02/16/2012 1:37PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 18: Force Freeze vulnerable at seven furlongs

Barbara D. Livingston
Force Freeze has never raced beyond six furlongs.

NEW YORK – We have two graded stakes Saturday in the East – the Grade 2, $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel and the Grade 2, $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship – and two in the West – the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Maria at Santa Anita and the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. And though it is only an overnight race on turf, Saturday’s fifth race at Gulfstream also ranks right up there because it marks the return of 2011 champion 3-year-old male and Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship

Force Freeze was in tremendous form last fall. He finished second, beaten only a half-length, in the Grade 1 Vosburgh, and he was second, beaten just a neck, in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In fact, a case can be made that the combined beaten margin in those two races of only three-quarters of a length was all that stood between Force Freeze and an Eclipse Award as last year’s champion male sprinter. Moreover, Force Freeze was especially impressive in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint to come as close to winning as he did when you consider that he was the only participant in that race’s fast early pace who was even remotely prominent at the finish. Sprint pacesetters Euroears and Giant Ryan wound up a distant ninth (and last) and eighth, respectively. And Big Drama, who was a close-up fourth early in company with Force Freeze, backed off to finish a soundly beaten seventh.

Clearly, Force Freeze merits a great deal of respect in this spot. The three-month layoff he brings into this is not a concern, because he has repeatedly proven capable of running well fresh, and his recent works have been strong. On top of it all, Force Freeze is perfectly drawn outside, giving him the option of going straight to the front or rating just off the lead, depending on how the pace unfolds inside of him.

That said, there is one big question mark concerning Force Freeze Saturday, and that is the seven-furlong distance. Force Freeze has made 21 starts in his career, and none of them has been beyond six furlongs. Force Freeze might prove entirely capable of getting the extra ground, even if there is a far greater difference between six- and seven-furlong races than only a mere furlong. But at low odds, I’m not interested in paying to find out.

Distance should be no problem for Capt. Candyman Can, for he has long been known as a seven-furlong specialist. There will also be those who will expect Capt. Candyman Can to take a step forward off his fourth in the Mr. Prospector on New Year’s Eve, as that was his first start in almost seven months. I’m not so sure about that, however. Capt. Candyman Can has also been known as one who produces an “A” effort off of workouts – he won his racing debut, and four of his seven other career victories came off of layoffs – so the fact that he didn’t perform better in the Mr. Prospector could be read as an indication he might not be as effective as he used to be.

I’m going with Bold Warrior. Granted, Bold Warrior is stepping way up in class. But he is a lightly raced, improving colt who was cut out to be a good one, being by Bernardini, out of champion Hollywood Wildcat, making him a half to Breeders’ Cup Mile winner War Chant. Most importantly, every one of Bold Warrior’s performances in one-turn races were solid, especially his narrow defeat in a stakes at Belmont most recently in which he was much the best after he uncharacteristically spotted the field a four- to five-length head start. Bold Warrior is a good fit for this distance, and figures to sit a sweet inside pocket trip Saturday.

As for Animal Kingdom, he caught a very soft spot for his comeback, and he holds an enormous class edge. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. For one, this is a stone-cold prep for his real goal, the Dubai World Cup, so he is not going to empty his tank for this. Perhaps more importantly, there is very little pace to assist Animal Kingdom’s late run. In these situations, I look for the one with the best kick home, and I think Monument Hill has a puncher’s chance for an upset. Monument Hill has won both of his starts at the meet over the course, and he came home fast in both scores.

Barbara Fritchie Handicap

Nicole H, strictly the one to beat as the heavy favorite, is a funny sort of horse. She comes into this off a pair of stakes wins on Aqueduct’s inner track, a surface over which she has never lost. And while it could be just me, but I found it odd how she managed to find traffic trouble in both spots. Nicole H’s nose loss three back in the O’Malley Stakes at Suffolk Downs, a defeat that stands in the way of her having won six straight, was also a strange one. The mare who edged Nicole H that day, It’s Me Mom, is no slouch. She has since won three straight, including a huge score in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint. But the way Nicole H took command in the stretch of that race, she looked like she was one to a million to win, and she didn’t close the deal. Finally, while Nicole H gives the impression that she can run faster, the fact is, her Beyer Speed Figures over the last year are ordinary.

Red’s Round Table is my play. Red’s Round Table, like Nicole H and a couple of others in here, is a prolific winner; she’s won 8 of 10 career starts. But her score last time out was her best yet, and she is the controlling speed.

Santa Maria Stakes

Great Hot is a capable filly, but despite a couple of good tries at this distance, she is better going shorter. Vision in Gold won this race last year, but her dull effort at 4-5 in the Paseana Handicap off a 10 month layoff with front bandages on was alarming. Ellafitz, decisive winner of the Paseana, and of the Bayakoa before that, should win again.

Ellafitz is in the best form of her career, and she survived stronger early pace pressure in the Paseana than she is liable to face here. It would seem the only one capable of hounding Ellafitz early in a meaningful way Saturday is Spirit Seeker. But Ellafitz is still a faster, better horse, and as hot as she is right now, it might not matter if Spirit Seeker does go after her early.