2014 Thanksgiving Handicapping Feast 1: Fall Highweight & Hollywood Turf Cup

We at Picks & Ponderings wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  But it is worth noting that Thankgiving in the racing world is a high water day.  It serves as the (traditional) opening of the Fair Grounds, a New Orleans-based oval.  It serves as the start of HolidayFest, a series of graded stakes from Aqueduct.  Churchill Downs closes its November meet with a bang.  Del Mar has taken on Hollywood’s Hollywood Turf Festival and will keep those sod stakes intact.  Locally, there’s the G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup.  So while you have plenty of chances at the dinner table to get first and second helpings of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes, we provide a Handicapping Feast featuring over a dozen graded stakes for the holiday weekend.

The first course in the feast focuses on a pair of races.  Two holiday weekend programs kick off on Thanksgiving, and we have their graded features picked and pondered below.  HolidayFest is Aqueduct’s branding for the races this weekend, and we examine the G3 Fall Highweight Handicap.  The Hollywood Turf Festival at Del Mar kicks off with the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup.

Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the piece, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.  Morning line odds for the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup were not available at original publish time.  In races carded for the turf, selections are given “turf only”.  All races are scheduled to take place on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday November 27th.

Updated Tuesday, November 25th to include lines for all races. Updated Thursday, November 27th to reflect the scratches of STRAPPING GROOM, TIGHTEND TOUCHDOWN, RIVER ROCKS, and BAMA BOUND from the Fall Highweight, as well as the fact that the track is sloppy. Updated Thursday November 27th to reflect the scratch of ALAKAZAN ALAKAZAN from the Hollywood Turf Cup.

Aqueduct — Race 8 — G3 Fall Highweight Handicap — Six Furlongs on Dirt — post time 2:42 PM ET


Photo courtesy Nicolle Neulist.

The Fall Highweight Handicap is one of the longest-running traditions in New York racing.  Inaugurated at Belmont Park (as the Autumn Highweight Handicap) in 1914, it has been run every year since, making this the 101st running of the event.  The race, run at six furlongs over the dirt, is referred to as the “Highweight” because the handicapper is required to assign a top weight of at least 140 pounds.  (This year’s lucky recipient of 140 pounds was two-time Vosburgh winner Private Zone, who will not actually see the starter on Thursday.)  Since 1959 the race has been restricted to three-year-olds and up.  Before that it was open to all ages; the filly Comely won the inaugural running of the Autumn Highweight at the age of two, beating older runners.  There is a strong tradition of fillies doing well in the Fall Highweight.  The only two-time winners of the race have been fillies: Miss Merriment (1934, 1936), Ta Wee (1969, 1970), Honorable Miss (1975, 1976), and What a Summer (1977, 1978).  Other notable winners of the race include Eclipse champions Chou Croute (1972) and Gold Beauty (1982), stakes namesakes True North (1945) and King’s Bishop (1973), and fan favourite Caixa Eletronica (2012).  This year’s renewal carries a $300,000 purse, and drew a field of eleven runners.

There is a lot of early speed in this race, and two of the tougher contenders all do their best work from right on the front end: LA VERDAD, and BAKKEN.  RIVER ROCKS would have been among this contingent, but he was a race day scratch.  Among these three, LA VERDAD tends to show the snappiest early speed, and also has the weight advantage: 126 pounds, to BAKKEN’s 130 and RIVER ROCKS’s 131.  LA VERDAD also has shown a true affinity for both the six-furlong distance (eight wins in ten starts) and the Aqueduct main (a perfect four-for-four).  LA VERDAD has gone longer in her last three starts, and should appreciate the cutback.  She has also put up three sharp works since her last race, suggesting she will be more than fit for her showdown against the boys.  Six-furlong races at Aqueduct have been very kind to early speed types this meet, and LA VERDAD looks well set to reign the speed of the speed.  Add her five-for-six record on off tracks, and we have a sharp contender.  BAKKEN may also contend on the lead, though he carries a veritable sled: 130 pounds.  It remains to be seen how that affects him, as well as how the track conditions affect him.  He has never raced on an off track before.  Still, both sire Distorted Humor and damsire Honour and Glory tend to have progeny who run well in the mud, so there is every chance that BAKKEN could handle it nicely.  He comes into this race third off a layoff, and on the class drop from the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI).  In that race, he  only finished beaten 3 1/2 lengths by Work All Week after running into some traffic trouble and his jockey losing the whip at the quarter pole.  If LA VERDAD falters out of the gate, BAKKEN could be going, going, gone.  Finally, we get to the elephant in the room: SALUTOS AMIGOS.  He will probably go off the favourite, but there are   This runner is on the class drop from a decent seventh-place finish (beaten only three lengths) in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI), and won the Bold Ruler (GIII) in very sharp manner two starts back.  Six furlongs may be a little short for SALUTOS AMIGOS, but he does have a win at six furlongs, and has won two of his three starts at Aqueduct.  The sloppy conditions will further help SALUTOS AMIGOS’s chances: he has a 3-3-0-0 record on off tracks, and trounced an allowance field over the slop at Belmont earlier in the year.  Finally, there is the trainer factor: Aqueduct is frequently David Jacobson’s house, and it has been no different this meet.  Jacobson has has won 17 of his 49 starts, with another 21 in the money.  SALUTOS AMIGOS will likely go off favoured, but given his off-track record, his Aqueduct record, and his trainer’s stranglehold at the Big A, just swallow your pride and use him.


