12/02/2009 12:00AM

Time for Hurricane Hal to validate price tag


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I can't wait to see the four stakes on the closing-day card at Churchill Downs Saturday, led by the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club. But the race I can't wait to bet is the seventh, a maiden race for juveniles going 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

What makes this race such an attractive betting race? Well, it offers a 12-horse field, plus three also-eligibles, and contention runs so deep on paper that the favorite in the body of the race, Fly Down, was made a tepid 7-2 choice over co-second favorites First Dude and Psychic Income, who are listed at 4-1.

Although that trio of runners merits respect, my play - and the most likely winner - is 6-1 outsider Hurricane Hal.

The beauty is that very little about his talent leaps out of the past performances, with the exception of his $650,000 purchase price at the Barretts March select 2-year-olds in training sale.

This is a Tiznow colt who ran sixth in his lone start after chasing the pace, posting a Beyer Speed Figure of 59. He is a horse with moderate-to-slow works in his past performances, and he will be ridden by jockey Israel Ocampo - who entering Thursday at Churchill, was 0 for 61 on the meet.

But dig a little deeper in his past performances and Hurricane Hal's merits shine through. This is a horse who topped the Barretts March sale, and not for the reasons one would expect.

Just one of his six winning siblings is a stakes winner, and his dam didn't even win a single race. He wasn't the fastest horse in the Barretts 2-year-olds in training sale, either, working a furlong in 10.60 seconds - .60 of a second off the fastest time for a furlong.

He sold for $650,000 to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable because he is a big, well-made colt. Oh yeah, and when he worked a furlong in 10.60 seconds, he did so pricking his ears and seeming in little more than a gallop.

So what happened in his debut when he ran sixth? Well, he ran on turf - a surface on which none of his six winning siblings have ever won.

Asmussen ran him there to start him going two turns, to give him a start at the meet, and to prepare him for Saturday's race, at 1 1/16 miles on dirt.

Because fall races at Churchill Downs consistently overfill for 2-year-olds going two turns, it was about the only option that would ensure Hurricane Hal would get a second race at the meet.

Despite Asmussen's reputation as a trainer who wins first time out with juveniles, it is his numbers with second-timers that are particularly strong in the late summer and fall. According to Daily Racing Form's Formulator software, Asmussen has won with 20 of his 51 second-out juveniles over the last 90 days - good for 39 percent winners. 63 percent hit the board, and a $2 wager on each of the 51 would have generated an average return of $2.50.

As for the presence of Ocampo, his cold-riding ways will cause some horseplayers to balk at the prospect of playing this horse. But realize that Asmussen's regular go-to jockey, Shaun Brigmohan, is in New York on Saturday riding Kodiak Kowboy in the Cigar Mile, and other riders Asmussen uses often in Kentucky - Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel - are on other horses for barns for which they regularly ride.

Ocampo is 4 for 12 riding for Asmussen this year in Iowa and Illinois, winning three stakes for him at Prairie Meadows.

The feeling here is that come Saturday we are going to see the reason Hurricane Hal fetched $650,000 at the sales. And best yet, there should be value offered to those holding this opinion.

Golden Rod

Of the four stakes at Churchill Downs Saturday, I'm most intrigued by the Grade 2 Golden Rod for 2-year-old fillies.

With Sassy Image and Decelerator, both stakes winners over the Churchill Downs strip, expected to attract mutuel attention, Upperline looms an intriguing wager at her morning line price of 3-1 or higher.

A winner of 2 of 3 starts, she looks like the best filly in the race. In running down Vivid Colors last meet at Keeneland, she overcame being carried wide into the first turn, while Vivid Colors enjoyed a loose-on-the-lead trip.

She also ran second to eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner She Be Wild over the summer at Arlington Park.

What she hasn't done is race on a dirt track. But her sparkling recent workouts at Fair Grounds on dirt and the confidence trainer Mike Stidham shows by shipping her to Kentucky for the Golden Rod hint of a strong performance.