07/09/2010 2:39PM

No Excuses for Big Names this Weekend?


Double champion GIO PONTI, top handicap runner RAIL TRIP, speedy D' FUNNYBONE, and leading three-year-old filly BLIND LUCK figure to go off as odds-on favorites in their respective races this weekend.  All of them should be tough as they attempt to take another successful step to the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. 

Is there money to be made on their races?  Hopefully.  Let's take a look at some of the weekend stakes action.

Man o'War - Belmont - Race 9:

Hard to look past GIO PONTI, last year's champion older male and champion turf male performer.  Although he brings a five-race losing streak into the Man o' War, Gio Ponti ran a good one in his return from Dubai on Belmont Stakes afternoon.  He missed a key workout leading up to the Manhattan with a cough and may have been slightly short of 100% when narrowly beaten by uncoupled stablemate Winchester.  Gio Ponti was bogged down inside for most of the way, was steadied slightly when attempting to split horses three wide on the far turn, was in behind horses turning for home, and had to angle sharply to the inside in midstretch.  Despite the traffic, he was running on strongly at the end of the race.  The defending Manhattan champion must prove that he is as effective at 11 furlongs as he is at 1 1/4 miles, but looms the obvious class of the field. It would be nice to see him get back into the winner's circle.
For exotic plays, I'd use EXPANSION, the logical second choice after finishing a length behind Gio Ponti in the Manhattan as well ast STRIKE A DEAL, a veteran campaigner that goes third off the layoff for red-hot Alan Goldberg.  Strike a Deal was the gate-to-wire winner of the Grade 2 Dixie in his first start of the year, raced wide in the slow-paced Manhattan, and may get the jump on Gio Ponti and the other late-runners turning for home.
GRAND COUTURIER seems to be rounding into his best form, but needs a faster-than-expected pace up front.  He may also be better when there's a little give in the ground.
Selections:  Gio Ponti, Strike a Deal, Expansion

Hollywood Gold Cup - Hollywood - Race 8:

Defending champion RAIL TRIP has been explosive in both starts this meet at Hollywood Park and he projects for a good pace-tracking trip behind likely pacesetters TRES BORRACHOS and COMPARI.  Last time out, in the Grade 2 Californian, he was a much-the-best winner after prompting the early pace from the two path.  While the waters get deeper in the Hollywood Gold Cup with Pacific Classic winner RICHARD'S KID returning from Dubai, Rail Trip's tactical speed should allow him to get the jump on Richard's Kid at a crucial point on the far turn.  There's been a ton of talk concerning Quality Road as the best older male in the country, but Rail Trip may not be that far behind.
Exotically-minded players should obviously use Richard's Kid, but if you're looking for a better return, try CIGAR MAN or TRES BORRACHOS.  The former comes off a Beyer top in the Californian and should save valuable ground under Joe Talamo.  Tres Borrachos is off form, but he may shoot to the early lead as his only chance would be to steal the race. 
COMPARI is talented but brittle and is a question mark at 1 1/4 miles.  AWESOME GEM would benefit from a hot pace up front, but has a bad case of seconditis.
Selections:  Rail Trip, Richard's Kid, Cigar Man

Smile Sprint Handicap - Calder - Race 10:

There looks like there will be pace in the Smile Sprint with RUSTY CHARLIE, GO GO SHOOT, GATO GO WIN, TAQARUB, CAUSEWAY'S KIN, BIG DRAMA and SNAPSHOT in the lineup.  I'll take my chances with an in-form question mark, MAMBO MEISTER.  A graded stakes winner on both turf and dirt at this meet, Mambo Meister is in career form.  But he still may slip through the cracks of the wagering as this will be his first sprint race to date (and he's raced 28 times). 
It's possible that six furlongs may be too short for Mambo Meister, but he was sharpened up by his shrewd trainer, Phil Gleaves, with a 34 flat workout on June 28 and there should be enough pace for him to run at. 
TAQARUB is also in top shape after winning the Maryland Sprint Handicap on Preakness afternoon.  Note that he got away on the lead through a soft opening quarter that day and may have to work much harder at Calder. 
SNAPSHOT and CONGRESSIONAL PAGE are both worth using.  The former ran well when second to the hard-hitting Bribon in the Grade 2 True North Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard and could work out a pace-tracking trip while in the clear.  Congressional Page is a sharp rallier that is 5-5 at this six-furlong distance.  CAUSEWAY'S KIN was no match for Mambo Meister in the Memorial Day Handicap, but he should be patiently-handled by Julien Leparoux on the cutback in distance, and could get a piece of this at a big price.
BIG DRAMA is obviously a danger but he may be hounded from the start in only his second start of the year.
Selections:  Mambo Meister, Taqarub, Snapshot

Delaware Oaks - Delaware - Race 9:

BLIND LUCK lays over the field on paper as the Kentucky Oaks winner is a perfect 3-3 on dirt and exits a game performance in the Hollywood Oaks.  Although the beaten favorite that day, the one-dimensional late runner was at the mercy of a slow pace but still gamely tried all the way down to the wire.  She's certainly the horse to beat, but there isn't much pace in the Delaware Oaks either, and she's done a lot of traveling this season. 
Perhaps HAVRE DE GRACE can pull off the huge upset.  A lightly-raced daughter of the stout Saint Liam, Havre de Grace will go third off the layoff after just missing in the Go For Wand Stakes, the local prep for the Delaware Oaks.  Havre de Grace may have moved a bit prematurely that afternoon and can work out a good trip sitting just off possible pacesetter DERWIN'S STAR.  Havre de Grace may get the jump on Blind Luck and company and may be worth an action play.
Derwin's Star has run some decent Beyers and may prove interesting if able to shake loose on an easy lead.  WORSHIP THE MOON also stretches out around two turns for the first time and can be close to the pace.  NO SUCH WORD outgamed Havre de Grace in the Go For Wand, but that horse may have a bit more upside.
Selections:  Havre de Grace, Derwin's Star, Blind Luck

Triple Bend Handicap - Hollywood - Race 6:

GAYEGO is a good sprinter but he's been away since the Dubai Racing Carnival, has been training at Belmont, and had to ship 3,000 miles to Southern California.  If these horses are going to beat him, it may be this Saturday as he returns from the layoff. 
SANGAREE is logical after chasing Rail Trip in his last two races, but I'm intrigued by the other Bob Baffert-trained runner, E Z'S GENTLEMAN. 
E Z's Gentleman ran into a classy, in-form performer in Cost of Freedom last time out in the Los Angeles Handicap and galloped out well after just missing by three-quarters of a length.  I'm guessing that he'll appreciate the extra furlong of the Triple Bend and he may sit a good pace-tracking trip behind M ONE RIFLE and MY SUMMER SLEW. 
FANTASY FREE may be worth inclusion in single-race exotics as well as on multi-race tickets.  The veteran didn't run well in his 42nd start (and dirt debut) in the True North Handicap, but returns to the scene of his perfect-trip score in the Tiznow Stakes two starts back.
Selections:  E Z's Gentleman, Gayego, Fantasy Free

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

Enjoy the weekend.