03/14/2013 12:59PM

Weekend Warrior for March 16, 2013: Picks for Honey Fox, Rebel, Santa Margarita


Although Santa Anita has the day’s lone Grade 1 event, the $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational, the main focus Saturday will be on Oaklawn Park. Oaklawn offers the Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel Stakes, an important stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri Stakes, which lured Eclipse Award winner My Miss Aurelia. The two other graded stakes on the schedule are both Grade 2 turf events, the $150,000 San Luis Rey, the supporting feature at Santa Anita, and the $150,000 Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park.

Honey Fox Stakes

Things usually don’t get really serious in the female turf division until summer, at the earliest. But for an early-season spot for this group, this race came up very salty. Centre Court finished first or second in all eight of her starts last year, and her last two performances, a decisive victory in the Mrs. Revere and a solid second in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, were probably her two best efforts to date. Samitar won the Grade 1 Garden City last September in her second U.S. start, and she was severely compromised in the Q.E. II Cup when hard held off a walking pace that didn’t work to Centre Court’s favor, either. And the highly regarded Pianist has been favored in all eight of her career starts (she was odds-on in five of those occasions) and has, at times, shown flashes of being something special.

In the case of Pianist, however, even though she’s not a need-the-lead type, she is at her best when she is right with the early pace. And with the one-way front runner Frontside in here, being right with the pace can be harmful to Pianist’s chances.

The projected scenario of a lively pace should work to the benefit of both Samitar and Centre Court. On the other hand, the jury is still out on just how good Samitar really is, plus she is coming off a five-month layoff. Although she was beaten only a neck and a head by Centre Court when third in the Lake George last summer in her U.S. debut, I thought Samitar had no excuse not to win that race. And the field Samitar narrowly beat in the Garden City was not as good as this field.

As for Centre Court, she sports steady, purposeful works for her first start off a four-month layoff. But with next month’s Grade 1 Jenny Wiley being her first stated major goal of the year, you have to wonder if Centre Court’s connections won’t approach this race with a prep-first mentality.

I like Channel Lady. I realize that compared to some others here, Channel Lady looks less accomplished on paper. Then again, Channel Lady sports sharp recent form at the Gulfstream meet, having won the Suwannee River last time out after a narrowly beaten second in the Marshua’s River two starts back. Her edge in recency over Centre Court and Samitar is, I believe, an equalizing factor. But what I really like about Channel Lady is she finally has an opportunity to return to what I feel is her most effective running style.

Channel Lady prompted the pace in the Marshua’s River and made the running in the Suwannee River, but did so only because they were slow-paced races. That she ran well is a tribute to her versatility because I think Channel Lady is best when allowed to drop back and make one run from off the pace. That’s the style she used when she won an overnight stakes three starts back and an allowance race at Saratoga last summer in which she ran her fourth and final quarter in 21.98 seconds, and is an approach she can return to Saturday.

Rebel Stakes

There seems to be some hand wringing over the fact that Super Ninety Nine drew widest of 11 here, and that Title Contender was put in as an entrymate of Treasury Bill, ostensibly to soften up Super Ninety Nine early. But I feel being wide at Oaklawn is not as compromising as it is at other tracks, and I don’t get where Super Ninety Nine has to have the early lead. Yes, Super Ninety Nine set the pace when he ran away with the Southwest in the slop most recently, but he conceded the lead two starts back when he walloped Code West, who came back to be beaten a lip in the Risen Star. However, it does go against my grain to take a horse coming off a big win on a wet track, though I concede Super Ninety Nine is more than a mere mud lark.

Treasury Bill and Oxbow are logical alternatives, but I’m leaning against them. Treasury Bill is bred to go long, but he hasn’t done it yet, and he hasn’t run all that fast yet, either. Oxbow was caught five wide on the first turn when a close fourth in the Risen Star, but I need to be convinced that race wasn’t soft.

I’m going with the third logical alternative, Delhomme. I know that the strength of the Remsen in which Delhomme finished a close third was brought into question when Overanalyze and Normandy Invasion, the first two finishers, lost their 3-year-old debuts. But Normandy Invasion had a bad trip in the Risen Star, and I think it’s still too early to write off the Remsen form. What I find interesting about Delhomme is he earned Beyers of 98 and 94 in his two starts last fall. With only nominal maturity, that should put him right in the mix with Super Ninety Nine’s two recent triple-digit Beyers.

Santa Margarita Invitational

Joyful Victory and Great Hot come into this off career-best stakes scores in the Houston Ladies Classic and Santa Maria, respectively. But those stakes wins were achieved when both got away with easy early leads. Joyful Victory and Great Hot don’t even have to hook up early to have less favorable trips this time, and that opens the door for a mini-upset by Brushed by a Star.

Brushed by a Star was a no-match second to Joyful Victory in Houston, but the pace setup was completely wrong for her. This is ironic because Brushed by a Star is a one time speedball who morphed into a closer last fall, and an effective one at that, winning the Chilukki and finishing second in the Falls City, beating Joyful Victory both times.