Looking for Longshots on Thanksgiving Weekend

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

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Starting today and continuing through Sunday, a total of 20 graded stakes races will be held across North America, which means that the post-Breeders' Cup lull is over at last. One of the highlights is the $500,000 Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on Friday, but I'm also interested in the $200,000 Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. III) that will be held later this afternoon at Aqueduct. Let's take a look at both races....

Clark Handicap (gr. I)

On paper, the horse to beat is Diversify, a four-year-old New York-bred gelding that has been unstoppable in his last three starts, winning the Saginaw Stakes and Evan Shipman Stakes against fellow New York-breds before scoring a gate-to-wire win in the ten-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park.

But while Diversify is a standout in terms of speed figures, it's worth noting that he has gotten very easy leads in his last two starts, never being challenged at any point while setting modest pace fractions. He could very well get an identical trip in the Clark (The Player and Destin look like the only horses that might challenge for the lead), but Diversify has never run outside of New York, so the trip to Churchill Downs in Kentucky will be a new experience. As the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, I'm tempted to side against him.

The Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity will be running in the Clark for the fourth straight year, following a win in 2014, a runner-up effort in 2015, and a fourth-place finish last year. The latter effort was forgivable, coming at the end of a long and testing season, and Hoppertunity should be fresher this year while making his second start off a lengthy layoff. His runner-up effort in the one-mile Comma to the Top Stakes last month was a solid comeback, but as a late runner he's reliant on a good pace setup and his wins tend to be infrequent--if he goes off near his 3-1 morning line odds, I think he'll be an underlay.

Instead, I'm going to focus my attention on Honorable Duty. Trained by Brendan Walsh, the son of Distorted Humor finished last in the Fayette Stakes (gr. II) last time out, but that race was conducted over a sloppy, sealed track, and Honorable Duty's record suggests that such conditions aren't ideal for him. All of his other efforts this year have been exceptional, including a decisive 4 ¾-length romp in the Lukas Classic (gr. III) on September 30th and a runner-up behind Gun Runner in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), both at Churchill Downs.

All told, Honorable Duty has finished in the exacta in five of his six starts at Churchill, and in terms of speed figures he fits well against the other top contenders in the Clark Handicap. And although he generally likes to race from off the pace, he's versatile enough to stay close to the lead if necessary and even won the Lukas Classic in gate-to-wire fashion. Corey Lanerie, the leading rider at the last four Churchill Downs meets, will have the mount. At 5-1 or higher, I think Honorable Duty is worth a play.

Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. III)

"Inconsistent" is one way to describe the seven-year-old veteran sprinter Green Gratto. Although he's only won nine race from 59 starts, Green Gratto has long been a capable competitor in stakes company and reached the pinnacle of the sport back in April when he upset Aqueduct's Carter Handicap (gr. I) at odds of 54-1.

At first glance, it can be hard to predict when Green Gratto will run well and when he will disappoint, but a closer look at his lifetime past performances can give us a few clues. For one, Green Gratto seems to have a clear dislike for Belmont Park, where he has compiled a 1-for-21 record. Secondly, most of Green Gratto's best races have come at Aqueduct (though he's never shown a clear preference for the outer track or the old inner track). And perhaps as an extension of his preference for Aqueduct over Belmont Park, Green Gratto tends to reach his peak during the winter and go off form during the summer.

Since winning the Carter Handicap, Green Gratto has gone 0-for-6 and ran progressively worse through the first five of those defeats, culminating with a last-place finish in the Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont on September 30th. However, he showed signs of returning to form in the Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) at Belmont on October 28th, setting quick fractions of :22.05 and :44.79 before finishing sixth by just 4 ½ lengths, earning a 99 Beyer speed figure.

Does this mean that Green Gratto is going to win the Fall Highweight? Maybe, or maybe not. He'll likely face pace pressure from the speed Hey Jabber Jaw, but that might not be the worst thing since Hey Jabber Jaw is drawn inside of Green Gratto. After all, the rail generally hasn't been the best part of the track at Aqueduct during the current meet, so staying outside of a fellow pacesetter could be beneficial to Green Gratto.

My main point is that Green Gratto is ready to start rounding back into form, and after a summer of disappointments, now is the time to start playing him again. He's 8-1 on the morning line in the Fall Highweight, and at that price or higher I think he's worth playing on top and in the exotics. Furthermore, even if Green Gratto falls short today (he finished fourth in this race last year), I'd keep an eye on him this winter--his typical rebound at a big price could be just around the corner.

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


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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