Handicapping Thoughts and 2yos to Watch

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

Although the coming weekend is a relatively quiet one in terms of major racing action, there are a few noteworthy races scheduled to be run, including the Winter Challenge Stakes at Los Alamitos, where California Chrome will enter the starting gate for the penultimate time in his remarkable career.

Our handicapping attention this week will be on the Harlan's Holiday Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park, which has drawn a small but competitive field, and we'll also take a look at a few promising two-year-olds that either ran recently or will be running this weekend. There's a lot to cover, so let's get started!

Harlan's Holiday Stakes (gr. III)

A field of seven will contest this 8.5-furlong race at Gulfstream Park, including Keen Ice, who finished third in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) behind Arrogate and California Chrome. He could start as the favorite off that effort and his win over American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes (gr. I), but 8.5 furlongs might be a bit too short for this deep closer, and the speed-favoring nature of Gulfstream Park might not fit his running style.

As a result, I view the Harlan's Holiday as a two-horse race between Stanford and Awesome Slew. The former is coming off a six-month layoff but was in good form earlier this year, finishing second in the Fred W. Hooper Stakes (gr. III) and Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) before winning the Charles Town Classic (gr. II) by two lengths. Todd Pletcher does very well with horses returning from layoffs of 180 days or more (31% wins and a $2.00 ROI over the last five years) and has done particularly well with these horses at Gulfstream Park, where his win percentage jumps to 35%.

Furthermore, Stanford looked excellent in a recent workout at Palm Beach Downs, easily getting the better of stablemate Madefromlucky before galloping-out in impressive fashion. From what I've seen, Stanford has always been a good workhorse, but his last breeze suggests that he's coming up to the Harlan's Holiday in good form and will be tough to beat. In addition, drawing post one should help him save ground with a short run to the first turn, and as a speed horse, he should be right in the mix as the field enters the abbreviated homestretch (this race will end at the sixteenth pole).

Stanford's main pace challenge should come from Awesome Slew, a three-year-old facing older horses for the first time. Outside of a last-place finish in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) over a sloppy track, Awesome Slew has never run a bad race and ran very well in the nine-furlong Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) last time out, setting a solid pace before tiring late to finish fifth by 4 ¾ lengths. He finished best of the pacesetters that day and wasn't badly beaten by the late-running duo of Connect and Gun Runner, who came back to score Grade 1 victories against older horses last month.

Awesome Slew is now cutting back slightly in distance and picks up the services of jockey Joel Rosario. While he might be at a slight disadvantage breaking outside of Stanford, he's shown the ability to rate just off the lead in the past, and if Stanford doesn't gun for the lead, Awesome Slew might very well be able to clear him and take the rail. He's almost certain to be overlooked in the wagering thanks to the trio of Pletcher runners, and at 5-1 or higher, I think he's worth a play. How about a Stanford/Awesome Slew exacta?

I would also briefly like to mention Madefromlucky, who finished second in this race last. Like Stanford, he's coming off a long layoff, and while he didn't look as good as his stablemate in their workout together last week, Madefromlucky has never struck me as the strongest workhorse, at least compared to Stanford. He could be at a disadvantage trying to rally into a slow pace, but should have every chance to finish in the trifecta.

Sugar Bowl Stakes

The heavy favorite in this six-furlong sprint for two-year-olds is Running Mate, an unbeaten and unchallenged son of Creative Cause trained by Larry Jones. So impressive was Running Mate in his first two victories that he was included in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, closing at odds of 55-1.

Needless to say, Running Mate has looked fantastic so far. In his debut going six furlongs at Delaware Park, he sprinted to the lead and ran six rivals off their feet to win by six lengths while closing the final furlong in a quick :11.81 seconds. He was just as eye-catching in a November 25th allowance race at Fair Grounds, once again sprinting away to win by 7 ¾ lengths while running the final two furlongs in :11.74 and :12.32.

Even more exciting is that Running Mate has a very strong pedigree that suggests two turns won't be an issue; in fact, there's a chance that he will thrive at longer distances and relish the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby.

