Race 6: Grade 1 TVG Acorn
The TVG Acorn was placed at the front of the Pick 6 sequence, and this would appear to be at least partially due to the presence of #2 Turbulent Descent. The daughter of Congrats is 5 for 6 lifetime, losing only to Zazu last February (whom she promptly returned to defeat next out). She won’t offer much value at 3/5, but she looks like a worthy favorite and would figure to be very tough to defeat in this race. She’ll be a single on many Pick 6 tickets and for good reason. Fellow handicapper Derek Simon has made a few counterpoints regarding the Acorn that are worth checking out, so for those of us singling on the heavy chalk we may find ourselves in Dire Straits attempting to get our money from nothing and our bets for free.
#4 It’s Tricky could be an interesting choice, assuming you are comfortable drawing a line through that last effort in the Gulfstream Oaks. I think she may be a better horse than either #1 Her Smile or #3 Savvy Supreme, even if the latter can control things from the front end. All of this sets up what appears to be a very chalky opening to the stakes exotics for the day, so why not spice things up a bit by adding in the longshot of the field underneath at 10/1? #5 Victoria’s Wildcat is only a neck away from reeling off 4 straight wins since switching to the dirt, and has progressed through the Grade 3 ranks in the process. She’s improving, has worked well, and at 10/1 I think she’s worth a shot in the underneath slots.
Race 7: Grade 2 True North Handicap
If (like me) you consider chestnuts to be the most striking of thoroughbreds, the Grade 2 True North is the race for you with 6 of 8 horses sporting the dapper reddish-brown hue. The formidable coupled entry of Anthony Dutrow runners breaking from the inside and outside (chestnuts both) have earned slight morning line favoritism at 2/1 and would appear to be logical horses you’d have to cover on the exotics. #1 D’funnybone is best going another furlong, and #1A This Ones For Phil, while very fast, is lightly raced in the last year and a half. I don’t think they can be considered slam dunks and I’ll make an attempt to beat them in my exacta/trifecta plays.
#3 Trappe Shot (also a chestnut) for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is my top choice here. The son of Tapit was 2nd in the G1 Haskell last summer while routing, and has been dangerous on this track and at the distance. I still think he could have a future going 2 turns as well, but for now the connections seem content on sprinting. I’ll also take a chance with multiple G3 winner #5 Calibrachoa (not a chestnut) on top in search of slightly greater value. He’s won four straight before the recent break but will have to bring his best to win this. #2 Wildcat Brief (another chestnut) could round things out rolling late for and underneath placement.
Race 7: Grade 2 Woody Stephens
Looking over the Woody Stephens field, I couldn’t help but remember the line in Ghostbusters just before the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbered his way on screen. ”The traveller has been chosen!” That would seem to be a fitting euphemism for this year’s race, given the names of two logical win candidates in this field. Unfortunately, they are the top choices on the morning line.
#1 Travellin Man cuts back to the 7 furlong distance that he prevailed at in the G2 Swale. Of particular interest for this race is his propensity to finish ahead of #6 Little Drama in two of his recent starts (though also note he was defeated by #7 J J’s Lucky Train last out).
James Jerkens will send out #5 Arch Traveller, who made a significant speed figure improvement in his last start over the Belmont dirt. Bounce players may be looking for a regression, but the son of Sky Mesa has won his last three races that did not include the likes of Dialed In or Shackleford. We’ll go ahead and make him top selection for now, but will keep a close eye on the tote board to see which travel-themed entry gives us the best value.
As for #6 Little Drama, like the name implies he is capable of making things interesting, but he seems more likely to settle for an underneath placement. A horse that might be being overlooked here is the outside runner #7 J J’s Lucky Train. As previously noted , he’s finished ahead of the favorite in the last effort, and has also beaten another of today’s rivals, #2 Justin Phillip (who is still seeking his first stakes victory). I’ll be adding this one to my exotics and hoping for a possible price.
Pick 4 (Races 8 through 11): 1,5,7/1,2,5/4,7 /1,5,6,9,12
Race 9: Grade 1 Just A Game
Outside of the contentious feature race of the day, the Just A Game may be the best betting race of the sequence. It’s certainly among the most difficult to decipher. Many times handicappers will search for a key race to serve as a barometer when measuring closely ranked contenders. While we don’t have that here, we do have what might be considered a key horse, as 6 of the 9 runners show a recent tilt against Never Retreat, with varying degrees of success.
Morning line favoritism has been awarded to #2 Aviate, who skipped over the Churchill surface on Derby day to win her first U.S. race (losing her U.S. debut to, you guessed it, Never Retreat). The Churchill turf was listed as firm that day, but I think there was a little give in the ground and this daughter of Dansili would likely enjoy a little moisture if the heavens decide to open up. She has trained over the Belmont turf within the last week and certainly is a serious contender you have to respect in the exotics, but as far as single race wagers go this race looks competitive enough to try and beat her at a price.
