07/01/2009 11:00PM

Wise River offers plenty of value in Firecracker

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When initially handicapping Saturday's Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, I made Mr. Sidney and Thorn Song my first and second selections, reasoning that as Grade 1 winners this year, they were the class on the grass.

Then I slept on it and woke up feeling differently.

The more I pondered the race, the more I felt Mr. Sidney and Thorn Song would be overbet off their stakes achievements. That creates value on alternatives, most specifically Wise River, the course-record holder at Churchill at 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Is Wise River the most likely winner of the one-mile Firecracker? No. But his chances aren't far behind those of Thorn Song, the most probable winner, and even by a conservative estimate, Wise River might be considered to have a 20 percent chance of winning.

Provided he sticks to his 6-1 morning-line price, he offers a potentially rewarding wagering opportunity. He is therefore my selection and play.

Beyond value, what is there to like in Wise River? First, he loves the course. In winning a money allowance at Churchill Downs April 26, he raced 1 1/16 miles in 1:39.83, which put him in record books.

Returned June 7 in a similar allowance, this time he lost - but his performance was no less impressive. He and victorious El Caballo dueled the length of the stretch, and Wise River fell a nose short of victory by running second in another quick race.

The form from that race has since held up, with fifth-place Yate's Black Cat, seventh-place Palace Episode, and third-place Demarcation running first, second, and third in a money allowance June 27.

None of them was anywhere close to Wise River on June 7.

Here's my second reason for liking him: Wise River figures to get a favorable trip. A horse that regularly breaks alertly, he should be able to grab a good stalking position behind what should be a trio of front-runners in Inca King, Thorn Song, and Tizdejavu.

Plus, he is reunited with jockey Jamie Theriot, who rode him to his course-record performance on April 26.

As for Thorn Song and Mr. Sidney, they warrant respect, but both triumphed in Grade 1 races this year that were a bit substandard by elite stakes standards.

Thorn Song won the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park on May 25 with the luxury of a clear lead, and took advantage of catching a relatively slow group that included some returning from layoffs.

And Mr. Sidney won the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland in April over only five opponents. His triumph also came over tiring, yielding ground - wet conditions he appeared to handle better than his opponents.

Warrior's Reward tough in Dwyer

Though I envision a potential upset brewing in the Firecracker, I see strength in the morning-line favorites in the Dwyer and Salvator Mile.

Beginning with the Dwyer, Warrior's Reward is rock solid and poised to pick up his first major stakes victory.

Granted, he lost the Northern Dancer Stakes last month at Churchill Downs as the favorite, but the race did not set up for him and he could not catch the unbeaten Successful Dan, who was able to set a slow pace. He also bounced, as he figured to do, after running a career-best 113 Beyer Speed Figure in beating eventual Woody Stephens winner Munnings in a seven-furlong allowance on Oaks Day at Churchill Downs.

When scratches in the Northern Dancer robbed the race of much of it's speed, Warrior's Reward ended up playing the role of a pace-pressing horse - not his preferred style. This horse is like Derby winner Mine That Bird. When he sits too close early, he lacks his usual finish.

Provided there aren't any scratches from the Dwyer, the race should set up well for him. Borel can sit chilly on him in the one-turn 1 1/16-mile race, and with Just Ben and American Dance in the lineup, the pace should be legitimate.

Warrior's Reward merits a wager if he starts at 8-5 or higher, and if he goes off shorter, he remains a horse to key in the multi-race exotics.

Smooth Air tops Salvator Mile

As for the Salvator Mile, which precedes the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth on Saturday, Smooth Air is a horse to single in the gimmicks.

Winner of the Grade 2 Gulfstream Handicap at a mile and second most recently in the Grade 1 Met Mile, he is a horse perfectly suited for the distance.

Drawn in post 2 with a short run to the first turn, he couldn't have a better post. He should be one or two wide into the first turn, stalking a hotly contested pace, and can mow the leaders down in the lane.

Although favored on the morning line, his price of 5-2 is more than fair given his accomplishments, which also include a win in the Ohio Derby last year as well as a runner-up finish behind Big Brown in the 2008 Florida Derby.