Clearly Running Mate is the horse to beat in the Sugar Bowl Stakes, but I wouldn't underestimate the chances of Proforma. Trained by Mike Stidham, the son of Munnings finished third in his debut on November 4th at Churchill Downs, beaten 4 ¾ lengths by the future stakes winner Saint's Fan (see below). A bit more than three weeks later, Proforma returned to action in a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs and rallied to win by a neck in the fast time of 1:10.07, closing the fifth furlong in about :11.60 and the final furlong in about :12 flat. As a closer, he could be at a tactical disadvantage against the speedy Running Mate, but the talent is there and I think he's a solid choice to round out the exacta or even pull off a minor upset.

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

A Few More 2yos to Watch

Much of the attention last week was focused on Los Alamitos and Gulfstream Park, where a solid group of stakes races for two-year-olds were conducted and horses like Mastery, Tapwrit, and Fact Finding stamped themselves as names to watch on the Derby trail.

But there were a couple other notable races that might have slipped by unnoticed, including the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile Stakes at Fair Grounds. A six-furlong race for Louisiana-breds isn't usually where you look to find Kentucky Derby contenders, but this year might prove to be an exception. The winner was Saint's Fan, a colt I profiled on Unlocking Winners a couple of weeks ago (click here to read.) The Dallas Stewart-trained runner had won his debut in impressive fashion at Churchill Downs and looked even better last Saturday; despite breaking slowly and spotting the field two lengths, he rallied smoothly on the turn to reach contention and then ran down the leader in the homestretch to win going away by two lengths. He was a bit green in the homestretch, but nevertheless showed a strong turn-of-foot, running the fifth furlong in about :11.60 and the final furlong in about :12.90 on his way to a final time of 1:10.74. (VIDEO)

All told, I thought this was an exceptional performance from a lightly-raced colt that is bred to run longer. Saint's Fan is now 2-for-2 and is expected to target the January 21st LeComte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds, where he will attempt two turns for the first time while facing the impressive Remington Springboard Mile winner Cool Arrow.

Speaking of Cool Arrow, he had an overwhelming pace advantage on paper in Sunday's Remington Springboard Mile, and the race played out as expected when none of his eleven rivals challenged him for the lead. Cool Arrow found himself with a clear advantage through very slow fractions of :24.68, :49.79, and 1:14.54; needless to say, he accelerated his final quarter-mile in a quick :24.18 and left his rivals behind to win by 3 ½ lengths. (VIDEO)

The reason I mention this is because runner-up Totality ran a great race under the circumstances. Reserved toward the back of the pack early on, about four lengths off the pace, Totality matched strides with Cool Arrow through the final two furlongs and was the only horse in the race that didn't lose ground in the homestretch. With a better pace setup, he might have finished closer, and he could be a colt to watch from the powerful team of trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Winchell Thoroughbreds.

One other race that caught my eye last week was Laurel Park's Maryland Juvenile Futurity for Maryland-bred or Maryland-sired two-year-olds. The winner was Greatbullsoffire, a son of Bullsbay that entered the race having won three of his five starts, including two stakes races. Coming off of a modest third-place finish in the Christopher Elser Memorial Stakes at Parx, Greatbullsoffire was sent off as only the third choice against seven rivals, but wound up cruising to victory like a 1-5 favorite.

Visually, Greatbullsoffire looked fantastic. After settling in third behind fractions of :23.44 and :46.93, Greatbullsoffire moved up on the outside to take the lead and then powered away from the field with a sudden burst of speed. Striding away powerfully, Greatbullsoffire ran the third quarter-mile in about :24.10, then flew through a final furlong in :11.75 to leave his rivals six lengths behind, and his final time for seven furlongs was a quick 1:22.85. (VIDEO)

Greatbullsoffire has shown steady improvement throughout the year, and his Maryland Juvenile Futurity effort was another step in the right direction. The field that he beat was respectable; the runner-up was the stakes-placed Todd Pletcher colt Bonus Points, and fourth-place finisher O Dionysus had beaten Greatbullsoffire in the Christopher Elser Memorial Stakes.

For his victory, Greatbullsoffire received a solid Beyer speed figure of 83, and his pedigree (click here to view)--plus the way he finished on Saturday--suggests that he can handle longer distances. I'm looking forward to seeing how he progresses down the road!


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 www.theturfboard.com.

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