven very, very talented older females that will go into the starting gate in Southern California this afternoon. One could make a case for just about any one of them, but we see no reason to go against the favorite, 1-Hard Not to Love. She has won five of her six career starts, the last two of them graded stakes. All six of her races have been sprints run around one turn, and she's stretching out to a mile today, but her stalking running style makes us think the extra distance, and the extra turn, will be hurdles she will clear effortlessly. She'll get a ground-saving trip from her inside post, and put bluntly, we think the rest of the field is running strictly for second money. Sometimes is really is as simple as identifying the best horse, and betting her to win. We will bet Hard Not to Love to win at 8/5. The bet: Santa Anita Park, Race 7, $50 to win on 1-Hard Not to Love.
That's all for today. Enjoy the racing, be safe and be well, and, as always, good luck at the windows.