06/02/2011 12:48PM

Weekend Warrior for June 4


There is a little something for everyone on Saturday’s stakes schedule. Female turfers go in the richest race in North America, the $300,000 Nassau Stakes at Woodbine. Female sprinters contest the Grade 2, $150,000 Vagrancy Stakes at Belmont Park, while 3-year-old fillies do battle in one of two stakes at Churchill Downs, the Grade 3, $100,000 Dogwood.

Older males meet in the Grade 2, $150,000 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, while male sprinters go in the other stakes at Churchill, the Grade 3, $100,000 Aristides. And finally, 3-year-olds will contest the Grade 3, $100,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown.

Aristides Stakes

The strength in this race looks like the trio coming out of the Churchill Downs Stakes run on the Kentucky Derby undercard, even if all three raced with the grain of the outside bias that prevailed there that day, because that race attracted one of the deepest sprint fields so far this year. And the first two of these you see when you run down the Aristides field are Here Comes Ben and Capt. Candyman Can.

Here Comes Ben was making his first start in six months in the Churchill Downs Stakes, so it was a tough spot for him even if he was going his beloved seven furlongs. Last summer, Here Comes Ben proved he is one of the best around going seven furlongs when he won the Grade 1 Forego, beating Big Drama, who later won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and who was voted last year’s champion male sprinter. But considering the layoff and the strength of the field, Here Comes Ben did reasonably well in the Churchill Downs to be beaten only four lengths in finishing seventh. He certainly has every right to improve off that performance second time back, and he is clearly good enough to win this. The problem I have, however, is the cut back in distance Saturday from seven furlongs to six. Here Comes Ben is not nearly as accomplished, or experienced, at this shorter distance.

Capt. Candyman Can finished fourth in the Churchill Downs Stakes, beaten only a half-length, and yet I found his performance disappointing. Capt. Candyman Can sat a perfect trip just off the early pace, and moved to a clear lead in upper stretch as though a lead pipe cinch to win. But despite going a distance he has always been strong at, Capt. Candyman Can couldn’t hold on in the late stages. And he, too, isn’t quite as accomplished at this shorter distance as he is in slightly longer sprints.

I like the other one coming out of the Churchill Downs Stakes, Noble’s Promise. Noble’s Promise finished fifth in the Churchill Downs, beaten two lengths, despite being at the disadvantage of coming off a five-month layoff, even if he has run well fresh in the past. In fact, last fall he was a going away winner of an overnight stakes at this six-furlong distance over the track off a five-month layoff.

In any event, Noble’s Promise has always been a quality colt. He upset the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at 2, and followed with narrow defeats in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Grade 1 CashCall Futurity. In his first start at 3 last year, he just failed to beat two-time Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky in the Rebel Stakes, and he later was a very good fifth in the Kentucky Derby going a distance almost everyone felt was too far for him. Noble’s Promise is now rightly focused on sprinting, a recent best-of-43 work suggests he will improve second start off the layoff, and he projects to sit a sweet outside stalking trip Saturday off a contested pace.

Californian Stakes

The two big questions here are, what do you do with heavy favorite Twirling Candy, and who in here is merely prepping for the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9?

There is no question that Twirling Candy is one of the most talented horses in training, but I have no qualms over taking a shot against him here at a short price. Twirling Candy was a beaten horse as the 1-2 favorite in the Santa Anita Handicap last time out when he encountered the stretch trouble that knocked him back to a fifth-place finish. As a result, he is still looking for his first career victory in a race that wasn’t restricted to members of his own age group. For the first time in his life, Twirling Candy will be asked to go long off a meaningful layoff, this one being three months. And also for the first time, Twirling Candy will race without blinkers.

As for those who might be using this race as a prep, I suspect Setsuko might be one. Setsuko also makes his first start since the Big Cap, in which he was beaten a nose after being bumped hard in midstretch. That was his best performance yet. It was also at 10 furlongs. That, plus a recent series of stamina inducing rather than speed workouts, leads me to believe Setsuko really has his sights set on the 10 furlongs of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

I’m going with Aggie Engineer, yet another coming out of the Big Cap. Aggie Engineer’s distant ninth in the Big Cap was not good, but the 10 furlongs was probably beyond his scope. He now returns to a synthetic surface, on which he has done most of his best work, including a win in the Native Diver Handicap late last year. The pace in this race should be much more forgiving than the strong Big Cap pace Aggie Engineer disputed, and that’s a big boost to his chances, too.

Dogwood Stakes

There are some very promising fillies in here, including Might, a full sister to 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and champion older male Blame who has won two straight, and Fantasy of Flight, who won her debut on the Kentucky Oaks undercard as though a certain stakes filly, and who, interestingly, was nominated to the Triple Crown. But Salty Strike is my play.

Salty Strike, whose form is very good if you overlook unsuccessful synthetic track and two-turn outings two and three starts back, was most impressive crushing an allowance field recently. And the stalk-from-close-range style she employed that day should play well in this spot.