03/01/2012 11:36AM

Weekend Warrior for March 3


Big Cap Day at Santa Anita is always a big deal, and it’s no different this year. Saturday’s renewal of the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap drew a big field of 13, and is supported by two strong Grade 1 events – the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, which lured standout turf miler Mr. Commons, and the $250,000 Las Virgenes, which attracted a filly with unlimited potential, Reneesgotzip.

Saturday’s card at Aqueduct is also big. Hansen, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, will attempt to advance his Kentucky Derby status in the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham. And two near champions of 2011, Caleb’s Posse and It’s Tricky, make their first start of the year in the Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool, and the Grade 2, $200,000 Top Flight Handicap, respectively.

Santa Anita Handicap

As good as Ultimate Eagle was on the turf last year at 3 – and he was a Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes winner – maybe he has really been a dirt horse all along. You have to consider that possibility with the way he won last month’s Strub Stakes in his dirt debut. Ultimate Eagle outran the speedy Tapizar for the early lead, and then he seriously outran everyone else, drawing off to score by just over seven lengths.

Off a performance like that, Ultimate Eagle deserves a lot of respect Saturday, especially after this Big Cap became an easier spot when Game On Dude passed on a chance to defend his title in favor of a shot at the Dubai World Cup. But Ultimate Eagle is by no means a lock. Once Tapizar was taken care of in the Strub, Ultimate Eagle didn’t have a lot left to beat. Strub runner up Jaycito hadn’t raced in six months, and third-place finisher Prayer for Relief never ran a step. And while the early zip Ultimate Eagle showed in the Strub makes him the main speed Saturday, Gladding and Fiddlers Afleet are quick enough to put pace pressure on him at some point.

Setsuko will certainly have his share of backers since he was beaten just a nose in this race last year by Game On Dude after being roughed up in the stretch, and recently came back off a five-month layoff to win in his first start as a gelding. But Setsuko’s recent win was only in an entry-level allowance race, notably in the 17th start of his career. He’s stepping way up, and he just doesn’t win often enough to justify his moderate price.

Although he won’t get the ideal pace setup he got when he won most recently and is also stepping up in class, I’m going with Holladay Road for the upset. Holladay Road ran away with the Crystal Water Stakes for California-breds last time out, rallying from way back into a very fast early pace. While the pace did set up well for him, Holladay Road also did some real running in the middle stages of the race before the speed fell apart. Holladay Road ran his third quarter-mile in that race in 23.04, which means he ran an interior half-mile in 45.54, and that is solid. It’s obvious that Holladay Road has had his share of physical issues. He is 7, and this will be only his 14th start. But he is in the best form of his life, he has handled every surface and distance thrown at him with aplomb, and he loves to win.

I also think Uh Oh Bango is a logical contender. Yes, Uh Oh Bango was no match for Game On Dude last time out in the San Antonio. But Game On Dude was especially good that day, and Uh Oh Bango was very game finishing second, just as he was winning the San Pasqual two starts back.

Gotham Stakes

Hansen needs no introduction, other than to say that his determined decision over Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall looks even better after Union Rags came back to win last Sunday’s Fountain of Youth the way he did. In his 3-year-old bow in the Holy Bull, Hansen stumbled at the start and set a very fast pace for a one-turn mile race at Gulfstream. But I still wanted to see a little more fight from him before getting walloped by the now sidelined Algorithms.

Certainly it is possible that Hansen was merely short in the Holy Bull, and will benefit from the outing. But maybe he wasn’t all that short, and there has also been controversy over how the Holy Bull Beyer Figure was adjusted upward by a significant margin. And now, Hansen sheds his blinkers in an obvious attempt to get him to relax early, which means he is changing his game. Hansen is still the fastest, classiest horse in this race by a wide margin. But with all the questions and the fact that he breaks from the 12 hole and will be around even money or perhaps less, I wouldn’t center my betting day around him.

My Adonis is my pick. My Adonis finished third in the Holy Bull, only a half-length behind Hansen, and he ran well. My Adonis was squeezed back at the start and fell ridiculously far back in the early stages, but he finished well out in the middle of the track. The stretch-out to two turns suits, as would a wet track, which is possible given the New York weather forecast.

Canadian Turf Stakes

This is the feature at Gulfstream, and you know Little Mike will be tough to beat on that course. Little Mike isn’t strictly a horse for course, but he does seem to do his best on Gulfstream turf, on which is he 5 for 6. Still, while Little Mike’s two starts at the meet off an 8 1/2-month absence were both wins, he set soft paces both times, and earned Beyers markedly below what he was earning last year.

Instead of going with Mutual Trust, who was going to lose to Silver Medallion in the Fort Lauderdale even before he got knocked around in the stretch, I’m taking Doubles Partner. Doubles Partner hasn’t raced in 10 months, but has shown twice before he can run big off layoffs. Most importantly, Doubles Partner showed quality last year when he won the Tampa Bay Stakes and was a gaining third in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic despite a very slow pace.