02/19/2011 12:08PM

Plethora of Betting Opportunities


There are quality stakes races from coast to coast this weekend.  Let's talk about them.


Let's hope the wet weather holds off, and this marathon turf race remains on the grass.  The San Luis Obispo features another rematch between two of the top long-distance grass runners in the country - BOURBON BAY and CHAMP PEGASUS.  Of the two, I prefer the former.  Bourbon Bay is a perfect 5-5 over the Santa Anita lawn, and he is also undefeated from three starts at this 12-furlong distance.  He's prone to allergies and illnesses, the latter which may have kept him out of the Breeders' Cup Turf, but he was an absolute freak at this time last year, sweeping the San Luis Obispo, San Luis Rey, and San Juan Capistrano before receiving a deserved vacation.  He finished third to Champ Pegasus in his first start back, got sick, and then ran right by Champ Pegasus in the Grade 2 San Marcos here on January 27.  There looks to be a good amount of speed signed on for the San Luis Obispo and Bourbon Bay may be the one to make the last bid under Rafael Bejarano.
As a longshot consideration, I tried to make a case for FALCON ROCK, a horse that's fallen short on many occasions to Champ Pegasus and Bourbon Bay.  I'll toss his last race, a cushion track event in which his blinkers were removed.  The hood comes back on this afternoon and Falcon Rock may have moved prematurely when fifth in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch two starts back.  In that race, he was racing in closest attendance to runaway leader Marlang, and had to go after that one in earnest entering the far turn.  Understandably, he had nothing left for the drive.  Perhaps Falcon Rock will be rated near the rear of the field in this one with the hope of saving his burst for when it really matters.
CHAMP PEGASUS, second in the Breeders' Cup Turf, may have been a short horse when succumbing to Boubon Bay in the San Marcos, but he likes to race close to the pace.  If Unbridle's Dream doesn't shake clear, Champ Pegasus may make his move into some hot fractions, and could be vulnerable to the true late-runners.
Selections:  Bourbon Bay, Falcon Rock, Unbridle's Dream



At last year's Fair Grounds meet, trainer Todd Pletcher with 6-9 with a $5.17 ROI.  He'll look to add another bead to his necklace of New Orleans stakes-winners with MISSION IMPAZIBLE in the Mineshaft.  Mission Impazible is very familiar with the Fair Grounds as he won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby here at three.  After a failed run in the Kentucky Derby, Mission Impazible missed the remainder of the 2010 season after undergoing knee surgery.  He made his return on January 23 in a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park, and I thought it was an excellent prep.  He tracked the pace while three deep for most of the way and was second-best to Caixa Eletronica, who validated the race by returning to run third with a 99 Beyer in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship.  Mission Impazible galloped out nicely after the return, and could get the jump on morning line favorite APART.
The comparisons to former stablemate Blame were probably premature for APART, who tanked in the Clark Handicap on November 26, but he was up against a major speed bias when rallying from 15 lengths out in the Louisiana Handicap here on January 22.  He'll get pace to attack and is the one to beat, but he's probably going to get bet hard once again.
Selections:  Mission Impazible, Demarcation, Apart



I'm not sure if the Delta Downs speed figures are inflated, or if DECISIVE MOMENT has blossomed at the right time, but I did like his recent win in the Jean Lafitte at Delta on January 14.  He had to work hard during the first quarter-mile, faced a pair of challenges turning for home, and strode away as much the best.  The runner-up from that race returned to win the Premier Prince Stakes at Delta with a 92 Beyer while the fourth-runner shipped to Fair Grounds to win the Black Gold Stakes with an 87.  Decisive Moment must prove that he can go this far, but he looms the speed of the speed under Kerwin Clark, and may go off at playable odds.
MUCHO MACHO MAN ran gamely when second-best to the talented To Honor and Serve in both the Nashua and Remsen at two, then may have been too close to the pace in his recent return at Gulfstream Park.  He'll shed blinkers this afternoon, figures to sit off the speeds while in the clear, and can improve in his second start at three.
Selections:  Decisive Moment, Mucho Macho Man, Rogue Romance



HARISSA has won her last two fast-track dirt starts by a combined 8 3/4 lengths, and the trainer-jockey combination of Mike Hushion and Ramon Dominguez is 5-9 with a $3.03 ROI over the last 90 days.  This will be Harissa's first sprint race since her career debut at Del Mar on August 30, 2009 (she finished third) so there may be a question as to whether this distance is too short for her.  Hushion won the 2008 Barbara Fritchie with Golden Dawn so he knows what it takes to win this race, and Harissa looked sharp in winning the Sleigh Ride Stakes at Parx on January 4.  Hounded by a 50-1 shot through demanding fractions, Harissa simply shrugged away the pretender to win by open lengths.  She seems just as capable from stalking range and may work out a trip tracking pacesetters ASPENGLOW and MEESE ROCKS. 
MEESE ROCKS has really run well this form cycle, but she's had the misfortune to tackle the razor-sharp Nicole H.  When she didn't face Nicole H in her last start, it looked like she had the race in the bag, but she never changed leads in the stretch (a habit she has had for a long time), and was run down late by KID KATE. 
ASPENGLOW is 14-19 lifetime, has won her last six starts, and is 9-10 at this seven-furlong distance.  She's under the gun from the rail as she gets the biggest class test of her career.
Selections:  Harissa, Meese Rocks, Aspenglow



Although we've discussed Pletcher's gaudy statistics at Fair Grounds, he may be sending out a vulnerable favorite in LOUP BRETON, a seven-year-old that hasn't been out since July 24.  After winning the 2010 San Marcos, Loup Breton reportedly came out of that race a little stiff, and he hasn't won in four subsequent starts. 
I've really been impressed with SLEEPLESS KNIGHT, and he'll be my top selection.  The winner of the Lamplighter Stakes at Monmouth last year, Sleepless Knight has been plagued by physical problems throughout his career, but was very sharp in taking his last two races.  Most recently, he was very far back at Gulfstream before beginning a long, four wide bid with over three furlongs to run.  Despite the ground loss, he ran his last half in 46.53 with a last quarter in 23.40, and swept by the leaders in the stretch.  There should be some pace for him to run at in the Fair Grounds Handicap.  This is a huge test for him, but I'm expecting a strong late surge.
Selections:  Sleepless Knight, Gran Estreno, Joinem



I'm not the type of handicapper that is obsessed with "bouncing," but SMILING TIGER may have bounced when a dull third at 2-5 in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes on January 22.  In his previous start, a gut-busting nose loss to Twirling Candy that resulted in a career-high 108 Beyer Speed Figure, Smiling Tiger ran hard from start to finish.  In the Palos Verdes, he seemed uncomfortable from the start after being fidgety behind the break.  I'm a bit surprised that Smiling Tiger hasn't gotten a longer rest, and he may be slightly better at six furlongs than at this seven-panel distance.  He's still the horse to beat, but I'm going to try and beat him with VENTANA.  The runner-up in this race last year, Ventana subsequently won the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Handicap over Pro-Ride before running fourth in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes at this distance. He emerged from that May 1 start with stiffness, and was put on the shelf by Bob Baffert.  Ventana returned in the Palos Verdes, and he raced evenly while in between runners for most of the way.  He adds blinkers for his second start back and Ventana won his career debut in 2008 at Belmont with the aid of blinkers.  Perhaps he can get more involved from the beginning under Martin Garcia, and the price should be right.
Selections:  Ventana, Smiling Tiger, Supreme Summit



A salty turf marathon, and I'll look for a price with FREE FIGHTER.  The winner of the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap over 12 furlongs at Churchill Downs on May 22, Free Fighter returns from a solid layoff for a hot barn that excels with similar types of horses.  He often moves too soon in his races, so will have to be carefully ridden by Carlos Marquez Jr. (16-57 over the last five years when teaming up with trainer Chris Block).  This horse should be a pretty big price here. 
AL KHALI and PRINCE WILL I AM are rock-solid, but the former is trouble-prone and drew a tough outside post.  Prince Will I Am beat Free Fighter on dirt last time out, and has a nice turn of foot, but I don't like the 15-day gap between the January 21 and February 5 drills.  He is dangerous, obviously.
Selections:  Free Fighter, Stately Victor, Al Khali


AMEN HALLELUJAH is the deserving favorite based on her prior performances in graded races, and she returned from a cannon bone injury to run a closing fifth over a speed-favoring track in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint.  I'm expecting her to get bet hard, here, however, so I'll take a chance with SASSY IMAGE, a filly that showed a good amount of class at two, winning a pair of graded races at Churchill Downs.  She won the off-the-turf Sweetest Chant over this course and trip at three, but bombed in the Grade 2 Davona Dale, and went to the sidelines with inflammation in a ligament behind a hock.  She returned from the long layoff to run a solid second to CATCH A THIEF here on January 14, and I liked the way she galloped out after the race.  She should find a good stalking spot while in the clear under Kent Desormeaux.
Selections:  Sassy Image, Catch a Thief, Joanie's Catch

As always, you can check out the video stakes previews with myself and Mike Beer as well as the "Weekend Warrior" segment with Mike Watchmaker at the below link:


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