02/17/2011 1:49PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 19


NEW YORK – Despite stakes doubleheaders at both Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, the spotlight Saturday falls squarely on Fair Grounds, where it is Louisiana Derby Preview Day. The Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes, the local stepping-stone to next month’s Louisiana Derby, tops a Fair Grounds card that includes five other stakes. Three of those five races are Grade 3 events – the $150,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes, $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap, and $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap.

The weather will be good in New Orleans, but unfortunately, the same might not be true at Santa Anita. The potential for heavy rain Friday into Saturday could impact the Grade 2, $150,000 San Carlos Handicap, and could wreck the intriguing match-up between Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus in the Grade 2, $150,000 San Luis Obispo Stakes, scheduled for the turf. There are no weather worries at Gulfstream, however, where the Grade 2, $150,000 Mac Diarmida Stakes is supported by the Grade 3, $100,000 Sabin Stakes.

Risen Star Stakes

Rogue Romance is the morning-line favorite here off his third to undefeated champion Uncle Mo in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and I will be pleased to step up and take a swing against him for a variety of reasons. For one, Rogue Romance’s third in the Juvenile was the quintessential “clunk along special.” Yes he was fanned wide on the first turn and raced in about the three-path from there on out, but away from the rail was by far the best footing on both Breeders’ Cup days last year. And while Rogue Romance finished third, he was never remotely close to making an impact as he was beaten more than 10 lengths. In fact, if Jaycito didn’t bolt nearing the backstretch and seemingly sulk after that before finishing well to be seventh, the best Rogue Romance would have finished would have been fourth. Finally, Rogue Romance will be making his first start Saturday in three months.

Well, if that doesn’t make a winner out of Rogue Romance, then he really is in trouble. Let me help out another horse in here by putting the knock on him, and that horse is Machen. Machen impressed when he won his career debut sprinting early last month. Last time out, he again won by open lengths, this time going two turns. The problem is, Machen’s two-turn Beyer fell off by 16 huge points over his sprint score. And while the pace in that route race wasn’t exactly conducive to a high Beyer, the quarter-mile and half-mile splits weren’t really that much slower than the other routes that day. So this at least raises the question of whether Machen, at this very early stage of his career, is as effective going two turns as he seems sprinting.

I like Mucho Macho Man. Yes, Mucho Macho Man was the beaten favorite in the Holy Bull three weeks ago, but I can forgive that effort. After three strong bullet works going into that race, Mucho Macho Man was set up to roll early, and he indeed wound up contesting a strong pace. Although Mucho Macho Man faded to fourth, he actually finished better than the other two horses who were immediately involved in the battle for the early lead.

The Holy Bull will benefit Mucho Macho Man by knocking off the too-sharp-an-edge he carried into that race, and the removal of blinkers will also help him settle early. A Mucho Macho Man who can settle early can be quite good, as he demonstrated when he was a very good second twice in stakes last November to the highly regarded To Honor and Serve.

Fair Grounds Handicap

Telling has won two races in his last 19 starts dating back 33 months, and both of those races were the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Being a Grade 1 winner makes Telling one to consider here. But since I’m taking this outing as the beginning of his long march toward his attempt at winning a third straight Sword Dancer, I’m looking elsewhere.

Even if he hasn’t raced in seven months, Loup Breton is absolutely the one to beat here and is a must-use in all wagers. Loup Breton, who has demonstrated the ability to run well fresh, showed an excellent late kick when he won the San Marcos early last year in his third U.S. start. And it was criminal that he lost the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Loup Breton broke badly, almost dumping his rider, and then was hopelessly blocked at a crucial stage of the race in the stretch. Loup Breton didn’t get clear until it was too late, but when he did, he gained strongly late to be beaten only a neck.

But Expansion will be a price in here, and I think he has a shot, so he will be my play. Expansion is capable when on his game as he showed when third against the likes of Gio Ponti and Winchester in the Grade 1 Manhattan and Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes last year. Expansion’s recent form doesn’t look nearly as good, which is why he will be a price. But he had to face better in Grade 2 stakes at Santa Anita in his last two starts, and the class relief Saturday could be what he needs to snap back into form.

Sabin Stakes

Three in this field come out of Sunshine Millions races, and in particular, Amen Hallelujah will receive attention because many will expect her to improve off a fifth in the Filly and Mare Sprint as it was her first start in nearly eight months. But I don’t think that was a strong race, and I’m instead focusing on the optional claimer that Catch a Thief and Sassy Image come out of.

Sassy Image was a gaining second on Catch a Thief in that race, and there will be those who will expect her to turn the tables because that was Sassy Image’s first race in 11 months. But Catch a Thief, who has won three of her last four and boasts four straight Beyers of 91 or higher, is the controlling speed again Saturday, and is taken to go wire to wire.

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