#1 Gypsy’s Warning heads out for trainer Graham Motion after a very disappointing 7th place finish in the G2 Jenny Wiley in mid-April. Perhaps she just wasn’t fond of the Keeneland grass? If you draw a line through that race, she’s a Grade 1 winner at the mile distance, although that was out at Hollywood. A win for Graham Motion here would be totally mag (gypsy for magnificent), and 5/1 is a fair price in my opinion. The rest of the field has taken turns beating each other and competing with Never Retreat, making them very difficult to separate beyond these top two.
I thought #5 Strike The Bell was a little interesting here at 12/1 with the always dangerous Ramon Dominguez aboard. The daughter of Mizzen Mast seems to run her best at the mile distance and seems to do okay on the Belmont turf. #6 Fantasia and #4 C.S. Silk are also logical contenders at decent odds. #3 Amen Hallelujah is a near lock to hit the board, but I can’t play to her win as she hasn’t prevailed since last February.
Exacta: 1,2,5 (box)
Race 10: Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap
There’s a decidedly royal theme when looking over the field for the The Manhattan – which is fitting for a race marking the return of the U.S. turf king #4 Gio Ponti. Gio will have to overcome the much ballyhooed Dubai bounce to prevail, but the 6/5 morning line favorite has been stateside for a while now showing 4 local works over the Belmont turf. He’s thrived here before, winning 5 races and finishing in the exacta in all 8 attempts. Just keep in mind that stranger things have happened as Gio lost this race last year to stablemate Winchester in a similar setup (prompting yours truly to declare Winchester “a repeater”).
To be fair, the rest of the field doesn’t look particularly difficult to overcome. We don’t have a contender coming in with form quite like Winchester did last year, but you may want to think about adding in #7 Prince Will I Am as a logical contender for top honors. The son of Victory Gallop has quietly had a decent 2011 campaign with a victory at the G2 level and a respectable 5th in the G1 Turf Classic.
The other contenders that appear to have an outside chance include #6 Viscount Nelson, who would be more attractive to me if he hadn’t raced in Ireland as recently as 6/3, and #3 Windward Islands who appears to be a logical horse to use underneath in the exotics and could be a Falklands style thorn in the side of the other royals. Lastly, for the feel-good story of the year, I’ll try to find a way to use #2 Bold Hawk on the bottom of my tickets.
Race 11: G1 Belmont Stakes
And down the stretch we come. Every year it seems the end of the Triple Crown season gets here faster than before. What a season it’s been for bettors as well. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford lighting up the tote board in the Derby and Preakness? Favorites failing in both legs so far? One would expect that trend may continue here in the final 2 furlongs of the Belmont – a race which has not been particularly kind to Derby and/or Preakness winners in recent history. That said, I do believe that #9 Animal Kingdom and #12 Shackleford have established themselves as the cream of the crop thus far. Animal Kingdom in particular should get the Belmont distance without any trouble, but he’s going to need to be a bit closer up than he was in the Preakness as the Belmont does not traditionally setup well for a late closer. Somewhere around midpack would be ideal, I would think.
Shack-attack drew fairly poorly to the outside, which means he may have to run a step or two quicker towards the first turn than they’d prefer. His best chance would be to get clear and then try to slow things down, I would think. As for the “world’s biggest Shackleford fan” here at home with me (my wife)? She thinks he doesn’t have a good chance to win here due to the distance, and I’d tend to agree with her. I’m still going to cover him in the exotics, but I’m definitely leaning elsewhere with my top selections. As for the Animal? Big chance – but the odds are too low to get excited about.
Looking elsewhere in the field, I thought #1 Master of Hounds was a logical horse to consider adding in at a square price of 10/1 on the morning line. He finished respectably in the Derby (5th) and like the favorite should be able to handle the distance without too much difficulty. I haven’t heard much about him this week though, and coupled with Animal Kingdom would make my selections a tad closer-heavy for the moment.
#6 Nehro is a fairly obvious contender to include on my plays. To be honest, I’d probably make the fiddling emperor top choice if not for slight concerns I have about the distance and with respect to jockey Cory Nakatani’s ability to get a prime trip out of him. That move he made in the Derby to challenge Shackleford looked like it was going to win the day, and a similar trip gets him first jump on Shackleford as the field enters the stretch, which should give him a big shot. There’s not much value to be had though at 4/1.
I’m also going to add in #5 Brilliant Speed as the bomber play for my tickets. Admittedly it’s a wing and a prayer, but I do love me some Dynaformers and I’d like to see trainer Tom Albertrani take a Triple Crown race like I thought he might do with Odysseus last year. Hopefully, as has been rumored, he’ll be closer up early on and not just another late running closer in my selections.
Obviously then, if recent history is any indication, your likely winners will be the horses I’m not playing, in particular #2 Stay Thirsty, #4 Santiva, or #10 Mucho Macho Man. I could make a case for these guys as well, but you know the drill – can’t pick ‘em all.
Exacta/Superfecta: 1,5,6,9,12 (box)