Looking for Longshots on a Busy Stakes Weekend

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

Who's ready for a fantastic weekend of competitive racing? The lineup of stakes races scheduled for this Saturday is impressive, making it difficult to choose a single race to handicap. Therefore, we'll turn our attention to a trio of races this weekend that I believe offer the possibility for mild upset winners. Let's start handicapping!

Lyphard Stakes at Penn National

While there are plenty of horses to consider in this 8.5-furlong turf race for fillies and mares, I have to side with Pink Elephant if she goes off at anywhere near her 10-1 morning line odds. A six-year-old mare with 21 starts under her belt, Pink Elephant is 2-for-15 at all tracks except the Penn National turf course, where she is 3-for-6. That record might be even better if Pink Elephant hadn't clipped heels and lost her rider while making a move in last year's Lyphard Stakes.

After taking time off during the winter, Pink Elephant returned to action in the one-mile Dahlia Stakes on April 22nd at Laurel Park. Reserved near the back of the pack, Pink Elephant had little chance to win after the leaders carved out slow fractions and finished in a quick :23.59 over a yielding turf course, so Pink Elephant deserves a lot of credit for gaining three lengths in the final quarter-mile to finish fourth, beaten just two lengths. Another filly that was compromised by the fast finishing fractions-third-place finisher Cambodia-came right back to win the Gallorette Stakes (gr. III) at Pimlico.

The return to the Penn National turf course should help Pink Elephant's chances, and a slightly better setup while dropping in class might be all she needs to prevail at a solid price.

Mountainview Stakes at Penn National

A small but talented field of six older males will line up to contest this nine-furlong race on the Penn National main track, with the morning line favorite being the veteran seven-year-old gelding Page McKenney. In 27 starts on dirt, Page McKenney has finished in the exacta 21 times and has missed the trifecta just three times-in other words, he's a picture of consistency.

That said, while Page McKenney is 2-for-3 this year (with a track bias contributing to his one defeat), his speed figures have been lower since his return from a tendon injury suffered last year, and at 9-5 on the morning line, I think he will be an underlay compared to his chances of winning.

Instead, I'm tempted to take a shot with Matt King Coal. This lightly-raced four-year old colt showed promise early in his career, but was sidelined following a fourth-place finish in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and didn't get a chance to compete in the major stakes races of the spring and summer. However, he's come back strong in 2017, winning two straight races at Laurel Park (including the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Stakes) before finishing second by a neck in the Charles Town Classic (gr. II). In the latter race, contested over a sloppy, sealed track that was very tiring, Matt King Coal was the only horse that raced anywhere near the early lead to be involved at the finish, as fellow pacesetters Stanford and Cautious Giant faded to finish well back.

You can make a case that nine furlongs is a bit beyond Matt King Coal's best distance, but I do believe his Charles Town Classic effort was even better than it appears. Also, while he's run well on wet tracks, it's worth noting that he's 0-for-4 on sealed tracks and 4-for-4 on tracks rated good or better. If the track comes up fast on Saturday, I believe Matt King Coal will be the horse to beat.

Pennine Ridge Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park

The obvious choice in this nine-furlong turf race for three-year-olds is Good Samaritan. Trained by Bill Mott, the son of Harlan's Holiday won the Summer Stakes (gr. II) at Woodbine last year and finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I) while enduring a troubled trip. Following a six-month layoff, Good Samaritan returned to action in the American Turf Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, where he finished second by a length after rallying very wide from off the pace over a course labeled "good," which he might not have relished as much as firm turf.

But while Good Samaritan might be the most likely winner, I wouldn't overlook the chances of Oscar Performance. The son of Kitten's Joy rattled off three straight wins in impressive fashion last year, including a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (where he finished 1 ½ lengths in front of Good Samaritan), but he hasn't been as sharp in two starts this year. In his seasonal debut, he ran fifth in the Transylvania Stakes (gr. III) after a slow start left him off the pace and racing uncomfortably inside of horses; under the circumstances, his three-length defeat wasn't bad, but he followed that effort with a last-place finish in the American Turf Stakes, beaten 15 lengths after setting the early pace.

I'm not sure why Oscar Performance failed to fire in the American Turf, but it's clear that he ran well below his best form that day. The American Turf marked his first race on Lasix, but he'll race without that medication in the Pennine Ridge. Perhaps Oscar Performance simply peaked as a two-year-old and won't rebound to his best form, but generally speaking the progeny of Kitten's Joy get better with age, and it might be premature to write off Oscar Performance so early in the season. He's 4-1 on the morning line, but I wouldn't be surprised if he goes off at a bit higher. If he does, I think he's worth a play.

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


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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