02/23/2013 11:48AM

HandiGambling the Risen Star

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The HandiGambling exercise for Saturday, February 23 is the tenth race at Fair Grounds, the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles.

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In the event of a tie, the earliest post gets first preference. One entry per person please.
 
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I know that there is a time issue for some of you, but let's remember why we began the HandiGambling races in the first place. The goal was to share ideas on why we like these horses, and why we're betting them the way we are. I'm not asking for a novel, but if you could spare a sentence or two outlining your handicapping angles, and thought processes about wagering, it would be appreciated.

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As of this writing, the main track is listed as FAST

Let's scratch #12 HE'S HAD ENOUGH, #14 DEPARTING and #15 SUNBEAN

I wish I could get clever in this race, but #9 NORMANDY INVASION may simply be the best horse.  A runaway maiden winner over a one-turn mile at Aqueduct on November 2, Normandy Invasion ran a corker in his first start against winners, and around two turns, in the Grade 2 Remsen.  It was only his third lifetime start and he broke a half-step slow from the outside post, but Normandy Invasion made a long out-in-out bid before looming boldly in midstretch.  It took the sharp Todd Pletcher-trained Overanalyze to deny Normandy Invasion by a nose and the Beyer Speed Figure earned (99) was exciting.  He has seven workouts since early January for high-percentage trainer Chad Brown and should get enough pace to adequately setup his late kick.  Brown doesn't run many horses at the Fair Grounds, but the one he did start over the past five years, Casino Host, won a Grade 2 on grass last year at 10-1 odds.

#2 CODE WEST has received a good amount of attention leading up to this race based on his runner-up performance, his first start in three months, behind stablemate Super Ninety Nine (returned to obliterate the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes with a 101 Beyer).  Code West is still a bit green so Baffert will remove the blinkers (30-90, 33%, $2.18 ROI over the past five years with blinkers off, won Arkansas Derby with Bodemeister and Haskell with Coil by removing the hood).  The Lemon Drop Kid ridgeling has good tactical speed and drew a solid inside post.

#5 MYLUTE has been in excellent form for high-percentage trainer Tom Amoss. He was only beaten three lengths by the very good Goldencents in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot after making a premature wide run, and then absolutely whistled in an entry-level optional claimer over this track and trip on December 26 (the third-place finisher of that race, stakes-placed Lattin Devil, returned to best Louisiana-bred optional claimers by six lengths with a career-best 83 Beyer).  Mylute has really improved since being allowed the chance to race around two turns and can't be discounted.

Oxbow has won his last two dirt races by a combined 16 1/4 lengths and has firmly placed Wayne Lukas back on the Derby trail.  Oxbow beat three of today's opponents with ease in the LeComte and two horses from that race have returned to place in stakes events with Beyers in the low 80's.  Oxbow projects to be on or near the lead once again and he'll get the jump on his main opposition when the field turns for home.

Thought #6 PALACE MALICE received an excellent prep for this when chasing the talented Majestic Hussar over sloppy going at Gulfstream on January 19.  That sprint was Palace Malice's first start since suffering from bucked shins and he gave it his all the whole way round.  He'll try two turns for the first time here, but is bred to run all day and shouldn't be too far off the early leaders under Rosie Napravnik.  Over the past five years, trainer Todd Pletcher is 9-27 (33%, $2.60 ROI) at Fair Grounds (won the Risen Star with El Padrino in 2012 and Discreetly Mine in 2010).

#1 PROUD STRIKE is a promising colt that graduated in quick time on January 12, besting three next-out winners (the runner-up earned an 89 Beyer in his maiden score).  Although lightly-raced, he's kept some good company and should save valuable ground going into the first turn under Gary Stevens.  No matter how he fares in the Risen Star, I'll be keeping an eye on him down the road.

#13 CIRCLE UNBROKEN was a precocious juvenile, winning the Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes in June with an 80 Beyer.  After finishing second at odds-on in the Mountaineer Juvenile, he went to the sidelines after undergoing ankle surgery.  Before his return run in the LeComte, trainer Garry Simms noted that Circle Unbroken was likely a short horse, and he only passed a couple of tired rivals while well-beaten.  Expect him to be tighter for this assignment, but it's possible he's better at shorter distances.

#4 GOLDEN SOUL has some upside potential, but it will be interesting to see if he's improved the 11 1/2 lengths that he was beaten by Oxbow in the LeComte.  His lone win came when allowed to track slow fractions and he may be dawdling near the rear of the field in the Risen Star.

#7 HARDROCK ELEVEN's lone win came going 7 1/2 furlongs at Delta Downs and he was beaten a combined 31 1/2 lengths in his last two starts around two turns.  He finished ahead of a next-out winner in his most recent start at Sam Houston, but that foe only earned a 71 Beyer when taking down 'n2L' allowance runners at seven panels. 

#8 IVE STRUCK A NERVE has lost ground from the stretch call to the wire in all three route appearances.  By the quick Yankee Gentleman, it's possible that he wants shorter distances and his Beyers pale in comparison to those of the main contenders.

#11 BETHEL's lone victory came in a $30,000 maiden claimer and he could only muster a fourth-place finish in his first start against winners.  He gets a big class quiz here and is stuck in a tough outside post position.

#3 AGENT, an Oklahoma-bred that won his first start around two turns at Sam Houston, may show some early speed in this spot.  While he's done nothing wrong in his career, he will be facing his toughest test to date.

Here's how I'll HandiGamble:

$50 EXACTA - Normandy Invasion - Code West (9-2)
$30 EXACTA - Normandy Invasion - Mylute (9-5)
$20 EXACTA - Code West - Normandy Invasion (2-9)

Best of luck to all.

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The handicapping videos that Mike Beer and I produced for the weekend's major stakes races should be up on these links.

http://www.drf.com/events/fountain-youth-stakes-gulfstream-park

http://www.drf.com/events/risen-star-stakes-fair-grounds

http://www.drf.com/events/san-carlos-stakes-santa-anita

Here are some very brief thoughts:

...DANCINGINTHECIRCLE should be very salty in the Rachel Alexandra, but BLUE VIOLET gets a chance based on her impressive maiden win earlier in the meet for Larry Jones.  A very well-bred filly, Blue Violet toyed with her opposition and should offer good odds in her first start against winners...WILLCOX INN didn't have much of a chance when forced to rally from the back of the pack against razor-sharp Swift Warrior in the Connally (three horses have returned from that race to score) and could improve in his second start of the form cycle in the Fair Grounds Handicap...MARK VALESKI and GOLDEN TICKET are dangerous rivals, but INFRATTINI has won four of six since being announced as a gelding for the first time and he overcame a moderate pace to outfinish Mark Valeski in the Louisiana Handicap on January 19.  He's put up two big numbers and his tactical speed makes him tough in the Mineshaft...DATA LINK is WAAAY the horse to beat in the Canadian Turf at Gulfstream, but I'll give a long look to JOES BLAZING AARON, who has improved for Eddie Kenneally and may work out a pocket trip from his rail post..

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

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You can follow me on Twitter at DRF_DanIllman.