Happy (Saver) Independence Day!

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

The week surrounding Independence Day is an exciting one in U.S. horse racing. Between July 2 and July 5, more than three-dozen stakes will be contested at tracks across the country, including a series of lucrative graded events at Prairie Meadows and Belmont Park.

So what are we waiting for? Let's dig in and handicap a pair of early-season Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) prep races on the agenda:


Prairie Meadows, Race 8: Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3)

At first glance, #5 Knicks Go (1-1) seems like the horse to beat in this 1 1/8-mile prize for older horses. Conditioned by high-percentage trainer Brad Cox, Knicks Go was a front-running monster during fall and early winter. In the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), he carved out blazing fractions of :21.98, :44.40, and 1:08.25 before kicking on to score by 3 1/2 lengths in the track-record time of 1:33.85. He was nearly as dominant in the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup (G1), setting splits of :22.90, :46.16, and 1:09.91 before edging away to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:47.89.

But Knicks Go's form has slipped in recent starts. He was beaten to fourth place by a wide margin in the $20 million Saudi Cup, and he was defeated again in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap (G1) last month, weakening to finish fourth after carving out a modest pace.

Knicks Go will face some challenging circumstances in the Cornhusker. The 1 1/8-mile distance is probably a hair beyond his best, and the son of Paynter will carry top weight of 126 pounds, conceding anywhere from six to 13 pounds to his half-dozen rivals. On his best day, Knicks Go would be a formidable favorite. But even-money seems like a short price to accept on a horse who needs to bounce back from a couple of sub-par efforts.

Instead, I'll oppose Knicks Go with #4 Last Judgment (4-1), who has been on a steady ascent since being claimed by Mike Maker last fall. Although he was beaten to eighth place after tracking Knicks Go's pace in the Pegasus World Cup, Last Judgment has taken several steps forward in the interim. After wiring the 1 1/16-mile Challenger S. (G3) and finishing second in the 1 1/8-mile Ghostzapper S. (G3), Last Judgment produced a career-best effort in the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special S. (G3), leading all the way to beat a bevy of graded stakes winners by 1 3/4 lengths.

Last Judgment's final time of 1:54.37 was solid, and the Pimlico Special came back fast on the speed figure scales. Brisnet, for example, assigned Last Judgment a 105 Speed rating along with triple-digit E1, E2, and Late Pace ratings. Earning triple-digit numbers in all three pace categories is relatively uncommon, and a testament to the strength Last Judgment's performance.

Throw in the fact Last Judgment will carry just 120 pounds, six fewer than Knicks Go, and I believe we have the recipe for an upset victory.


Belmont Park, Race 10: Suburban Stakes (G2)

A small but elite field has assembled for the Suburban, a historic prize contested over 1 1/4 miles on the Belmont main track. Half a dozen runners will face the starter, with #4 Mystic Guide (1-1) a slim favorite over #6 Happy Saver (6-5).

Both colts bring strong credentials to the equation. Mystic Guide is 2-for-2 this year, dominating the 1 1/16-mile Razorback Handicap (G3) before stretching out over 1 1/4 miles to nab the Dubai World Cup (G1) by 3 3/4 lengths. A beautifully bred son of Ghostzapper out of five-time Grade 1 winner Music Note, Mystic Guide hasn't run since March, but he's training forwardly for his return and should fire a sharp shot off the layoff.

But even though Mystic Guide is the "now" horse, and an early front-runner for Horse of the Year honors, I have to side with Happy Saver in the Suburban. The undefeated Todd Pletcher trainee boasts a 5-for-5 record and actually defeated Mystic Guide over this track and distance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) last fall. Despite being boxed in behind a slow pace for much of the race, Happy Saver rallied through tight quarters along the rail to edge Mystic Guide by three-quarters of a length.

Happy Saver recently kicked off his 2021 campaign with a solid allowance win racing one mile at Belmont. The distance was shorter than his best, and he likely wasn't cranked for a peak performance, so I'm expecting Happy Saver to take a big step forward in the Suburban. If he runs back to his Jockey Club Gold Cup form, he can maintain his edge over Mystic Guide and deliver a (very mild) upset on Saturday.

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


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!

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.

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