By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
As horse racing in the United States continues to slowly emerge from its post-Breeders’ Cup lull, an impressive schedule of stakes races—both graded and ungraded—are on schedule for this Saturday. Two of the most intriguing are the $250,000 Red Smith Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct and a $350,000 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. They could not be much more different in terms of conditions—the Red Smith is a turf route, the Frank De Francis is a dirt sprint—but both offer large fields and plenty of promising longshots for those that like to search for value.So let’s start handicapping!
Red Smith Handicap (gr. III)
Long-distance turf stakes races can be challenging to handicap, especially early or late in the season, but the eleven-furlong Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct may prove to be an exception. The morning line favorite at 8-5 is Big Blue Kitten, a two-time grade I winner that enters off a runner-up effort in the twelve-furlong Canadian International (gr. I) at Woodbine. In that race, Big Blue Kitten raced far behind a slow early pace (:50.34 and 1:15.35) before accelerating strongly in the final quarter mile to just miss winning by three-quarters of a length. Over a course labeled "good," Big Blue Kitten ran the final two furlongs in roughly :23 4/5, a sharp time that suggests he is back in top form. With only four starts under his belt this year, he should be fresh for a big effort on Saturday.
The most logical candidate to upset Big Blue Kitten is probably Legendary, a British-bred colt that won the Knickerbocker Stakes (gr. III) last time out. In the Japan Racing Association Stakes two starts back, he demonstrated a brilliant turn-of-foot, and his proven affinity for both firm and wet turf suggests that he will run his race no matter what the course conditions are on Saturday. However, his greatest successes have come in races shorter than the Red Smith, and this—coupled with the fact that he was beaten fair and square by Big Blue Kitten in the Lure Stakes earlier this year—makes it difficult to envision him turning the tables on Big Blue Kitten this Saturday.
To be honest, I find it difficult to envision anyone beating Big Blue Kitten in this race, and I think 8-5 is really a pretty decent price. But there are a couple of longshots that I like in this race. The first is Unitarian (12-1), who won the twelve-furlong Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes (gr. III) on April 25th at Keeneland. After a long break, he returned on October 16th to finish an uninspiring fifth in the twelve-furlong Sycamore Stakes (gr. III). But his effort was actually much better than it appears at first glance, as he raced in last place early on while the leaders casually waltzed through fractions of :53.02 and 1:19.84. Coming off a layoff, the fact that Unitarian didn’t lose much ground through a rapid final quarter mile is encouraging, and I think he can step up substantially on Saturday.
I also like the chances of St. Albans Boy (20-1). Three starts back, the four-year-old gelding unleashed a strong late run to win an eleven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga, then followed that up with a third-place finish—beaten just three-quarters of a length—in the twelve-furlong Laurel Turf Cup, a race in which he may have made his move a bit too soon. I’m willing to forgive his most recent effort, a fifth-place finish in the ten-furlong Bowl Game, in hopes that the wet conditions contributed to his defeat. A return to firm turf and the cutback to eleven furlongs should help his chances, as should his weight assignment (he’ll carry just 114 pounds, nine less than Big Blue Kitten.) I’m not saying he will pull an upset, but if he stays at 20-1, he might be worth a look for both win and exotic wagers.
Frank De Francis Memorial Dash
A large purse of $350,000 has attracted a field of ten for this six-furlong dash at Laurel Park, including Carter Handicap (gr. I) winner Dads Caps. The Rudy Rodriguez-trained colt was a bit inconsistent during the summer, but ran a huge race when beaten a neck by Private Zone in the Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont. His credentials are strong, but his victories are few and far between, and as the 5-2 morning line favorite in a strong field, I’m going to take a stand against him.
I’m also going to try and beat Favorite Tale (6-1), who earned an impressive Beyer speed figure when scoring a decisive victory in the Gallant Bob Stakes (gr. III) at Parx. On that occasion, he took advantage of a speed-favoring track to survive a speed duel, and assuming the track is fair at Laurel this Saturday, I don’t think he will repeat his Gallant Bob performance.
So who do I like? Happy My Way deserves great respect after posting very competitive speed figures dating back to last December, but drawing the rail may compromise the chances of this speedy front-runner, who will have to outrun Favorite Tale, Zee Bros, and La Verdad to secure the early lead—and that won’t be an easy task!
In the hopes that those four horses set a very quick pace, I’m going to take a shot with Mico Margarita on top. Although he was soundly beaten two weeks ago in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I), his overall record this year is very good, with three stakes wins and several strong speed figures. His off-the-pace running style should be an advantage, the drop in class should help his chances, and he even gets to carry four pounds less than Dads Caps! In my opinion, that combination is a recipe for victory at around 6-1.
Who do you like on Saturday?