02/02/2012 12:32PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 4: Prayer for Relief can topple Tapizar

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There will be a distinct “Road to the Derby” feel in the air Saturday as three of the biggest stakes events on the schedule are graded route events for 3-year-olds. The richest of the three is the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, a race supported by the Grade 3, $150,000 Endeavor Stakes. The Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct heads a card that includes two other stakes, the Grade 3, $150,000 Toboggan, and the $100,000 Correction. But the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita might be the most noteworthy of the three because it attracted a very good, and deep, field. The Lewis is also part of a Grade 2 stakes tripleheader Saturday at Santa Anita along with the $200,000 Strub, and the $150,000 Arcadia.

Strub Stakes

There was a moment in the run to the first turn in last month’s San Fernando Stakes when it looked like Tapizar might get hung four wide around that opening bend. But Tapizar’s innate quickness, combined with the decisions of the jockeys on the three horses inside of him to not go on with it, allowed Tapizar to clear the San Fernando field early on the clubhouse turn and secure an uncontested lead.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m taking a big stand against Tapizar when he wheels back in this spot. I’m not. Tapizar deserves credit for winning the San Fernando because he scored decisively in what was his first start around two turns in 11 months. And the truth is, he is likely to enjoy the same sort of loose-on-the-lead trip Saturday as he got in the San Fernando. Jaycito, Beer Meister, Clubhouse Ride, and Balladry are all deep closers incapable of putting any pressure on Tapizar early. Indian Winter is stretching out off two sprints and is adding blinkers, but he has lacked speed even in his past route attempts. Ultimate Eagle has shown speed in turf races, and in fact posted front-running victories last fall in the Hollywood and Oak Tree Derbies. But that was on grass. This is on dirt, where early paces are generally faster, and a surface on which Ultimate Eagle is a complete unknown.

But even though Tapizar is in sharp form, the owner of a huge pace advantage, and looks likely to handle the stretch-out to the Strub’s nine furlongs, I’m still going to try and tip him over. I just have a thing about trying to beat a heavy favorite coming off a perfect-trip win, especially when that horse is stretching out to a distance at which he is attempting to win for the first time.

The only member of the Strub field I haven’t mentioned so far is Prayer for Relief, and he’s my pick. Prayer for Relief was a soundly beaten third in behind Tapizar in the San Fernando. However, after allowing Tapizar to clear early, Prayer for Relief did some of the dirty work prompting his pace. And at least Prayer for Relief moved out to make a run at Tapizar in upper stretch before getting nailed for second late by the opportunistic Balladry.

Prayer for Relief seems positioned to improve second start back off the two-month layoff, an important consideration.Tapizar was actually coming off a longer layoff when he won the San Fernando, but he is a colt who has a history of running well fresh. Although Prayer for Relief won his first start last year off a layoff, he took a big step forward Beyer Figure-wise in his second start back, and I think he’s primed for similar advancement this time.

In addition, where Tapizar will be looking for his first career win going 1 1/8 miles, Prayer for Relief won the Super and West Virginia Derbies at this distance last year. Finally, Prayer fore Relief’s best-of-58 five-furlong work last Sunday suggests that he might be more aggressive this time, and make an earlier move at Tapizar.

Withers Stakes

We have another heavy favorite in this race in Alpha, and he might prove even tougher to beat than Tapizar. Alpha shipped up from Florida to whip a similar group in last month’s Count Fleet Stakes in his first start with Lasix, and he showed quality last year in a flashy debut win at Saratoga, and a second to the highly regarded Kentucky Derby prospect Union Rags in the Grade 1 Champagne. But I look to beat big favorites, and I’m taking a flyer here with How Do I Win.

How Do I Win is an interesting story. Last summer, How Do I Win was rumored to be just as good if not better than stablemate Overdriven, a very talented stakes winner who at the time was the best 2-year-old male in the country. But How Do I Win lost his first two starts at Saratoga at odds-on, and eventually had to drop into a maiden claimer to get his first victory. How Do I Win won another race after that, but lost in his stakes debut most recently, finishing a tired fourth behind Alpha in the Count Fleet.

On paper, it looked like How Do I Win might hook up in a vicious speed duel in the Count Fleet with the stakes-winning sprinter Il Villano. Instead, How Do I Win conceded the lead, unsuccessfully, as it turned out. But How Do I Win has no such concerns this time. He can be in complete control of the pace, and it should be noted that the only time How Do I Win had complete control of the pace was in his maiden win. Yes, that was only in a maiden claimer, and was in the slop, to boot. But How Do I Win scored by 17 1/2 lengths and earned a 90 Beyer, the best in this field.

Arcadia Stakes

What the heck. Let’s try and beat another heavy favorite here in Mr. Commons. Truth be told, I’m a bit of a Mr. Commons fan. I started to like him last summer when he ran so well despite less than ideal trips, and with the way he won the Sir Beaufort last time at the same distance and over the same course as this race, he’s positioned to be an important turf miler this year. But Mr. Commons is meeting a potentially high-class opponent Saturday in Pathfork.

Pathfork went 3 for 3 in Ireland as a 2-year-old in 2010, winning a Group 1 and a Group 2 stakes, and earning impressive Racing Post ratings. Pathfork lost to the mighty Frankel in the 2000 Guineas in his only start last year. But even before that race, it was announced that Pathfork was intended for U.S. racing. His new career begins here off a steady recent workout line.