02/19/2017 11:52AM

Watchmaker: Tough getting past Gun Runner and Uncontested on Monday

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Since this holiday weekend’s two best and richest races are Monday at Oaklawn Park – the Razorback Handicap and the Southwest Stakes, both Grade 3, $500,000 events – it seems like a timely idea to use this Sunday platform for a Weekend Warrior-like look at these two races. So here goes:

RAZORBACK HANDICAP

Trying to beat Gun Runner at odds-on here feels like a daunting task. He is the only Grade 1 stakes winner in the field, he banked almost $2 million in earnings last year at 3, and he very much seems the type who will maximize his potential as an older performer.

That said, Gun Runner is not without some weaknesses. When he won the Grade 1 Clark on Thanksgiving weekend in his last appearance, he did so after inheriting the early lead because the speedy Noble Bird missed his break, and by setting a pace that was downright slow for the class of horse involved. And when Gun Runner saved second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile two starts back, he did so narrowly over an opponent in Accelerate who at best would be a tepid favorite in this spot.

But in fairness, there isn’t much early speed in this Razorback, meaning Gun Runner might get away with another unremarkable pace. And when he was a narrowly beaten second in the Pennsylvania Derby three starts back to Connect, who came back to win the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, it was an unlucky loss due to ground loss.

If you’re inclined to try and beat Gun Runner, then Domain’s Rap is the one I’d take a shot with. I’m not sure how he’s managed it, but Domain’s Rap, a 9-year-old and 61 starts into his career, is in the best form of his life. He returned from a brief freshening last month to decisively win the Fifth Season Stakes from off the pace, and then crushed an overnight field two weeks ago after prompting the pace. Domain’s Rap loves Oaklawn – he’s 5 for 7 over the track – and he’s going to pull a good trip Monday. If no one goes with Gun Runner, then he will be the one eyeing him through easy fractions. If someone does go with Gun Runner – perhaps Blue Tone – then Doman’s Rap will sit the perfect stalking trip.

SOUTHWEST STAKES

I am the first to be skeptical of horses coming off big, front-running wins on sloppy tracks precisely of the kind Uncontested is coming off in last month’s Smarty Jones Stakes. When horses get uncontested leads in the slop as Uncontested did in the Smarty Jones, trailing opponents often lose interest, creating big gaps between horses at the finish, and giving the impression that winners are better than they might really be.

But even my skepticism has limits, and it does not extend to Uncontested in the Southwest. If Uncontested is anywhere near his morning line price of 5-2 – I doubt he will be, but you never really know – then that in my mind would represent value.

The appeal of Uncontested goes beyond what he did in the Southwest in his third career start, which he won by a little more than five lengths to earn a Beyer Figure of 96 that is tied for second-highest at the moment among 3-year-olds currently on the Kentucky Derby trail. It’s the whole package. It was his blowout win in his debut at Keeneland, and it was also his fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which I think was a terrific effort under the circumstances.

It wasn’t that Uncontested broke from post 12 in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club, because he got over to the two path early on the first turn. It was that Uncontested was competitive to deep stretch and only nailed for third in the last jump despite going into a route stakes like that off of one career sprint. The horses who finished in front of Uncontested that evening, including hot Kentucky Derby prospect McCraken, all had more seasoning.

But if a better price is what you want in the Southwest, then there is a scenario that can make Petrov a win threat. Petrov was no match for Uncontested when second in the Smarty Jones, but he had the thankless task of chasing a loose leader who also happens to be a good horse.

The pace setup could be different Monday. Cool Arrow will probably go from the rail. Maybe that will undo Uncontested, or expose him as a need-the-lead type (I don’t think either will happen, but …), and maybe Petrov, who was also making only his third career start in the Smarty Jones and who has ability, will be good enough to capitalize.

*** The biggest stakes Saturday were run at Laurel Park on a racing surface that was so profoundly biased it was obvious to anyone with eyes.

The rail was absolute death at Laurel. Most jockeys knew it and even referenced it in post-race comments. Even out-of-town jockeys caught on quickly. Irad Ortiz Jr. was on the second choice in the second race who broke from the rail and was pinned down inside. That horse was beaten before turning for home, but Ortiz was finally able to get her off the rail in midstretch, and that horse actually re-bid.

Ortiz guided the talented Matt King Coal to a front-running score in the very next race, and with the choice to put that horse anywhere on the track he wanted, he smartly kept him away from the rail every step.

It’s unfortunate that on one of its biggest days of the year, and on a day when people were paying attention because of an otherwise light national stakes schedule, that the Laurel track would be so obviously and profoundly biased. Then again, in doing replay work on the card, I noticed that the rail was also dead on the big stakes card on Jan. 21 that was the local prelude to Saturday’s program.

The good news is the outcomes of most of the stakes were not determined by this overt track bias. That is because, as noted, most jockeys rode accordingly. The one notable exception was the admirable Page McKenney who, as the 3-5 favorite in the John B. Campbell, had to settle for second after spending much of the race on the dead rail. Page McKenney was upset by the 22-1 Bodhisattva who, it should come as no surprise, circled widest of all into the stretch.