08/02/2012 1:32PM

Weekend Warrior for Aug. 4: Flat Out the pick in Whitney

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Barbara D. Livingston
A better pace and added distance of the Whitney could benefit Flat Out.

There are three Grade 1 races on Saturday, and they are precisely where you would expect to find them – Saratoga and Del Mar. Saratoga has two of them, the $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap and the $300,000 Prioress, while the headliner at Del Mar is the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes. But there is one other race of particular note Saturday, the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby, which tops an all-stakes card at Mountaineer Racetrack.

Whitney Handicap

Ron the Greek, the morning-line favorite, is one of the most accomplished handicap horses in the nation so far this year, having won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap three starts back in March and the Grade 1 Stephen Foster in his most recent appearance. But while Ron the Greek has been good, he has also been very fortunate. After early splits of 44.55 seconds and 1:09.08 in the 10-furlong Big Cap, Ron the Greek was assisted by a total pace collapse. The same was true in the Foster. Ron the Greek just got up because the last of the Foster’s nine furlongs was run in 14.18, which is incredibly slow considering the fast track, and class of horse involved.

In fairness, Ron the Greek ran respectably when second to the then-streaking Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap two starts back, improving his position despite having no pace to set up his late kick. And on Saturday, Ron the Greek appears to be in line for a favorable pace setup. Trickmeister is fast, and has shown to be only one-way speed. I think Endorsement is going to go this time. Rule likes to operate close to the pace, as does Fort Larned. But even though the promise of a strong pace might play to Ron the Greek’s strength, I can’t take him at an unappealing price given the breaks he got in his two big scores this year.

Fort Larned boasts 108 Beyer Figures in three of his last four starts, and I’m inclined to forgive his dud in the Foster two back. And though he walked on the lead when he won the Cornhusker last time out, he is equally effective stalking from close range. But I fear even just staying close to the potential pace might be taxing, and Fort Larned has to show me he can pop another 108 on this stage.

I like Flat Out. At one point last year, Flat Out was the best older male around. After finishing second over the Saratoga main track in last summer’s Whitney and Woodward (to Horse of the Year Havre de Grace), Flat Out dominated the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and actually went off the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But he became a forgotten horse after a disappointing fifth in the Classic, a soundly beaten third in the subsequent Clark, and two sub-par efforts over the winter at Gulfstream.

However, Flat Out showed he isn’t done when second to Rule in the Monmouth Cup in his recent return from a five-month layoff, and in his first start for trainer Bill Mott, who also trains Ron the Greek. Flat Out was severely compromised at Monmouth by a complete lack of pace, and yet he was going particularly well the last 100 yards or so. Flat Out will appreciate the better pace setup Saturday as well as the added distance, and the return to a track over which he ran well last year.

Hymn Book is also dangerous. I’m not sure why Hymn Book virtually lost contact with the field early when second in the Suburban most recently – I don’t think his sluggish start was entirely to blame – but he did finish very well. The stretch-out to two turns and real pace up front to rally into is a good combination for Hymn Book.

Seagram Cup

Pool Play will get plenty of support here on the expectation that he will take a big step forward off his recent return from a near 13-month absence, which also happened to be his first start since his upset of last year’s Stephen Foster. And Pool Play should improve if for no other reason that seven furlongs on turf, the conditions of his comeback, is just not his game. He is much better going long on the main track. On the other hand, Pool Play didn’t run especially well in his comeback even if he was beaten less than two lengths. He finished fourth in a field of six, and earned a mediocre Beyer of 78. He just might need another race before he reaches top form.

City Wolf is my play. City’s Wolf’s first two starts this year weren’t anything to get excited about, either, but I can make excuses for them. He was coming off a six-month absence and had a bad post first time back, and then was on the wrong footing and distance when he went 12 furlongs on grass last time out. City Wolf is in the right sort of race this time, and he is certainly good enough to win judging from his score in the Durham Cup last fall, which capped a four-race win streak. Moreover, City Wolf adds blinkers. Yes, his one prior start with blinkers was ugly, but I won’t hold that against him. In fact, I don’t think the equipment change coming on the heels City Wolf’s blazing workout last Sunday is a coincidence.

West Virginia Derby

I have had a liking for Hansen since he won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last fall in his second start. The only thing really wrong with him is you can’t make any money betting on him, which leaves betting against him or passing as the alternatives, and who wants to pass? One other thing about Hansen is he is 0 for 2 beyond 1 1/16 miles, and while that is a small sample, it’s there. And though he has an ideal opportunity to successfully handle nine furlongs in this spot, it is just enough reason for me to take a shot with Called to Serve.

Called to Serve did not run well in the Swaps last time, but that he’s shipping across country for this suggests the barn has forgiven him for that effort, so maybe we should, too. If you toss his Swaps, and his one failed turf experiment, Called to Serve’s form is quite solid, and the 97 Beyer he earned in a win two starts back makes him very competitive.