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
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
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.