08/01/2007 11:00PM

Test sets up for Cotton Blossom


NEW YORK - Del Mar, with the $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap, and Saratoga, with the $250,000 Test, have the two Grade 1 stakes on Saturday. But Mountaineer Race Track has the day's richest race in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby, and Ellis Park hosts the always entertaining Claiming Crown.


As talented and as deserving a favorite as she is, Dream Rush certainly didn't scare anyone off in this spot. And while Dream Rush doesn't need the lead to win, she wants to be close up early, which is problematic for her as a ton of other speed in this race ensures smokin' fractions. I want a closer, and I like Cotton Blossom, who upset Dream Rush in the Acorn Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day.

While Dream Rush rebounded from the Acorn to win the Prioress last time out, Cotton Blossom came back to be a soundly beaten third as the favorite in the Delaware Oaks. But the Delaware Oaks was a two-turn race, and now a case can be made that Cotton Blossom is far more effective as a one-turn closer. The Acorn was her third victory from four career starts around one turn, a record that also includes a score in last year's Schuylerville over the track, and yet she is only 1 for 6 going two turns. Cotton Blossom does have to break from post 13, which is no bargain. But there is a three-furlong run to the far turn, which means Cotton Blossom has plenty of time to angle in and save some ground.

Claiming Crown Jewel

An initial scan of the past performances in this main event of the Claiming Crown races could prove headache inducing. Eight of the 10 entrants made their last start at different tracks all over the country, and almost all seem reasonably sharp, making comparative form analysis very difficult. But after further review, it becomes clear that there is precious little early speed in this race. So I'm going with Semi Lost to successfully capitalize on this pace situation.

Semi Lost is not exactly a speed burner either. But last time out, when dropped to a $20,000 tag at Hollywood Park in his second start off a 20-month absence, he showed enough positional speed going six furlongs to suggest he can be a major pace player stretching out to nine furlongs Saturday, especially against this lineup. After a slow first quarter-mile, Semi Lost seized control with a sub 23-second middle quarter-mile, which was quick considering it came around the far turn, and he then drew off to score decisively. Although you have to go back to 2004, Semi Lost does sport sufficient back class to win this, and was effective going middle distances, as illustrated by his runaway victory in the Pomona Derby on a conventional dirt track. A distant third behind Semi Lost in that Pomona Derby was a then-unheralded Lava Man.

West Virginia Derby

The goal of the Weekend Warrior is to find betting value. Most of the time that entails attempting to tip over vulnerable favorites with good priced alternatives. But there are occasions when even a favorite can represent betting value, and this is one of them. Delightful Kiss should be the favorite here. Yet if he goes off at 2-1 or higher, that would actually be a terrific price, because he looks like a standout on paper.

Delightful Kiss was nothing short of freakish winning the Ohio Derby and Iowa Derby in his last two starts. He showed a tremendous burst of speed to inhale his field on the far turn in Ohio Derby before running off to a 3 1/2- length score. In Iowa, he made another wild move on the turn while racing way out in the middle of the track, and went on to win going away. Delightful Kiss should get an honest pace up front Saturday to enhance his late kick, and he won't be hard to spot. He will be that gray streak circling everyone again on the far turn.