04/16/2011 10:08AM

Blue Grass, Arkansas Derby, Graded Stakes


After Uncle Mo's shocking defeat in last week's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the door is open for The Factor to roll into Louisville with all of the Mo-mentum. 

The Baffert-trained colt will be favored as he seeks to extend his win streak to four in the Grade 1, $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. 

At Keeneland, Santiva is the tepid morning line favorite in the Grade 1, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass, a race where the majority of the entrants have some things to prove as it pertains to the Kentucky Derby. 

It's a fantastic weekend to be a racing fan with the $1,000,000 Charles Town Classic featuring 10 older graded winners, good turf races from Southern California, and a plethora of other graded events in just about every division. 

Let's take a look at some of them:

Commonwealth Stakes - Keeneland - Race 7:
Trainer Charles Lopresti had a breakout year in 2010 with graded stakes victories from Successful Dan, Here Comes Ben, and WISE DAN.  Lopresti, historically, also does very well at Keeneland (9-35, 26%, $2.50 ROI over the past two years).  Over the past five seasons, with horses returning from 61-180 day layoffs, Lopresti is 7-28 (25%) with an ROI of $3.26. 
Wise Dan won the Grade 3 Phoenix here last season in his first start off a 160-day layoff.  It was a race in which he stepped up from a sloppy optional claiming win at Churchill Downs.  This afternoon, Wise Dan will run for the first time in five months and his last race, a win in a sloppy optional claimer at Churchill Downs, was very impressive.  Sent off the 7-10 favorite that day under Julien Leparoux, Wise Dan was immediately taken in hand by Leparoux only to wind up prompting a contested pace while down on the inside.  Leparoux didn't want control of the fence, however, and allowed Wise Day to be shuffled into the pocket entering the turn.  The gelding split horses to get back to the inside, took control of the race, and held sway to the finish.  It was a professional performance for the lightly-raced 4-year-old, and he has a good record (2-3) on synthetics)  He should get some pace to attack today with TAQARUB and COOL BULLET entered to his outside.


Distaff Handicap - Aqueduct - Race 9:
It's a small, but select field of five for this year's Distaff.  I've been very impressed with NICOLE H since she switched to dirt racing as she's only bombed once in five starts for trainer Mike Hushion (that being on the Breeders' Cup Classic undercard at Churchill Downs).  In her most recent race, the Interborough Stakes on New Year's Day over the Aqueduct inner track, Nicole H tracked the pace inside and had to wait for running room in upper stretch before exploding between horses to win in hand.  Hushion is 23-96 (24%, $2.22 ROI) over the past five years with horses returning from similar 61-180 day layoffs, and Nicole H could work out a good stalking trip from the outside.  She'll face tough rivals in SPACY TRACY and QUALIA, but she may be talented enough to get it done as the expected post time favorite.


Santa Barbara Handicap - Santa Anita - Race 9:
Although TURNING TOP slipped and almost went down en route to a runner-up performance in the Grade 2 Santa Ana on March 19, I was just as impressed with the performance of the winner, MALIBU PIER.  Trained by Carla Gaines, Malibu Pier went right to the front that afternoon and was immediately caught up in a prolonged speed duel with eventual third-place finisher Lilly Fa Pootz.  The pace was legitimate for the nine-furlong distance with splits of 23.28, 46.53 going up on the board.  In an interesting move, jockey Rafael Bejarano eased Malibu Pier off Lilly Fa Pootz late on the backstretch only to come again from the outside on the turn.  Malibu Moon put Lilly Fa Pootz away and still had enough to hold off the troubled Turning Top. 
Bejarano sides with Turning Top this afternoon, but both Malibu Pier and Turning Top will have to fend off the talented COZI ROSIE.  Away from the races since May 31 with an ankle injury, Cozi Rosie stormed down the center of the track to win the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap at one mile on February 21.  She beat both Malibu Pier and Turning Top that day, but must stretch out a quarter of a mile and I didn't love that she finished up the Buena Vista on her wrong lead. 
I think Malibu Pier can get to the front under Brice Blanc.  If they leave her alone, she may make them pay late.
Selections:  Malibu Pier, Cozi Rosie, Calle Vista


