Thanksgiving weekend always offers a feast of top-notch racing, and Picks and Ponderings visits several of the highlights. Thursday's graded action at Churchill Downs is replete with locals, so we focus there to start the weekend. Friday's action finds its anchor in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs; Saturday's lone Grade I is the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. We preview both in separate pieces.
The Thanksgiving card at Churchill Downs features a pair of nine-furlong stakes races which take their names from nicknames for Louisville, Kentucky. Dirt distaffers contest the Falls City Handicap (GII); open-company lawnmowers have the River City Handicap (GIII).
Both of these graded stakes at Churchill feature familiar faces from the Chicago circuit. The Falls City attracted Grade I placed Illinois-bred Streamline, as well as locally-based No Fault of Mine. No Fault of Mine contested the Falls City last year as well; she finished sixth. In the River City Handicap, multiple Grade I winning Illinois-bred The Pizza Man makes his first start since a fourth-place finish in the Canadian International (GI). The Pizza Man is the highweight, at 124 pounds. Another Illinois-bred, last-out allowance winner Coco Mon, sits first on the also-eligible list.
Selections in the River City Handicap are for turf only. Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Edited Tuesday, November 22 to add morning lines. Edited, Thursday, November 24 to account for scratches of ARE YOU KIDDING ME, ALLIED AIR RAID, and GRANNY'S KITTEN from the River City.
Thursday, November 24 - Churchill Downs
Race 10: Falls City Handicap (GII), three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 3:53pm EST
Churchill Downs has hosted the Falls City Handicap for most of the racetrack's history. Inaugurated in 1875, the Falls City has been contested every year since except for 1878-1881, 1893-1909, and 1928-1940. It has been run at its current distance since 1982. A Grade III from 1976 through 2001, it has since held its Grade II designation.
Two former Illinois stakes namesakes won the Falls City. The only horse to win the race three times, Indian Maid (1959, 1960, 1961), hailed from the barn of local trainer Mary Keim. Indian Maid won local stakes races including the Hawthorne Juvenile Handicap (1958), the Land of Lincoln Stakes (1958), the Yo Tambien Handicap (1959, 1960), the Beverly Handicap (1960), and the Modesty Handicap (1960, 1961). Indian Maid also lent her name to a filly and mare turf route stakes at Hawthorne, last contested in 2013. Bungalow, bred in Illinois and campaigned by Harvey Vanier, concluded her career with a win in the 1992 Falls City Handicap. Fairmount hosted a stakes race in Bungalow's name, a dirt route for distaffers bred in the Land of Lincoln. Like the Indian Maid Handicap, the Bungalow Handicap last graced the racing schedule in 2013.
STREAMLINE should take a step forward here. Though she was a distant third in an allowance on November 5, that was her first start since April, and it was just a six-furlong sprint. It screamed prep. She handled the surface well enough, and rallied for third. This race, on the other hand, puts STREAMLINE back in her two-turn element. A return to her Oaklawn form second off the lay puts her right in range with what she needs here, and her running style should have her close enough to a pace that should not be especially hot. Finally, she has a pair of works since that allowance return, including a four-furlong bullet on November 20.
The one question here is her rider; she loses regular pilot Chris Landeros to SWEETGRASS. But, Landeros also regularly rides that filly, and rides first call for her trainer Ian Wilkes. Besides, the swap to Joe Rocco should be fine; Rocco has been firing at 16% on the Churchill meet.
GO MAGGIE GO takes her first tilt against older company here. Though she still has to prove she can compete with her elders, and will be coming off a three-month lay, several factors make this a good spot. GO MAGGIE GO has enough early pace to be a factor in a race with no clearly controlling speed, and she has shown the ability to fight on the front or rally from a few lengths back. She also has strong form at a mile and an eighth: a front-end win in the Black Eyed Susan (GII), and a strong, troubled fourth in the Kentucky Oaks (GI). The latter suggests she can handle the course at Churchill. Though she loses regular rider Luis Saez (he stays at Aqueduct), Robby Albarado takes the call. Albarado has won at a 15% clip this Churchill meet, and has ridden frequently and well for trainer Dale Romans.
LADY FOG HORN comes here after a solid summer against fellow Indiana-breds. The waters are deeper here. But, she did well the last time trainer Anthony Granitz notched her up into graded company; last year, she was second in the Cardinal Handicap (GIII). That came on turf, but her dirt form competes against this set. A mile and an eighth on dirt is a question, as LADY FOG HORN has only gone up to a mile and a sixteenth on the main. However, she did handle nine furlongs over yielding turf last year in the Cardinal, suggesting some stamina. LADY FOG HORN is consistent, in form, and well primed for this class rise.
