US Stakes Racing Preview

After a quietish last weekend, we are back with some blockbuster fare with the two meetings at Santa Anita and Tampa Bay where there is some serious money and kudos up for grabs.

Santa Anita, weather partly sunny, going fast on the dirt and good on the turf

Top of the bill at today’s meet is the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap (‘The Big Cap’) over 1 ¼ miles, worth a cool $1m. There was a time when a race in March with a $1m purse would command the strongest of fields. However, times change and the call of the $10m World Cup in Dubai has denuded this race of equine stars such as California Chrome and Hoppertunity.

Hence the race will be lacking in star quality with little Grade 1 winning form on view. Effinex, the Florida shipper is the class of the race. He finished 2015 with a Grade 1 win in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and is a specialist at this 10 furlong trip. The only fly in his ointment is that he hasn’t raced since the Clark Handicap and 20 years of history says that no horse has won The Big Cap in his first race of the year.

This may be the year to break that hoodoo as the opposition is short on quality at the highest level. Second favorite Imperative has not placed in his last six Grade 1 starts and Donworth has not yet won a Grade 2 event. Effinex has been impressing in his workouts and will be ably assisted by Mike Smith, who has won the last three renewals of the big race. It will be interesting to see how the punters play this race and Effinex may go off a very short-priced favorite. You keep coming back to those nagging questions: is Effinex fully fit for this race and does he need to be? I couldn’t put you off backing him but the price may not represent value.

The other graded stakes races on the card are definitely not short on quality and the other Grade 1 race on the card, The Frank E Kilroe Mile on the turf, looks a cracking contest. Seven horses face the starter and all but one have plausible chances. Many eyes will be on the enigmatic Bolo, who is a notoriously slow starter but can produce a tremendous finishing burst of speed such as he showed when winning the Arcadia Stakes over this track and trip in February.

That deeply impressive performance earned him a Beyer of 106 but he is going to need something very similar if he is going to prevail today. Then there is the concern that his Arcadia win came after a long layoff and horses can perform poorly in their second race after such a long absence (known as “the bounce”). The opposition includes Bal a Bali (Brazilian Triple Crown winner in 2014), Midnight Storm (winner of the Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar) and Om, winner of the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile at Santa Anita on Boxing Day.

This looks a great race and I am going to sit on the fence and enjoy the view. Let’s hope there is a good pace (likely) and there are no hard luck stories.

The San Felipe Stakes gives the classic generation a chance to shine. This $400k Grade 2 contest over a mile and a sixteenth looks a really fascinating contest. This is a significant Kentucky Derby trial with 50 points to the winner. With the scratching of Cupid (rerouted to the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn next weekend), just 6 horses will face the starter and all of them will have their supporters.

Exaggerator (ML 5/2) would have almost flawless form figures if it weren’t for Nyquist so supporters will be pleased to see that horse is headed for the Florida Derby. This son of Curlin is bred to improve with age and this step up to the extended mile. The ML favorite at 2/1 is Mor Spirit who beat 2 of today’s opposition (Uncle Lino and I Will Score) on worse terms than he does today. He can get a bit edgy in the preliminaries and will, therefore, be wearing earplugs although these will be removed before the off.

An interesting runner is Smokey Image, who is unbeaten in six starts. This race represents a huge step up in class into open company but he has done everything so easily so far and could turn out to be a top class individual.

Tampa Bay Downs, weather cloudy with 10% chance of rain, going dirt – fast and turf – firm

The Tampa Bay Derby (Race 11 – off at 5.24 Eastern Time) tops the card with a purse of $350k for this Grade 2 event over a mile and a sixteenth. Ten runners line up for this significant Kentucky Derby trial, worth 50 points to the winner.

One thing is for sure, with the likes of Awesome Banner, Morning Fire and Riker in the field, there will be plenty of pace on and the race should suit a closer with stamina. The one who is expected to benefit is the ML favorite, Brody’s Cause.

Brody’s Cause hasn’t raced since an excellent third to the great Nyquist in the Breeders Cup Juvenile at the end of October. However, he has been pleasing trainer Dale Romans with his work so lack of fitness shouldn’t be a problem. If he has trained on, he looks the most likely winner and is the only horse in the race with a Grade 1 win to his name.

The 3 year old fillies get a chance to strut their stuff in the Florida Oaks a Grade 3 race over a mile and a sixteenth of the turf track. Chad Brown, who had such a good time of it last week, saddles one of the likely favorites in Ava’s Kitten. She is improving with every run and her Beyer figures are solidly better than most of her opponents. The doubt is the trip as she has lost both her attempts at this distance. They were,however, early on in her career and she will no doubt have strengthened up over time.

The value bet may be Gamble’s Ghost. This daughter of Ghostzapper is extremely consistent and has never been out of the first two in all her four starts. She stays well and her run behind Catch a Glimpse at Woodbine earned her a Beyer of 81 and Catch a Glimpse went on to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

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