All Aboard the Express Train to Oaklawn

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

Get ready, everyone! Another great Saturday of racing awaits!

At Oaklawn Park, a couple of million-dollar stakes are on the agenda, including a fantastic renewal of the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) at Oaklawn Park. But an allowance optional claiming race at Santa Anita is also worth watching (and betting); the field has come up surprisingly tough, and there might be a future Grade 1 winner in the mix.

Let's start handicapping!

Oaklawn Park, Race 9: Oaklawn Handicap (G2)

There are many talented horses entered in the Oaklawn Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile prize won in the past by champions Cigar, Turkoman, Lawyer Ron, and others. In fact, seven of the eight entrants are graded stakes winners, with the lone exception being two-time listed stakes winner #1 Silver State (4-1), who enters off four straight victories for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Certainly there are many directions handicappers can go in betting the Oaklawn Handicap. I personally seem some appeal in supporting #8 Silver Prospector (10-1) as a live longshot; he won the Southwest (G3) over this track last year and enters off a strong effort in Oaklawn's Razorback Handicap (G3), where he overcame racing along a disadvantageous inside path to finish second behind next-out Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Mystic Guide.

But while Silver Prospector offers appeal for the exotics, I'll be surprised if anyone manages to defeat #2 Express Train (5-2). Under the patient handling of trainer John Shirreffs, Express Train has slowly but surely blossomed into formidable racehorse capable of competing at the Grade 1 level over distances ranging from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

Indeed, Express Train hasn't missed the exacta in five dirt starts since returning from an extended layoff last summer. He's been particularly strong at Santa Anita this winter—after finishing second behind future Saudi Cup runner-up Charlatan in the seven-furlong Malibu (G1), Express Train stretched out over 1 1/8 miles and delivered a sharp performance in the San Pasqual (G2), rallying from just off the pace to dominate by 3 1/4 lengths.

Express Train arguably ran his best race yet in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap (G1) last month. Despite pouncing to the lead arguably a hair too soon, Express Train battled on gamely to finish second by half a length against stretch-running winner Idol, who had previously come home third in the San Pasqual. Grade 1 winner Maxfield finished another 1 1/2 lengths behind Express Train in third place.

I suspect 1 1/4 miles might be pushing the limits of Express Train's stamina just a little bit, so cutting back to 1 1/8 miles for the Oaklawn Handicap should suit him perfectly. And even though Santa Anita and Oaklawn are ~1,600 miles apart, the Santa Anita Handicap has long been an important steppingstone toward Oaklawn's signature race for older horses, producing Oaklawn Handicap winners Effinex (2016), Will Take Charge (2014), Tiago (2008), Grand Reward (2005), and Kudos (2002) since the turn of the century.

In short, Express Train looms as a deserving favorite to win the Oaklawn Handicap. If he starts at 5-2, I think he'll offer much better than fair value in the wagering.

Oaklawn Park, Race 11: Apple Blossom Handicap (G1)

Who are you backing in this battle of champions? Two-time Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) winner #6 Monomoy Girl (1-1) has crossed the wire first in 15 of her 16 starts and kicked off 2021 with a comfortable victory in the Bayakoa (G3) at Oaklawn. #2 Swiss Skydiver (2-1) showed unwavering tenacity to defeat eventual Horse of the Year Authentic in the Preakness (G1) last season and recently cruised to victory in the Beholder Mile (G1) at Santa Anita.

Monomoy Girl is bound to be favored off the depth of her overall resume, and she did defeat Swiss Skydiver in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall. But Swiss Skydiver endured a tough trip that day, stumbling and injuring her hoof at the start before making a big mid-race move to reach contention. The fact she ultimately faded to finish seventh can be forgiven.

Judging strictly from their 2021 debuts, I have to side with Swiss Skydiver, who made a fantastic visual impression in the Beholder Mile. After saving ground behind a steady pace, Swiss Skydiver shifted out, pounced to the lead with complete authority, and drew off under a hand ride (with her ears pricked) to win by 2 3/4 lengths.

Swiss Skydiver is two years younger than Monomoy Girl, so although Monomoy Girl is an extraordinary mare, Swiss Skydiver might have more upside for improvement at this point. Swiss Skydiver held up remarkably well through a formidable 10-race sophomore campaign last year, and I'm excited to see what she can accomplish as a four-year-old. Plus, her 2-1 morning line odds are enticing if you consider the Apple Blossom to be a match race between two evenly matched rivals.

Santa Anita, Race 7: Allowance Optional Claiming

Out of the spotlight in a seven-furlong allowance race, #1 Ce Ce (9-5) is ready to make her 2021 debut. Winner of the Beholder Miler (G1) and Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) last season, Ce Ce has been freshened since going off form during the second half of 2020, with a fifth-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Distaff wrapping up her campaign.

Ce Ce is a class standout in Saturday's allowance test, but the seven-furlong distance is probably shorter than she prefers, and she's unlikely to be cranked for a peak effort in her first start off a five-month break. As a result, the up-and-coming Bob Baffert trainee #4 Happier (8-5) looms as a threat to steal the show.

Unbeaten and essentially unchallenged in two starts, Happier went gate-to-wire in her debut last summer, beating stablemate #6 Himiko (who came right back to win maiden and allowance races) by 3 1/4 lengths. Subsequently sent to the sidelines, Happier showed no signs of rust when returning to action in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance sprint on Feb. 14 at Santa Anita, again leading all the way to score by two lengths.

The latter effort produced strong Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, so Happier is already fast enough to give Ce Ce a run for the money. She's trained strongly for her second run of the season and retains the services of jockey Flavien Prat, who has gone 7-for-10 (70%) riding for Baffert over the last two months. What's not to like? Happier looks like a graded stakes winner in the making, and she can take down Ce Ce over Saturday's seven-furlong distance.

Bonus Sunday Play: Santa Anita, Race 8: Kona Gold (G3)

Just four horses have been entered in this 6 1/2-furlong sprint, including the Bob Baffert trainees #1 Cezanne (who sold for $3.65 million as a juvenile) and #3 Ax Man (fresh off a romping win in the Santana Mile). But without a doubt, the horse to beat is #4 Brickyard Ride, who is developing into an absolute beast of a sprinter.

Case in point? Check out Brickyard Ride's demolition of the seven-furlong San Carlos (G2) at Santa Anita last month. After carving out blazing fractions of :21.63 and :43.93, Brickyard Ride kicked away with ease to trounce his pursuers by four lengths in 1:21.51. And this wasn't a fluke, either—two starts back, Brickyard Ride wired the six-furlong Don Valpredo California Cup Sprint Stakes in much the same manner.

Unless Brickyard Ride regresses significantly in the San Carlos (which I don't anticipate), he can win for fun again and cement his status as an early favorite for the 2021 Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1).

Now it's your turn! Who do you like this weekend?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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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