#11 STREAMLINE (8/1)
#8 GO MAGGIE GO (8/5)
#3 LADY FOG HORN (15/1)
Longshot: #7 ROMANTIC VISION (20/1) comes in off a surprise allowance victory at Keeneland last time out. She has class to prove here, as two starts back she was a well-beaten fifth in the Locust Grove (GIII). However, she has every reason to take a step forward here. ROMANTIC VISION stretches out to a mile and an eighth for the first time in her career here. Given that she is by crack nine-furlong sire Lemon Drop Kid out of a Giant's Causeway mare, there is every indication that she can find her best with this step up in trip. ROMANTIC VISION should also be stalking close to the pace, a style that should help here. She likes Churchill, having hit the board in three of four tries over the course. Finally, trainer Rusty Arnold has been winning at a 36% clip this Churchill meet.
Race 11: River City Handicap (GIII), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the turf, post time 4:22pm EST
The River City Handicap has been run since 1978, though it has not always been a turf route. It began as a six-furlong dirt sprint. In 1982, it was stretched out to a mile on the main track. 1987 saw the race moved to a mile and a sixteenth on turf; in 1998, it was stretched to its current distance of a mile and an eighth. The River City Handicap first earned a Grade III rating in 1996, and has maintained that designation ever since.
Several winners of the River City Handicap also made their mark on the Chicago circuit. Three-time Arlington Handicap winner Rahystrada also counts the 2009 River City Handicap among his triumphs.
The durable Rahystrada wins his third Arlington Handicap in 2013. His graded stakes debut came in the 2009 River City Handicap, which he won.
Another Arlington Handicap winner, Louis Goldfine trainee Wild Event, also won the River City in 1998. Other local graded stakes winners to have also won the River City include Banner Bob (1985), Taylor's Special (1987), and Spending Record (1991). Longtime local trainer Harvey Vanier won the River City in 1995 with his Illinois-bred gelding Homing Pigeon, a multiple stakes winner at Arlington and Hawthorne as well. To date, Homing Pigeon is the only Illinois-bred to have won the River City. THE PIZZA MAN and COCO MON aspire to join him this year.
The River City Handicap drew an overflow field -- 14, plus two also eligible horses -- to contend for a $100,000 purse and Grade III glory. With three scratches, both AE horses draw in; the Longshot section notes one who belongs on tickets at a big price.
On top, however, this space has a solid yet unsexy strategy. It took serious mental gymnastics to find a reason to beat favoured THE PIZZA MAN. Sometimes the best horse wins, and this space could not find a good enough reason to get cute. THE PIZZA MAN takes a class drop here from two excellent outings at Woodbine. The field here pales in comparison to that of the Canadian International (GI - CAN), where THE PIZZA MAN finished a troubled yet gritty fourth. Though so many of his races last year and even early this year had him closing from the clouds, in Canada he showed that he still has the versatility to stalk the pace and win that way. He can run a good race at Churchill, as he showed in the Opening Verse last year. Wednesday's rain will not hurt him -- in fact, it helps this horse who has shown such classy form over grass with give. Between the class drop and the avoidance of another cross-country ship (which he could have done, to defend his Hollywood Turf Cup title), this spot screams prudence. THE PIZZA MAN will be difficult to beat.
In two tries over the Churchill grass, PLEUVEN has a Grade II win and a stakes-level second. He will be forward, but does not need the lead; this style stands to suit the pace scenario. Though PLEUVEN has not raced since early October, he runs well fresh. And, trainer Philip Sims is shrewd when placing horses in graded stakes: among his last ten graded starters three have won, and nine have hit the board.
THATCHER STREET has some class to prove, but he always seems to find his best at Churchill Downs. In six tries over the course, he has three wins and has never missed the board. That includes some graded form: he was second behind Heart to Heart in last year's River City, and third behind PLEUVEN and Kasaqui in this year's Wise Dan (GII). THATCHER STREET also beat PLEUVEN in the Opening Verse at Churchill in May. That came over ground rated good, a positive point given the rain in the forecast. He will have to bring his best to get a piece of this. But, he has shown form that contends and his 25-4-7-8 record displays consistency.
#7 THE PIZZA MAN (5/2)
#12 PLEUVEN (9/2)
#3 THATCHER STREET (12/1)
Longshot: This space hoped for at least one scratch in order to let #15 COCO MON (30/1) into the field, and we got our wish. Do not leave him off your tickets. The six-year-old gelding is in career form this year, and would come into the River City off a decisive allowance victory over the Churchill grass. With rain in the forecast on Wednesday, there will be give in the ground. COCO MON can run over ground with give, and finished a solid second behind Cammack in an Arlington allowance over yielding turf in July. No one could touch Cammack at Arlington this summer. The River City will be a class test for COCO MON should he draw in. But, his pace versatility, speed, and strong last-out effort over the course make him a contender at a price.