#7 LA VERDAD (6/1)

#5 BAKKEN (5/2)


Longshot: Three-year-old #4 CAPTAIN SERIOUS (12/1) is jumping into the deepest waters of his career to date.  Though he did beat older in his first two starts back in April, those were easier fields: a state-bred maiden contest an a state-bred N1X.  Still, both of those were at Aqueduct, and both of those were six furlongs over the main — just like today.  He has not quite gotten it together in graded company yet, but there are several factors suggesting this may be the day.  He keeps regular jockey Jose Ortiz — who is also LA VERDAD’s regular rider, yet Ortiz opted for this one instead.  Trainer Michael Hushion hasn’t run much at Aqueduct, but when he has run anyone, they have tended to be sharp: he is 10-3-2-2 on the meet.  Hushion is also a 34% winner (with a +$1.58 ROI) when sending a horse out with first-time blinkers, something he does with CAPTAIN SERIOUS here.  Finally, he has shown in both of his wins that he can come from a bit off the pace: a useful skill, with as much early speed as there is here.  There are a lot of positive signs piling up on CAPTAIN SERIOUS here, and one thing that is decidedly not piled up on him — weight.  He carries a [relatively speaking] feather-light 123 pounds.  This all suggests he will be a viable long shot. — NN

Del Mar — Race 7 — G2 Hollywood Turf Cup — 1 1/2 Miles on Turf — post time 5:00 pm ET

The G2 Hollywood Turf Cup, like many of the stakes races during this holiday weekend at Del Mar, had a former life at Hollywood Park, which ceased operations last December.  While many of the stakes races have changed names to honor movie stars of film’s golden age, the Hollywood Turf Cup is one of the few that didn’t get a name change when moving from Hollywood to Del Mar.  Aside from two runnings in the early 1980s, the race has been at a grassy twelve furlongs (though this was race was shelved in 2005 and 2009) and once served as a “plus one” race after the Breeders’ Cup Turf, meaning connections could run here for divisional honors after the Breeders’ Cup Turf or that if a horse was doing well after the Breeders’ Cup, they could run here too.  The Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs at times functions as a “plus one” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Past winners of note in the Hollywood Turf Cup include Santa Anita stakes namesake and Arlington statue subject John Henry (1983) Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Great Communicator (1988) and Fraise (1993, though a pre-DQ winner in 1992), and Canadian Horse of the Year Champs Elysses (2008).

The rose on MYSTERY TRAIN has lost its bloom.  He was exposed in the G1 Awesome Again as someone who needs an easy lead, needs to be in front, and needs to dictate the terms.  One way speed, plain and simple.   Yet strangely, he’s a crucial clue to the race.  As he’s quick one-way speed, he won’t allow THE PIZZA MAN to dictate the terms up front on a moderate pace.  He also makes it that any speedster like LITTLE JERRY won’t get a free lunch on the front end.  MYSTERY TRAIN is in no way the pick (now if this were a stakes where he gets a free lunch out front and maybe it was at Turf Paradise, it’s a different story…), but he cooks the pace just enough to tip the scales to the more midpack type, and that’s HOLIDAY STAR.  Graham Motion ships cross-country with this last out G3 winner.  He annexed the Sycamore at Keeneland over a boggy course, and did finish ahead of Villandry, a next-out G3 winner.  Four back he ran into in-form Hardest Core at today’s twelve panel distance at Delaware.  Sandwiched in between is a photo loss at thirteen panels.  Gets Mike Smith to ride, which means he’ll be supported at the windows but think he can pull back and make a closing rally to pick them all off in the lane.  Illinois-bred THE PIZZA MAN rises to a near-equal level of HOLIDAY STAR, as he showed he can throw out the anchor and lull the field to sleep in the Stars and Stripes, then won the Million Day G3-level marathon American St. Leger while rating.  Two trips to Canada led to mixed reviews, as his Northern Dancer had a bad break and rush up (never a good idea) and he was nosed out of the third spot in the G1 Canadian International by next-out G3 winner Dynamic Sky.  He does have a local polytrack work over the surface on November 20th, but the pace is likely to be quicker than what he had in Canada, and at a mile and a half he might have to move from further back than the forward positions he’s had at Woodbine and Arlington.  FINNEGANS WAKE was in waters too deep in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and finds himself back in more realistic company.  Two back second in the G2 John Henry upstate at Santa Anita, he’s done fine work at Arlington winning this year’s G3 Arlington Handicap and hitting the super in last year’s Million.  A clunk-up type, he can do well if the pace is cold like leftovers or hot like a deep fried turkey.   Let’s give him another chance at twelve furlongs.  Reunites with Victor Espinoza, who was aboard the last time this horse won.



#11 THE PIZZA MAN (5/1)


Longshot: Originally this space liked #7 ALAKAZAN ALAKAZAN (5/1), but he’s a scratch due to a quarter crack.  This space offers none in replacement. –PM


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Filed under: Aqueduct, Del Mar, horse racing

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