As November goes on and snowstorms blow across the country, we draw near the end of the turf racing season. However, this weekend Churchill hopes to get a little more in with the Grade 3 River City Handicap, a mile and an eighth on the grass for horses aged three and above.
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 3 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.
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 tried in 2016, but finished a length shy of Thatcher Street after a wide journey.
Selections are made for turf only. Edited Saturday, November 17 to account for the scratches of MASTER MERION, POSTULATION, and OSCAR NOMINATED.
Race 10: River City Handicap (G3), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the turf, post time 5:36pm EST
As expected, this race will be run on the turf, and the turf is rated yielding.
We were originally going to take a shot with MASTER MERION here, but given that he scratched, we turn our eyes to the pair that trainer Brad Cox has in this race. Both have something to recommend them. However, on the likely pace scenario, BIG CHANGES appeals just a bit more: he is speed in a short field without a lot of it. This is a class test -- the consistent gelding has won five in a row, but none of those starts came in graded company. Still, that last-up victory came in a stakes-quality allowance at Keeneland, suggesting he is good enough to make the jump. BIG CHANGES also has form over the course; in three tries at Churchill, he has a win and two other money finishes, with both of those underneath shares at Churchill coming in $80K/N3X races going the same mile and an eighth distance as today. The one question is the rider, since Florent Geroux defects to the other Brad Cox, MR. MISUNDERSTOOD. But, BIG CHANGES does engage Julien Leparoux to ride -- a solid speed rider, and a 20% rider at Churchill. In short, BIG CHANGES has a lot to like for a horse who should get such a favourable setup.
MR. MISUNDERSTOOD, the likely shorter-priced entrant from the Brad Cox barn, does deserve consideration. Toss the last -- as dependable as he is, he isn't a Grade 1 horse, and the Shadwell Turf Mile was just a little too tough. Now, he returns to a track he loves -- MR. MISUNDERSTOOD is a perfect three-for-three at Churchill Downs -- over a distance he has proven he can stay. He keeps regular rider Florent Geroux. He doesn't have to drop back as far as he did in the Shadwell Turf Mile, something that helps his case here. The biggest thing about MR. MISUNDERSTOOD? His best races don't loom over the rest of the field the way they ought to in order to make him attractive as such a heavy favourite. But, his usual day at the office does make him a win candidate, making him the very definition of a defensive use.
Trainer Mike Maker originally entered a pair, but with the scratch of OSCAR NOMINATED, he is left with the one we liked a little better, anyway: SIR DUDLEY DIGGES. When last seen, the son of Gio Ponti finished third behind Arklow in the Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Cup. Getting beaten a length and a quarter by Arklow is looking like a pretty good form line in retrospect: since then Arklow won the Kentucky Turf Cup (G3), finished second in the Sycamore, and rounded out the superfecta in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). SIR DUDLEY DIGGES, on the other hand, has rested since that August outing. He is a horse who typically comes back sharp first time off a lay. He also loves Churchill -- he is a winner in three of four starts over the course, including a top-shelf allowance over yielding going last fall. If SIR DUDLEY DIGGES comes back with one of his best outings, he could capture the graded stakes success that has eluded him for so long.
#5 BIG CHANGES (5/1)
#3 MR. MISUNDERSTOOD (8/5)
#8 SIR DUDLEY DIGGES (8/1)
Longshot: With the field down to five, the longshot writer's original choice of SIR DUDLEY DIGGES was promoted to the big leagues.
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