10/06/2011 12:03PM

Weekend Warrior for Oct. 8


Although there will likely be the isolated race in the coming weeks that will produce a Breeders’ Cup starter or two, this weekend really marks the last round of major Breeders’ Cup preps. And on Saturday, Keeneland leads the way, with five stakes on its card, including a trio of Grade 1’s – the $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile, the $400,000 Breeders’ Futurity, and the $350,000 First Lady. They are supported by the Grade 2, $200,000 TCA Stakes, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Woodford.

Belmont Park also offers a Grade 1 tripleheader Saturday comprising the $300,000 Champagne, the $300,000 Frizette, and the $250,000 Jamaica.

Other noteworthy stakes Saturday include the Grade 1, $250,000 Ancient Title and the Grade 2, $150,000 Oak Tree Mile at Santa Anita, and the Grade 2, $400,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Champagne Stakes

Union Rags impressed when he won the Saratoga Special in his most recent start and is obviously the one to beat here at a short price. The problem I have with Union Rags is that his Saratoga romp, and the big 95 Beyer Figure that went along with it, came in the slop. I’m always skeptical of reputation-making performances on wet tracks, and for two reasons in this case: Union Rags will not catch slop again Saturday. The track will be fast at Belmont. And while Union Rags had every license to show improvement in the Saratoga Special off his debut win at Delaware Park, he improved 29 Beyer points off his first out win, improvement so large that I can’t help but wonder if the wet track didn’t enhance his performance.

I’m going with No Spin. No Spin earned an 80 Beyer that is competitive with everyone else in this race when fourth last time out in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, and he earned that number despite considerable trouble. No Spin had run on the far turn of the Arlington-Washington Futurity, but was steadied on the rail for lack of racing room. He then was blocked behind horses into the stretch, and was squeezed back from between horses in upper stretch before sharply angling out for racing room. But once he got clear, No Spin finished with interest. This will be No Spin’s first start on dirt, but a recent best-of-49 work on dirt at Hawthorne suggests he can handle the surface switch, and he should be a good enough price to make the risk worthwhile.

Quick thoughts on the two other Grade 1’s at Belmont:

Jamaica – I like Casino Host, who comes out of stronger turf races than anyone else in here. Casino Host will get more pace to rally into than he did when a pace-compromised fifth in the Secretariat last time out, and was a good third in the Virginia Derby two starts back.

Frizette – This looks like a two-horse race between My Miss Aurelia, a very game winner of the Adirondack most recently, and Stopshoppingmaria, who received this field’s best Beyer by far in her maiden romp last time after finishing a troubled third to My Miss Aurelia when they both debuted two starts back. Even though Stopshoppingmaria stumbled at the start in her debut, I don’t think she was going to win even with a clean trip, and I think her big win last time also flatters My Miss Aurelia. I’m going with My Miss Aurelia.

Shadwell Turf Mile

At this stage of his career, I think Gio Ponti is most effective as a miler. So after going much longer in his first four starts this year, he’s finally in the right spot. But I also think that Gio Ponti was in better form last year when he cut back in distance and won this race than he is in now.

Zoffany, the lone 3-year-old, is the pick. I’m comfortable drawing a line though Zoffany’s dull effort last time out, attributing it to deep footing and a tough cut back in distance. But before that, Zoffany was sharp finishing second in two European Group 1 mile events, including the St. James Palace at Royal Ascot, in which he was gaining on the mighty Frankel. Moreover, Zoffany’s Irish trainer, Aidan O’Brien, has already this year won four Grade 1 races from just five U.S. starts on turf: the Joe Hirsch, Arlington Million, and Man o’ War with Cape Blanco, and the Secretariat with Treasure Beach.

Let’s touch on the other four stakes at Keeneland:

Woodford – I have this scramble down to Country Day, Great Attack and Havelock. I will go with Havelock off the suitable surface and distance switch.

TCA – Switch towers over these on class given her sharp efforts this year against Havre de Grace, Blind Luck, Ultra Blend, and Zazu. But Switch is cutting back drastically in distance and is marooned outside. I will take Musical Romance, who ran well winning the Presque Isle Downs Masters most recently after being close to a sizzling early pace.

First Lady – Theyskens’ Theory is also a 3-year-old against older. But she was game, if no match, against Winter Memories in the Garden City last time. There are some hard hitters in here, but there is no one here of Winter Memories’s quality.

Breeders’ Futurity – Taking a stab here with Space Race who, by virtue of a runaway debut win at Delaware, is the only one in the body of this race to have won around two turns on the main track. And Space Race has every right to take a big step forward.

Hawthorne Gold Cup

Rule, Giant Oak, and Headache all come out of strong Grade 1 races at Saratoga and are taking big class drops. But Rule wants no part of this 10 furlongs, Giant Oak doesn’t get there often enough, and Headache merely clunked along at the Spa. I’m taking a flyer on Where’s Sterling, winner of the Iselin last time out. Where’s Sterling is stepping way up. But he’s lightly raced, and I don’t think we’ve seen his ceiling yet. And the way he finished in the Iselin, he should like this distance.

What the heck. Here’s a quick pass on the two Santa Anita stakes, even if they look chalky:

Ancient Title – The only one in here who can run early with The Factor is the other Bob Baffert-trained entrant, Irrefutable, and I can’t imagine they will hook up early. The Factor, wire to wire.

Oak Tree Mile – Mr. Commons looks best. He had a tough trip when nosed in the Del Mar Mile, racing three wide around both turns, and the form of that race got a boost when fifth-place finisher Champ Pegasus returned to be a sharp second in last week’s Clement L. Hirsch.