By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Well! It looks like a pretty exciting set of graded stakes races are on schedule for this Memorial Day weekend! Granted, they aren’t quite as exciting as a certain set of graded stakes races scheduled for June 7th at Belmont Park, but hey—as much as I’d like to fill up this week’s blog post with early thoughts on the Belmont Stakes, there are still two weekends remaining before the big day, and there really are some appealing races on the agenda this weekend. So let’s see if we can’t hone our handicapping skills for Belmont Day by unlocking a few winners and uncovering a few longshots during the coming days!
Of all the graded stakes races being run on Saturday, I believe that the Hanshin Cup Stakes (gr. III) at Arlington Park is by far the best in terms of betting value. The one-mile Polytrack event has drawn a full field of fourteen, and with only four horses listed at single-digit odds on the morning line, this looks like a prime opportunity to try and find some longshots that can win or hit the board. Even if you like morning line favorite and defending winner Hogy to win the race—and his record on the Arlington Polytrack suggests he could be tough to beat—there may be tremendous opportunities to be found in the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta.
In handicapping the race, three longshots have caught my eye—Fordubai (15-1), Pataky Kid (30-1), and Tulira Castle (30-1). The first-mentioned horse is 2-for-3 over the Arlington Polytrack, and turned in some good efforts earlier this year at Fair Grounds, including a victory in the Louisiana Handicap over Grand Contender and Prayer for Relief. Last time out, he was soundly beaten by Palace Malice in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II), but he should appreciate the return to Arlington, as well as the drop in class.
Pataky Kid is unbeaten in three starts over the Arlington Polytrack, including a three-length victory in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) in 2012. Interestingly, those are his only victories from thirteen starts. Last summer, after winning Arlington’s Coach Jimi Lee Stakes, Pataky Kid shipped to Del Mar for a run in the El Cajon Stakes, in which he finished fifth before heading to the sidelines for 7 ½ months. He returned in April to finish seventh in the Sam Simeon Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita—a downhill turf sprint—which is one of the reasons why he is a 30-1 shot on the Hanshin Cup morning line. But given his record at Arlington, coupled with the fact that he has a recent race under his belt, I think he is sitting on a big effort this Saturday.
Rounding out my trio of longshots is Tulira Castle, winner of the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last time out. He’s 2-for-2 this season, which is a major improvement over his 0-for-4 record last year, and he broke his maiden at Arlington as a two-year-old, so we know he can handle the track. With all this in mind, I’m willing to give him a shot at odds of 30-1.
Halfway across the country at Belmont Park, the Sheepshead Bay Stakes (gr. II) looks on paper to be a very slow-paced race, and that could potentially help the chances of Viva Rafaela, a Todd Pletcher-trained filly that has been first or second early on in each of her last six starts. Coming off of two respectable efforts at twelve furlongs, she should appreciate the slight cutback in distance to eleven furlongs, and that might leave her with enough in the tank to hold off the closers in the stretch.
I really want to like Riposte in this spot, but the British-bred filly—a group II winner at Royal Ascot—has been beaten at low odds in all three of her U.S. starts, and while she should appreciate the extra distance of today’s race, she might be worth going against if she ends up as a short-priced favorite. Abaco, third in Keeneland’s Jenny Wiley Stakes (gr. I) last time out, has been improving steadily over the last year and should also enjoy the additional distance, making her an intriguing choice if she goes off at a higher price than Riposte.
Another logical contender is Fitful Skies, who was beaten just a head in the E.P. Taylor Stakes (Can-I) at Woodbine last fall, and while her record shows that she was ninth in the Jenny Wiley in her 2014 seasonal debut, she was only beaten 3 ¼ lengths, and should be much better with the extra distance. If I were to try and hit the trifecta, I would consider using Abaco and Fitful Skies on top, with preference for the former, while adding Riposte and Viva Rafaela underneath.
Since we’ve handicapped a Polytrack race and a turf race thus far, we’ll wrap up this post with a look at Monmouth’s Majestic Light Stakes on dirt. 2013 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Itsmyluckyday will likely be favored off of a three-length victory in Gulfstream’s Best of the Rest Stakes, but he did get a great trip that day while tracking a moderate pace, so perhaps Code West can give him a run for his money this Saturday. Last year, when trained by Bob Baffert, Code West was a very capable second-tier three-year-old that won the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) and finished second in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II), defeating Oxbow and Palace Malice in the latter. Following a fifth-place finish in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), Code West went to the sidelines for nine months, then returned under the care of Wayne Catalano to finish second in an 8.5-furlong allowance race over the main track at Keeneland. Since then, he has recorded a pair of workouts, including a bullet :59 flat five-furlong breeze at Monmouth Park. He looks ready to turn in a winning effort in this spot.
Who do you like this weekend?