Arlington has mostly caught its breath after Ride to the Million Day last Saturday — good news, since the stakes season continues unabated with this Saturday's pair of state-bred turf stakes for older horses.
Weather is the question for Saturday, since the races have been off the turf both Thursday and Friday after torrential rains, and the hot, humid air has given the grass little chance to dry out. So, we'll shed some light on the races for both turf and polytrack, since at this point, both of those results appear within the realm of possibility.
Arlington Park: Saturday, July 20
Race 7: Mike Spellman Memorial Handicap, Illinois-registered fillies and mares, three-year-olds and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the polytrack, post time 4:39pm CDT
In 2015, this race took its name in memory of Mike Spellman, longtime writer for the Daily Herald. Spellman covered many sports during his career, became known for his "Spellman's Scorecard" column, and had taken on the Chicago Blackhawks beat the year before his sudden passing in January of 2015. But, he grew up going to the races at Arlington Park, and covered horse racing throughout his career for the Daily Herald.
Before the race took its name from Spellman, it was initially named after 1927's champion two-year-old filly Anita Peabody, an Illinois-bred. The race held that name from 1976-1997, then was christened the Lincoln Heritage Handicap from 2000-2014. The most accomplished winner of this race in recent times was its 2013 victress, La Tia. A multiple graded stakes winner, she would crown her career with a win in the 2014 Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar. Further back in time, Lady Shirl also stands tall. The only three-time winner of this race, Lady Shirl was not only a Grade 1 winner (1991 Flower Bowl) and multiple graded stakes winner in her own right, but she also produced 2011 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Perfect Shirl, multiple Grade 1 winner Shakespeare, and multiple graded stakes winner Lady Shakespeare.
La Tia, winner of the 2013 Lincoln Heritage Handicap, wires the 2014 Matriarch (G1).
The horse who looks toughest on either surface is KOOL KATE. She comes in sharp form, having won her last three starts in a row. From a pace perspective, she has sharp early speed when she wants to show it, including a race last year at Arlington when she did her best Shining Copper imitation and kept on to beat good allowance horses. She gets a good front-end jockey in Jose Valdivia. She drew outside, but particularly if this stays on the lawn, she's got plenty of time to get a good spot before running into the first turn. But, if something weird happens, KOOL KATE doesn't actually have to have the lead. The biggest question with her is the polytrack, since she has only run on it twice and has yet to win over it. But, her last try on the poly was a solid second in a first-level allowance last September, after running rank early and not getting the lead. She still had enough to keep on. If KOOL KATE brings her game, she is going to be tough for the rest to beat.
In perhaps the least surprising turn of events ever, trainer Chris Block has some live contenders in a state-bred turf stakes. He has two in this race, EMBARRASSING and STROLLIN THE BAYOU. Between the two, especially if it remains on the lawn, EMBARRASSING appeals just a bit more. She does have tables to turn on STROLLIN THE BAYOU after her last, but she has further upside to improve third off the lay, and unlike her stablemate, she has shown early pace. Looking back to last year, she also has some form on a less-than-firm footing, a positive in case the race stays on the lawn.
STROLLIN THE BAYOU, like so many in this race, has pace questions about her. But, she is in sharp form, and most recently ran on for place in a $50K/N2X allowance on June 29th. That came over a yielding turf course at Arlington, a positive if the race stays on the grass, since there's such a good chance it will be less than firm. And, if STROLLIN THE BAYOU has to race over the polytrack? She is the best-proven polytrack horse among the top contenders in the Spellman, with three wins and another second-place finish over the surface. Those include a victory in the Purple Violet Stakes last summer.
#10 KOOL KATE (8/5)
#2 EMBARRASSING (5/1)
#3 STROLLIN THE BAYOU (4/1)
Longshot: Beyond these top three, there are plenty of longshots to sift through; like many in the field, they won't have the best of it from a pace perspective. CHLOBEE has made a career of outrunning her odds, and her best races would make her intriguing if the pace looked like it would collapse, but it doesn't. With the lack of pace, the stretch-out sprinters appeal. GAME TIME DECISION tries a route for the first time; pedigree questions loom. She is by Put It Back out of nice turf sprinter Royal Taat, and Royal Taat has produced sprinters exclusively. #8 JOLEE (15/1), on the other hand, has far more of a shot to get the distance. She is by Lemon Drop Kid, an excellent two-turn turf sire, and even though her dam Summer Mis was a graded-quality sprinter, she has produced runners who could get two turns. Turf is the biggest question, as JOLEE has only tried it once. She was off the board, but it was a fourth-place finish, not enough to think she actually dislikes turf, especially given the fact that she was a three-year-old facing older. Now she is five, and more mature. How close she will be to the pace is a question, though rider Sophie Doyle should fit her well. And, there's the question of how sharp she will be in her first start off a lay. But, among the horses who will be going off boxcars, JOLEE has the most upside of that group.
Race 8: Black Tie Affair Handicap, Illinois-registered, three-year-olds and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the polytrack (originally carded for turf), post time 3:40pm CDT
Most Illinois-bred stakes races named after racehorses are named after runners who were themselves bred in the state. Black Tie Affair was not bred in Illinois, but rather in Ireland. However, he spent most of his career in the barn of local trainer Ernie Poulos. Already a stakes winner at Philadelphia Park when he joined Poulos's barn in the spring of his three-year-old year, Black Tie Affair found his best as an older horse. At age four, he finished third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. At age five, he capped off his season (and his career) with a string of six graded stakes wins, including a tenacious wire-to-wire win in the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Black Tie Affair wires the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic.
