Will Mubtaahij Upset the Awesome Again Stakes?

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

Get ready, everyone! The first "Super Saturday" of Breeders' Cup prep races is coming up this weekend, with Belmont Park, Santa Anita, and Churchill Downs hosting impressive cards filled with graded stakes races, including eight Grade 1 events. There are plenty of races to choose from, but we'll focus our handicapping attention on two of the Grade 1 events at Santa Anita--the Awesome Again Stakes and the Zenyatta Stakes.

Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I)

Although it's hard to describe the Awesome Again runners as consistent--they've had their ups and downs--there's no doubt that they're a very talented group. Six of the seven horses that will run in the race (Dortmund is expected to scratch) have posted a career-best Beyer of 104 or higher, four of the seven have won more than a million dollars, and two of them are Grade 1 winners.

In other words, you can make a case for almost anyone if they run back to their best race, and determining who's sitting on a big run is the key to handicapping the race. One to consider is the speedy Midnight Storm, who was in terrific form last summer and through the winter, but following a narrow loss in the ten-furlong Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) back in March, he hasn't seemed as sharp in three subsequent starts. Another logical contender is Cupid, a Bob Baffert-trained colt that is 2-for-2 this year with a win in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) the main highlight, but he got a great setup in the Gold Cup and had to work hard to win the Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at Del Mar last month while returning from a brief layoff.

With this in mind, I'm going to take a shot with a newcomer to California racing, that being Mubtaahij. With earnings of $4,349,332, Mubtaahij holds the unusual distinction of being one of the highest-earning horses that has never won a Grade 1 race. In fact, of all the horses that have ever run in North America, Mubtaahij ranks second by earnings among the non-Grade 1 winners, behind only the Japanese mare Preeminence, who finished fifth in her lone North American start.

However, Mubtaahij has flashed Grade 1-level talent throughout his career, finishing second in the 2016 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) behind California Chrome and second in the 2016 Woodward Stakes (gr. I), beaten just a head in a strong effort. He's only run twice this year, with his most recent start yielding a fourth-place finish behind Arrogate in the March 25th Dubai World Cup, but the long layoff doesn't bother me. After all, the Awesome Again will mark Mubtaahij's first run for trainer Bob Baffert, and Baffert is a master at bringing horses back from layoffs to win graded stakes races--in fact, according to stats from DRF Formulator, Baffert is 8-for-25 ($3.57 ROI) with horses making their first start in six months or more in a graded stakes race.

Certainly Mubtaahij's workouts suggest he's ready for a big run. He's posted a long string of workouts dating back to the beginning of July, culminating with five furlongs in 1:00 flat on September 26th, when he got the better of workmate Hoppertunity (a multiple Grade 1 winner and a solid workhorse) in a move that impressed Baffert enough to enter Mubtaahij in the Awesome Again at the last minute. Throw in the addition of blinkers, which could help Mubtaahij show more early speed, and I think you have a recipe for success. At 4-1 on the morning line, Mubtaahij looks like the best value in the race.

Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I)

While this isn't the most creative opinion, I'm expecting Paradise Woods to rebound in a big way in the Zenyatta Stakes. The three-year-old daughter of Union Rags has been highly regarded for a long time--she was nominated to the Triple Crown before she'd run in a single race!--and she looked fantastic winning the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) by eleven lengths back in April, easily defeating the future Grade 1 winners Abel Tasman and It Tiz Well.

Since then, little has gone right for Paradise Woods. She finished eleventh in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) after battling for the lead through testing fractions over a sloppy, sealed track, and when she returned from a layoff in the Torrey Pines Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar last month, a poor start cost her any serious chance of victory and left her body sore as well per the Daily Racing Form. Under the circumstances, her sixth-place finish wasn't surprising.

If you can forgive these two poor efforts, it's not hard to make a case that Paradise Woods will return to her winning form on Saturday. Her last workout--six furlongs in a bullet 1:11 3/5 on September 23rd--was excellent, and with the talented older mares Stellar Wind and Vale Dori skipping the Zenyatta, Paradise Woods isn't facing a particularly tough field either. Arguably her stiffest challenge could come from Faithfully, a late-running Baffert-trained filly that finished third behind Stellar Wind and Vale Dori in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I). She's put together a solid string of speed figures (both Beyer and BRIS) and figures to take advantage in the event that Paradise Woods falters, but my thought is to play the cold Paradise Woods/Faithfully exacta and see if they don't run 1-2 for a decent (if rather chalky) payoff.

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


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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 www.theturfboard.com.

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