By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
In what may very well go down as the race of the year, the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) on March 8th will feature a spectacular showdown between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge—the 1-2 finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I)—as well as Game On Dude, who is shooting for an unprecedented three-peat in the "Big ‘Cap."
There are also two major Kentucky Derby preps on the schedule for Saturday—the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II). So without further delay, let’s start handicapping!
Santa Anita Handicap
Mucho Macho Man is the 9-5 morning line favorite off a fourteen-length victory in the January 18th Florida Sunshine Millions Classic, but with Game On Dude looming as the lone front-runner—a situation ‘Dude has not encountered since his romping win in the Pacific Classic (gr. I)—Mucho Macho Man may find himself in the unenviable position of having to keep Game On Dude honest on the lead.
If that scenario does unfold, it could potentially set the race up for Will Take Charge. Since his nose defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—a race in which ground loss on the final turn may have cost him the victory—the son of Unbridled’s Song has won the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, edging Game On Dude by a head, and finished second in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) on February 9th. In that race, Will Take Charge had to wait for racing room at a critical time on the far turn, allowing eventual winner Lea to steal a large lead entering the homestretch. Will Take Charge tried his best to catch the lonely leader, but fell 1 ½ lengths short at the wire. Nevertheless, he ran his final three-eighths in approximately :35 1/5 seconds—a stellar time—and should appreciate the additional furlong that he will find in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Selection: Will Take Charge
San Felipe Stakes
Bob Baffert’s up-and-coming Bayern was as impressive as could be winning a one-mile Santa Anita allowance race on February 13th by fifteen lengths, finishing up under a light hand-ride while running his final two quarters in :24 flat. Bayern will undoubtedly face more pace pressure today (he ran the opening half of his allowance romp in just :47.77), but I don’t think he has to be on the early lead and could prove just as successful with a pace-tracking trip.
If anyone is going to beat Bayern, I think it will be his stablemate, Midnight Hawk. Winner of the one-mile Sham Stakes (gr. III) back in January, Midnight Hawk lost some of his budding reputation when third as the favorite in February’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II). However, I thought his performance that day was actually pretty good. He was a bit rank early on when his jockey attempted to rate him off the pace, but once settled down, he made a strong challenge to draw within a head of the lead as they passed the eighth pole. Although he tired late to lose by 1 ¾ lengths, he has turned in four excellent workouts since then, and appears primed for a rebound.
Tampa Bay Derby
Trainer Mark Casse appears to hold a strong hand in the Tampa Bay Derby, with Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) runner-up Conquest Titan and Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) fourth-place finisher Matador looming as two of the major contenders in this ten-horse field. Of the two, Conquest Titan will offer lower odds, but I like Matador to out-perform his stablemate. In the Sam F. Davis, Matador was making his first start on dirt, and his first start in 2 ½ months, yet was only beaten a length despite racing wide and being severely bumped from both sides in deep stretch.
Another horse I like is Hy Kodiak Warrior, who was beaten just two lengths by the well-regarded Top Billing when third in a January 3rd allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He has been training very well at Calder, turning in three consecutive bullet workouts, and will race on Lasix for the first time this Saturday. Expect him to put in a solid run from off-the-pace, along with East Hall, who was fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) just two weeks ago.
Vinceremos will likely be favored off his win in the Sam F. Davis, but he raced very greenly in the homestretch that day, and it nearly cost him the victory. If he turns in a more professional run on Saturday, he can definitely contend for the victory, but the presence of talented new challengers like Conquest Titan and Hy Kodiak Warrior makes me tempted to look elsewhere for the winner.
Selection: Hy Kodiak Warrior
So, who do you like this Saturday? Who will win the Big ‘Cap showdown? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!