By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Get ready, folks! American racing is scheduled to emerge from its post-Breeders’ Cup lull this weekend with a terrific series of races scheduled for Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! All told, there are nineteen graded stakes races to be run across those four days, so there’s going to be lots to analyze and discuss over the next week! We’ll begin our handicapping with the $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IIT) at Del Mar and the $300,000 Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct, both of which will be run on Thanksgiving Day.
Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IIT)
This twelve-furlong turf race looks pretty wide-open on paper, especially with possible favorite The Pizza Man having drawn the far outside post position, which probably isn’t ideal for his front running/pace pressing style. His consistency is admirable—he’s won twelve of nineteen lifetime races, on turf courses ranging from firm to yielding—and his speed figures suggest he’ll be right in the mix, but he’s also lost three of his four starts at this distance, and his lone victory over twelve furlongs came when he was allowed to set an unbelievably slow pace of 1:21.18 for six furlongs. So under the circumstances, I’m going to try and beat him.
The most logical candidate to pull an upset is probably Finnegans Wake, who was beaten just 5 ¼ lengths last time out in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I), and just three-quarters of a length when second in the John Henry Turf Championship Stakes (gr. II) one start before that. That said, he seems to be in the mix more often that in the winner’s circle, and he’s only won once in the last 2 ½ years. There’s no doubt that he can be in the mix once again for a top-three finish, but he’s unlikely to offer much value on top.
So all that said, the horse I like best is Holiday Star. Trained by Graham Motion, who has had good luck shipping turf horses for these late-season California stakes races, Holiday Star scored a nice victory last time out in the twelve-furlong Sycamore Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, running his final quarter in about :23 3/5 over yielding turf to defeat a pair of nice horses in Red Rifle and Villandry. Overall, Holiday Star has compiled a nice record in long-distance turf races, and will pick up the services of top jockey Mike Smith for this race. Throw in a good draw in post two, and I think Holiday Star will save ground early and out-shine The Pizza Man and Finnegans Wake in the homestretch.
Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. III)
The six-furlong Fall Highweight Handicap is an unusual race in which every runner must carry more weight than they usually would—a fun idea that dates back many, many years and makes for an interesting handicapping challenge.
The highweight in this year’s renewal of the race, with a weight assignment of 134 pounds, is Strapping Groom. He ran well in this race last year when carrying 135 pounds, finishing second to Palace, and followed that up with consecutive victories in the Gravesend Handicap and Tom Fool Handicap (gr. III). Unfortunately, he went to the sidelines after a poor effort in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) back in April, and this is a tough spot to make a comeback after a long layoff.
Carrying 133 pounds is Salutos Amigos, who scored a definitive victory in the Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) in October before coming back one week later to finish seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I). That was actually a pretty solid effort, given that he was only beaten three lengths after a wide trip, and he’s already come back with a trio of three-furlong works to prepare him for this race. With a quick pace likely, I think we’ll see him come rallying in the homestretch to secure another victory.
One longshot that I like is the three-year-old Captain Serious. His last four starts have not been very remarkable, but he did win the seven-furlong Mike Lee Stakes at Belmont earlier this year in the sharp time of 1:20.99, and he’s 2-for-2 at Aqueduct. Plus, he gets into the race carrying only 123 pounds, so perhaps the weight shift can help him get into the exotics at a solid price.
Happy Thanksgiving Day to everyone!