By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
With one more weekend left to go before the much-anticipated Belmont Stakes, racing fans everywhere are struggling to contain their excitement and wait out the final nine days that separate them from Belmont Day. Fortunately for these fans—myself included!—Penn National has compiled a tremendous card of racing for this Saturday, featuring four excellent stakes races and many big-name horses, trainers, and jockeys. It promises to be a memorable day of racing, so to pass some time as we wait for the Belmont, let’s take a quick look at the highlights of Saturday’s card…
A very deep field of eight has turned out for this nine-furlong handicap, headlined by three-time graded stakes winner Last Gunfighter. Winner of the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) at the end of last year, Last Gunfighter has proven time and time again that he is one of the most capable older horses in this country, and while he may not possess much early speed, his finishing kick is potent and difficult to deny.
But with that said, this will be Last Gunfighter’s first start in six months, and with only four workouts since mid-April, he may prove beatable at a short price. If that’s the case, there are plenty of other talented horses in the Mountainview that could step up, including the experienced Taptowne. The six-year-old gelding has won seven of his thirty-one starts, but more importantly, has not finished worse than third in his last eleven races. Last time out, he was beaten just a half-length in the Texas Mile Stakes (gr. III) by Grand Contender, a horse that came back to win the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III) on Memorial Day by four lengths. In addition, Taptowne has run well at Penn National in the past, winning the Swatara Stakes in November by 5 ¼ lengths. Perhaps he won’t win on Saturday, but he should be in the mix at a fair price.
Another obvious contender is Golden Ticket, who finished in a dead-heat for first in the 2012 Travers Stakes (gr. I). Since then, Golden Ticket has turned in a number of solid performances, including a runner-up finish in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I). However, it’s worth noting that Golden Ticket has only won three times since the Travers, with two of those wins coming in allowance company. He is also developing a habit of turning almost certain victory into defeat—in both the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) and Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. III) this year, he rallied strongly to take the lead in the homestretch, only to be re-passed in the final strides by horses he seemed certain to beat. There’s no denying that he is a contender in this spot, but stretching out in distance to nine furlongs may increase his chances of flattening out in the stretch.
On a side note, it will be a pleasure to see 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Ruler On Ice return to action in this spot. Unraced since a fifth-place finish in a November allowance race at Parx Racing—which was, in turn, his first start in five months—Ruler On Ice has had considerable trouble staying sound enough to race, but has trained well for his return and could be sitting on his best performance in a long time. Perhaps this is the year that he gets back on track!
Penn Mile Stakes
Readers of this blog may remember that I’m a big fan of Bobby’s Kitten, and that I believe him to be one of the most talented three-year-old colts in this country. I picked him to win the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, and declared that if he were to win, I would consider him a legitimate threat to win the Kentucky Derby.
Well, Bobby’s Kitten didn’t live up to my expectations in the Blue Grass, finishing twelfth after fighting his rider early and failing to handle the switch from turf to Polytrack. On Saturday, he will return to his favored surface in the Penn Mile Stakes, a one-mile turf race that seems absolutely perfect for him. So although he will be the favorite—and perhaps a heavy favorite—I’m going to pick him again in this spot, regardless of his headstrong nature.
His primary challengers will most likely be Global View and Storming Inti, the 1-2 finishers in the American Turf Stakes (gr. II) on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. If Bobby’s Kitten runs off with his rider and sets a pace that’s too fast, either of these colts would have a great chance at reeling him in—after all, Global View ran the final five-sixteenths of the American Turf Stakes in about :28 2/5 seconds, an absolutely stellar time. But they are 5-2 and 3-1 on the morning line, and unlikely to offer much value.
If you want to try and spruce up your exactas and/or trifectas, you might want to take a look at Divine Oath, who finished second in the Lexington Stakes (gr. II) last time out for trainer Todd Pletcher. The colt went unbeaten in two starts on turf during the winter at Gulfstream, defeating such talented colts as Ring Weekend, Big Bazinga, and Quotient. Despite his good credentials, Divine Oath is a respectable 6-1 on the Penn Mile morning line, and if he stays at that price, he might be worth considering for a win bet.
Selection: Bobby’s Kitten
Who do you like this weekend?