10/18/2012 1:03PM

Weekend Warrior for Oct. 20: Stephanoatsee ready to peak in Barbaro Stakes

Tom Keyser
Stephanoatsee fought gamely to the finish in the Pennsylvania Derby, very much to his credit.

NEW YORK – Two and three weeks ago, you couldn’t throw a rock in the air without it coming down and landing on a Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup prep. A similar phenomenon is true on Saturday, only instead of Grade 1 races, it’s statebred stakes almost everywhere you look.

The richest race in the country Saturday is the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, which heads a card at Charles Town loaded with stakes for West Virginia-breds. It’s New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park, where the $250,000 Empire Classic tops a card packed with New York-bred stakes races. The $250,000 Cup and Saucer Stakes at Woodbine is for Canadian-breds, and there is a pair of $125,000 stakes at Hawthorne for Illinois-breds.

There are, however, two graded stakes Saturday, not including the Grade 1 Grand National Steeplechase. They are the Grade 2, $250,000 Raven Run at Keeneland, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Senator Ken Maddy at Santa Anita.

Barbaro Stakes

This is the headliner at Delaware Park (no, it’s not for Delaware-breds, but there are a handful of restricted stakes on the undercard), and I’m featuring it because it lured Stephanoatsee, who I have been waiting for since his effort in last month’s Pennsylvania Derby.

The Pennsylvania Derby was run on the same Parx Racing card as the Cotillion Stakes. And since the Cotillion featured a tremendous matchup (and battle) between My Miss Aurelia, last year’s champion 2-year-old filly, and Questing, who was the ranking 3-year-old filly off awesome scores in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama, everyone was watching. What everyone saw is what seemingly prevails nine days out of 10 at Parx, which is that the inside is absolute quicksand. The wider the better is almost always the case at Parx, and it was on the day of the Pennsylvania Derby.

This is noteworthy because of the trip Stephanoatsee had in the Pennsylvania Derby. He drew the one hole, which was unlucky, but he never got much away from the inside at any point in the race, and was right on the rail from about the half-mile home. Under the circumstances, it would have been understandable if a search party was needed to find Stephanoatsee at the finish. Instead, Stephanoatsee was almost even for the lead in upper stretch, and he fought gamely to the finish, finishing fourth, beaten less than three lengths for it all, which is very much to his credit. His was a winning performance that was severely compromised by a distinct track bias.

My main concern about Stephanoatsee on Saturday is he is not the fastest horse in this race. Called to Serve has consistently earned higher Beyer Speed Figures, he ran well finishing third in the West Virginia and Oklahoma derbies in his last two starts, and now makes his first start for trainer Nick Canani, who has a high strike rate with newcomers to his barn. Traffic Light has also earned higher figures and is in sharp form, and My Adonis takes a helpful class drop.

But I have to go by what I saw, and not only was Stephanoatsee possibly best in the Pennsylvania Derby, he should now be primed for a peak performance third start back off a seven-month layoff. He also won on the Delaware main track two starts back, and he showed some quality early this year when he ran second to Alpha in the Count Fleet Stakes.

Bertram F. Bongard Stakes

This is one of the seven Showcase Day stakes at Belmont, and I think it’s a terrific betting race even if probable favorite Weekend Hideaway and likely second choice In Harm’s Way will take some beating. Weekend Hideaway rode the crest of an intensely speed-biased track when he got his maiden win three starts back, but he ran legitimately well when he romped in an overnight stakes at Saratoga two starts back. In Harm’s Way recorded an impressive maiden win over the Belmont track three starts back, and lost nothing in stature when he was subsequently third in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special.

On the other hand, Weekend Hideaway and In Harm’s Way showed hints of vulnerability in their last starts. Weekend Hideaway was third as the 9-5 favorite in the Futurity. Yes, that was an open-company, Grade 2 stakes, but I couldn’t find an excuse for him, and he did take a significant step backward Beyer Figure-wise. In Harm’s Way finished second as the 2-5 favorite in the New York Breeders’ Futurity. Although he has a running line that screams trouble (first in the first call, sixth in the next call), he appeared to shuffle himself back into the far turn and then kind of clunked along in a race that came up slow.

I’m going with Meet the Mets. Meet the Mets won what seemed like a strong maiden race at Saratoga in his debut two starts back, but then finished second at 4-5 last time out at Belmont in his first start against winners. I think that loss was better than it looks on paper. Meet the Mets missed his break and then was steadied back, putting him on an outside path the rest of the race. He made a looping move nearing the stretch and seemed in command, but Laila’s Jazz (who is also in this race) came up the rail and pulled off the upset. There is a strong sense that the rail was especially live that day, so Meet the Mets, who is well drawn toward the outside this time, is certainly eligible to improve.

Raven Run Stakes

Gypsy Robin will probably be the favorite, but even if she is, with 13 other horses in this race, many of them with interesting angles, she should still be an acceptable price. In any case, I like Gypsy Robin here.

I thought Gypsy Robin ran dynamite most recently when she was second in the Test Stakes. She pressed a very fast pace (21.49, 44.09 seconds), racing well ahead of the third runner early, eventual winner Contested, and yet she battled on gamely to the finish. Now, Gypsy Robin moves back to Keeneland’s Polytrack, on which she is 2 for 2, including a decisive win in the Beaumont last spring.