The race was originally named the W. H. Bishop Handicap (1978-1997). It was not run in 1998 or 1999, returned in 2000 as the Cardinal Handicap, and took its current name in 2001. The race takes its name from a Breeders' Cup winner, and one Breeders' Cup winner has won this race -- Buck's Boy won in 1997, and would win the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) the following year. In the second half of the 2000s, Fort Prado dominated this race. He won it four times (2005-2007, 2009), and finished second in 2008.
Fort Prado's half-brother by Giant's Causeway, CAMMACK, won this race two years ago. He finished second two years ago and third last year, and this year he will again attempt to join Fort Prado, former Fairmount Park stakes namesake Tex's Zing (1989, 1990) and Homing Pigeon (1994, 1995) as the only horses to win this race more than once.
On either surface, this race is nothing short of a clash of the titans. The top four finishers from last year's off-turf edition are all entered to return, CHRISTIAN C, MEMORY BANK, CAMMACK and DON'TASK DON'TTELL. On the grass, all three of them battled in a classy optional claimer on June 8, with CAMMACK running down CHRISTIAN C to win by a neck after the latter set a soft pace, and MEMORY BANK a half-length behind, settling for his customary underneath share. BLUE SKY KOWBOY ran fifth in that race, his seasonal debut, beaten only two lengths for all of it. June 30, in a state-bred allowance washed off the grass at the last minute, it was BLUE SKY KOWBOY who kicked home the best, beating CHIEF OAKIE DOKIE by a length and a half, with the earlier-moving MEMORY BANK another length back.
DON'TASK DON'TTELL doesn't have recent form through those, but the improving five-year-old just raced last week, a gritty and troubled 2nd behind classy old campaigner Eckersley in a $50K/N2X turf mile last week on Million Preview Day. He wheels back quickly, but does so for Chris Block, a trainer who makes that move neither often or frivolously. He does so only when it's the absolute right spot.
The only one in this field who is really taking a shot is HANNITY, who has some on-and-off form against state-bred allowance company, but has yet to prove the equal of these open-quality horses.
So, who shines on turf, and who shines if it's washed to the poly?
In a field this short, it's wise to look for the speed. And, as was the case in an allowance from which so many of these come back in June, CHRISTIAN C is that speed. No matter whether the race is run on polytrack or turf, you can expect CHRISTIAN C will run the race he always runs when there's no other pace: Jose Valdivia should put him on the lead, and he'll go as long as he can. The question is, will that be enough? On polytrack, there's a good chance it will, given that polytrack is probably his best surface and it can be quite speed-friendly when it's hot and humid. On turf? That's more of a question. On one hand, it's not a great sign that he set such a slow pace last out and didn't hold off all comers. On the other? That was his first start since August of 2018, and trying to hold off a looming CAMMACK isn't an easy ask even when you're in the middle of a sharp campaign.
I tend to be wary of closers in short fields, but BLUE SKY KOWBOY has proven this year that he's just that good. Two starts ago, in his first race in seven and a half months, he rallied from dead last to be beaten only two lengths in a race when CHRISTIAN C set early fractions of 27.50 for the quarter and 54.51 for the half. The turf was on the slow side that day, but the pacesetter was allowed to crawl. Next out, he closed from last to win over a wet polytrack in a field of six. He is proven to kick on over ground that's less than firm, his last out suggests his kick is equally devastating on the polytrack (if he stays in), and he should be tough to hold back come the finish.
Chris Block has a tough pair in this, the aforementioned CAMMACK as well as DON'TASK DON'TTELL. It's hard to sell short a horse Block wheels back so quickly, as he tends to have a good reason for doing so. But, it's also hard to sell short CAMMACK, who is not only a seasoned old pro, but the way he ran down CHRISTIAN C after having zero pace to chase, he's still a tough horse in tough form. Between his seasoning and the fact that he's more proven over both less-than-firm turf as well as polytrack, a slight preference for CAMMACK between the two Block horses makes sense. But, neither would be a surprise to see in the frame.
#6 BLUE SKY KOWBOY (4/1)
#1 CAMMACK (7/2)
#2 DON'TASK DON'TTELL (5/2)
#6 BLUE SKY KOWBOY (4/1)
#1 CAMMACK (7/2)
#5 CHRISTIAN C (5/1)
Longshot: The only real bomber in the field is HANNITY, though it's difficult to make the argument. Among the contenders in the field, it's #4 CHIEF OAKIE DOKIE (5/1) who seems most likely to go off at a price; though he and CHRISTIAN C are the same price on the morning line, it would be a bit surprising if both actually went off the same price. CHIEF OAKIE DOKIE does have some tables to turn; he ran gamely last out, though was beaten on the square by BLUE SKY KOWBOY. But, he doesn't have to drop too far back off the pace, a positive in this short field. He is more proven on the polytrack than over the turf, having won the Springfield Stakes last year in a blanket finish over a pair of very good horses, Sir Anthony (now a multiple graded stakes winner) and Wile E Peyote. But, CHIEF OAKIE DOKIE's most recent turf try two back didn't leave him behind by much; he finished sixth, but only two lengths behind CAMMACK. Against this set he is more likely for exotics than the win, but as a lightly-raced four-year-old, he may still have some upside yet.
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