03/22/2012 4:32PM

King: Pace, odds a plus for Mr. Prankster in Spiral Stakes

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Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Mr. Prankster wins the WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park on Feb. 4.

Keeneland’s meet is still two weeks away, but horseplayers can get an early taste of the handicapping challenges presented at Keeneland with a look at Saturday’s Grade 3, $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.

The Spiral is similar to the majority of races run over Polytrack at Keeneland in many respects: horses are converging from all over the country; a good portion of the runners are trying Polytrack for the first time, some after racing on dirt, others after competing on turf; and those runners that have local Polytrack experience have class questions to answer, after competing through the winter at Turfway.

Put that all together, plus throw in a 1 1/8-mile distance that most of the field hasn’t yet raced, and it adds up to uncertainty. And in times of uncertainty, the last place one wants to go looking is at backing one of the favorites as there is too much risk for too little reward.

Instead, it is better to look for hidden value, searching for a talented horse whose virtues might be a bit concealed. And to these eyes, that horse in the Spiral is Mr. Prankster.

The top local 3-year-old male horse of the winter at Turfway, winner of the Turfway Prevue and WEBN Stakes, he likely won’t feel the love of the betting public in the Spiral – not after running a distant fourth in the 1 1/16-mile John Battaglia Stakes on March 3 when matched against out-of-town shippers.

The presumption is that many will view that race as a sign he isn’t of the class necessary to win the Spiral, or perhaps incapable of going the 1 1/8-mile distance.

But such a stance could be inaccurate. Just as likely was that he was a victim of catching a field with little pace in the Battaglia. Hard held in the early going, he seemed to get discouraged and simply never fired.

Mr. Prankster also may simply have bounced after running a career-best 88 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the WEBN at a mile Feb. 4.

But one need to only look back at that race for evidence that he has the potential to win the Spiral. Taken back after breaking from the far outside post, he blew past half the field down the backstretch with powerful acceleration and then showed a second move to kick past the field on the turn.

With Battaglia runner-up and pacesetter Ill Conceived in the Spiral as well as California invader Handsome Mike, a more legitimate pace is expected. And that may prove to be just the scenario he needs for a peak effort.

Granted, Mr. Prankster isn’t quite as battle-tested against elite company as some others in the Spiral lineup, but he hasn’t beaten cupcakes, either. Phantom Fury, runner-up to him in the WEBN, is talented horse, and some horses exiting the WEBN have subsequently performed well, albeit at Turfway.

Mr. Prankster, with Fair Grounds leading rider Rosie Napravnik coming in for the mount, looms a good wager at odds of 8-1 or more.

Rushaway: Gung Ho a value play off last work

A couple races earlier, Gung Ho is a value play off his last workout in the $75,000 Rushaway Stakes – a contest that will likely have a heavy favorite in Flashy Dresser, a dominant maiden winner at Gulfstream.

Gung Ho, scratched due to a minor physical ailment from last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, showed his quality in 2011 in winning the Sunday Silence Stakes on turf at Louisiana Downs and also displayed the ability to handle synthetic in winning a five-furlong race on Tapeta at Presque Isle.

He finished his year with a seventh in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

Unraced since, he gives every indication he is approaching his first race of the year in peak condition, recording two straight bullet works. In his most recent drill March 17, breezing in company with Spiral entrant Tizanexpense, he finished just ahead of that rival after five furlongs in 58.80 seconds while under less pressure from his rider.

Making the work all the more impressive is that Gung Ho worked on a dirt surface at Churchill Downs Trackside and is more of a turf/synthetic runner, being by Kitten’s Joy and having made all four of his starts on such surfaces.

As for Flashy Dresser, he is very much of a bet-against, stretching out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, switching surfaces, and trying a stakes race off a maiden win.