By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Merry Christmas, racing
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
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
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
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
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
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.