04/01/2011 10:11PM

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

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On paper, Sunday's Florida Derby looks like the season's strongest Kentucky Derby prep. 

It's a race that poses some fascinating questions, as do many of the other stakes scheduled for the weekend. 

Let's try to answer a few of them:

Excelsior Stakes - Aqueduct - Race 9:

Q1:  Is UNDERSTATEMENT loose on the lead?
Q2:  Is INHERIT THE GOLD merely an Inner Track freak?

I'll answer "yes" to the first question.  Understatement breaks from the rail in this nine-furlong test, and he can go fast early when he wants to gun.  In this short field, there aren't many other pacesetting options and Understatement could get brave if left to his own devices on the front. 

"No" is my answer for the second problem.  Inherit the Gold has really blossomed for his current connections, winning five of six at distances ranging from a mile to nine furlongs.  Although he won all four of his starts over the inner this winter, he also took a statebred entry-level allowance race at Belmont on October 21. 
Inherit the Gold is sharp, and he doesn't have to be too far off the leaders.  Last time out, he made a strong three-wide bid entering the far turn, took over midway on the bend, and scored nicely over a decent sort in Yawanna Twist.  I'm expecting Eddie Castro to keep Understatement in his sights from stalking range before unleashing the gray on the final turn.
As for Understatement, he'll make the lead, but I just didn't like the way he finished up last time out.  Sure, he went fast early, but he was drifting through the stretch like he was looking for a place to lie down.  That race was for a $50,000 tag, he wore front wraps for the first time, and he then went to a short freshening.  He may not be as sharp as he's been in the past.
Selections:  INHERIT THE GOLD, UNDERSTATEMENT, MODERN COWBOY

***

Rampart Stakes - Gulfstream - Race 10:

Q1:  Will Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner UNRIVALED BELLE be fully cranked in her seasonal debut?
Q2:  Will AWESOME MARIA be cooked early by PERSUADING?
Q3:  Is this really just a "two-horse" race?

Let's go with "No, Maybe, I don't think so." 

Unrivaled Belle is likely using this race as a prep for something bigger down the road, much like trainer Bill Mott used the Fountain of Youth as a prep race to get To Honor and Serve legged up for the Florida Derby.  Unrivaled Belle certainly can win as she has a good amount of class and is comfortable at this distance, but she is going to be a short, short price. 

Awesome Maria, a good 2-year-old that had been compromised by physical issues last year, was listed as a vet scratch on January 30.  No worries, I guess, as she returned 20 days later to win the Grade 3 Sabin around a one-turn mile with a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure.  Awesome Maria got away with moderate fractions that day, but she's successfully stalked and pounced in the past.  If Persuading decides to go, Awesome Maria will likely let her.  The main worry may be if she regresses off that career-best race.

Most folks will look at this as a two-horse affair, but I'll take a longshot stab with STEPHANIE GOT EVEN, a filly that won five in a row in West Virginia and Arkansas between July 16, 2010 and January 23, 2011.  Reportedly purchased for $200,000 after finishing second in the Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn on February 20, Stephanie Got Even made her first start for trainer Marty Wolfson in the Grade 2 Inside Information Stakes at seven furlongs.  Racing against the grain of a speed-favoring track, as well as a razor-sharp Hilda's Passion, Stephanie Got Even finished an even third as Hilda's Passion scored in track record time.
Stephane Got Even won her only previous start around two turns, and her pedigree indicates she might like this additional distance.  Her sire won the Donn over this track and trip and the dam is a half sister to Fantastic Fellow, a multiple graded winner at middle distances on grass.  This will be a tall order, to be sure, but Stephanie Got Even seems sharp, is in good hands, and will offer nice value.
Selections:   STEPHANIE GOT EVEN, AWESOME MARIA, UNRIVALED BELLE

***

Gulfstream Park Oaks - Gulfstream - Race 11:

Q1:  Can R HEAT LIGHTNING succeed at nine furlongs?

I think she can under ideal circumstances, but I'm not sure I'm willing to find out for certain at a very short price.  The problem with the race is that there only seems to be one other logical alternative, and IT'S TRICKY figures to be bet hard as well.  Thus, I won't be investing a ton in the Gulfstream Park Oaks.

R Heat Lightning looked good winning the Grade 2 Davona Dale under a wonderful ride by John Velazquez.  Mired in-and-among horses for most of the way, Velazquez found an inviting seam along the inside turning for home and R Heat Lightning did the rest, drawing away to win by open lengths.  She looked tired when second in her only previous two-turn try, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at 1 1/16 miles, but R Heat Lightning may attempt to get a slight jump on her main competition from just off the pace.  By Trippi out of a Gold Fever mare and considering her past running lines, however, one should be cautious.

