05/22/2009 12:00AM

Mushka's last race too good to ignore


NEW YORK - Memorial Day weekend gets off to a classy start Saturday with the undefeated Zenyatta, last year's champion older female, scheduled to make her 5-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $150,000 Milady Handicap, a race that was one of her seven wins in 2008.

Saturday is a big day, too, at Arlington Park with the American 1000 Guineas Festival. The $200,000 race of the same name is part of a card that includes three other stakes: the Grade 3, $150,000 Arlington Matron, the Grade 3, $100,000 Hanshin Cup, and the $150,000 Arlington Classic.

Elsewhere, Philadelphia Park hosts the richest race of the day, the $250,000 My Juliet Stakes, while the features at Belmont Park and Churchill Downs are the Grade 2, $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Stakes and the Grade 3, $100,000 Louisville Handicap.

Sheepshead Bay Stakes


With three graded stakes scores from her last four starts, Criticism is a deserving favorite, but not an invincible one. Given the very slow pace she got away with last time out in the La Prevoyante Handicap, Criticism had to work a lot harder to hold on than what you would expect from a 4-5 shot. And two starts back, Criticism blew a clear stretch lead as the 3-5 favorite in the Orchid Stakes.

Moreover, while Criticism showed when she came from off the pace to win the Long Island Handicap last November that she didn't require control of an easy pace to be successful, her performances this year suggest that might have changed. And while there isn't a lot of speed in this spot, Colina Verde, off the stretch-out to an extended distance, might give Criticism some unwelcome company in the early stages.

I like Mushka, who I suspect will find this extended distance very much to her liking. Mushka looked like she was going to be a serious horse when she was tons the best winning the Demoiselle Stakes in the fall of her 2-year-old season, but was away a long time after that. She came back in rocky fashion last summer, but showed signs of life winning back on turf at Keeneland last fall, and again when narrowly beaten in the Suwannee River Stakes in February.

Two starts back, Mushka had trouble when beaten 2 1/2 lengths in the Hillsborough Stakes by Backseat Rhythm, who also goes here. Mushka was checked hard in the early running and then went wide around the far turn. But Mushka showed she might be all the way back at Keeneland in her most recent outing. Granted, it was an off-the-turf race, but Mushka crushed Long Approach, who came back in her next start to be a gaining second to Criticism in the La Prevoyante.

Arlington Classic

Given the fact that he was on the Triple Crown trail this past winter and spring, and finished second in the Illinois Derby last time out to Musket Man, who came back to finish third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Giant Oak will most certainly be the favorite. But while Giant Oak did win at first asking over the same Arlington turf course he returns to Saturday, I think he will be an underlay as his dirt races are so vastly superior to his turf races in terms of Beyer Figures that it's hard to attribute it entirely to physical development.

If I didn't think he would be a solid second choice in the betting, I would like Golden Mexico, who was strong winning his U.S. debut at Keeneland, beaten three next-out winners, including runner-up Affirmatif, who came back to win the Woodlawn last week on the Preakness undercard.

I will take a flyer on Proceed Bee, who won a small stakes at Churchill Downs last year in his only turf start, has improved since getting blinkers two starts ago, and now makes his first start for a hot barn. Two starts back, with the blinkers on, Proceed Bee won the Battaglia Memorial, and last time out he was a decent third in the Lane's End. He finished behind Hold Me Back, who followed with a good second in the Blue Grass before making a ridiculously premature move in the Kentucky Derby, and Flying Private, who was a surprising fourth in the Preakness last week.

Elkwood Stakes

This feature at Monmouth could also be called the "Geezer Derby" as among those entered are the 10-year-old Midwatch, the 9-year-old Silver Tree, the 8-year-old pair of Icy Atlantic and Victory Alleged, and the 7-year-old Classic Campaign.

In looking for some new blood I landed on a relative baby in the 5-year-old Fearless Eagle, who maintained his solid form this year with a good third last time out in the Miami Mile. He finished behind Wesley, who was an unlucky third in last Saturday's Dixie on the Preakness undercard, and Mambo Meister, who won a small stakes at Calder in his next start. But not only does Fearless Eagle have good recent class lines, he also has enough pace here to enhance his late kick.