02/28/2013 1:32PM

Weekend Warrior for March 2: Picks for Gotham Stakes, Tom Fool Handicap, and Santa Anita Handicap


It’s Big Cap Day on Saturday at Santa Anita, with the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap topping a program that also includes two other Grade 1 events, the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile and the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes.

There also are multiple graded stakes Saturday at Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park. At Aqueduct, the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham is supported by the Grade 2, $200,000 Top Flight Handicap and Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap. At Gulfstream, the Grade 3, $150,000 Swale Stakes is backed up by the Grade 3, $150,000 Herecomesthebride Stakes.

Gotham Stakes

Overanalyze and Vyjack are the two favorites, and purely on paper they have a decided edge on everyone else in this race. Overanalyze had a very productive 2-year-old campaign last season, winning the Remsen and the Futurity, while Vyjack has shown real ability winning all three of his starts. Still, both encounter some obstacles Saturday that make them vulnerable.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

For Overanalyze, he makes his first start in 3 1/2 months, and he drew the outside in the field of 12. Given that he won his career debut, and with his steady string of purposeful Palm Meadows works, I am not as concerned with the layoff. But the post is a problem. Although there is a bit of a run to the first turn in 1 1/16-mile races on Aqueduct’s inner track, there are a fair amount of speed and stalker types in this race. That makes it tough to envision how Overanalyze won’t get caught wide at least on the first turn. And that, taken in concert with the layoff, makes me lean against him at low odds.

As for Vyjack, he comes into this off a planned two-month freshening. And I thought Vyjack’s narrow win in the Jerome most recently was better than it looks on paper, mainly because the rail was the place to be that day and he ran a path or two away from it. But even though the Jerome was around two turns on the inner track, and despite the fact that I like him as a horse in general, I question whether Vyjack is really at his best routing, at least at this early stage of his career.

I’m going with Escapefromreality, who was a narrowly beaten second last time out in the much-discussed Withers. Now, I realize that Revolutionary was a hundred lengths the best in winning the Withers, overcoming a career’s worth of trouble, albeit some of it of his own making. And I completely understand the tendency to devalue those who finish behind a horse who wins despite a ton of trouble, which you can certainly do in the Withers. I do it myself. Often. But if you can put aside Revolutionary’s trip in the Withers for a moment and focus only on Escapefromreality’s effort, you’ll see a performance that makes him a legitimate contender Saturday.

What I liked most about Escapefromreality’s Withers was how he rated in his first start around two turns. After showing enough speed to contest the pace sprinting in his first two starts, Escapefromreality willingly conceded the front end in the Withers. Then, after lacking a bit of room on the rail late on the far turn, he angled out in the stretch and surged to the front late, only to be nailed by Revolutionary. In any case, Escapefromreality’s new running style should play well again Saturday into an expected lively pace, and he should sit a good inside pocket trip breaking from post 2.

[GOTHAM STAKES: Get PPs, watch video handicapping previews]

Tom Fool Handicap

Judging from the sub-44-second half-miles he contested in Grade 2 sprint stakes at Santa Anita in his last two starts, Comma to the Top might get loose early here. And given how he was clear at the eighth pole before being run down late in the seven-furlong San Carlos most recently, Comma to the Top figures to like the cut back to six furlongs this time. Although I am wondering how he will react to shipping across the country after having raced only one week ago, it’s obvious that Comma to the Top can win. I just prefer the other Southern California shipper, Smash.

Smash has managed to make only one start in the last 14 months, and that was a tired fifth in the Vernon Underwood three months ago. But I think his inside post that day forced him to go earlier than he would have preferred, which really isn’t his favored running style. Smash, who hasn’t missed a beat in his recent works, drew the outside post Saturday, and that will enable him to return to the stalk-from-close-range style he employed when he showed so much potential early in his career.

Santa Anita Handicap

Even more so than the Gotham, there are two strong favorites here – Game On Dude and Ron the Greek – who might easily end up dominating. Then again, although there isn’t a lot of other speed here to compromise his with-the-pace running style, Game On Dude has always been a bit shaky at this 10-furlong distance. And Ron the Greek won’t get the insane early fractions that led to a pace collapse and enabled his win in last year’s Big Cap. He also won’t get the sloppy footing he relished in his explosive Sunshine Millions Classic score last time out, though I must say I was struck by the improved positional speed he showed that day.

[BIG CAP: Get PPs, watch Saturday's Santa Anita card live]

I’m taking a shot with Called to Serve, who doesn’t have anywhere near the class lines the two favorites have, but who did show dramatic improvement late last year soon after a barn switch. Despite being compromised by a slow pace, Called to Serve ran away with the Discovery Handicap two starts back, beating, among others, Grade 1 winner Willy Beamin as well as and Guilt Trip and Stephanoatsee, the one-two finishers in last month’s Strub. Called to Serve romped again most recently in the Broad Brush Stakes at Laurel, crushing noted Laurel lover Eighttofasttocatch. It’s also worth mentioning that Called to Serve was working bullets when he blossomed late last year, and he brings three straight bullet works into this assignment.