Four Post-Christmas Stakes Picks

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

Merry Christmas, racing fans!

To celebrate the holiday, we have a special handicapping treat. This week, we're examining not one... not two... not three... but four of the exciting stakes slated for Dec. 26.

Without further ado, let's dig in and examine a pair of races at Fair Grounds plus a second duo at Santa Anita:

Untapable S. at Fair Grounds

Did you happen to catch the debut victory posted by #5 Cocktail Moments (3-1) at Churchill Downs last month? Any way you slice it, she was sensational.

Trainer Kenny McPeek doesn't really crank his juveniles to win first-time out, so Cocktail Moment was dismissed at 26-1 in a seven-furlong maiden special weight. At first, she seemed to be running to her odds—after an opening half mile in :45.43, she was racing eighth by 8 1/2 lengths.

But through the final three furlongs, Cocktail Moments absolutely exploded. Gaining ground rapidly around the turn and down the homestretch, Cocktail Moments went from two lengths behind at the eighth pole to 9 1/4 lengths ahead at the finish. Along the way, she sprinted the final furlong in approximately :12 flat, an excellent fraction.

Is Cocktail Moments a Kentucky Oaks (G1) contender in the making? I wouldn't be surprised. If she improves in her second start, as McPeek trainees often do, she can win the Untapable for fun under hot jockey Brian Hernandez.

Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds

I can't argue with anyone who wants to support #1 Epicenter (5-2), a speedy maiden winner racing one mile at Churchill Downs last month. The bay colt looks like a promising prospect for Winchell Thoroughbreds and trainer Steve Asmussen.

However, I prefer the chances of #3 Rocket Dawg (3-1), who hails from the high-percentage barn of Brad Cox. One area where Cox wins at a lower rate is with first-time starters; over the last three years, his win percentage stands at just 16%. But this didn't stop Rocket Dawg from dominating his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Churchill Downs—the son of juvenile champion Classic Empire rallied boldly from seventh place to win by 5 1/2 lengths over a next-out maiden winner.

Rocket Dawg finished up nicely down the homestretch, sprinting the final furlong in :12.52, and I'm optimistic he can take a step forward on Sunday. After all, Cox wins at a 27% rate with second-time starters, and at a 29% rate with horses running long for the first time. If Rocket Dawg shows improved tactical speed while stretching out in distance, he can sit a perfect trip and roll to a mild upset victory under hot jockey Florent Geroux.

La Brea S. (G1) at Santa Anita

It might seem odd to see a horse exiting a last-place finish start as the favorite in a Grade 1 race, but #4 Private Mission (8-5) isn't your typical case scenario. The speedy Bob Baffert trainee really had no chance at all to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) at Del Mar last month—how could she possibly survive dueling for the lead through intense fractions of :21.84, :44.97, and 1:09.70?

The pace of the Breeders' Cup Distaff was so intense that it completely burned out all the speed horses and allowed deep closers to run 1-2-3-4-5. Under the circumstances, it seems logical to forgive Private Mission's defeat and expect a rebound in the Malibu.

The rest of Private Mission's form lines are encouraging. Prior to the Distaff, she had crushed fellow sophomores in the one-mile Torrey Pines S. (G3) and conquered older rivals in the 1 1/16-mile Zenyatta S. (G2). She's trained strongly since the Breeders' Cup and retains the services of hot jockey Flavien Prat, so Private Mission should have every chance to secure her first Grade 1 win on Sunday.

Malibu S. (G1) at Santa Anita

There are several promising and accomplished horses entered in the Malibu, including two-time Grade 1 winner #4 Dr. Schivel (5-2) and the undefeated #7 Triple Tap (5-1). But if #5 Flightline (4-5) produces a peak performance, the rest might be running for second place.

Truthfully, there's no telling how talented Flightline might be. The $1 million auction acquisition smashed his Apr. 24 debut sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita, carving out fast fractions before powering away to win by 13 1/4 lengths. But he was even more impressive in a Sept. 5 allowance optional claimer over the same distance at Del Mar, tracking the early tempo before seizing command to win by 12 3/4 lengths.

Along the way, Flightline has posted powerful speed figures. He paired 105 Beyer and Brisnet numbers in his debut, then threw down a 114 Beyer and a 117 Brisnet in his allowance win. Flightline has been carefully handled so far, and the Malibu will mark his stiffest test to date. But he's been training like a monster and, indeed, might be a monster in the making. With Flavien Prat aboard, Flightline is the runner to beat even while stepping up in class.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the major post-Christmas 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! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs