03/03/2011 1:32PM

Weekend Warrior for March 5


NEW YORK – We in the United States are blessed with a lot of major races, but there is still a distinct subset of truly special events. And the Santa Anita Handicap is one such race. The Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap will be renewed Saturday, and this edition of the Big Cap fittingly lured arguably the best horse currently in America, Twirling Candy. The Big Cap also heads a card at Santa Anita that includes two other Grade 1 events, the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile and the $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks.

Elsewhere, the New York road to the Kentucky Derby takes a serious turn with the Grade 3, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The Gotham tops a stakes-laded program at Aqueduct that also includes the Grade 3, $150,000 Tom Fool Stakes. Meanwhile, the headliner at Gulfstream Park is the Grade 3, $100,000 Honey Fox Stakes.

Honey Fox Stakes

There are several different directions for the betting public to go to in this race. Among them are Cherokee Queen, winner of the Suwanee River Stakes most recently, and Trip for A. J., who took the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf last time out. I also would expect Justaroundmidnight to receive more support than she has lately, since she beat Cherokee Queen and Trip for A. J. right before their recent stakes successes – not to mention a few others also entered in this race – when she upset the Marshua’s River Stakes two starts back. Justaroundmidnight is back in with females Saturday after chasing males in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap last time out. Even if the Turf Handicap was a Grade 1 in name only (the field was decidedly below Grade 1 quality), I would still prefer Justaroundmidnight to, for example, Bay to Bay. Bay to Bay showed real potential during stakes-winning 2- and 3-year-old campaigns, but she is coming off a July layoff, and Justaroundmidnight has a big edge in recency.

That said, I’m going with Aviate on the suspicion that she might well be far superior to the competition she faces Saturday in her U.S. debut. Aviate was impressive enough winning the first three starts of her career in England, including a Group 3 stakes, that she was bet down to 7-2 against 14 opponents in the Group 1 English Oaks last June. Aviate wound up seventh in that classic and managed to finish only fifth in her three subsequent starts. But all three of those fifth-place finishes were in group stakes events in Ireland, England, and France, and Aviate ran well enough in the last two of them to earn solid Racing Post Ratings of 110.

Aviate sports some sharp recent works at Payson Park for this outing, and she is backed by the potent owner-trainer combination of Juddmonte Farms and Bill Mott. Those connections, and her European class lines, give the impression that Aviate might be Juddmonte and Mott’s U.S. replacement for Proviso, who won four Grade 1 stakes for them last year. If Aviate is only partially as good as Proviso, that will be good enough Saturday.

Frank E. Kilroe Mile

I wanted to work in one of the three big races at Santa Anita and landed on this one. It’s not because I have a sneaky longshot in here, because I don’t. I just think that of the horses I like in Santa Anita’s Grade 1 stakes Saturday, the one I like in here might be the most palatable price. I do think Twirling Candy is the best horse in America right now, and I couldn’t go against him in the Big Cap at a very short price. And if Turbulent Descent doesn’t win the Santa Anita Oaks, then I think Zazu will, and both will be short prices as there are only three others in that race.

As for the Kilroe, Caracortado is a strong play, for I think he’s the best grass horse in California right now. Caracortado impressed winning the Sunshine Millions Turf last time out, prevailing over the Grade 1 stakes winner The Usual Q.T., who was on his game that day. Caracortado now cuts back in distance from nine furlongs. I believe a mile might be the distance that actually fits him the best, for it will allow him enough time to make his potent late run, but it isn’t so far as to require him to sustain his kick longer than he might find comfortable.

Maxxam Gold Cup Handicap

In keeping with the Big Cap theme of the day, I’ll take a stab at this feature for older handicap horses at Sam Houston. After all, it did attract a big field with more than just two or three obvious betting options.

Trainer Chris Hartman has a formidable pair in here of Schramsberg and Red Lead, but Black Hills is my pick. Black Hills was easily handled by Red Lead when third three starts back, but Black Hills broke poorly in that race and was making his first start in 11 months. With a smoother break and a race into him, Black Hills beat Red Lead in a stakes at Sunland two starts back, earning a 98 Beyer Speed Figure that Black Hills is no stranger to, but which few others in this race are currently capable of knocking out, except in isolated instances. And I can make an excuse for Black Hills’s dull eighth last time out in the Sunshine Millions Classic. The pace battle between Tackleberry and First Dude that stretch-running Black Hills needed failed to materialize when First Dude took back at the start. The pace Saturday night figures to be lively and more in Black Hills’s favor.

I’m also somewhat intrigued by Fifteen Love. Fifteen Love’s last three races weren’t pretty, but he is going turf to dirt. The last time he made that surface switch was about a year ago, and he won two straight on Sam Houston’s main track, including this race.