It's Tricky could be any kind as she's a perfect 3-3 in her career.  Her sire, Horse of the Year Mineshaft, usually stamps his foals with stamina so It's Tricky shouldn't find the distance too much of a hindrance.  This will be the toughest test of her career, but she's looked good thus far.  This race is a short-priced coin flip for me, and I'll use both of the favorites in multi-race wagers.
Selections:   R HEAT LIGHTNING, IT'S TRICKY, BEST GRANDE

***

Las Flores Stakes - Santa Anita - Race 4:

Q1:  Does GILDED GEM have the requisite will to win?

Good question, sensei.  Over her last few races, she has run to the level of her competition, finishing second to the excellent Switch two back before placing second to the longest shot in a four-horse allowance field.  I'm willing to give her one more chance if she doesn't wind up the favorite, and I think the public may fall for BROKEN DREAMS, who has done her best running on grass and is mired down on the rail. 

In the Switch race, Gilded Gem tried to overcome a speed-favoring track as well as a very good horse by swinging five wide turning for home.  Last time out, she started her move early when it looked like the winner would steal away to an insumountable advantage.  A grinder, Gilded Gem should get pace to run at with CANDY'S PLEASURE and MOTHER RUTH likely to spar early.  Now, let's see if she truly wants it.
Selections:   GILDED GEM, SILVER SWALLOW, SUBSIDIZED

***

I only like one race on Sunday and it's not the Florida Derby.  Before we get to the Skip Away, here are some quick and dirty selections:

Swale:   TRAVELIN MAN, INDIANO, BLACK N BEAUTY
Appleton:   LITTLE MIKE, SUCCESSFUL MISSION, COMMANDEERED
Florida Derby:   FLASHPOINT, SOLDAT, STAY THIRSTY
Potrero Grande:   CROWN OF THORNS, AMAZOMBIE, CAPTAIN CHEROKEE

For a more in-depth look at those races, please, please, please check out the video analyses that Mike Beer and I put together at the below link.  I'll just go grab a sandwich until you're done.

http://www.drf.com/news/weekend-stakes-preview-videos

***

Okay, that took longer than I expected.

On to the Skip Away:

Skip Away Stakes - Sunday - Gulfstream - Race 9:

Q1:  Will DROSSELMEYER return to his Belmont Stakes-winning form?
Q2:  Is JACKSON BEND over the hill?
Q3:  Is JARDIM mainly a mudlark?
Q4:  Who was the first Birdstone progeny to reach the winner's circle?

Many will disagree with me, but I don't like Drosselmeyer on Sunday.  While he should improve in his second start back from the injury-induced layoff (and Mike Beer thought he ran well last time out) and could work out a good trip from the rail, his injury history makes me wonder if he'll ever be showroom-new good again.  His reputation makes sure he'll get bet.

I hope Jackson Bend isn't over the hill as the pint-sized runner with the double-sized heart is fun to root for.  He improved in his first start of the year although he was very late to change leads in the stretch.  He breaks from a tough post position, but has enough speed to get into position going into the clubhouse turn.  I won't write him off just yet.

Q3:  Probably.  Jardim is 5-5 on wet tracks and 0-9 on everything else.  He ran okay on fast going when finishing ahead of Drosselmeyer last time out, and isn't the worst longshot in the world, especially if the track comes up gooey.

Q4:  Before Mine That Bird and before Summer Bird, there was S. S. Stone, who won his debut over the Hollywood cushion track on June 29, 2008.  I interviewed his owner, Bob LaPenta, on the old New York City OTB program after the race and LaPenta was very high on S. S. Stone.  Unfortunately for the horse and his connections, S. S. Stone has been bogged down with injuries through most of his career.  After finishing last in the Grade 2 Best Pal, he was laid up with a bruised foot.  After two more so-so efforts, he went on the shelf for almost 13 months.  He seems to be over his physical maladies now as he's 3-3 at the meet, and is unbeaten since blinkers were taken away from the arsenal.  Sure, he got away with an easy lead last time out (first quarter in 26), but he's won from off it in the past, and the distance shouldn't be a problem.  In a field full of question marks, I'll take a sharp horse that may be ignored as he leaps up in class.
Selections:   S S STONE, JACKSON BEND, JARDIM

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