03/17/2011 1:37PM

Weekend Warrior for March 19

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The road to the Kentucky Derby is again a prominent theme Saturday, featuring the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, the local stepping-stone to next month’s Arkansas Derby. Also on Saturday’s Oaklawn card is the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri Stakes, the local springboard to the Apple Blossom.

The four other graded stakes on Saturday’s schedule are the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Ana Stakes at Santa Anita; the Grade 2, $150,000 Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park; the Grade 3, $125,000 Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs; and the Grade 3, $100,000 Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct.

Tampa Bay Stakes

This race drew a big, eclectic field, including a last-out Grade 1 stakes winner, a long-distance specialist, and a few relatively lightly raced but emerging individuals. And all of this makes it an interesting betting proposition.

Teaks North is that recent Grade 1 winner, but the field he narrowly beat in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap last time out was not of true Grade 1 quality. It was, in fact, far closer to the company he meets in this spot. But Teaks North was also a big surprise that day, just getting up at 25-1, and I have to see another performance like that before I buy into him.

Bearpath was good enough last year to finish second in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer; to be beaten only two lengths by champion Gio Ponti in the Grade 1 Man o’ War; and to win the Grade 3 Pan American. However, Bearpath’s last eight starts all came in races at either 11 or 12 furlongs, and the feeling is he is prepping for a race much longer than this 1 1/16-mile event.

Doubles Partner is by far the best of the lightly raced group here. He showed real ability when he won the American Turf last spring, and he ran very well in his recent return from an eight-month absence, finishing a rapidly gaining second in an allowance race at Gulfstream after having to angle wide because he was blocked behind horses late on the far turn and in upper stretch. The only thing wrong with Doubles Partner is that he won’t offer any betting value.

I’m going with Rahystrada. Some people might think that losses in his last two starts indicate the icing is off this former claimer’s cake, but I disagree. I can make excuses for Rahystrada’s last two defeats, losses that also figure to help boost his price. Two starts back, Rahystrada finished fifth as the favorite in the River City Handicap, but he made a nice move on the far turn despite being caught in traffic, was still in traffic in upper stretch, and wasn’t abused late when it was clear he couldn’t win. Last time out, Rahystrada wound up eighth in the Tropical Turf Handicap, but he finished with interest. In fact, Rahystrada was going so well late that, according to DRF’s Formulator, he went his last three-eighths of a mile in an excellent 33.86 seconds. That suggests Rahystrada really isn’t out of form.

Last year, Rahystrada turned in several performances that would be good enough to win this race. Among them were a win in the Arlington Handicap, a third in this race, and an especially good fourth in the Arlington Million. Rahystrada was not far off a tough trio in the Million in Debussy, Gio Ponti, and Tazeez, and all three came back to uphold the form of that race. Debussy followed with a third in the Irish Champion and a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Gio Ponti came back to win the Shadwell Turf Mile and finish second to the great Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and Tazeez came back to win both of his starts in England, which were lower-level races only because he’s a gelding and they are not allowed to run in the top-class races there.

Santa Ana Stakes

One of the things that jumps out at you when you first look at this race is the lack of defined pace. No one in here seems to want to operate on the engine. Usually under such circumstances, you would think that the one who takes the initiative and goes for the lead would have a big advantage controlling a modest pace. But I’m not so sure this time. I think Church Camp might go to the front mainly because the positional speed she showed sprinting on dirt in her last two starts says the lead here is hers if she wants it. But even with an advantage like an easy, uncontested early lead, I doubt Church Camp is good enough.

In these situations, I want the horse with the best late kick, and that horse is Turning Top. I have no idea why Turning Top was as far back as she was to the stretch last time out in the Buena Vista Handicap, but she finished well, has a license to improve second start off a four-month layoff, and gets a positive rider switch Saturday. Last year, Turning Top showed a strong late punch when she won the Redondo Beach and was a narrowly beaten third in the Las Palmas. She also showed she has the requisite class to win this when second in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon, finishing ahead of subsequent Grade 1 Matriarch winner Gypsy’s Warning.

Bienville Stakes

Maybe Midst is simply the fastest and best horse in this feature at Fair Grounds, but she has some holes in her. Even though her excellent synthetic track form and a steady string of workouts on the grass at Palm Meadows suggest she can successfully transition to turf on Saturday, the fact remains that this will be Midst’s career debut on grass. That, combined with the fact that she hasn’t raced in 10 months and yet will be the favorite means Midst is not the one for me.

I like Leopard Rock, Leopard Rock really found herself as a turf sprinter last summer and fall, culminating with a second in an allowance race at Keeneland that is actually as good as anyone’s recent turf efforts in here. And it is very encouraging that Leopard Rock earned a career-best Beyer Figure when she won her recent return from a four-month absence. That it came in an off-the-turf race underscores how much Leopard Rock has improved in view of how mediocre her dirt form was earlier in her career.