03/29/2012 11:32AM

Weekend Warrior: Picks for Gulfstream Oaks, Muniz Memorial, Louisiana Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Zo Impressive will get a class and distance test in the Gulfstream Park Oaks.

The biggest days of the Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds race meets take place this weekend. Gulfstream’s big day is Saturday, when the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby tops a card that includes six other stakes, the most noteworthy being the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks and the Grade 3, $150,000 Rampart, which attracted the brilliant Awesome Maria.

Although Fair Grounds offers the Grade 2, $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday, its big day is Sunday. Sunday is Louisiana Derby Day, with that Grade 2, $1 million race heading a stakes-filled card that also includes a pair of Grade 2, $400,000 races, the New Orleans Handicap and the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap.

Santa Anita also should be mentioned. The headliner there Saturday is the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks (hmmm, three Oaks races for 3-year-old fillies on the same day; interesting scheduling), backed by a pair of $200,000 races for California bred 3-year-olds.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a little race on the other side of the world Saturday called the Dubai World Cup, with a little purse of $10 million.

Gulfstream Park Oaks

There is no doubt that Grace Hall was the second best member of her generation last year. She showed considerable potential winning the Grade 1 Spinaway at a distance that figured to be well short of what she would prefer, and she was easily second best in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies to champion My Miss Aurelia. And I believe Grace Hall is still one of the top members of her division. But as much as I respect her, I admit I wasn’t crazy about her narrow loss in the Davona Dale in her first start this year.

Yes, Grace Hall had been away nearly four months when she ran in the Davona Dale. And she ran on the rail, which some people think wasn’t the place to be at Gulfstream that weekend. Grace Hall has a license to be tighter for this engagement and more effective if she indeed was compromised by the track last time, which might result in her winning Saturday by open lengths. That said, Grace Hall still should have closed the deal at 4-5 in the Davona Dale, even if she wasn’t fully cranked. Grace Hall shouldn’t have succumbed to Yara, who was 64-1 that day for a reason. Grace Hall will be strongly bet again, and I find taking a short price on her in this situation unappealing.

As for Yara, in five previous starts she never remotely performed like she did in the Davona Dale as evidenced by the fact that she improved her previous best Beyer Speed Figure by 15 points. I’m going to have to see her do it again.

I think Zo Impressive is a serious racehorse, and she is my play, despite moving up in both class and distance. Zo Impressive has raced only twice, but was most impressive winning off both times. In her debut, she crushed two next-out winners, including the runner-up who came back to win a Gulfstream maiden race with an 88 Beyer. In her most recent allowance romp, Zo Impressive beat three next-out winners, including runner-up In Lingerie who came back to dominate last week’s Bourbonette Oaks with a 91 Beyer. Zo Impressive rated kindly early in both outings, so the stretch out is no concern. She also was cut out to be a top filly, being out of a Grade 1 winner and being a half to Grade 1 Acorn winner Zaftig.

Muniz Memorial Handicap

Willyconker made his last start in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile, easily the strongest race anyone in this field comes out of. Not only that, Willyconker won that race, beating an opponent in Mr. Commons who is currently one of the best grass milers in the country and who would be heavily favored in this spot. The problem I have with Willyconker is he will be asked to go beyond a mile for the first time in his career Sunday over a turf course that is likely to have more give to it than he is accustomed to.

Slow Pace finished second as the favorite in his recent U.S. debut at Gulfstream and is now stepping up in class, but I like him anyway. Slow Pace was hard held off moderate fractions at Gulfstream and only seemed to get his legs under him in the late stages. Neither was an excuse for not winning, but what I liked is when Slow Pace got rolling late, he finished strongly to complete his final three furlongs in a fast 34.22 seconds.

Last year, Slow Pace competed in five straight group stakes in France and was at least reasonably competitive in each of them, earning Racing Post Ratings that suggest he should be easily capable of winning a race like this. I also suspect he will find the ground at Fair Grounds more giving than what he saw at Gulfstream, and I think he will like it.

Louisiana Derby

Mark Valeski ran very well most recently when nosed in the Risen Star Stakes by the highly regarded El Padrino, who opted to stay at Gulfstream and challenge Union Rags in the Florida Derby. Mark Valeski earned a 98 Beyer in the Risen Star that would look very imposing here were it not for the 99 earned in a recent blowout maiden win by Cigar Street, who will find a far more pressurized pace environment this time. Pace, in fact, might be the only thing to hang your hat on if you were inclined to take a shot against Mark Valeski. At this point, it looks like he wants to be close early going long, and the pace this time figures to be hotter than it was in the Risen Star.

I’m taking a shot with Windsurfer, trainer Todd Pletcher’s substitute for El Padrino in this spot. Windsurfer comes into this off only a maiden score at Gulfstream, and his 80 Beyer for that performance wasn’t eye-catching, but he was impressive visually. Windsurfer was caught four to five wide around the first turn and three wide around the far turn. And yet, despite all that ground loss, he still drew off, beating two next-out winners and confirming that he is improving.