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 www.theturfboard.com.