05/24/2012 12:50PM

Weekend Warrior for May 26: Rescue Squad has factors aligned

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Rescue Squad (left) was a strong second in the 2010 Red Smith.

NEW YORK – The strength of the Memorial Day Weekend stakes schedule is on the holiday itself on Monday, but there are four graded stakes on Saturday. They are the Grade 2, $200,000 Sheepshead Bay at Belmont Park; the Grade 2, $150,000 American Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park, in which Mr. Commons looks formidable at a short price; the Grade 3, $150,000 Arlington Matron at Arlington Park, which is supported by the $125,000 Arlington Classic; and the Grade 3, $100,000 Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Louisville Handicap

There are no perfect fields in racing, but the field in this one is less perfect than most. Even the horses who might look best on paper here are not without their flaws. Tahoe Lake and Simmard finished second and third in the Elkhorn Stakes at this 12-furlong distance last time out – Simmard also finished third in the 12-furlong Pan American two starts back and narrowly won the 11-furlong Mac Diarmida three starts back – and are obvious prime contenders. But with two wins (one thanks to a disqualification) and six seconds in his career, there is a question of Tahoe Lake’s will to win. As for Simmard, you have to wonder about the way he gave ground late in his last two at this distance, and that with final quarter-miles that were not all that fast.

Harrods Creek coughed up a sizable stretch lead last time out when he was third in the San Juan Capistrano. Now, his fans might note that the San Juan Capistrano is a 14-furlong event, so this race might feel like a relative sprint for him. But Harrods Creek had an easy lead in the Pan American two starts back, and in the shorter Red Smith Handicap last fall, and couldn’t hold on in either race. In fact, Harrods Creek has yet to show he can successfully make the jump from the allowance to graded stakes level.

Cease is talented, but I am a bit surprised to see him in this race. I believe turf is only his second-best surface, and that he is much better on dirt. I also think he is questionable going this far. Surface is a question for Derby Kitten, too, as he seems most effective on synthetic tracks, while class is an issue for Depeche Chat.

With so many questions, this seems like a potential spot for someone to jump up with a much-improved performance, and I think Rescue Squad is that horse. Rescue Squad has had the opportunity to go an extended distance on turf only once before in his career. That was in the 2010 edition of the Red Smith, and he delivered the best performance of his life, finishing a strong second in an effort that would put him right there in this race.

Granted, the 2010 Red Smith was a long time ago, but Rescue Squad has made only five starts since because of 11-month and four-month gaps on his record, and there are reasons to think he is ready to replicate his best form. For one, he is making the third start of his form cycle, and he posted a bullet workout last Monday, so he seems primed for a peak performance. He is also now suitably stretching out to an extended distance. But most importantly, Rescue Squad is moving back to turf after four straight starts on synthetics. This is a surface switch his trainer, Shug McGaughey, is successful with, and in stakes, too. Check out Hit it Rich, a contender in the Sheepshead Bay. She went synthetic to turf last fall when she won the Long Island Handicap at 4-1.

I would also use Joinem in exotic wagers. Joinem comes into this off the two best races of his career, an overnight victory at Gulfstream and a game third in the Muniz Memorial. And while Joinem is an unknown commodity going this far – he has never raced beyond nine furlongs – he is bred for the trip.

Sheepshead Bay Stakes [PPs + Video]

As noted, Hit It Rich, who won the Orchid in her most recent appearance, is logical in this race. So is Aqsaam, who opened an enormous lead in the middle stages of the Orchid and fought back tenaciously in the stretch before finishing a narrowly beaten second. And Principal Role, who finished third to the top-class Winter Memories in the Beaugay in her recent U.S. debut and who will like the added distance here, is a contender. Just don’t be thrown too much by her Beaugay comment line, which in part says altered course at the sixteenth pole, and infers she had more trouble than she really did. All Principal Role did was move off the inside to continue her late run.

But Aruna is a strong play for me here, and if she’s anywhere near the 3-1 she is on the morning line, it would represent real value.

Aruna might be that price. Bettors might be scared off by the fact that she didn’t run a jump in the Jenny Wiley in her first start this year. That’s okay. Zagora didn’t run a step in the Wiley, either, and she rebounded to win last week’s Gallorette. Aruna, who ran so well the last two years, is a far better mare than she showed last out, and that includes the only other time she finished worse than second in this country, her fifth in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at this 11-furlong distance. A lot of horses had terrible trips in that Breeders’ Cup race, but none more so than Aruna. She was very rank early under a hard hold, was four to five wide on the first turn, three to four wide on the second turn, and three wide on the far turn. Aruna was caught in traffic between horses all the way from the far turn to the finish, and yet was beaten only one length while never having the opportunity to run.

Eclipse Stakes

This feature at Woodbine is packed with proven stakes performers, but I like one of the two in this field of 11 who will be making his stakes debut, Hunters Bay.

The class-jump for Hunters Bay on Saturday is not a concern given the way he ran at Gulfstream the last two winters, which suggests he fits at this level. He certainly adores Woodbine, as he ran out of the picture in his two starts there. But what makes Hunters Bay especially dangerous is he should be right with, if not in control of, a pace that figures to be very comfortable.