04/25/2013 3:44PM

Weekend Warrior: Picks for the Westchester, San Francisco Mile, and Derby Trial


Saturday is a day, and night, for milers. There are four Grade 3 stakes on the schedule, and all of them will be run at the distance of one mile. There is the $200,000 Texas Mile at Lone Star; the $175,000 Derby Trial, the opening-night feature at Churchill Downs (which might actually produce a starter for next week’s Kentucky Derby); the $150,000 Westchester, the headliner on the first Saturday of the Belmont Park sprint meet; and the $100,000 San Francisco Mile on the turf at Golden Gate. Saturday is also California Gold Rush Day at Betfair Hollywood, where the $300,000 Snow Chief tops a card packed with stakes for California-breds.

Westchester Stakes

This is a fascinating race because no matter your handicapping philosophy, you will find something to like in here. You want an established stakes horse? You have Flat Out. You want a horse with as of yet-unknown limitations? You have Cross Traffic. You prefer a dramatically improved performer? There’s Big Screen. You have a weakness for back-class types in the midst of comebacks? You have Rattlesnake Bridge and Winslow Homer, take your pick. Even the longest shot on the morning line at 15-1, Norman Asbjornson, isn’t an easy throw-out. He comes into this off a stakes win at Laurel in which he earned a Beyer Figure of 103 in his first start off a barn switch that puts him in the ballpark here.

I was surprised that Cross Traffic was made the morning line favorite at 5-2. Eric Donavan is the NYRA morning-line maker and does a fine job, and if he’s right about Cross Traffic’s price, I’ll be willing to play against. Although Cross Traffic’s potential at this moment is unlimited, and even if the 105 Beyer he earned in his allowance win at Gulfstream last time out suggests that he can be competitive at this level, this fact remains: He is meeting a vastly different brand of animal than what he beat under a drive in his first two career starts in Florida. Moreover, Cross Traffic will face pace pressure from Big Screen in the second and/or third quarter-mile the likes of which he has not yet seen.

I’m also skeptical of Winslow Homer and Rattlesnake Bridge. Winslow Homer has every right to move forward second time back off a 16-month absence, but even his performances in 2011 indicated he wasn’t the horse he was when he went 4 for 5 at the start of his career, including a victory in the Holy Bull. Rattlesnake Bridge, runner up in the 2011 Travers, is the stronger of these two. But he was under a long, hard drive when he won his recent comeback at Gulfstream off nearly a 17-month layoff, and he seems very susceptible to a form regression.

Big Screen will take a lot of beating. He was most impressive winning his last start by more than nine lengths with an imposing 110 Beyer. Big Screen is now 2 for 3 after a six-month break – his one loss was a game second to the up-and-coming Cigar Street, who came back to win the Skip Away in his next start with a 104 Beyer – and is clearly a much better horse this year at 4. But as dangerous as Big Screen is, I’m going with Flat Out, and I hope he is indeed in the neighborhood of the 7-2 he is on the morning line.

Flat Out is unquestionably the best horse in this race, as he is a two-time Grade 1 winner. Not only that, but he also returns to his favorite surface. Flat Out is 3 for 3 on Belmont’s main track, and those victories were in the 2011 and 2012 Jockey Club Gold Cups and the 2011 Suburban, in which he earned a career-best 113 Beyer. The thing is, Flat Out looked nothing like that horse when a soundly beaten fourth in the Donn Handicap and en empty fifth in the New Orleans Handicap in his first two starts this year. It could be that, at age 7, Flat Out is in decline. But I’m not convinced of that just yet. I think it’s encouraging that trainer Bill Mott is pressing right on with him, and it was only three starts back that Flat Out was a very creditable third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic while racing against a speed bias. Taking the best horse on his favorite surface at a possibly square price is a proposition I couldn’t resist.

San Francisco Mile

Obviously, the Southern California shippers merit extra respect in this spot, and the best of them is Tigah. Tigah was a game second to the Grade 1 winner Willyconker two starts back in his return from a nine-month absence, and was beaten only a length when third in the Thunder Road most recently. Tigah is a logical win candidate, especially with the prospect of a strong pace to set up his late run. But I like the locally based Gallant Son.

Gallant Son was second in this race in 2011 and third in this event last year to Hudson Landing, who is also in the field. Gallant Son, however, is in sharper form now than he was going into either of his previous attempts in this race. In fact, his form arguably hasn’t been this good since he won the 2010 Inglewood. The synthetic-to-turf switch suits him, as does the pace scenario.

Derby Trial

Zee Bros and Titletown Five have ability. The problem is, to date, they haven’t shown they are anything but one-way front-runners, so they might well compromise each other here. Forty Tales would seem a likely candidate to pick up the pieces, but I still question the strength of the field in his last start, a Gulfstream sprint stakes.

I’m going with Ruble, who I think will sit a perfect trip just off the pace battle. Ruble is meeting tougher, but he is looking for his third straight win. He has not run a bad race yet on dirt or in blinkers, and he still has lots of room to improve.