Charles Town Classic - Charles Town - Race 10:
All 10 entrants are graded stakes winners.  The last non-Breeders' Cup race in the United States that had 10 or more graded winners was the 2006 Arlington Million.  That pretty much sums up the quality of the Charles Town Classic, a three-turn race at nine furlongs over the main track.  Some of my favorites are in this race including the game TACKLEBERRY, and the somewhat-inconsistent DUKE OF MISCHIEF, but I'm going to go with the most recent graded winner, INHERIT THE GOLD.  The gray gelding won the Grade 2 Excelsior Stakes at this distance over the Aqueduct main track two weeks ago, and his winning streak is now up to five.  He's six-for-seven since returning to the races following a knee injury and his good tactical speed could have him in the second flight behind what figures to be a fast and contested pace.  The Excelsior wasn't much of a contest from a quality standpoint, but Inherit the Gold won it the right way in racehorse time.  The quick turnaround is somewhat of a concern as trainer Jim Hooper was originally going to bypass the Charles Town Classic in favor for the Excelsior.  Supposedly, the horse is doing so well that they're going to try the quick return and Inherit the Gold did win the statebred Mr. International Stakes at Aqueduct on January 26 off a 13-day break. 
TIZWAY may improve in his second start of the form cycle for H. James Bond.  He was part of the bunched-up finish in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, his first start since the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.  Plagued by foot issues throughout his career, Tizway can occasionally pop with a big effort, and has earned triple-digit Beyers in five of his last six starts. 


Toyota Blue Grass Stakes - Keeneland - Race 9:
A bulky field of Kentucky Derby aspirants will line up for the Toyota Blue Grass, a nine-furlong prep over the Keeneland polytrack.  While horses like KING CONGIE (hind muscle strain), and CRIMSON CHINA (bled during the Rushaway) have to return from some physical issues, SANTIVA has been away from the races by design following his runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.  It's a risky move for trainer Eddie Kenneally.  We saw horses off similar layoffs (Anthony's Cross, Silver Medallion) disappoint in the Santa Anita Derby.  I guess I'm just a believer in Santiva following the Risen Star.  That afternoon, he prompted the pace while 3-4 wide throughout and made the front in upper stretch before tiring in the final furlong.  The late fade is understandable considering it was his first race of the year and Santiva did perform well over this surface when second in the Breeders' Futurity as a 2-year-old.  Santiva has enough early speed to keep the pacesetters in his sights, and he may save a bit more ground this afternoon.
SENSATIONAL SLAM is a fascinating entry for Todd Pletcher as he stretches out three furlongs following a late-running score in the Fred Capossella Stakes over the Aqueduct inner track.  Sensational Slam wasn't visually impressive that afternoon as he was under the whip with three-eighths to run, but he may attempt to run with JOES BLAZING AARON early and he could be prominent heading into the turn.  Note that he won both of his polytrack races in Canada last year.


Arkansas Derby - Oaklawn - Race 11:
I have a ton of respect for The Factor's, but I wonder if someone, anyone, is going to try him in the early portion of the Arkansas Derby.  The Factor has never gone this distance, and may have been aided slightly by speed-favoring surfaces in his last two races, but he is strictly the one to beat.  I will try to defeat him, however, with NEHRO, an up-and-coming Mineshaft colt trained by Steve Asmussen.  Nehro may have taken advantage of a closer-friendly Oaklawn surface to win his maiden on Feburary 21, but he won with some authority, and he was much-closer to the pace when a good second at 36-1 odds in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at nine furlongs on March 26.  After being lightly-brushed at the start, Nehro tracked the leaders while in between rivals.  He had to wait a bit while down inside at the quarter-pole, but split horses nicely in upper stretch, finished solidly, and galloped out well.  He may have to come from a few more lengths back this time, but he seems to be rounding into good form.
SWAY AWAY lost a tooth at the start of the Rebel Stakes and may have been hindered by the speed-favoring nature of the track.  He was gaining on The Factor two back at seven furlongs at Santa Anita, and may be closer to the pace this time around with the addition of blinkers and Pat Valenzuela.

Some Quick-and-Dirty Selections:
San Juan Capistrano (Sunday):  JUNIPER PASS, CELTIC NEW YEAR, DAHOUD

For a more-detailed breakdown of the races, as well as drf.com Handicapper Mike Beer's take, check out the link below and click on the race name to the right of the video player:



More importantly, who do you like this weekend?  I want to know.