09/08/2011 2:41PM

Weekend Warrior for Sept. 10


NEW YORK – The country’s major racing centers have pretty much dominated the sport’s picture over the summer, but on Saturday they relinquish the spotlight to Louisiana Downs and Presque Isle Downs. The Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby, which heads a Louisiana Downs card that includes five other stakes races, is the richest race in the nation this weekend. And the Grade 2, $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters is the second-richest race in the country.

The four other graded stakes on Saturday’s schedule are the Grade 2, $150,000 Bowling Green at Belmont Park, the Grade 3, $150,000 Kentucky Cup Turf at Kentucky Downs, and Arlington’s two signature Grade 3, $100,000 events for 2-year-olds – the Arlington-Washington Futurity and Arlington-Washington Lassie.

Presque Isle Downs Masters

The combination of an overflow field entered, closely matched form, and an even pace scenario that won’t drive bettors toward horses with one particular running style makes this a terrific betting race. Musical Romance, Sweet Lorena, and Beat the Blues will certainly have their share of backers, and for good reason. Musical Romance is in sharp form and narrowly missed three starts back in the Grade 1 Princess Rooney to multiple Grade 1 winner Sassy Image. Sweet Lorena was second in this race in 2009 to subsequent female sprint champion Informed Decision, and came out on the short end of a three-way photo in this race last year, narrowly missing second to 2010 female sprint champion Dubai Majesty. And Beat the Blues was nailed by Sassy Image in the Winning Colors three back, and was second in Saratoga’s Honorable Miss last time out.

PRESQUE ISLE MASTERS: Get PPs, watch full Saturday card live

Yet as solid as this trio looks, they don’t have an appreciable edge on some others in here, and they are not without flaws. While she’s decent on turf, Musical Romance’s career really took off when she focused more on dirt racing. This is noteworthy because this race is run on the synthetic Tapeta surface. In view of the link between turf ability and synthetic ability, there is the chance that the surface Musical Romance goes on Saturday might not be her favorite. As for Sweet Lorena, her three performances this year were not up to her previous best, and she may have lost a step or two. And Beat the Blues, at this level of competition, might find the 6 1/2-furlong distance a touch too far.

I like Shotgun Gulch, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason to be attracted to Shotgun Gulch is that she got up to upset Keeneland’s Grade 1 Madison Stakes three starts back in her first start on a synthetic surface. But what is also appealing about Shotgun Gulch is that darkened form in her two most recent outings figure to inflate her odds.

After she won the Madison, Shotgun Gulch faced the two best female sprinters so far this year in Sassy Image and Hilda’s Passion in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard. She finished fifth in that race, beaten less than six lengths, despite trying to rally on the dead rail. Shotgun Gulch finished seventh most recently in the A Gleam Handicap, a race that proved highly productive when runner-up Ultra Blend came back to win the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch with a 94 Beyer Speed Figure, and third-place finisher Tanda came back to win the Rancho Bernardo with a 93 Beyer. But most importantly as far as Shotgun Gulch is concerned, whatever chance she had was severely compromised by the fact that the A Gleam was a rare California sprint stakes that lacked real early speed. There is more pace for Shotgun Gulch to run at Saturday, and the two-month freshening she has had shouldn’t hurt as she ran well fresh early in her career.

Kentucky Cup Turf

I don’t go overboard on the “horses for courses” angle. For me, there are other reasons why a horse will run better at one track than at another, such as a trainer pointing to a specific meet, or time of year in relation to form cycle. But I think horses for courses is more important at a place like Kentucky Downs, with its undulating, demanding surface, and its unusual turns. That’s why I’m for Rezif and against Rahystrada here.

On recent form, Rahystrada lays over this field. Eight of his last nine starts have come in graded stakes, and he has earned a series of Beyers that no one else in here has ever matched. But Rahystrada is 7 and he has made 33 starts, and he has never raced beyond 10 furlongs. If Rahystrada can handle the added distance and course, he’ll win. There are, however, much easier places for a horse to attempt to negotiate an additional quarter mile.

Conversely, two of Rezif’s best performances in an otherwise spotty career were his two starts at Kentucky Downs. Rezif finished full of run when he was second to Cloudy’s Knight in this race in 2009, and he avenged that loss when he crushed that opponent in last year’s Kentucky Cup Turf by more than six lengths for a career-best Beyer of 95. Rezif proved he is capable when he was a fast-closing third in a tough Keeneland allowance race in his first start this year, and while he didn’t do as well in his three starts since, his figures say his form is actually similar to what it was before his romp here last year.

Super Derby

Prayer for Relief won’t be much of a price in here. He has won three straight, the last two being the West Virginia Derby and the Iowa Derby, and he is a much improved performer this year. But even though his odds won’t be great, Prayer for Relief is still the solid play. Here’s hoping that horses such as Peter Pan winner Alternation, who comes off a fourth in the Jim Dandy, or Meistersinger, a runaway winner last time at Delaware Park, or even Malibu Glow, who comes off a fifth in the Travers, albeit a soundly beaten one, siphon off some money and help make Prayer for Relief’s price palatable.

SUPER DERBY: Get PPs, watch full Saturday card live

What separates Prayer for Relief here is pace. There is no confirmed speed, and those who have been close in prior races have been close through slow fractions. Prayer for Relief has shown much better positional speed this year, and that gives him a big edge on a deep closer like Alternation.