04/26/2012 12:44PM

Weekend Warrior for April 28: Look past favorites in Derby Trial

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Saturday seems to be Miler’s Day as all four Grade 3 stakes on the national schedule will be run at that distance. The Derby Trial Stakes, the feature on the opening day card at Churchill Downs, and the Texas Mile at Lone Star Park both have purses of $200,000. The Westchester Stakes, the headliner of the first Saturday card at Belmont Park, and the San Francisco Mile on the turf at Golden Gate, are each worth $150,000.

Saturday is also California Gold Rush Day at Betfair Hollywood Park, where a pair of $300,000 stakes for California-bred or California-sired 3-year-olds – the Snow Chief and the Melair for fillies – top the action.

Derby Trial Stakes

Bourbon Courage and Paynter will be the first two betting favorites, and they certainly have their attributes. Bourbon Courage has come from humble beginnings (he was only a $15,000 yearling purchase) to win his first two career starts at Fair Grounds like the second coming of Man o’ War. Bourbon Courage ran a hole in the wind in his debut romp in February – specifically, he ran fast enough for an eye-catching Beyer Speed Figure of 103 – and the form of that race was upheld when two came out of the beaten field to win their next starts. One of those next-out winners was Cigar Street, who came back with a big, fast 99 Beyer of his own defeating maidens, and followed with a fourth, beaten only two lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. And Bourbon Courage ran almost as fast in his runaway allowance win last month as he did first time out, earning a 101 Beyer.

Paynter didn’t run nearly as fast when he cruised at 2-5 in his debut at Santa Anita in February, receiving a 79 Beyer, but he showed considerable quality in his most recent outing. Despite an enormous class jump up to the Grade 1 level, and a considerable distance jump from 5 1/2 to nine furlongs, Paynter finished a creditable fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. He was beaten less than four lengths by such top-tier Kentucky Derby candidates as I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause, while finishing ahead of the stakes winners Liaison and Midnight Transfer.

But while Bourbon Courage might simply be much faster than this Derby Trial field, or Paynter might be classier than these, there are still questions about them. Both are shipping and racing on a new track for the first time. Bourbon Courage will be going beyond six furlongs for the first time, while Paynter is cutting back to a distance that might, or might not, be a good fit for him right now. Either could easily win, but at low odds, neither is an especially appealing bet.

I’m going with Nonios because he should be a square price despite solid form, and also because he is taking a subtle, but substantial class drop that is a pet angle of mine. Nonios scored decisively at Golden Gate Fields in the first two starts of his career, earning a 93 Beyer in a romp at this one-mile distance in the second of those outings that certainly makes him competitive here. But though he ran creditably when third as the favorite last time out, that performance deserves a second look, and not only because Nonios’s late kick was compromised by a slow early pace.

Nonios is taking a certain kind of class drop Saturday. When third last time, he was a 3-year-old facing seven older opponents. Hudson Landing, who won that race, is a nine-time winner, and Photo Shopped, the runner-up, has won four races. Both were in sharp form going into that race, and both are running back in the San Francisco Mile, although they are in tough against the class-dropping Jeranimo. Anyway, the important thing is, a 3-year-old is up against it facing capable older horses, especially at this still early stage of the year. Nonios now moving back in with members of his own age group is an important drop, and yet is one that is often overlooked.

[DERBY TRIAL: Download PPs for the full Saturday Churchill Downs race card]

Texas Mile

Canonize is the morning-line favorite and it is good news for his fans that, really for the first time in a career that has been punctuated by layoffs, he has been able to put together a campaign of some length. And it is probably no coincidence that Canonize has won two of his last three starts, with his victory in the Santana Mile last time out being one of his best efforts to date. Canonize will take some beating here, but I prefer Endorsement.

Endorsement is best known as the winner of the 2010 Sunland Derby, and he was so impressive in that score that he was a popular wise guy horse in that year’s Kentucky Derby. However, Endorsement was knocked out before the Derby by injury, and did not race again for 21 months.

When Endorsement finally got back into action at Gulfstream in December, it was understandable that he might need a race or two to knock the rust off. And while Endorsement did finish second in his first two starts back, it should be noted he was beaten by sharp opponents – one who was winning his fourth straight, and another who was winning his third straight and followed with a second in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship. But Endorsement broke though with a solid score most recently, beating two next-out winners, and looks to be on his way now. I also like the fact that he is effective either on the lead or just off it.

Westchester Stakes

I have immense respect for To Honor and Serve and have always believed he is a top-class horse. But here, he will be making his first start since he won the Cigar Mile last November (over a field that has subsequently accounted for a handful of stakes), and running fresh has, to date, been a problem for him. To Honor and Serve lost his racing debut, he lost his 3-year-old debut last year off a three-month break, and he lost his comeback last summer off a four-month layoff. Now, he returns from a five-month hiatus in a race that is meant to prepare him for his real target, the Met Mile.

My pick is the logical alternative, Jersey Town. Jersey Town, winner of the 2010 Cigar Mile, worked well before his comeback last month in the Sir Shackleton. He ran to those works finishing a sharp second. Jersey Town has worked well since, and is a horse who often pairs up top efforts.

[WESTCHESTER STAKES: Download PPs and wager on the full Saturday Belmont race card]