Come May, racing in New York shifts to Belmont Park. However, one more weekend remains in the Aqueduct meet. The final graded stakes this spring at the Big A is the Excelsior Stakes (GIII), a 1 1/4 mile race for the handicap division. The Excelsior, first run at Jamaica Racetrack in 1903, will be contested for the 103rd time this year. It takes its name not from a racehorse, but from the motto of the State of New York: Excelsior. Upward, ever upward.
Two years ago, Last Gunfighter's career moved ever upward as a result of this race. He made his first career graded stakes start in the 2013 Excelsior; he won it. Later that same year, he travelled to Hawthorne and annexed his third career graded race, the Hawthorne Gold Cup (GII). Red Rifle, last year's Hawthorne Gold Cup winner, will attempt to become the second horse to win both of those races. He will not be the only horse from the 2014 Hawthorne Gold Cup field to contest this year's Excelsior. Effinex, fourth in the race last year, also sees the starter at Aqueduct on Saturday. In addition to that pair from the Hawthorne Gold Cup, the field contains a third horse who has run locally in a graded stakes race: Stormin Monarcho finished third in the 2012 Arlington-Washington Futurity.
Last Gunfighter, in his first career graded stakes attempt, wins the 2013 Excelsior Stakes.
In addition to the racing action in New York, Picks and Ponderings also visits both Hawthorne and Santa Anita. The meet at 35th and Cicero closes this weekend, and Saturday's card features the last two stakes races of the meet. Paul Mazur previews both of those, the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap and the Peach of It Handicap. Paul also checks in with the older turf route division out west to preview the Last Tycoon Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita.
Race 8: Excelsior Stakes (GIII), four-year-olds and up, one and one fourth miles on the Aqueduct dirt, post time 4:57pm EDT
WICKED STRONG will go off heavily favoured here, and for good reason. Though he is winless in three starts at a mile and a quarter, that career line is better than it looks. He clipped heels in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished a respectable and late-moving fourth out of 19 in the Kentucky Derby last year. In the only "normal" mile and a quarter race he has entered (to the extent such things exist in American dirt racing, of course...), he finished second beaten just a nose by stablemate V. E. Day in the Travers. He has been a different and improved horse since adding blinkers before the Jim Dandy. Most importantly, and most positively for his chances here, he has become more forwardly placed with the blinkers.
This will be important, as RED RIFLE is the only one-way speed. COUSIN STEPHEN should be close, but even often rates a bit early, and STORMIN MONARCHO could be pressing as well. WICKED STRONG ran a bang-up fourth beaten just a length by Honor Code last out, in his first race since September. He should be fitter here, but tough to beat.
However, COUSIN STEPHEN intrigues at a likely long price. He has headed up the Chad Brown Parx Brigade, and has made three of his four career wins at the Philadelphia oval. However, the one time he has been able to get the job done on the road, it came in his only try to date on the Aqueduct main. He won a maiden special weight at a mile and an eighth. Though RED RIFLE does have a win at a mile and a quarter and COUSIN STEPHEN has never started past nine furlongs, RED RIFLE will not likely stay the distance with more pressure than he had in the Hawthorne Gold Cup last year. COUSIN STEPHEN has improved late in his three-year-old year and into this year, comes here third off the lay, and trainer Chad Brown is 33% (and positive ROI) third off. He will be a price, and worth a very long look on the return to going long at Aqueduct.
Looking farther off the pace, there are a few interesting prospects. MICROMANAGE in good form would be formidable here, and does not have to be that far off. However, his recent form has been dodgy, and he will take too much money given his past distance form and the Pletcher/Repole connections. EFFINEX will go off at a long price, and has run a decent race at a mile and a quarter already. However, he likely will not get enough pace to run into. Jimmy Jerkens' trainer statistics are strong in graded stakes (29%) and second off the lay (32%), but those apply to stablemate WICKED STRONG as well, and he is both better proven and better set in the pace. NORTH SLOPE, however, looks intriguing. He runs for the red-hot Kieran McLaughlin barn, which wins on dirt 24% of the time. NORTH SLOPE himself has spent most of his career on the grass, but has hit the board in five of six career starts on dirt. He finished a wide third behind TURCO BRAVO and COUSIN STEPHEN last out, and has won at a mile and a quarter on grass. In terms of pace, NORTH SLOPE also looks well-set in his versatility. Though he is no speed horse, he has run well stalking close to the pace or closing from farther back. He has the tools, he has been in good form lately, and trying him in graded company here looks like a shrewd move by McLaughlin.
#5 COUSIN STEPHEN (8/1)
#7 WICKED STRONG (1/1)
#4 NORTH SLOPE (5/1)
Longshot: #8 TURCO BRAVO (10/1) won the nine-furlong Stymie Stakes on the Aqueduct inner last out, defeating a field that included COUSIN STEPHEN, NORTH SLOPE, and MICROMANAGE. He has been keeping stakes company since shipping to the States from Chile, though this will be his first graded try in North America. He should be able to stay within a couple of lengths of the early pace, and come running furiously late. His recent late pace figures compare favourably with the field, suggesting he should be right there if a frontrunner like COUSIN STEPHEN or RED RIFLE tires. The fact that he never finished worse than second in three tries at this distance in Chile increases his appeal; though these foes may be tougher, he has shown good enough form in America to have a shot.
Video courtesy of the New York Racing Association.
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