12/15/2008 12:00AM

Herboriste figures to get a good trip

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NEW YORK - For a day in mid-December, we are fortunate to find a pretty solid national stakes schedule Saturday. The richest and most prestigious race of the day is the Grade 1 Starlet at Hollywood Park worth $429,500 and apparently no cents. But Calder Race Course and Fair Grounds both have stakes-packed cards Saturday. It's Grand Slam Day at Calder, with four graded stakes on the program headed by the La Prevoyante and W.L. McKnight handicaps, both Grade 2 events with $150,000 purses. It's Louisiana Champions Day at Fair Grounds, with a card full of stakes for statebreds topped by the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic. Meanwhile at Aqueduct, the headliner is the Grade 3, $100,000 Queens County Handicap.

La Prevoyante Handicap

One of the things that really jumps out about this race is the lack of pace. I suppose The Niagara Queen or Jazz Jam might wind up setting the pace by default. But the lack of defined early speed here says the fractions will be slow, and that could have a negative impact on some of the prime contenders in this race such as J'ray, Communique, and Palmilla.

J'ray and Communique are both in sharp form. J'ray won a couple of graded stakes over the summer and was a game second in the Long Island Handicap last time out. Communique hit the board in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl and Grade 1 Beverly D. in her last two starts. Both, however, are deep closers. And while they might be good enough to overcome a significant pace disadvantage, their odds won't be good enough to make paying to find out really worth it. As for Palmilla, she showed what she can do when she gets an honest pace to rally into when she won the Dick Memorial and was narrowly beaten in the Glens Falls over the summer. But she also showed in losses in her last two that she is not as effective when slower fractions put her more in the mix in the early running.

Herboriste, on the other hand, showed in strong efforts in her last two starts that she does well when forwardly placed through deliberate paces. She is the play because she figures to sit a very nice trip here.

Last time out, Herboriste faced Palmilla in the Dowager at Keeneland at this 12-furlong distance. Herboriste prevailed decisively, despite having the more difficult trip. Herboriste was caught three wide around the first turn and four wide around the third turn, while Palmilla saved ground until moving to the three path on the third turn, and yet still won going away.

Two starts back, Herboriste faced males in the Cape Henlopen at Delaware Park, and after tracking very slow fractions from close range, she was nailed only in the last jump after taking the lead in midstretch. Herboriste is facing better company Saturday, but her second in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay last May to Mauralakana, a Grade 1 winner who was really at the top of her game, suggests she classes up.

Fred W. Hooper Handicap

Either Gottcha Gold or Finallymadeit would be extremely tough to beat in this spot if the other weren't in the race. But since both speedballs are entered, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that they will compromise each other's chances to win, just as they did in the Spend a Buck in October. The speed duel in that race proved their undoing, which had to be a bitter pill for Gottcha Gold, as he was beaten just a head that day. Even if Gottcha Gold elected to concede the early lead to Finallymadeit, who parlayed an easy lead into a big win in the Rose Classic last time out, they are still going to hook up at some point in this race, which will drain them both.

So after searching for a closer, I landed on Dream Maestro. Dream Maestro was 55-1 when a close third in the Spend a Buck, and the 96 Beyer Speed Figure he earned that day was easily a career-best for him. And while Dream Maestro was really up against it most recently in the Rose Classic, when Finallymadeit got loose through slow fractions, he rallied gamely to finish second. But what's most intriguing about Dream Maestro, beyond his nice setup Saturday, is that the Beyer he earned in the Rose Classic equaled his career best from one race before. That says his effort in the Spend a Buck was not a fluke and that he is simply in the best form of his career.

Prairie Bayou Stakes

This is the feature at Turfway, and like the Hooper Handicap, there figures to be a contested early pace here. That could help Extreme Supreme, who will be favored off his second over the track last time out in the Kentucky Cup Classic, even if that race was 2 1/2 months ago. But while acknowledging that Extreme Supreme can certainly win, I'm not inclined to take a short price on a horse like him who hasn't actually won a race in 16 months.

Barastraight looks like he's worth taking a flyer on. After taking all of the summer off, Barastraight took a few starts to round back into winning form, which he did on the turf last time out at Churchill Downs. He has a couple of nice back performances, such as his fourth in the River City last year and his third at Gulfstream in his first start this year. This will be Barastraight's first start on a synthetic surface, but his turf ability bodes well for a successful surface switch, the barn is good from a limited sample with such a surface switch, and his price will be big enough to make the risk acceptable.