Mor Spirit, Songbird Highlight Huge Saturday

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Get ready, everyone! An absolutely fantastic day of racing awaits on Saturday, led by eight graded stakes races at Gulfstream and Santa Anita. Two of the highlights are the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III), which will mark the return of Mor Spirit, and the $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. II), which will feature the seasonal debut of Songbird. There's a lot to cover, so let's start handicapping!

Robert B. Lewis Stakes

On paper, it looks very hard to beat Bob Baffert's Mor Spirit, who was very impressive winning the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) by 1 ¼ lengths last December. A versatile colt with enough speed to be prominent from the start, yet tractable enough to rate off the pace, Mor Spirit has both Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens thinking about the Kentucky Derby, and the Robert B. Lewis looks like a stepping stone to greater achievements down the road.

To this point, Mor Spirit has impressed me as much as any Derby contender I've seen from this crop, and watching the Los Alamitos Futurity, I got the impression that Mor Spirit was full of run and could have seized command in an instant had Gary Steven asked him to do so. Since that race, Mor Spirit has turned in six workouts at Santa Anita, culminating with a half-mile in :49 flat on Monday. Facing a small field of just six rivals, he should have little trouble staying out of traffic and should be very hard to beat on Saturday.

But all that said, it's worth noting that the horses he beat in the Los Alamitos Futurity have not come back to run very well, and by virtue of his grade I win, Mor Spirit will have to carry top weight of 124 pounds on Saturday. The majority of his rivals will be carrying just 119 pounds, including the exciting I Will Score. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, I Will Score was being discussed as a possible star even before his debut on September 11th at Los Alamitos, and he lived up to expectations with an easy 6 ½-length victory. A minor injury sidelined him after that race, but he returned on January 3rd to win a 6 ½-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita in a terrific performance. After drawing the rail, I Will Score was forced to commit to the lead and got involved in an epic duel for the lead through fractions of :21.02 and :43.23, yet despite this challenge, he fought on gamely through the homestretch and won by a head in the sharp time of 1:15.15 seconds.

What makes I Will Score particularly interesting in this race is that he's bred to stretch out in distance-his sire, Roman Ruler, won the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) and sired 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Ruler On Ice, while I Will Score's dam-Grassy Nellie-was a three-time winner going a mile or farther on turf. Furthermore, I Will Score's recent workouts have been impressive, including two six-furlong bullets. Many had expected Hollendorfer to run I Will Score in the February 13th San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) at seven furlongs, but the fact that Hollendorfer is running him in the Robert B. Lewis is a sign of confidence. Given I Will Score's early speed, he should have little trouble securing the early lead from post two, and in a race that doesn't have a lot of pace on paper, he could be very tough to catch.

So who do I take as my top selection? Well, in all likelihood Mor Spirit will win this race, but he's also bound to be a heavy favorite-he won the Los Alamitos Futurity at odds of 7-10, and while he might not be quite that low on Saturday, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him go off at even-money. Assuming that is the case, and assuming I Will Score goes off at around 3-1 or more, I think I Will Score will offer more value and would be my selection to win.

For the exacta and trifecta, I would add in Let's Meet in Rio, a promising colt that unleashed an eye-catching rally to finish second in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) last month. He looks like a horse that could use a bit more experience, but the way he has finished his last two races-making up huge amounts of ground while running fast fractions-holds promise for his ability to stretch out in distance and be a factor on the Derby trail. I don't think he's ready to win a race like this just yet, but I think he's got a ton of potential and should be finishing strongly once again today.

I'd also like to briefly mention Dressed in Hermes and Path of David. Both colts are stakes winners on turf, but their running styles and pedigrees suggest that they may have found their calling on turf. That's not to say they can't contend in the Robert B. Lewis-Dressed in Hermes actually ran respectably well in a dirt sprint last year-but as stakes winners, they might be underlays while switching to dirt, and I think it could be worthwhile to play against them in the exacta and trifecta.

Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. II)

As exciting as the Robert B. Lewis Stakes should be, the Las Virgenes Stakes promises to be even better thanks to the presence of the unbeaten champion Songbird, who will be making her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) by an easy 5 ¾ lengths. In terms of Beyer speed figures, she's an absolute standout, and her preparations for this race have been exceptional. Her connections have even said that she might be better than last year, and under the circumstances, she looks almost impossible to beat.

But even though she'll be a very heavy favorite, the exotics could be appealing, especially since I think that Street Fancy-winner of the Starlet Stakes (gr. I) and the likely second choice-could be vulnerable today. In the Starlet, she took advantage of a contested pace and extremely slow closing fractions to rally and win, and she's unlikely to get a setup as good today.

Land Over Sea, runner-up to Songbird in the Chandelier Stakes (gr. I) and most recently seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, should have a big chance to hit the board on Saturday, as should Bob Baffert's speedy Jade Princess, who came off a layoff to win a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita last month. But perhaps the most intriguing candidate to hit the board is the maiden She's a Warrior, who produced a nice rally to finish second by a half-length in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight on December 30th. The time of the race was solid, and She's a Warrior gained 2 ½ lengths on the winner through the final furlong in a very encouraging performance. Trained by Peter Eurton, She's a Warrior has enough speed to stay within striking range of the early lead, so if Songbird goes to the front and tires out the other pacesetters, She's a Warrior could be the first to pounce and take advantage, giving her a shot to secure a place in the trifecta at a large price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Saturday stakes races?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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