By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
As hard as it can be to believe, racing does go on after the Breeders’ Cup! While this week’s racing action can’t compare to last week’s thirteen-race extravaganza, there are still a number of interesting stakes races to be run, led by the $200,000 Long Island Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct and the $100,000 River City Handicap (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. So let’s start handicapping!
Long Island Handicap (gr. III)
This race has drawn a full field of twelve fillies and mares, with two on the also-eligible list. The size of the field alone makes this race a challenge to handicap, but throw in the fact that the distance is twelve furlongs—a distance that many of these horses have never tried—and that makes it even trickier.
The morning line favorite at 3-1 is Danza Cavallo, a French-bred filly that will be making her U.S. debut for trainer Chad Brown. In France, she was a listed stakes winner at ten furlongs, and also won an allowance race at twelve furlongs, but seems to like some give in the ground, and if the turf comes up firm at Aqueduct, that may not be the most ideal. This, coupled with the fact that she has been competing at lesser tracks in France, makes me eager to oppose her as the favorite.
One filly I do like is Viva Rafaela. Her odds are not all that appealing (7-2), but if she stays near that price, I think that’s pretty fair value. The front-running filly finished a strong third last time out in the ten-furlong Flower Bowl (gr. I) behind Stephanie’s Kitten and Abaco, who came back to run second and seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. I). Furthermore, Viva Rafaela almost never runs a bad race, and has finished second twice going twelve furlongs in stakes company.
That said, Viva Rafaela has also lost her last eight starts, despite leading past the eighth pole in her last three. No matter how slow she goes on the front end, she seems to lack the stretch acceleration to hold off the best closers in the homestretch. Therefore, while Viva Rafaela seems like a very logical candidate for second or third, I will be looking elsewhere for the winner.
In a field of this size and depth, I would really like to find a longshot winner, but I’m having trouble looking past Aigue Marine (5-1) as my selection. The Christophe Clement-trained filly won the eleven-furlong Robert G. Dick Memorial (gr. III) two starts back with a sharp late run, and was compromised by a slow pace when fifth last time out in the Glen Falls (gr. III) at Saratoga. She and Viva Rafaela have met on four occasions this year, with each finishing ahead of the other on two occasions, so it appears as though they are pretty evenly matched. Thus, with Aigue Marine offering better odds than Viva Rafaela, and with Invading Humor likely to keep Viva Rafaela somewhat occupied on the lead, I’ll side with Aigue Marine to pull off a mild upset.
River City Handicap (gr. III)
I have been a big fan of Silver Max since 2012, and feel that when he is at his best, he’s one of the most talented turf milers in the country. Unfortunately, his last two races have been poor by his own high standards, especially his sixth-place finish in the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. I) last time out, in which I thought he looked like the winner on the far turn. In the River City, Silver Max will have to stretch his speed to nine furlongs, and as the heavy morning line favorite at 7-5, I’m going to try and beat him with Villandry. The Charles LoPresti-trained runner ran well in both the Sycamore Stakes (gr. III) and Northern Dancer Stakes (gr. I) at twelve furlongs, and the substantial cutback in distance should sharpen his late run. Earlier this year, he showcased strong acceleration in a trio of stakes races—the Lure Stakes, Firecracker Handicap (gr. II), and Opening Verse Stakes—and while he didn’t win any of them, I think pace dynamics and wide trips cost him better finishes. With a better trip on Saturday (which I believ he will get from post four), I think he can strike for victory at around 8-1.
Another horse I really like is Guys Reward. The seven-year-old veteran of forty-eight starts might not be the most consistent runner, but when he gets a good pace in front of him, he can unleash a pretty solid late rally. He’s also compiled a good record at Churchill Downs over the years, and ran very well against Silver Max in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. II) earlier this year. With just 119 pounds on his back (compared to 123 for Silver Max), and as a 5-1 shot on the morning line, I think he has a good chance to be in the mix at a good price.
Who do you like on Saturday?