An Epic Saturday of Racing

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

Get ready, everyone! February 7th promises to be the best day of racing thus far in the young year, with the schedule of nine graded stakes races being highlighted by a pair of major Kentucky Derby prep races and a pair of top-notch races for older males on the main track. The action will start at Gulfstream and Aqueduct and continue at Santa Anita, where the excitement will culminate with an eagerly-anticipated showdown in the $500,000 San Antonio Stakes (gr. II). There’s a lot to cover this week, so let’s get started!

Donn Handicap (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Constitution Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher 3rd Clark Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)
2 Commissioner John Velazquez Todd Pletcher 3rd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
3 East Hall Luis Saez William Kaplan 2nd Florida Sunshine Millions Classic (VIDEO)
4 Lea Joel Rosario Bill Mott 1st Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
5 Elnaawi Julien Leparoux Kiaran McLaughlin 1st Native Dancer Stakes (VIDEO)
6 Catholic Cowboy Paco Lopez Nick Zito 3rd Florida Sunshine Millions Classic (VIDEO)
7 Sloane Avenue Jose Lezcano Jeremy Noseda 1st Hyde Stakes
8 Protonico Joe Bravo Todd Pletcher 2nd Clark Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)
9 Blue Tone Corey Lanerie Robert Hess, Jr. 3rd San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
10 Prayer for Relief Edgar Zayas Dale Romans 3rd Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

The expected favorite is Lea, who won this race last year in track-record time with a massive 114 Beyer speed figure. He was then sidelined for nearly a year due to injury and illness, but returned to score an impressive victory in the January 10th Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park. In that race, Lea was trapped behind horses for most of the race, then had to be angled sharply outside in the homestretch for racing room. Yet despite these obstacles, Lea unleashed an exceptional rally in the homestretch, running his final furlong in about :11 3/5 to win in good fashion. He should only be sharper in his second start off the layoff, and having drawn post four, he should be able to work out an excellent trip stalking Constitution and Commissioner through the early stages of the race. In my opinion, he looks like a standout.

Of the rest, Constitution probably has the best chance at pulling the upset. The son of Tapit began his career with three consecutive victories at Gulfstream, including the Florida Derby (gr. I), before being sidelined with an injury. He returned to finish fourth in an allowance race at Belmont and third in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on November 28th, a solid effort in which he set the pace before tiring in the final furlong to be beaten 1 ¾ lengths. Since then, he has trained sharply in preparation for the Donn, and should relish the return to Gulfstream Park. Having drawn the rail, he will have to be quick from the start to avoid getting boxed in behind horses, but drawing inside is definitely better than drawing wide with the very short run to the first turn.

Those in search of a live longshot to spruce up the exotics might want to take a look at Sloane Avenue, a British shipper that won the Hyde Stakes over the synthetic track at Kempton on November 19th. Trained by Jeremy Noseda, Sloane Avenue has never competed in a race of this caliber, but is strongly bred for success on the dirt, being by Candy Ride out of the A.P. Indy mare Apt. His half-siblings include the stakes-winning dirt runners Carve and Apropos. Sloane Avenue has drawn wide in post nine, which is a concern, but I think the surface switch could yield a much-improved performance, and I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see him go off at 30-1 or higher. At that price, he might be worth a look for the bottom of the trifecta and/or superfecta.

Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Tizcano Martin Pedroza Peter Miller 5th Spectacular Bid Stakes (VIDEO)
2 Rock Shandy Victor Espinoza Peter Miller 2nd Sham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
3 Sebastian’s Heart Agapito Delgadillo GeorgePapaprodromou 8th Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
4 Hero Ten All Tyler Baze Jeff Mullins 4th Sham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
5 Firing Line Gary Stevens Simon Callaghan 2nd Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) (VIDEO)
6 Dortmund Martin Garcia Bob Baffert 1st Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) (VIDEO)

This looks like a match race between Dortmund and Firing Line, the 1-2 finishers in the December 20th Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I). On that occasion, the two colts were separated by just a nose, and determining which colt will triumph on Saturday could be a challenge. From some perspectives, Dortmund appears to have a slight edge. A very large colt, he may have been compromised in the Los Alamitos Futurity by the tight turns at Los Alamitos, and he should relish the considerably wider turns at Santa Anita. Additionally, he has posted the highest Beyer speed figure in the field by a substantial margin, having earned a figure of 97 for his victory in a Churchill allowance race in November.

