09/22/2011 11:40AM

Weekend Warrior for Sept. 24


The next two weekends will be packed with wall-to-wall Breeders’ Cup preps. But Saturday’s stakes schedule is an interesting one, too. The big race of the day is the Grade 2, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing, supported by the $250,000 Gallant Bob Stakes. And Saturday marks the return of the Kentucky Cup events at Turfway Park, topped by the Grade 2, $200,000 WinStar Kentucky Cup (formerly the Kentucky Cup Classic), and including, among other events, two Grade 3, $100,000 races – the Distaff and Sprint.

The two other graded stakes on Saturday’s schedule are the Grade 2, $150,000 Gallant Bloom at Belmont Park, and the Grade 3, $250,000 Kent Stakes at Delaware Park.

Pennsylvania Derby - [Full Coverage]

To Honor and Serve and Ruler On Ice will be the two favorites here, and they are certainly logical contenders. No one was a bigger fan of To Honor and Serve at the end of his 2-year-old campaign than me. His wins last fall in the Remsen and Nashua were most impressive. But To Honor and Serve did not run well when third in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby in his first two starts this year, nor did he do well when sixth in Saratoga’s Amsterdam in his return from a suspensory injury that knocked him off the Triple Crown trail. To Honor and Serve did win big at Saratoga most recently when dropped to the allowance level, and perhaps that performance is an indication that he is now on his way. However, that was not a strong field that he victimized – the runner-up is a New York-bred claimer – and I just think that To Honor and Serve, on reputation as much as anything else, will be a much shorter price Saturday than he should be.

Ruler On Ice, of course, upset the Belmont Stakes three starts back at 24-1 while racing with the grain of a speed-favoring sloppy track, footing that is noteworthy given the wet weather forecast for the Northeast. Ruler On Ice followed with a mediocre third in the Haskell, and a fourth last time out in the Travers that was okay considering how aggressive he was early being part of a strong pace that only favored winner Stay Thirsty survived. But I need to see validation of Ruler On Ice’s one big win since it came on a wet, biased track. I also think this nine-furlong distance might be too short for him. He probably needs races at long distances other horses don’t handle for him to be most effective.

I like Travers runner-up Rattlesnake Bridge. Rattlesnake Bridge ran very well in the Travers considering he went into that event off a bit of a layoff, and that he was shuffled back a touch in the initial stages, possibly costing him early position. But Rattlesnake Bridge made a nice outside run nearing the stretch to actually threaten for the win for a time, and battled gamely to the finish despite drifting out late. Rattlesnake Bridge figures to benefit from the cut back in distance from 10 to nine furlongs, and I have no worries about his wet track ability should the track indeed come up off. Although he was the beaten favorite in the mud three starts back, that was on Belmont Stakes Day’s speed-favoring track, and he actually made a good, against-the-grain rally.

Kent Stakes

The wet forecast in the East could have a big impact on this grass race, right down to who actually starts. A handful of horses in here have either zero or extremely limited turf experience, and the sense is as many as five or six of them might have entered in the hopes that this race will be rained off the turf and onto the main track. But this is Delaware’s last turf stakes of the year, so I’m going to approach this race like it will stay on the grass because I think every effort will be made to keep it there.

Willcox Inn is the deserving favorite. He showed marked improvement when he got blinkers three starts back, winning decisively in the first two legs of the Mid America Triple, the Arlington Classic and the American Derby. And though Willcox Inn was denied a sweep of that series when fourth in the Secretariat most recently, he ran well in that race, too. Not only did Willcox Inn face strong company in the Secretariat – winner Treasure Beach won the Irish Derby and was beaten a head in the Epsom Derby, and third-place finisher Banned came back to win the Del Mar Derby – Willcox Inn was also compromised by having to rally into a slow pace. Indeed, Treasure Beach and runner up Ziyarid were two-one around the track.

But if Willcox Inn, the 3-1 morning line favorite, looks so good here, then why can’t you take a shot with Casino Host, 12-1 on the morning line, since he was only a little more than a length behind Willcox Inn in the Secretariat? That’s what I’m doing. Now, Casino Host probably won’t be as high as 12-1, especially if there are a handful of program scratches, but he will still be a good price. Casino Host had the difficult task in the Secretariat of having to rally from farther off the slow pace than Willcox Inn did. But Casino Host’s willing fifth confirmed the improvement he showed two starts back when a close third in the Virginia Derby.

Ontario Derby

I suppose I’m expecting the Secretariat to be something of a key race, because I’m going with the one horse coming out of that race in this headliner at Woodbine, Derby Kitten.

Derby Kitten was also pace-compromised in the Secretariat and was unable to get involved after trailing in the early running. Derby Kitten was also hurt by a slow pace three starts back when third in the Lone Star Derby. But Derby Kitten will get a bit more pace to shoot at Saturday as he goes from turf to synthetic. This is a key surface switch, because the last time Derby Kitten made such a move, he responded with the best performance of his career, a going-away score in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes. This is also a big move for his trainer, Mike Maker, who has outstanding numbers with runners going turf to synthetic, and not from a small sample size.