3 Picks to Kick Off February

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

Welcome to February, everyone! The first weekend of the month is an exciting one with 14 graded stakes slated to take place across the United States.

Let's highlight three of the most interesting races on the agenda, including a pair of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers.

Holy Bull S. (G3) at Gulfstream Park

As I've noted in the past on Unlocking Winners, the Holy Bull isn't very kind to highly regarded graded stakes types. Since 2012, such standout juveniles as Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, Classic Empire, Enticed, Frosted, and Maximus Mischief have all been defeated at odds of 2-1 or less when kicking off their sophomore campaigns in the Holy Bull.

Instead, the Holy Bull tends to favor up-and-comers. Not sprinters, typically, but horses who have run at least one mile or farther. Since the Holy Bull was lengthened to 1 1/16 miles in 2013, eight of the nine winners had previously contested a race over at least one mile.

With these trends in mind, we'll take a somewhat creative approach to handicapping the Holy Bull. We'll start by opposing Remsen S. (G2) winner #2 Mo Donegal (3-1), Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) runner-up #6 Tiz the Bomb (5-1), and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) third-place finisher #9 Giant Game (7-2). All three achieved strong success at age two, but history suggests they're likely to be overbet in the Holy Bull.

Instead, I'll favor established Gulfstream star #4 Simplification (4-1). The son of Not This Time has shown flashes of brilliance across four starts, and he couldn't have been sharper in the one-mile Mucho Macho Man S. at Gulfstream on New Year's Day. After barreling to the lead through fractions of :23.70, :45.81, and 1:09.96 (quick since the run-up distance was only five feet), Simplification bounced away to win by four lengths under a vigorous hand ride.

There isn't a ton of speed in the Holy Bull field, so Simplification should have every opportunity to shake loose on an uncontested lead. From there, he may prove impossible to run down.

Las Virgenes S. (G3) at Santa Anita

The most accomplished filly in this one-mile Road to the Kentucky Oaks qualifier is #5 Eda, a determined winner of the Starlet S. (G1) at Los Alamitos two months ago. The Bob Baffert-trained filly was always prominent and dug deep when passed in midstretch to battle back and win by half a length.

But Eda benefited from tracking (and then setting) a slow pace in the Starlet, so I'm not fully convinced running long is her strong suit. Her sharpest efforts have come sprinting, so I'll try to beat Eda with her up-and-coming stablemate #3 Adare Manor.

Adare Manor lost her first two starts sprinting, but she kept good company along the way and subsequently elevated her game to a new level in a one-mile maiden special weight on Jan. 7 at Santa Anita. Leading all the way under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, Adare Manor threw down excellent closing fractions (final two furlongs in :11.97 and :12.51) to roar away and win by 12 lengths in the quick time of 1:36.66.

Velazquez will retain the mount on Sunday, a noteworthy assignment since Velazquez and Baffert have gone 12-for-20 (60%) teaming up together over the last two months. If Adare Manor repeats her maiden victory in the Las Virgenes, she'll be tough to run down.

Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at Santa Anita

Assuming Adare Manor wins the Las Virgenes, Baffert and Velazquez will have a chance to nab a graded stakes double courtesy of #1 Messier in the Robert B. Lewis.

Messier showed plenty of promise against graded stakes company during the fall, defeating future San Vicente S. (G2) winner Forbidden Kingdom by 3 1/2 lengths in the Bob Hope S. (G3) before finishing second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), beaten only a length by the promising Slow Down Andy.

Slow Down Andy has opted to skip the Robert B. Lewis, so Messier looms as the runner to beat on Sunday. He'll face only four rivals, and he's clearly the fastest entrant in terms of Brisnet Speed ratings. Messier wore blinkers in the Los Alamitos Futurity, but he'll drop them for the Lewis, hopefully setting the stage for a relaxed trip. Throw in the fact he's been training sharply at Santa Anita, and Messier looks difficult to deny on Sunday.

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


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