On the other hand, one can make a case that Firing Line ran the better race in the Los Alamitos Futurity, setting fractions of :21.98, :45.29, and 1:09.64 before narrowly losing to Dortmund while being bumped down the homestretch by third-place finisher Mr. Z. Furthermore, Firing Line will be getting a bit of a weight break this Saturday—in the Los Alamitos Futurity, both Firing Line and Dortmund carried 121 pounds; in the Lewis, Dortmund will tote 123 and Firing Line 118. Having drawn inside of Dortmund, Firing Line should be able to save more ground than his rival while setting or pressing the early pace, and with the weight shift in his favor, I believe Firing Line can pull off a mild upset.

Withers Stakes (gr. III)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Classy Class Irad Ortiz, Jr. Kiaran McLaughlin 4th Remsen Stakes (VIDEO)
2 Far From Over Manuel Franco Todd Pletcher 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
3 March Jose Ortiz Chad Brown 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
4 Tencendur Cornelio Velasquez George Weaver 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
5 Unrivaled Frankie Pennington Marya Montoya 1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
6 General Bellamy Junior Alvarado Bill Mott 3rd Jerome Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
7 El Kabeir Charles Lopez John Terranova, II 1st Jerome Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)

Two-time graded stakes winner El Kabeir turned in an eye-catching performance to win the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) here at Aqueduct last month, and given his combination of excellent tactical speed and ability to stalk the pace, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which he loses this race. Having drawn post seven, he should be able to stay out of trouble, take command whenever it’s logical, and add a third graded stakes race to his resume.

That said, I do like the chances of Tencendur, a maiden that was entered in the Jerome before being scratched on the morning of the race.He came back on January 19th to win a one-mile and seventy-yard maiden special weight at Aqueduct by three-quarters of a length, but the margin of victory doesn’t do justice to how impressive his performance was. Trapped along the rail for much of the race, Tencendur accelerated multiple times during the race to gain position, then rallied through the tiniest of openings in deep stretch to win going away. Had he been able to make his run sooner, I believe he would have won in much more dominating fashion. His connections seem to think very highly of him—after all, they entered him in the Jerome as a maiden!—and if Tencendur continues his progression on Saturday, I think he can round out the exacta at a bit of a price.

I would also like to mention General Bellamy, who came from way back in the Jerome to finish a distant third behind El Kabeir. He would have to step up substantially to turn the tables on El Kabeir on Saturday, but it is worth noting that he flashed excellent early speed when breaking his maiden two back at Aqueduct, and if he reverts to his more forwardly-placed running style, that should greatly enhance his chances of at least hitting the board.

San Antonio Invitational (gr. II)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Hoppertunity Martin Garcia Bob Baffert 1st San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
2 Tonito M. Rafael Bejarano Jerry Hollendorfer 4th San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
3 You Know I Know Drayden Van Dyke John Sadler 8th Pacific Classic Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)
4 Imperative Flavien Prat George Papaprodromou 15th Champions Cup (Jpn-I)
5 Shared Belief Mike Smith Jerry Hollendorfer 1st Malibu Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)
6 Clubhouse Ride Aaron Gryder Craig Lewis 1st Clocker’s Corner Stakes (VIDEO)
7 Bronzo Gary Stevens Neil Drysdale 6th San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
8 California Chrome Victor Espinoza Art Sherman 1st Hollywood Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO)
9 Alfa Bird Tyler Baze Victor Garcia 1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)

In what could very well end up being one of the best races of the year, 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome will take on 2013 champion 2yo male Shared Belief in an epic confrontation. It will be their first meeting since the controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), in which Shared Belief was compromised by a rough start and bumping in the first quarter-mile. Both colts have returned to win grade I races, with California Chrome triumphing in the Hollywood Derby on turf and Shared Belief cutting back to seven furlongs to win the Malibu Stakes. Both have trained like champions in preparation for this race, and both have landed ideal post positions. Choosing between them is extremely difficult, but I’ll side with Shared Belief on the basis that he had a more recent prep race and should be able to save more ground than California Chrome.

I should also mention Hoppertunity, winner of the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill in November and the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita last month. A very talented colt, Hoppertunity should be able to save ground from post one before rallying in the homestretch, and could potentially make things very interesting if Shared Belief and California Chrome duel for command too early in the race and start tiring in the final furlong.

Unfortunately, the lone disadvantage to having so many great races on the same day is that I can’t delve as deeply into each one as I would like! :) There are plenty of other terrific races being run this weekend in addition to the four I mentioned above, and I will be more than happy to discuss any horse and any race in the comments section of this blog post. I hope you’ll join me! Good luck to all!


In order to aid in keeping track of all the Kentucky Derby prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Also, here is the link to the complete entries and current standings for our "Road to the Kentucky Derby" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing!

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