06/28/2009 11:00PM

Taking a stand against the favorites


LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are two Grade 2 stakes races for handicappers to enjoy Sunday - the Beverly Hills at Hollywood Park and the First Flight at Belmont. Although both fields are small, with just six entries, they figure to be competitive.

The Beverly Hills Handicap is a 1 1/4-mile turf race. Black Mamba figures to be favored after having won this race last year and the Grade 1 John Mabee at Del Mar in her next start. But there are reasons to consider playing against her at low odds.

She has lost five straight races since that win at Del Mar, and she finished fourth or worse in three of them. Her deep-closing running style also could hinder her on a course that is usually kinder to horses with early and tactical speed. She rallied from ninth to finish fourth last time in the Grade 1 Gamely, but there were others who finished ahead of her who were going about as well. She'll need a stronger late kick to justify the underlaid odds she's likely to offer.

Toque de Queda will be a major player. She finished third two races ago in the Grade 2 Santa Barbara Handicap, one position and three-quarters of a length behind Black Mamba. They were both returning from vacations that day. Toque de Queda had been on the sidelines for 10 months, while Black Mamba had been away for four months. Given that difference, Toque de Queda was probably the rustier of the two and seemed capable of improving enough to turn the tables on that rival when they met again in the Gamely. But neither of them ran to expectations. Black Mamba finished fourth at 5-2 odds and Toque de Queda finished sixth at 4-1, a quarter-length behind her.

Although Toque de Queda isn't a front-runner, she has more speed than Black Mamba and will probably enjoy a better trip while up close to the lead in this compact field. Since they finished close together in both of those races, and since Toque de Queda narrowed the margin in their most recent matchup, Toque de Queda figures to be the better gamble between the two of them.

But there is at least one other contender to consider. Charming Legacy ran a much-improved race when she finished a competitive third in the Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap two starts ago. She followed up with a career-best 96 Beyer Speed Figure when she finished third, beaten a half-length, in the restricted Redondo Beach last time. She likes this turf course, with a 2-0-2 record in 4 starts on it, and owns enough speed to grab the early lead if she is asked to do so. That might not happen as her connections may choose to be cautious as she stretches out from a mile to 1 1/4 miles and with You Lift Me Up also likely to show speed if she runs in this race rather than in the Vanity the day before.

Either way, if Charming Legacy is willing to relax, she'll be dangerous at a square price. Note that she led throughout while winning a 1o1/8-mile turf race at Oak Tree two years ago. Even more interesting is the fact that she gained two lengths during the last furlong in that race. I'll make her my selection.

Carolyn's Cat is a leading contender in the First Flight Handicap. Carolyn's Cat rationed her early speed through the first half-mile and then drew clear in a comfortable 3 1/4-length victory while going 6 1/2 furlongs in the Gradeo2 Vagrancy Handicap. A similar performance would make her the filly to beat here, but the possibility of regression must be respected, as the 103 Beyer she earned in that career-best performance was much better than her typical number.

If Carolyn's Cat does turn out to be vulnerable, there are three fillies in this field who might be able to capitalize.

Spritely has won 3 of her last 5 races, with an average win margin of five lengths in her last two. She won the $250,000 Sugar Maple at Charles Town last time and will be a threat as she steps up in class.

Porte Bonheur finished second, 3 1/4 lengths behind Carolyn's Cat, in the Vagrancy. But Porte Bonheur was making her first start since November and is eligible to improve second time back. Since that race, she has breezed five furlongs in 59.40 seconds, so a better performance would not be a surprise. She also has been more consistent than Carolyn's Cat and might be able to upset her for that reason.

Sunday Geisha ran a nice race when she battled hard throughout and finished a close second in the My Juliet at Philadelphia. If she comes closer to matching the 101 Beyer she earned in that race than Carolyn's Cat does in matching her peak 103 performance, Sunday Geisha can win. I'll give her the narrow edge as the potential speed of the speed and with the hope that she'll offer a square price as she tries to run another big race.